Wondering how to write a memoir? There are few publishing projects more personal than a narrative of your life’s most pivotal moments, and the process holds unique challenges. While you are the world’s top expert on your own life, the closer you are to the story the harder it can be to take an objective view as you refine your writing. Outside input can be crucial for the quality of a memoir, and during every step of the process, keep your potential readers in mind. Authors may have a range of different goals in telling their story, but it’s always a priority to connect with readers.
Autobiography vs Memoir
Some authors may be unclear on the difference between a memoir and an autobiography—and the distinction is more than technicality. While autobiographies aim to tell a complete history from birth with a focus on noteworthy accomplishments (a “life story”), memoirs are narratives focusing on a theme or a certain aspect or period of your life. There’s generally a point to be made, other than simply documenting the history of your life. For example, you might tell the story of how you started out with nothing and created a thriving business enterprise, focusing on moments that tell this story. Grasping your theme from the start is crucial for connecting with readers and understanding how to write a memoir.
Particularly if you’re not already a public figure, it’s important to remember that most readers won’t be picking up a memoir simply because they’re curious about you personally. It’s this story or theme, one they should find relatable, inspiring, or interesting, which will draw readers. While an autobiography might read like an extended and detailed Wikipedia article, a memoir should make a point, tell a story, and be relatable for a target audience.
Selecting your Stories
The first step for any author will be narrowing this focus to determine exactly which moments and anecdotes from your life will tell the story. Sometimes a memoir will focus on a certain period of your life, in other cases it could include moments from different points in your life that form a narrative. Try to be as honest and introspective as possible with how you approach each story from your life. This isn’t always easy—if you made a mistake and learned a lesson, make sure your memoir tells the painful truth. Don’t try to sanitize your story. Memoirs that aren’t honest won’t make for a very good read, and won’t likely be relatable for readers.
How to Write a Memoir
A memoir tells the real story of your life, but for it to succeed, you’ll need to approach the writing process like fiction. From the author’s perspective, drawing on life anecdotes is quite different than creating a fictional story. But from a reader’s perspective, your memoir should read much like a novel. That means using many of the tools and elements that fiction authors rely on to tell a story.
- Show, don’t tell. For example, when giving readers a sense of a character’s traits, don’t just say “he was a perfectionist.” Show him behaving in a perfectionist way. If you’re describing a situation in which you were nervous, don’t just say “I was nervous,” tell the reader about sweaty palms or your shaking voice.
- Don’t skimp on details of settings, emotions, and characters. For some memoirs, nostalgia will be a key focus, and painting a picture of the time and place will be especially important.
- Create tension and pay attention to pacing to keep readers curious about what happens next. Don’t tell the reader everything right away. Set up conflicts and obstacles that ultimately pay off for readers, both long-term through your entire memoir, and short-term in each chapter and anecdote.
- Show an arc of character development for yourself. How did these experiences change who you are?
These are just a few starting tips on how to write a memoir. Check out tips and tools for good fiction writing, and almost all will apply here as well.
Finding an Audience
All authors should establish a platform to reach their audience, and social media is a great way to do that if you haven’t already. But too much self-promotion is a potential pitfall for memoir authors. Try to focus on the themes of your memoir—success with unlikely odds, recovering from difficult life situations, living through past historical events, or even just nostalgia for a certain time. These themes will appeal to readers who probably wouldn’t read your book merely out of curiosity about you as an individual. And these are also the themes to focus on when marketing your book and establishing a platform.
Try to find readers interested in other content with a similar theme. If you’re writing a book about growing up in the 60s, write a non-fiction blog about the time period. If it’s a business success story, write a blog about business advice. Share your blog on social media, and try to develop a following before you publish a book. For any marketing steps you take, make sure you have a clear picture in your mind of who your readers would be, and why they’re reading your book.
It’s Not (Just) About You
During every step of writing a memoir, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, don’t focus too much on yourself. Readers should see themselves in your story, or find other themes, ideas, and content to be interested in. Try to see things from the readers’ perspective and use the elements of good fiction to make sure your memoir is engaging.
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