How to Write a Memoir: 12 Steps to Tell an Engaging Story.
“A memoir provides a record not so much of the memoirist as of the memoirist’s world.”
― Arthur Golden, Memoirs of Geisha.
According to Google, a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge is called a memoir.
It consists of the critical moments in your entire life that has made you who you are today. Your life’s events in a story-like structure with a written message qualify as a memoir.Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama is an example.
Other books like “how to…” “motivational books,” do not qualify as a memoir.
Definition of a Memoir
A memoir is a historical written with personal knowledge and experience covering the lifetime of an individual, usually with a higher purpose or message. The word memoir comes from the French word mémoire, meaning memory or reminiscence.
Becoming by Michelle Obama is the most recent and famous example of a memoir. There have been many literary giants, politicians, celebrities who have forayed into writing a memoir.
From A Moveable Feast By Ernest Hemingway to the popular Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert are varied examples of memoirs.
The genre memoir is similar to an autobiography since it talks about events in one’s life and. But they’re not
How is Memoir different from an Autobiography?
A reader or aspiring writer might get confused with these two genres as both memoir and autobiography broadly belong to the category of nonfiction. But there are stark differences.
A memoir is a genre that usually covers one aspect of a writer’s life, while an autobiography is the chronological account of the writer’s entire life.
If you are thinking about writing your entire life’s story from the day you were born till where you are today, it would be autobiographical.
If you want to share a profound message with the world through your life’s experiences, you’re writing a memoir.
A memoir is a creative non-fiction book. But with memoir, it is less formal and doesn’t encompass the whole life journey of a person. It aims at bringing the emotional truth of that particular phase of a person’s life.
Gore Vidal, in his memoir, Palimpsest, defines two genres by saying, “a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.”
Types of Memoir
A memoir is the most popular creative non-fiction in the present day. There are sub-genres to it for better understanding, and often the boundaries of these sub-genres blur as the readership evolves. The broad types of memoirs are:
1. Childhood & Coming of Age –
The writer talks about their childhood, growing up years, family dynamics, and the struggles they had to go through in it. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou are prominent examples.
2. Life Experiences –
In this sub-genre, one writes about life experiences that have shaped them. It can include personal journeys, professional life, love and loss, diseases and trauma, and more. These life experiences are a reservoir of inspiring stories. It Sucked and Then I Cried by Heather Armstrong, Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett, and Reading Lolita in Tehran by AzarNafisi fall into this category.
3. Travel Memoirs –
It includes a person’s travel to single or multiple destinations. Themes like transformation, new experiences in a strange city, and soul-searching are a part of this subgenre. Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert are prominent examples.
4. Spiritual Memoirs –
Spirituality and religion have been an essential aspect of human history. Hence, becoming a fertile topic for any memoirist. The writer’s experiences with religion, discovering a new faith, and spiritual journeys fall within this category. 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper and Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman are remarkable books of this sub-genre.
5. Survivor Memoirs –
It is the survival story of a person. It can be an accident or conflict they’ve overcome, living in the time of tragic war, or any traumatic experiences an individual has survived. Night by ElieWiesel and Into the Wild by John Krakauer fall into this category.
Why Write a Memoir
A memoir is a personal journey delving into the self. This is probably the main reason as to why people write a memoir. While writing a memoir, a person talks about their struggles, failures, love, fears, and innermost emotions for people to read. The personal story not only helps to find yourself but also enlightens the reader.
Steps to Write a Memoir
Before you begin the writing process, it is also crucial to decide on the ideal writing software to write your memoir. There are many options available for you, so wisely choose one that you are comfortable with.
The process is almost similar like writing non-fiction books. Since it is a more personal account, the research is majorly from your journey itself. It can be a tough task to write a memoir. How do you even sum up years’ worth of experience into words? Let us have an understanding on how to write a memoir. These elements will help you with the process.
1. Pick A Theme
A memoir consists of message readers can take away from what you wrote. Think about what your readers will learn from your experiences. Will they learn, gain, or realize anything from your writing? What is your main message? Ask your self these questions before you pick a theme.
2. Create A List Of Memories
The first thing to do after picking a theme is to create a list of your memories. Don’t try to force yourself into finding all the details of the memories. Give it some time, and it will come to you when you begin writing.
Here are some areas to help jog your memory:
- Primary school
- Your teen years
- First job
- First love
- Parents/ siblings/ family
- High school
- Your dreams
- Children/ grandkids
You can also look at old photos and videos to recollect your memories. It’s always best to relive them.
All these areas influence on how you perceive life. All you gotta do is a little digging to jolt some specific memories for your memoir.
