Memoir writers write nonfiction accounts featuring parts of their own lives. If you are considering writing your own memoir, you aren’t telling your entire life story. Instead, memoir writing is retelling important parts of your own life to get a message or a point across to the reader. It is an intimate and personal experience, and learning how to write a memoir can be a challenge.
This article will share suggestions and ideas that memoir writers use in memoir writing to help you start writing about the significant parts of your own life. With enough practice and dedication, you can learn how to write a memoir that is touching and interesting to readers.
How Long Should a Memoir Be?
A memoir has to appeal to human emotions and make the readers’ interest in it emerge and soar. A memoir averages between 60,000 to 120,000 words in length. Writers may go beyond this word count if there is a need for additional details when detailing significant event.
Nevertheless, a new writer of a memoir is generally advised to write anywhere from 60,000 to 75,000 words to enhance their memoir writing skills first and allow themselves the exposure of writing it without pressure or the need to resort to many ornamented statements to reach a longer length. Each memoir writer should optimize the memoir’s length to justify the significance of the experience being highlighted.
Below are the characteristics of memoir that you have to take into account during your writing journey:
- It should contain the truth. Though some might argue that truth is relative, as long as you are not deliberately fabricating a story, it can be considered a personal truth and, therefore, could qualify as a memoir.
- It can be an inner story or an actual event. What is happening inside the your head can be included in your memoir. For instance, how anxiety crippled your ability to perform at a pivotal moment in your story.
- It establishes a story arc. Despite focusing on some significant events, the memoir still has to flow smoothly from the beginning to its conclusion.
- It concentrates on key messages, specific events, or a particular time. A memoir should not tell every single detail about your life. People want to read about the significant events that shaped who you are today.
- It contains personal obstacles or emotional turmoil. The purpose is for the reader to resonate, find meaning, and learn something worthwhile from the writer’s experience.
- It depicts a change or transformation, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. There should be a development in perspective, skills, or actions. Demonstrate what you have learnt over the years and how you have changed or grown as a person.
A memoir encapsulates everything within and around you. It can deal with your internal struggles, personal achievements, or anything significant that you want to share, whether it be positive or negative. It is your experience that you want to impart so that other people can hopefully learn from your life experience and understand a bit more about your personal journey.
Below are some of the creative ideas that you can consider if you’re going to start writing a memoir:
- A life-changing moment
- A remarkable milestone in your life
- The turning point of your life where you began to think, feel, and behave differently
- How a specific environment impacted your perspective
- The day when you fell in love or fell out of love
- An event where someone surprised you
- The return of someone who left you
- An important dream or the worst nightmare you had
- A moment where your fear hindered your success
- The day you discovered that you are one of a kind
- An adventure that you had never imagined to experience, but eventually did
- How multiple opportunities presented themselves to you and yet you could only choose one
Listed above are just a few of the vast examples of memoir ideas. Have the freedom to choose the experiences that you can open up about extensively and the events where you can direct the reader to reflect, dig deeper, and assess the meaningfulness of their very own existence.
How to Write a Memoir With Influence and Meaning
1. Don’t Write Your Entire Life Story When Memoir Writing
When you start writing your own memoir, it can be daunting. What parts of your own life are significant? It might be tempting to write about your entire life, but that’s a common mistake that many writers make.
A memoir and an autobiography are not the same thing. A memoir does not tell the story of your entire life. Rather, a memoir takes the significant parts of your own compelling story and works them into a narrative that makes a point or sends a message.
Before you start writing, try to think of moments in your own story that were particularly touching, important, or even painful. What can you say about them? Can you turn the story of heartbreak or poverty into a message of strength and hope? Writing memoirs involves choosing the right moments to retell.
2. A Good Memoir Has Good Imagery
When you write a memoir, you share a piece of your personal life with an audience. Pack it full of imagery to make it a compelling story that the reader will care about. For example, if you are writing about the first Christmas as an adopted child, make the reader see what you saw when you came into the living room Christmas morning and saw the tree decorated with gifts that had your name on them.
Make the reader feel the way you felt, hear the things you heard, smell the things you smelled. Insert the reader into the story so that they feel as though they are experiencing it all with you. This is how you bond with the reader.
3. Read Memoirs
Before you write a memoir, read several. Having memoir examples at your disposal will help you to understand how a person’s life can impact your own feelings and ideas and make you feel as though you are part of it as well.
