How to Write a Memoir

Writing any type of book is a lot of work. A memoir based on personal experience is harder than most. For a reader to stay with you, you need more than a good overarching story. It is imperative to have a dramatic hook that leaves the reader wanting more after reaching the end of each page. If you are planning to publish your story, stick around and I will show you how to write a memoir that can become a best seller.

Importance of Memoirs

Memoirs can teach readers about culture, lifestyles, places, events, and experiences that are completely different from their own. A memoir offers a gateway to another person’s world, and reading one can help you gain a better understanding of those around you.

Memoirs can also help people who are living through the same challenges the author experienced. They show that someone else has felt the same pain. Sometimes, memoirs even help readers get back on their feet.

Memoirs are Powerful

Personal life stories are powerful because they touch the heart. This is why memoirs are so compelling. They come from real-life stories, making it easier for readers to resonate with the characters. Not only do memoirs make readers think, they let readers feel.

How to Start A Memoir

Engage from the Start – A powerful memoir draws the reader in from the very first sentence. Carlos Eire opens his book, Learning to Die in Miami, with an unrealistic line: “Having just died, I shouldn’t be starting my afterlife with a chicken sandwich, no matter what, especially one served up by nuns.” The irony is, how can a dead man write a memoir? From the get-go, the book makes you want to keep reading.

Draw Out Emotions – Write your lines from the heart. This may sound like a cliché, but memoirs should be written in a language that resonates with readers on a deeply emotional level. Take, for example, the first line of Liz Murray’s Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey From Homeless to Harvard: “The first time Daddy found out about me, it was from behind glass during a routine visit to prison, when Ma lifted her shirt, teary-eyed, exposing her pregnant belly for emphasis.” Pregnancy is a very emotional topic. Pregnancy in prison draws out even more emotions.

Lead with Humor – People react positively to humor. Leading with a laugh can help captivate your audience. It may not get them as invested as when they are emotionally hooked, but making them laugh or smile even a little will keep them engaged longer. An example of a funny opener is from Ali Wong’s Dear Girls: “Your dad is the (if we are divorced by the time you read this, please skip to the next sentence) best, but I didn’t just find him overnight.” You can almost feel the atmosphere of a standup comedy bar while reading this.

Save The Best for Last – Write your opening last. Why? After everything is said and done, you will have a full perspective of what’s included in your memoir. Only then will you be able to think of the best way to open your story. Think of it as a controlled start. With the emotional ride you are giving your readers as they take the journey through your memories, how do you want them to feel at the start of your book? Should you start with a funny line? An emotional line? A dark and brooding landscape? Or a surprising sucker punch?

Tips to Keep in Mind While Writing Your Memoir

1.    It’s Not an Autobiography – Just as when you share someone else’s story in person, you focus on one event. The same approach should be taken with your personal memoir.  An autobiography is your life story in its entirety. Memoirs, on the other hand, have a more limited scope, which usually centers around a time period or event from the writer’s life. There may be millions of details and experiences that you think might be interesting to your readers, but do they support the central theme of your memoir? If you are writing about your journey around the world during a gap year, does the reader need to know about your antics in middle school and high school?

2.    Readers Sense Honesty – You are the writer and you get to decide what stays and what goes in your memoir. Still, you need to be true to your narrative. The promise of every memoir is a true account of what happened in the author’s life. Stay true to your events. There may be instances when you need to censor names of people, places, or institutions, as they have a right to privacy; but as much as possible, refrain from using creative license to fabricate parts of events just to make them more interesting.

3.    Keep the Reader in Mind – Write for yourself and, at the same time, write for your reader. Choose your words without swaying from the truth. Even if you are telling real accounts, you can be creative in choosing your words. In Born on The Fourth of July, Ron Kovic wrote: “A soldier lies in the sand, bullets cracking all around him. Blood pours from a wound in his flak jacket, and he can’t move his legs.” He could have easily said, “A soldier lies in the sand and he can’t move his legs as blood pours from his wound.” Kovic’s choice of words painted a more detailed picture of what was happening in that situation.

4.    Do Not Edit While Writing – As much as you want to reread your sentences, edit them, and make them sound better on the spot, do not, at any cost, give in to the temptation. This is a huge mistake beginners make. It is only natural that we want to rewrite our lines to make them better. There is a proper time for that, but it is not during the initial writing process. Here’s a tip: do not read as you write. Just write, write, and write some more. Once you start editing while you write, you will get stuck and hung up on one story. Doubts will start flooding in, and you will lose your writing mojo. More often than not, this is what prompts first-timers to quit writing.

5.    Do Not Focus on Lessons – Your memoir is not necessarily a self-help book. You need not pressure yourself to write about the lessons you learned from your experiences and what readers should do if they were to experience the same situations. While you can include lessons, your main focus should be to write about your experiences and make readers see your world from your perspective. Take them on a journey without preaching.

6.    Keep your Head in a Silo – Do not worry about what other people will think while you are writing. Do not think about editors commenting on your lines. Do not think about how readers will react to a punchline. Write as if you are writing in your journal, which you would not dare share with anyone else. Only then will you be able to bring out what you really want to say. Your memoir should be a detailed account of your innermost thoughts with intimate details. Give yourself the benefit of a safe and private space to pour your heart out.

7.    What you Felt Before and How you Feel Now – Sensory details make a good story. Dig into your emotional memories while asking yourself these questions. Memoirs are full of emotions, and these emotions will help your readers resonate with your story. Do not separate from emotion when you are detailing events. Make your readers feel how you felt before, and help them understand how you feel now, if there are differences. What’s important is that you write from two perspectives: who you were then and who you are now, years later.

The best memoirs are based on real stories. There is no dichotomy of right or wrong, good or bad. Memoirs are honest accounts, full of emotion, experiences, highs and lows.

How Long Does it Take to Write a Memoir?

It really depends on how many words you are aiming for. A memoir can take a couple of months or many years to write as the emotional content can be tough for some. If you feel you need help in bringing out your emotional memories and putting them into words, we would love to speak with you.

We are the only publisher that can guarantee USA Today Best Seller status and Simon & Schuster distribution, which gets your book into bookstores. If you want to learn more about how you can outsource your memoir creation process, let’s schedule a chat.

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