How to Write a Memoir: Tell Your Amazing Story In 7 Steps
A Memoir is written from an author’s perspective and is usually centred on an important experience. Writers choose a particularly memorable story and relay it through storytelling. Since the word memoir comes from the french word ‘mémoire’ it is not a factual form of storytelling, but a narration of the facts from the author’s point of view. Memoirs are often confused with autobiography. However, there are a few key differences that set them apart.
- Although an autobiography is also written from a writer’s perspective, the narrative can cover an entire span of a life.
- Autobiographies convey key events in a chronological manner
- Memoirs are written to create an emotional connection and focus on reflection whereas autobiographies are written to portray the achievements of the author that are usually written later in life.
Memoirs are usually classified into transformation memoirs, confessional memoirs, professional or celebrity memoirs and travel memoirs.
Transformation memoirs revolve around the story of love, loss, and facing challenges. For example, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail written by Cheryl Strayed.
Confessional memoirs relay painful or difficult emotions through the act of confession. For example, And the Heart Says Whatever by Emily Gould.
Professional or celebrity memoirs showcase the life of an author and their rise to success. For example, Becoming by Michelle Obama and Bossypants by Tina Fey.
Whereas travel memoirs are written to cover a place through the author’s experience. For example, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux.
What these different types of memoirs have in common is that they choose a pivotal moment in their lives or a group of touchstone events and base the story around it.
It takes courage and a certain craft to be able to write intimate details about your life, without projecting your biased opinion. But this should not make writing a memoir a complex piece of work.
Here’s how you can get started.
Narrow your focus
The first step entails gathering a list of memories and experiences you would like to include in your memoir. This can include the challenges you faced and overcame, the turning points that made you who you are, and the lessons you learned. To ensure that your memoir does not turn into an autobiography, set a crux to your story and ensure you capture your readers’ imagination by venturing into different branches that focus on the specific story. A great way to find the focus of your story is by asking yourself if there is a question you are trying to answer. For example, the question for Eat, Pray, Love might be, ‘How to live a spiritual life and enjoy the delights of the world?’ So before you start on your manuscript, figure out the question you want to answer. Compile all the conversations you would like to include, three-dimensional characters that add to your plot, challenges you have endured, and universal truths. Remember: the most interesting memoirs relay it all. Find a way to connect each experience to your main focus.
Decide your memoir’s theme
Your memoir needs a structural arc that has an overarching theme. Some common memoir themes include topics with messages of hope, dealing with the loss of love, adjusting to a new life, developing a skill, friendship, making tough choices, parenthood, self-esteem, and hard work.
The message will enable you to stitch all your experiences together in a cohesive manner. Now that you have a focus to draft your memoir around, you can play with the narration. Look over your life story. Create a mindmap to enhance information recall and creativity and to see how different facts and ideas are related to the overarching theme of your memoir. Structure your theme by deciding a point of emphasis. Your theme could focus on the obstacles you overcame, the lessons you learnt or your journey to success. This journey could also be more literal, how you traveled to another country and immersed yourself in its culture.
Then, summarize your story in a few sentences and ask yourself why you made certain choices and how you have grown as an individual. Once you have answered the questions and set a structure in place, discuss it with someone who knows your story. An outside perspective will help you spot similarities to unify your message.
Avoid telling your story chronologically
Great writing is necessary to pique the interest of your reader. Take inspiration from fiction story writing techniques to transport your readers into your life. Use significant details to create a vivid world. Show, don’t tell by creating suspense within your story. Avoid taking the usual approach wherein you start from the beginning and narrate your story chronologically. You can begin with a surprising event and connect the dots with other experiences about your career, family, beliefs, and travels.
Consider H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald that talks about the author’s grief over her father’s untimely death, and The Goshawk and the lives of those obsessed with the flight of hawks. It takes you in and out of events and ideas, the present day and the past.