A compelling story doesn’t differ much from the best memoirs. The best memoirs make you feel something, just like the best fiction makes you feel something. Doing a lot of reading of this genre will help you see how memoirs are written and how they can impact a reader. Memoir examples, like any literary examples, can help to inspire you.
4. Don’t Tell Too Many Stories
A memorable memoir doesn’t pack stories tightly together. Doing so can overwhelm the reader, confuse the audience, and make the content challenging to relate to. Often you experience major real-life events one at a time, so you shouldn’t overwhelm your readers with one major event after another.
Choose a few memories or experiences from your life, and focus on them. They don’t have to be told in order, either. Many memoirs rearrange the order of the personal stories to entertain the audience. You are going for impact when you write a memoir, not fact-checking or chronological order.
5. Focus on the Emotional Truth of Your Memories
Getting every detail of your life perfectly accurate doesn’t matter nearly as much as making sure that the emotional truth of the memory is relayed through your writing. We often see events in real life differently than others do, based upon things like experiences, hopes, and feelings.
For example, if you want to write about a time when your family members rallied around you and supported you when you needed it, you don’t have to list every family member who came out of the woodwork to be there for you in your time of need. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get the name of the diner your aunt took you to correct. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get every specific detail right. Instead, focus on the emotional truth of how amazing it feels to be supported and loved unconditionally by your family.
6. Don’t Start at The Very Beginning
It can be tempting to start at your birth and recap each of your own experiences that impacted you all the way up until the present moment. However, doing this will bore the reader, confuse the reader, and make the reader think that you don’t know how to write well.
Unless your memoir is about your infancy and toddler days, there’s no need or point in discussing your birth. There’s no real need to bring up that you won the fourth-grade spelling bee. You can focus on exactly what happened in your life that you think deserves the most attention.
7. Make a List of Events
Just a list can go a long way in getting you to a great starting point. If you feel stumped about which event of your life should be the focus of your memoir, consider making a list. Start at the very beginning of your life, and list all the major events that have occurred since that you can think of. If you can’t remember some, they probably aren’t significant enough to be written about.
Once you have a list that has narrowed down the events in your life you think may be worth talking about in a memoir, you can interview family or friends and ask them which events pack the most punch or which ones they would most be interested in reading. This will often narrow down your list even more.
8. Write Your First Draft
The first draft, also known as the rough draft, is where you can work out the bones and major details of the memories you want to write about. When it is completed, go back and read through it to make sure you have included vivid details so that the reader has sufficient imagery available to become invested.
One piece of great advice when you start to doubt whether you are interesting enough to write a memoir that anyone will read or care about is to remind yourself that everyone’s life is a story full of ups and downs and twisted plots and characters. Every person deserves to tell the true story of the things that meant the most to them.
9. Self Publishing Vs. Traditional Publishing
There are a few tips more important than how to go about publishing your work. Remember that a memoir is basically telling short stories that are based on fact and published in a nonfiction book. You are the main character. While you understand why it is essential for you to write about a particular event, many publishers may think otherwise.
Unless you have a story about some sort of tragedy that everyone knows about, or are a famous person, or are somehow connected to a famous person, it may be challenging to get your memoir published with a traditional publishing house. These days, more and more writers are finding that memoirs do better when you go the self-publishing route.
10. A Tip for Choosing a Worthwhile Topic
If you are on the fence about which event or memory in your life you should write about, write about all of them. Narrow the options down to two or three, and then write about each one. Notice which one of those two or three topics is the one that you can’t stop writing about. If there is a story that you have to force yourself to stop writing about, then it is clear what your topic should be.
You should always choose the topic you have the most to say about. Not everyone has shared the same experiences, and you can bet that someone out there will be able to relate to what you write about, and it will grab that reader’s attention. Don’t try to impress everyone. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to choose a topic you’re passionate about.
11. Powerful Memoirs Read Like Stories
No one wants to read a stuffy memoir full of dates and factual evidence of your life. When you write a memoir, you want the reader to get comfortable with it. You’re sharing something personal. You’re inviting them in. You don’t want to bore them with facts and dates and places and names.
Think about how you tell a personal story to a friend or family member. Do you stuff it full of facts, or do you narrate like you would a story? How do you like to hear personal stories? A memoir needs to be inviting and inclusive.
Use body language in your descriptions of the events in your memoir. Rather than telling people that you cried, tell people that your body shook with each sob as you sat alone in a dark room, wondering how you were going to make it after having lost an important person in your life. Rather than telling people you were happy or in love, tell the reader how you leaped into the arms of your fiancé right after he proposed, nearly knocking him down. Invite the reader to really see the event in their mind’s eye.
