A Guide to Memoir and the Scary Art of Personal Storytelling
So you’re lookin’ to write a memoir. That rocks. When you release a memoir into the big, wide world, you offer something extremely hard to come by:
An invitation for open, authentic connection between strangers.
Memoirs give us a glimpse into the hearts, minds, and experiences of people we’ll never meet. They give us hope in shared crises, challenge our assumptions, and shine a light on the truth that we’re not all that different.
Of course, sharing the true story of your life isn’t exactly easy. It demands vulnerability and raises tricky questions about both the craft itself and the legality of sharing your experiences publicly.
If you’re feeling a bit lost, you’ve come to the right place. We’re going to go over everything you need to know to write a masterful memoir. We’ll cover:
- What exactly a memoir is
- How to get started
- The essential elements of a well-written memoir
- Memoir examples worth studying
- Challenges to look out for
- The polishing and publishing process
Let’s get to it.
The Basics of Memoir Writing
Our first order of business is to get clear on what a memoir is and is not.
The boundaries blur a bit with this particular form of storytelling. Memoir writers work with true stories and have a responsibility to share authentic personal experiences. But readers also count on them for a well-told story with characters, setting, and structure that more closely resemble fiction than nonfiction.
How do you find the balance between creativity and reality, between fact and flourish?
Let’s start here:
Memoir vs. Autobiography
Writing a memoir is not the same as writing an autobiography, though both forms are a nonfiction account of events drawn from the author’s life.
In an autobiography, you guide the reader through your life story—where you were born, what your family was like, where you went to school, the trajectory of your career, etc.
If you’re writing a book like that, you’re most likely famous. That’s usually what it takes to get people to want to read the story of someone else’s entire life.
A memoir, on the other hand, focuses on one specific life experience or theme. Maybe it’s poverty or adoption or that summer you worked at a funeral home. Or, to put it another way:
An autobiography is about you. A memoir is about a larger topic as you experienced it.
What is Creative Nonfiction?
It’s also worth noting that memoirs fall under the category of creative nonfiction. That’s pretty much what it sounds like—a style of storytelling that conveys the truth (nonfiction) in an interesting and artistic way (creative).
Unlike academic writing or journalism, creative nonfiction emphasizes emotional experiences and personal reflection. It also invites a storytelling approach that more closely resembles fiction.
And in many cases—like when you’re writing a memoir—accuracy is not as important as something called “emotional truth.” That term can get folks’ hackles up; stick with me and you’ll see why it’s not quite the same as just saying, “I feel it, so it’s true.” At least not in the context of memoirs.
But we’ll get to that later. First, we gotta do some brainstorming.
Getting Started on Your Life Story
Before you can write a memoir, you need to nail down what exactly you’re writing about. It won’t do to start at birth and just work your way through the facts. No, you have to zero in on a matter that’s meaningful to you.
Selecting Your Topic or Theme
If you’re here to learn how to write a memoir, you probably already know what topic or experience you want to cover. Even so, let’s pause and make sure your chosen subject matter will work for this genre. Ask yourself:
- Do I have enough to say about this to fill a 60,000 - 90,000 word memoir? (If not, you might consider expressing yourself in a personal essay, which can be anywhere from 500 - 15,000 words.)
- Why do I want to write about this? Do I want to share ideas I think readers will relate to or benefit from? Or am I chasing an impulse to vent or shame someone else?
- Am I prepared to spend several years thinking, writing, and talking about this issue? (Remember, you’ll still have to discuss your memoir after you’ve published it.)
- Do I have enough distance from this experience to see how I grew or changed because of it?
If you’re second-guessing your memoir’s theme, refining it, or still searching for a new one, this next section might help:
Memoir Writing Prompts
To unearth personal stories that could inspire your next great memoir, try journaling about:
- Your biggest mistake and what you learned from it
- The relationship that shaped you more than any other in your life
- An experience that completely shattered your sense of identity
- The most terrified you’ve ever been
- The boldest thing you’ve ever done
- Your greatest loss and how you got through it
You can also work backwards from a theme your reader will likely relate to. What major topics do you think about a lot? Family culture? Mental health? Ambition? Pick a subject that gets you fired up and write about where that passion comes from. What life experiences shaped your feelings in this area?
Once you’ve decided on a central theme or topic, you’re ready for the next step.
Combing Through Key Life Events
When you’re writing a memoir, you want to highlight the moments that are relevant to one overarching topic and will guide the reader through your emotional journey.
Start by making a list of all the life events related to your central theme. Don’t worry about whether they’re interesting or significant enough. Just get them down.
Then review your list and make a note of the first details that come to mind. Nothing is too small. In fact, the seemingly insignificant details are often where we find symbolism, the emotional heart of the scene, or the concrete image that helps the reader connect with the story on a deeper level.
