A memoir is not quite the same as an autobiography, but it can be more powerful. Here’s how to write one.
I was told a bad joke a while back.
What’s the difference between:
- a summer dress
- clean underwear
- a funeral gown
Answer: The same as the difference between a memoir, an autobiography and a biography.
Just as a summer dress covers you for a season, a memoir covers a season of your life.
Just like clean underwear, an autobiography is something you do for yourself…and nobody else really wants to be exposed to it.
Just like a funeral gown, a biography is something that someone else dresses you in for eternity.
Do you want to write a memoir?
There’s actually more to it than at first appears. Whether you plan to write it yourself or hire a ghostwriter for your memoir, you should know what goes into writing a really good memoir.
A memoir is not your whole life. It’s a story, and you probably are the main character – the protagonist. But any good story features more than one character. And very few good stories cover the protagonist’s life from birth to death.
However, there are certain things you’ve done, things you’ve learned or things that have happened to you that would make a great story.
Tell a story
A successful memoir is one that tells a story. People enjoy learning, but they love to be entertained. If you can tell a spell-binding story about something that happened in your life, you’ll write a great memoir.
In order to tell a good story, you will need a theme. All the books you’ve read, all the movies you’ve watched, all the stories you’ve heard fit into some universal themes. Most of them fit into just a few of the most common themes, such as:
- Falling in love
- Coming of age
- Good versus evil
- Fate versus free will
Some that are particularly of interest for memoirs are:
- Loss of a loved one
- Dysfunctional family
- Religious experience
- Disease, injury or trauma
For more ideas, try this list of common themes.
Use fiction writing tools or devices
A memoir is a true story. But you might have noticed me referring to fiction an awful lot. Indeed, a good memoir is non-fiction written like fiction.
You don’t write self-help books like fiction.
You don’t write how-to books like fiction.
You don’t write textbooks like fiction.
So why would you write a memoir like fiction? Because those other genres don’t tell stories. Your memoir has to tell a story, and that’s what fiction devices do.
Here are a few of my favorites:
- Character development – this helps people feel like they know the character, by giving them more than just two dimensions.
- Character transformation – this is critical to lead readers on a journey with you. From start to finish, your protagonist (usually that’s you) should be transformed. In fact, the entire value in telling the story of your memoir can be measured by how much it transformed you. As such, the very first question you should ask yourself before deciding to write a memoir is: “How did this event transform me?”
- Adversity to overcome – the story is in the adversity, usually both internal and external conflict. You need to be able to explore particularly internal conflict, in a memoir. It is that conflict that drives the character transformation. This might be harder than you think. This leaves you completely open and completely vulnerable. It can also be incredibly therapeutic if you are writing about a traumatic experience
- Flashbacks and foreshadowing – these help readers get a sense of how different events connect over time, helping them understand why things are unfolding as they (flashbacks) are and what happens next (foreshadowing).
For more ideas, try this list of elements of fiction.
Write the truth
Despite all the fiction devices you might use, a memoir is non-fiction. It is a true story. You need to tell the truth.
This can be hard. Not only do you have to share your personal trials and temptations, your failings and doubts, but you have to be honest about the other people in your story. That can mean saying some pretty unflattering things about friends, colleagues and even close family. Are you prepared to be brutally honest?
Write your perceptions
I said write the truth. That does not mean you have to be objective in the same way as a journalist does. You don’t have to tell both sides of a story. Indeed, you shouldn’t.
You are telling a story through your eyes.
Tell it like you remember it.
Color it the way you perceived it.
Add in details where you can’t remember them.
Leave out details that don’t help the reader travel with you on your journey.
Don’t lie. Be truthful. But write from your perspective according to your perceptions and memory.
Get the details
Although you might not be a journalist and you don’t need to recall every detail, it doesn’t hurt to use journalistic methods to create the most complete story possible, with as many accurate details as you can.
- Interview people who were there, even people who were not in the story. They might jog your memory about the atmosphere at that diner you were sitting in.
- Research as much as you can, so that you can describe what was the headline on the newspaper you had just bought and what type of trees were in the square outside your hotel window.
- Speak to experts to make sure that the science matches what you recall happening.
Make the reader care
Readers care when they are invested in a character. They care when they wonder what will happen next. They care when they ride with the protagonist on their journey. They care when the quest is important, when the stakes are high and where the risk is great.
That is why universal themes, conflict and character transformation are so important. That is also why writing honestly and letting readers inside your head and your heart makes a memoir worth reading.
Pick a focal point
A focal point is that point in a story around which everything else revolves. Like Rosebud in Citizen Kane. Like “One ring to rule them all” in Lord of the Rings. It serves not just to pull the story together, but also serves almost as a brand for your story. Even if you cover the same theme as hundreds of other books, this focal point brings it all together in the reader’s mind.
It also can distinguish your story in a tangible way.
And it doesn’t have to be an event, or even part of the story. You can make it part of the story.
For instance, you might periodically recall a favorite toy. Or you might occasionally put on that way-too-worn T-shirt that has seen you through the experiences in your memoir. Or there might be some quirky turn of phrase that you said back then and now, as narrator, you are saying again.
Another example of a focal point would be to write your memoir to a specific person who might be central to the story, or who might have nothing to do with it. Here is an example of how to start such a memoir.
“Dear Uncle Albert. I never told you this while you were alive, but I did something once that would have made your skin crawl. It was just 11 years ago that I walked into Mr. Finchley’s corner store. You remember Mr. Finchley, now, don’t you? Well…”
These are all symbols that string your story along a single thread in your reader’s mind. You don’t need a focal point to write a memoir, but it could turn a good memoir into a standing-ovation memoir. If the focal point can directly support the theme, even better.
It’s not just about you
I say this almost as an afterthought. You are the protagonist. This is your story, according to your memory.
But it’s about more than you.
We are each the main character in our own world. But we are never the only character. And we are all part of a greater plan, a wider universe. Your readers need to ride with you on your journey. But that journey will be real only if other characters also have depth and only if they get to feel part of the bigger picture.
Are you ready to write your memoir?
I know it’s a tall order. It might not have occurred to you how much goes into writing a memoir.
But it’s all worth it of you do it right.
Take the time to develop your memoir so that the reader can ride with you on your journey. Make it a book they can care about as much as you do. That’s the secret to writing a successful memoir.