5 Tips for Writing Memoir

brainstorming drafting
5 tips for writing memoir

Are you thinking about writing a memoir, but you aren’t sure where to start or what to include? Maybe you’re wondering how to write a memoir that someone other than your mom will actually want to read. But what exactly is a memoir, anyway? And how is it different from autobiography or fiction?

Simply put, a memoir is a story of how you remember and interpret one part of your life. And unlike a plot-driven novel meant to keep readers on the edge of their seats, a memoir takes readers on an emotional journey built on human connection, not breathtaking cliffhangers.

In this post, we’ll share five tips to help you write a memoir with confidence and ease.

Choose which part of your life story to tell

First, decide which part of your life will be the focus of your memoir. A memoir‌ differs from an autobiography in that writing a memoir is like serving the reader a piece of pie, while writing an autobiography is like serving them the whole pie. Which part of your life stands out as a turning point, one that has had a lasting impact on your life and is worthy of its own story?

Kimberly Williams-Paisley could have easily written a memoir about her life as a famous actress. Instead, she penned Where the Light Gets In: Losing My Mother Only to Find Her Again. Her memoir paints a picture of her family’s struggle with the reality of her mother’s dementia, not of the fame and glamor of Hollywood.

Think about the best times and the worst times of your life. Times where you were faced with a challenge and were able to overcome it—or not. Think about the big lessons you’ve learned, and what circumstances and experiences pushed you to learn them. Spend some time brainstorming and reflecting on your experiences, then look at them through the lens of your readers. What parts would be the most interesting? What parts are needed to share your message?

Once you’ve chosen which part of your life will be the focus of your memoir, it’s time to structure it in a way that makes sense to the reader.

Give your memoir an overall structure

There are many ways to structure memoir. Within the structure of memoir, you can use flashbacks, memories, and reflections to better tell your story. Let’s start by first examining four types of structure you can use when outlining your memoir.

Linear

A memoir with a linear structure tells a story from Point A to Point B in chronological order. It’s the most simple and straightforward way to tell a story and is often a good choice for first-time memoirists. Jeannette Walls uses linear structure and her childhood point-of-view in her memoir, The Glass Castle.

Framed

A framed structure is like a linear structure but adds more layers and nuances by incorporating flashbacks and memories. To use memories and flashbacks in a framed structure, imagine walking down a hallway as you tell your story. Along the hallway, there are doors that open to reveal memories and flashbacks. As the storyteller, you can open a door and reveal the flashback or memory within, sharing it with your readers, but be sure to come back to the hallway and close the door, resuming the story from your current perspective.

Thematic

Structuring a memoir around a theme is a tried-and-true method. Common themes include addiction, coming of age, dealing with loss, forgiveness, discrimination, and spiritual journeys. David Carr’s The Night of the Gun recounts his harrowing journey of overcoming addiction, while Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Notes on Grief gives voice to finding hope after loss.

Braided

A braided structure uses two separate timelines. You can intertwine the two timelines or write them in alternating chapters or scenes. You might choose to choose timelines reflecting childhood and adulthood, or before and after a certain event.

Write scenes rich with sensory details

Scenes are the building blocks of memoir. Build your story, scene by scene, so that the reader feels as though they are walking hand-in-hand with you through your lived experience. Make each scene rich with sensory details and emotions that draw the reader in.

In Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, she tells the story of her 1,100-mile hiking expedition:

I gazed at my bare and battered feet, with their smattering of remaining toenails. They were ghostly pale to the line a few inches above my ankles, where the wool socks I usually wore ended. My calves above them were muscled and golden and hairy, dusted with dirt and a constellation of bruises and scratches.

In this scene, the physical effects of Strayed's intense hike on her body are made vividly clear to the reader. Whatever the scene may be, the reader needs to feel as if they are reliving it with you. If you create a sensory-rich scene ripe with emotion, they will.

Include relevant flashbacks and memories

When writing a memoir, it’s important to remember that flashbacks and memories are written from different perspectives. A flashback is a fully contained scene from the past written from the perspective of who you were‌ then, not now. It’s like traveling back in time.

When sharing a memory, however, you do so from the perspective of who you are now, staying in your current voice and perspective while you recall past events.

When using flashbacks and memories, be sure to anchor the reader when returning to a particular place and time. Using a timestamp such as “It had been six months since the accident” anchors the reader firmly in time and place.

Only include flashbacks or memories that are necessary to tell your story. If you’re trying to decide whether to include a specific flashback or memory, try pulling it out of the story. If the memoir stands well without it, it might not belong in your story. But if taking out the flashback leaves a gaping hole in your memoir, you’ll know to leave it in.

Use reflection to show why each scene is relevant

Finally, reflections are a vital part of memoir. Reflecting at the end of a scene lets the reader make sense of what is happening. It also lets you set the stage for how you want the reader to feel.

If your reader is wondering why you included a scene in your memoir, then reflection answers that question. Reflections allow you to give insight, offer interpretations, or share your opinion on your lived experience so that the reader can make sense of it. Slow down and reflect so that the reader can understand why each scene is important.

Now it’s time to put these tips into action! Decide which part of your life story you want to share and how you will structure it. Write sensory-rich scenes and add depth with flashbacks, memories, and reflections.

Be flexible

It’s good to start with a basic idea of how you’d like to structure your memoir, but as you write, keep in mind that your structure or theme may change. The act of putting this much attention on your experiences will likely trigger new insights and epiphanies. When this happens, just go with it and continue writing. You can always restructure your scenes later, once you have a first draft.

With these steps in place, you’ll soon have a captivating memoir to share with readers!


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