This process will help you see how the events of your life link up. You may also determine that some moments aren’t as relevant as you thought they were or discover that seemingly unrelated experiences are key to the story.
Keep this list on hand and be flexible as you write. A memoir is always discovery writing, even when you’re working with an outline. It’s impossible to write something so personal and not stumble across new realizations about the story you’re really trying to tell.
Setting Up a Routine for Writing a Memoir
Writing a memoir is like writing in anything else—you’re much, much, much likelier to actually complete the project if you have a routine.
I won’t go too deeply into this because we’ve covered it extensively in DabbleU already. And by “it,” I mean:
- How to set writing goals
- How to create a writing habit
- How to set a writing schedule
- How to finish what you started
So for now, I’ll keep it brief and just say that you’ll be much more successful in writing a memoir if you’re intentional about it. Block out time on your calendar, set regular goals, and keep showing up.
Crafting Your Memoir
Now it’s time for the fun stuff. Let’s talk about how to actually write a memoir.
We’ll start with the big one:
Creating a Structure
That might sound absurd because you’re dealing with real-life experiences. You don’t have the fiction writer’s advantage of being able to alter events in order to hit certain story beats.
But in all good memoirs, the author (protagonist) evolves, just like in fiction. That means there’s an arc—a journey of confronting challenges, failing, trying again, and growing wiser or stronger.
Just think about the inciting incident that spun the plot line of your life into a new direction. Think about how you adapted to or fought against that direction, the new characters that entered your life, the times you tried to overcome using logic that no longer served you, the mistakes you made, and the event(s) that made it clear you had no choice but to grow.
Or you can alternate timelines like Cheryl Strayed does in Wild. This can help you build on the emotional and thematic journey. Just make sure it actually enhances your story.
This can be one of the trickier aspects of writing a memoir. You want the folks who populate your story to be… well, good characters. But these are real people who aren’t responsible for entertaining your reader. You don’t want to lie about them, but you still want them to be engaging.
Fortunately, most people are interesting and relatable if you look deep enough. That’s why memoirs are such a great exercise in empathy. To write both your loved ones and not-so-loved ones well, you need to be willing to see the whole person.
You also have to be real about the fact that you can only present these people through your own limited lens. There’s no such thing as an omniscient narrator in a memoir, so resist the temptation to speak on anyone else’s feelings or perspectives.
Now, this next part is crucial:
You are the protagonist and your protagonist has to be flawed.
It’s true in fiction and it’s triple true in memoirs. If the memoir is about how you were good and kind and right all along, your reader won’t relate to you and they won’t enjoy the story.
Admittedly, nothing is more vulnerable than inviting a world’s worth of strangers to read about your fears, failures, and lessons learned. But that is what you’re signing up for when you decide to write a memoir.
To start thinking of yourself as a main character, I recommend checking out these articles:
Being Truthful When You Can’t Be Accurate
One of the most frequent comments I got from friends and family when I published my memoir was, “I can’t believe you could remember all those conversations word-for-word!”
I didn’t remember every conversation word-for-word. No memoirist does. We remember some things word-for-word (or at least we think we do), and the rest of the dialogue represents the meaning of the conversation as we understood it.
Welcome to emotional truth.
See, when you write a memoir, you want to paint vivid scenes the same as you would in a novel. You’re taking the reader along on an emotional journey, which means you have to abide by the rule of “show, don’t tell.”
Maybe you don’t recall with 100% certainty that your spouse made that gesture, but it’s exactly the gesture they would have made.
And maybe you don’t really remember the aftertaste of stale hospital coffee in your mouth as the pharmacist gave you instructions for filling your father’s pillbox, but that description captures the way that moment felt for you.
In short, if a not-entirely-accurate detail is going to help you drive home the deeper truth of the moment, go for it. But avoid adding major embellishments that misrepresent another person’s actions, suggest your story is more extraordinary than it is, or embarrass Oprah.
Nailing the Emotional Journey
Just by establishing a clear arc for your protagonist (you) and crafting prose that highlights the deeper truth of a scene, you’ll be well on your way to writing a memoir with a compelling emotional journey.
The last ingredient you need—and I’m so sorry about this—is genuine vulnerability.
You have to be willing to tell your reader that you were afraid, insecure, jealous, impulsive, lonely, depressed… all of it. You have to be willing to admit that you were giddy or optimistic or madly in love, because sometimes the good stuff feels awfully personal, too.
People who read memoirs do so because they crave that honesty. They want a more intimate understanding of another person’s experience. They won’t get it if you only show your reader your best side.
The parts of my memoir that I was most terrified to include (and almost deleted) are the ones people tell me resonated with them the most.