You can create dramatic tension by altering between a chain of causes and their effects. Another approach would be opening the book with the predicament that narrates the obstacles and tremendous pain you dealt with, followed by the backstory that led to the loss. You can shuffle around between the present and past by mentioning your parents’ backstory or your childhood story through the course of the book. This structure that takes the timeline back and forth elevates a memoir above mere autobiography.
Be sensitive in your storytelling
Most societies include a social hierarchy that provides privileges and opportunities to those in power. In comparison, those who are marginalized do not enjoy the same privileges and opportunities. Poor representation can reinforce marginalization and add disadvantages rather than dismantle it. While writing your memoir ensure you do not feed into harmful stereotypes and misrepresentation but counteract marginalization by writing inclusively. To become an inclusive writer and to improve the diversity of the representation in your book, ensure you avoid the bubble of privilege by being more knowledgeable of your privileges and empathetic. Aim to be courageous with your lived experiences to bring authenticity in your writing. Write your truth in your own voice without embellishing anything. Have the confidence and reassurance that your story can help somebody and provide instances that allow your readers to learn from it and make decisions in their lives.
In the end, doing your research, improving your empathy, acknowledging that you do not know how a certain community feels will enable you to be a sensitive storyteller. Pencil is one such platform that celebrates diversity and creates a safe and diverse global community to help you connect with your readers.
Include your personal growth
Your life has an arc, and so should your memoir about your life. Narrate the lessons you have learnt along the way. The story itself must offer a value proposition or message that should be embodied in your stories. To evoke powerful emotions in your reader, first, introduce the premise with a conflict. Through the course of your story, invest your readers by gaining their trust. Refrain from narrating what they want to hear. Introspect and ask yourself how you have grown from these experiences. Be willingly vulnerable and mention your pitfalls. Show how you grew and changed as a person because of the mistakes you made. Mention how the pitfalls made you feel. If your plot includes your spouse cheating, don’t just mention a series of facts, mention how it made you feel. You can then transform a seemingly hopeless situation into an unexpected triumph. Show how you turned your personal dreams into goals and led them to victory – thus, winning the assent and support of your readers.
Put yourself in your reader’s shoes
Narrate your story in an interactive manner to make it an immersive experience for your reader. Ask yourself how you are adding meaning to your reader’s life by bridging the gap between your experiences and the experiences in your readers’ lives. You must always put yourself in your readers’ shoes even if the reader does not fit your target audience. A good memoir must speak to everyone. You may be able to connect with every reader, some with a rare experience, others with trauma, with your learnings or your humour. Strive to expand your reader’s belief and ensure every reader has a strong takeaway and relates to some aspect of your story.
As an author, you may want everyone to see your best experiences and the best version of yourself. However, for a memoir that genuinely resonates with your readers, you must be as honest as possible and vulnerable, without skipping your flaws.
Writing a memoir without honesty will come across on the pages. If you shield yourself in any way, it will come across on the pages. However, while delving into tough topics, be sensitive and thoughtful. Focus on what the obstacles you faced have taught you and how they can help readers in their own lives. Do include a trigger warning if you are mentioning sensitive topics. A trigger warning is a statement at the beginning of the book that alerts the reader beforehand that the information is sensitive and could be potentially distressing or harmful. It will allow the reader to make an informed choice whether or not that material is fit for them. If you are worried about trigger warnings acting as a spoiler, you can enlist the sensitive topics you intend to discuss. For example, mention – Trigger warning: verbal abuse.
Put your personality into your memoir and try to make your reader feel how you felt. Being true to your personality also involves showing and sharing emotion. This will render your experiences unforgettable. Truly connecting with your audience may seem complex since you are narrating something personal. So to make your memoir a balanced tale and get a professional and honest outsider’s opinion, you can extend the services of an editor. Or you can even try self-editing your manuscript. Here are some tips on how you can self-edit your book. To share your authentic story with the world, ensure you commit to every step of completing your manuscript, do daily creative writing exercises to strengthen your writing muscle, and set a goal for when you want to publish your book. Good luck!