12. Dig Deep to Find the Story
If you want to write about a lesson learned in life, really take the time to include several experiences in your life that drive that point home. For example, if you want your message to be about a lesson learned that ignoring your elderly relatives can end up breaking your heart and making you feel lost, then don’t just talk about when your grandpa died, and you barely knew him.
Write about the time your grandmother asked you to go with her to a parade, and you told her no because you wanted to play with your friends. Write about a time when your mother asked you to take her to a play, and you couldn’t be bothered to leave work early to do it, and now she’s gone.
Talk about how you had just realized how interesting and wonderful your great-grandpa was, and you were just getting to know him on a personal level when he died unexpectedly. Weave all of these stories into your memoir to achieve the overarching theme that time spent with older relatives is invaluable, and once they are gone, you can’t get that time back.
13. Memoirs Aren’t Just for Famous People
While your memoir may not be featured on Good Morning America before its release, you don’t have to be famous to have success with one. All you have to have is a good message, a good story, and confidence in yourself. If you have an interesting story to tell, it won’t matter that you aren’t a famous actor, singer, politician, or supermodel.
For example, in the early 1990s, Mary Karr started writing a memoir about growing up in Texas in an area that was less than wholesome in the 1960s. Prior to this, she was a poet. Writing a memoir was something that she wanted to do. When she published her memoir, The Liars Club, in 1995, it found success because it was raw, moving, and relatable to many people who grew up in similar situations all over small-town America.
14. Writing a Memoir Should Also Be For Yourself
When writing a memoir, keep in mind that the particular experience you plan to focus on should be something that you are passionate about or at least want to address for your own personal reasons. Sometimes the only way to deal with trauma is to talk about it, and an excellent way to do that is through the written word.
If there is an idea for a memoir that has been brewing in your mind and weighing on your heart for some time, get it written down. Writing a memoir can serve as a sort of therapy to a writer, and memoirs can help readers all over the world who may be going through the same feelings, trauma, or situation that you want to talk about.
Memoirs have a way of connecting people worldwide because even if we come from different backgrounds and cultures, we all understand feelings of loss, love, happiness, and fear.
15. Focus on Turning Points for Inspiration
When you are truly stuck and can’t think of what to write, dissect your life and look for the turning points. Turning points are the events in your life that made your life change course or direction. It can be the loss of a job or a new job. It can be a divorce, a marriage, a death, or a birth.
Perhaps you had an addiction problem, and finding out that you were expecting a baby made you reassess yourself and realize that there were now two lives involved in every decision you made. Writing about the turning point for your addiction may turn some readers off, but thousands of readers are in the same situation and will understand the idea you are trying to convey.
16. Condense Your Story
If you are going to be talking about when you adopted your children because you could not conceive on your own, try to stick to the main points of the story rather than naming every friend who gave you advice, every social worker you spoke with, every potential birth parent, and all the relatives who offered advice along the way.
In this example, no one really needs to be included in this retelling aside from you, your partner (if you have one), the child or children you adopted, and maybe one or two other people. You want your audience to see this story take place in their mind, and it can be easy to give too much information, but be selective in what information is shared. Too much will weigh down the story so that the audience loses interest. Keep the focus in your sights, and don’t deviate with fluff and unimportant details.
17. Develop a Writing Process
Just like with any sort of writing, you are developing your own writing process that will teach you how to write a memoir through practice. Set time aside every day to write, even if that means that you struggle on some days. Sure, your life will always be there, and your memories are always there, but starting and then taking breaks and telling yourself you’ll come back to it later is a recipe for a book that never gets finished.
Developing a routine that stays the same will help you make your writing less intimidating. If you know that you have two hours a day to write, develop a schedule and stick to it so that you never stop writing.
18. Don’t Lie
While you don’t have to focus on fact-checking and getting dates right, don’t lie outright in your telling of memories. If your audience finds out that you lied about trauma or an experience you have had, you lose their trust. Once you lose the audience’s trust, that’s it. You will most likely never get it back.
Don’t worry that your memories will be seen as boring by anyone. If they mean something to you, they are bound to mean something to someone else. Don’t embellish, never tell lies about people, and if you did something wrong, don’t try to downplay it or cover it up.
A memoir in which you claim to be a perfect person will go over like a lead balloon. You will end up losing all credibility, and no one will want to read your work again. Write short stories or fiction novels if you want to make things up in a book. A memoir is not the place to focus on your creative writing skills.