After all, it’s the hiding and pretending that make human beings feel isolated in the first place. If you can offer your reader authenticity, you can help them see themselves in others and feel more at peace with who they are. That’s huge.
Of course, the best way to gain a solid understanding of any of these memoir writing tips is by actually seeing them in action. To that end, here are some great memoir examples to check out:
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Worth a read if: You want to learn more about weaving multiple timelines together.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Worth a read if: You’re interested in exploring an unconventional approach to memoir, like telling your tale through a graphic novel.
Running While Black by Alison Mariella Désir
Worth a read if: You’d like to tie your personal stories to widespread issues, incorporating more academic elements like historical context.
Calypso by David Sedaris
Worth a read if: You want to learn how to organize individual personal essays under a common theme for maximum impact.
Challenges to Look Out for When You Write a Memoir
As you might guess, a lot can go wrong when you lay your personal life bare for the whole world to see. So let’s quickly discuss a few pitfalls you should keep an eye out for from the beginning.
First, let me say that nothing I’m about to explain constitutes legal advice. I’m the last person you want to go to for that.
But you deserve a heads-up that, depending on the content of your book, you could be vulnerable to claims of defamation or invasion of privacy when you write a memoir.
Make sure you get your facts straight about other people’s actions, change identifying information about them, and talk to a lawyer about whether certain aspects of your story might cross any legal lines.
Some writers take the position that if their personal life must suffer for their art, so be it. They have to be raw and real, even if it means publishing a memoir that will publicly humiliate their siblings.
Ultimately, only you can decide where your line is. But I encourage you to give it a long, hard think. Know what relationships you may be risking and what you’re willing to lose. Ask yourself if it’ll all be worth it even if your memoir doesn’t become a bestseller.
You might even consider sharing your work with the people in it before you publish. Invite them to share their feelings about what you’ve written or how they’re portrayed. Even David Sedaris won’t release an essay about a family member without their approval, and he had a famously difficult relationship with his father.
Think it through is all I’m saying.
Checking Your Motivation
The following are not great reasons to publish a memoir:
- Emotional purging
- Proving that you were the good guy all along
- Chasing fame
Those aren’t all bad reasons to write a memoir. This genre can double as a form of therapy, and it’s entirely possible to compose a first draft that reads like a 300-page vent-fest with the goal of shaping it into something publishable once you’ve gotten all those big feelings out.
But as with any other genre, the ultimate question is, “What will resonate with the reader?” The answer will never be “emotional word vomit.”
Find your Why in the positive impact your personal stories can have on your audience.
Remember how we talked about the importance of vulnerability when you write a memoir? Letting the reader see the real you from every angle? Well, here’s the caveat.
You want to make sure all that personal truth-telling is relevant.
It’s always possible to overshare, even in memoirs. Sometimes it’s just that the writer is still in therapy mode and wants to purge a whole pile of guilt and shame. Sometimes they take the “flawed protagonist” concept so seriously that they share every dark thought they’ve ever had.
To strike the right balance, always know what your more intimate revelations do to further the story and connect with the reader.
Editing, Polishing, and Publishing
Editing a memoir is the same as editing any other kind of book. You’ll do several rounds until your manuscript shines. You’ll invite feedback from critique partners and beta readers. If you plan to take the self-publishing route, it’s also a good idea to hire a professional editor to help you with the final polish.
As for putting your memoir out into the world, you can choose between traditional publishing (a publisher handles production, distribution, and some marketing) or self-publishing (you do it all yourself).
Either way, memoirs are tough to sell. Making a living as a writer is hard no matter what you write, but this genre is one of the toughest.
That’s why it’s so important to build a strong author platform before you publish. Build a mailing list and send newsletters regularly. Establish a social media presence. Write a blog, start a podcast, create a YouTube channel… do it your own way, just start building a following.
That following will either help you snag the attention of an agent and publisher (traditional publishing) or make it easier to sell books on your own (self-publishing).
One Last Tip for Starting Strong
My hope is that this article has given you enough clarity to get started with your own memoir. There’ll be more to learn as you go, but as long as you understand what your reader looks for in a memoir and what it takes to deliver as an author, you’re starting from a solid position.
If you want to start even stronger, I recommend checking out Dabble. This writing tool has everything you need to plan, plot, draft, revise, and format your masterpiece. One of my favorite tools is the Plot Grid, which is great for keeping track of your personal arc, scene by scene.
You can try out this feature and all the others by clicking this link and starting a free trial. You’ll get full access for two weeks without paying a dime, and you don’t have to enter a credit card so there’s zero risk of accidental charges.
Whether or not you choose to write your memoir with Dabble, just get started. The world is waiting for your one-of-a-kind voice and bold authenticity.
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