Over the last few decades, memoirs have dominated bestseller lists and have received widespread acclaim in the publishing world. Becoming by Michelle Obama has sold millions of copies. Educated by Tara Westover has garnered numerous awards and accolades. The Undying by Anne Boyer won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 2020.
Writing a memoir can be an empowering and transformative experience, but there are many things to consider. This article discusses five tips on how to write a memoir, such as finding a topic, understanding your purpose, using fiction writing techniques, editing, and structure.
What Is a Memoir?
A memoir is a chapter in the story of your life. It is a personal account of your experiences, memories, and lessons learned along the way. It is written in the first-person point of view and is told from a remove of time. You are telling the story from the present while reflecting on the past.
A memoir is categorized as creative nonfiction that focuses on a specific topic or a series of events in your life. There should be clearly defined themes, and the structure should be streamlined. The most successful memoirs are not only well-written but also speak to readers on a personal and emotional level.
Memoirs have earned their rightful place in the hands of readers and on bestseller lists. As it is in any literary genre, the marketplace is competitive. So how can you write a memoir that stands out from the rest?
Tip #1: Find Your Topic
Your life is fascinating, but you can’t write about everything that has happened to you! A memoir should focus on a specific event(s) in your life and have a clear theme.
However, choosing a topic can be a challenge because there is a lifetime of personal experiences and memories to draw from. Ask yourself: What do I want my story to be about?
Here are some examples of popular memoir topics:
- Coming of age
- Overcoming adversity
After you have chosen a topic for your memoir, you need to narrow the focus and identify the theme. Your memoir’s theme speaks about the specifics of your story and the lessons you have learned.
Here are a few examples of memoir themes:
- Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is about self-discovery.
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is about racism and identity.
- Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt is about poverty and hope.
You can’t just say, “I’m writing a memoir about my family.” There would be too much information, and there would be no clear focus or theme to the story.
But if you wrote about your turbulent relationship with your brother when you were teenagers, you can focus on incidents that occurred during those specific years. Identifiable themes, such as coming of age, relationships, identity, will emerge as a result.
Your memoir will be more relatable and appealing to readers if it has a clear topic and theme.
Tip #2: Understand Your Purpose
Your memoir needs to have a purpose, whether it’s to teach a lesson, inspire others, or convey to the readers what you have learned throughout your life’s journey. You will have a deeper understanding of what your memoir is about when you understand why you are writing it.
Here are some questions to consider when determining the purpose of your memoir:
- What lessons did I learn from my experience?
- How have I changed as a result of my experience?
- What obstacles did I have to overcome?
- How has my experience shaped my ideals, values, and sense of self?
- What steps did I take to grow from my experience?
- What do I hope readers will take away from my story?
On some level, every memoir should convey to the readers what you have learned, lost, and gained from your experiences. Keep in mind that the theme and purpose may not be obvious in your first draft.
Tip #3: Show, Don’t Tell
The best stories are vivid, descriptive, and engaging, and they will resonate with readers on an emotional level. While a memoir is nonfiction, the story should be written in a creative way that uses fiction writing techniques.
Here are some examples of fiction elements:
- Character development
- Point of view
- Scene/setting development
- Sensory (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell)
- Story arc and plot development
- Tension and conflict
Show, don’t tell means describing your scenes with actions, descriptions, and sensory details. A memoir cannot be written solely through summary and exposition. There needs to be active scenes and character interaction.
Here are some things to consider when writing a scene:
- What does the scene location look like?
- What do the characters look like?
- What are the characters doing in the scene?
- What are the characters talking about?
- What is the narrator’s emotional state?
Descriptive writing evokes an emotional response in readers that is not present when simply relaying information. Your story will be more sympathetic and endearing if you show the readers what you have gone through.
Here is an example of telling:
My mother and father were concerned because I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I graduated college.
Here is an example of showing:
My parents were sitting next to each other on the loveseat, which was unusual. “We need to have a talk,” my dad said in a stiff tone. “Have a seat.”
I sat in the chair across from them, feeling like a child about to be scolded. I rubbed my palms together, trying to calm my nerves. Sweat dotted my brow. Suddenly, the room was hot and stuffy.
“We’re worried about you. What are your plans after you graduate?” My mother’s lips were set in a straight line.
“I don’t know,” I said.
The two examples are drastically different. Not only are there descriptions and details about the scene location and characters, but the narrator’s emotions are on full display.
When writing a scene in your memoir, ask yourself: Is it active, engaging, and visual?
Tip #4: Kill Your Darlings
One of the most challenging aspects of writing a memoir is wanting to include everything. Your memories and experiences are great, but they need to work within the framework of the story.
“Kill your darlings” is the concept of deleting unnecessary characters, storylines, and other material that does not benefit the overall story. That incident when you were nine years old and fell off your bike is a funny story, but it may not have a place in your memoir.
When evaluating if the scene should be included in your memoir:
- Does the scene relate to the theme of the book?
- Is the scene connected to or related to a subtopic or theme?
- Do the transitions from one topic to the next flow smoothly?
- How does the scene relate to the chapter’s topic?
- How does the scene fit into the overall narrative?
Once you start analyzing your story on a deeper level, you may be surprised at how much can be cut or omitted. This is not to say that the event or memory isn’t significant, so copy it into another file and save it for another day. Killing your darlings ensures that your memoir is cohesive and stays on topic.
Tip #5: Find a Structure that Works
There are numerous ways to structure a memoir, but which one you choose will depend on the type of story you are telling.
If you are writing about surviving cancer, you may want to tell your story in chronological order. The story would start with a diagnosis and lead up to the present day.
If you are writing about divorce, a nonlinear narrative may work best. A nonlinear narrative allows you to tell your story in any order, and you can jump back and forth between the past and present.
Regardless of how you structure your memoir, the first chapter must hook the readers into the story. Start with an active, engaging scene filled with tension and conflict that will entice readers to keep reading.
For example, if you’re writing about your divorce, the first chapter shouldn’t be about the day you were born. Instead, choose an event that is relevant and will grab the readers’ interest. Maybe it is a fight you had with your loved one, or the day when you met your loved one.
For a more in-depth look, please refer to How to Structure Your Memoir. The most important thing is making sure the structure is cohesive and streamlined.
Even if you don’t know what your theme is or how you want to structure your memoir, just start writing. Your first draft will be messy, but that is life!
These tips should help you gain confidence on how to write a memoir, but you can also learn a lot from other authors. Read as many memoirs as you can, especially if they are similar to your own topic and theme. Trust the writing process. Your story needs to be told!