3. Ask Yourself Questions
After creating a list of memories, asking a specific question about each memory can be an easy way to write the content. Here is the type of questions that can help you write a memoir :
- What is the starting moment of this story?
- What did I want most at the time of these memories?
- Which is the moment where I definitely get, don’t get?
- What is the lesson I learned?
4. How To Start
A strong introduction will go a long way. The opening lines will set the tone and context of the story you are about to narrate. An exciting and strong beginning will set the expectations of the readers, and without it, the ability to hook them will be difficult.
5. Message Must Be Clear
What is it you’re trying to say? Why did you want to start writing the memoir at all? It’s your job to determine how your experiences can aid and affect others. The content in your book should be understandable for the reader
6. Add Others’ Stories
The memoir you’re writing is about your life, which means it is also about the lives of people in your life. At times, you can’t get the message across if only you have experienced it. To make your readers related to your memoir more, you need to make them understand that many people have experienced the same thing.
Showing your readers that other people have experienced the same thing and resulted in the same perspective as you can be a good thing.
To write about others, you need to do a lot of research. Make sure you’re using their experiences legally in your memoir.
You can also interview family and friends who see the same experience as you differently.
These details help strengthen your core message.
7. Be Honest
“I will say, with memoir, you must be honest. You must be truthful.”
– Elie Wiesel (A Romanian born, American writer & Nobel laureate)
Being biased towards our self while writing a memoir is a habit one must overcome. No-ones likes to admit their fault. It’s human nature for everyone to show the best version of themselves to people, but that doesn’t make a good memoir.
If you want people to be touched
8. Be Descriptive
You have to be descriptive if you want your readers to be intrigued by what you wrote. Creating intrigue with your writing is a must for a memoir.
Being descriptive lets you narrate your experience with an emphasis on emotion, but at the same time, don’t write every feeling you felt at a specific time.
- Use fewer words like I heard, I smelled, I saw, etc.
- Stop explaining the emotions and try to be more descriptive (if you want to say you’re happy, describe how you’re floating on cloud 9, and you can’t stop smiling)
- Describe body language in detail.
- Use strong verbs that create more impact ( crashed to the floor > fell to the floor).
9. Be Vulnerable
“In my blinding drive to excel, in my need to do things perfectly, I’d missed the signs and taken the wrong road.”
-Michelle Obama, Becoming.
Don’t be an alien to your feelings when writing your memoir. This is the time to dig deep and show the world what kind of author you are. The more you shield yourself, the less effective your memoir is.
A good memoirist is aware of their vulnerabilities and doesn’t shy away from expressing it all. More profound stories come from vulnerable places and choices.
At first, you might find it hard to write about your true self, but later, you’ll understand it’s all for a good cause.
10. Make Connections
Every story you tell has to connect to your focus, but not all of them directly relate to it. Some experiences may have led you to moments of realization, and those moments would have led to other events.
Then tie these events to the main message you want readers to gain.
Experiences —> Moments of realization
11. Talk About Now
Memoirs usually consist of looking back at your life and evaluating how you made it today. The events that lead you to where you are today.
Your memoir should also consist of sneak peeks of your life presently.
Bring back your readers to the present day in each chapter and how it affected you.
12. Be you
A memoir indicates that it’s 100% you. Your memoir should be proof of your real personality. When a reader reads it, they should see the authentic you and not just what you want them to know about you. Don’t be afraid to write how you speak.
If you tell jokes, use cuss words, or use a few phrases regularly, write it. Italicize words you emphasize when speaking.
5 Things to Avoid If You Want Your Memoir To Sell
- Not engaging the readers – As a memoirist, it is your prime responsibility to get the readers invested in your story. As it was mentioned earlier, memoir is a book of
nonfiction, but it is not a personal journal nevertheless. So, write the memoir using the narrative styles of fiction to engage and entertain them.
- Reliving your experiences – If you’re writing about your traumatic experience as part of your therapy or recovery, it’s probably a bad idea to publish it.
- Consists collection of entries from a diary or journal you or a family member kept, or letters sent and received – Use these for research, not as a story itself. If
you do use them, use it sparingly with a bigger narrative of the book.
- Your memoir is not an autobiography – Don’t start with the day you were born and include all the people and places in your life. It then, in turn, becomes autobiographical. A good memoir is a representation of the writer’s memory and not history.
- Writing for someone else – This is pretty self-explanatory. As I said, a memoir has to be in-depth and should involve your feelings. You can’t write for someone else as you don’t know their feelings.
These steps will help you write an engaging memoir. What are you waiting for? Start writing about your life’s memorable journey.