Introduction: Memoir vs. Autobiography
Welcome to Writing Tips Oasis, and our newest guide on how to write a memoir step by step. As usual, we’d like to begin by explaining what a memoir actually is – and you’d be surprised at how many people, both readers and writers, believe that there is no difference between a memoir and an autobiography.
The truth is that there is a vast difference between a memoir and an autobiography. An autobiography will chronicle all of the writer’s life, from childhood to adulthood, up until the moment of writing. A memoir will focus on specific events of the writer’s life that are connected through a certain theme, emotion, or even something else, like working a specific job, or having a special role in society.
In this one, we will be tackling the task of writing a memoir rather than an autobiography, however, do not be surprised if we refer to autobiographies as well. While memories and autobiographies are different, they still share certain similarities that usually lead to the conclusion that they are one and the same. For example, both focus on the writer’s life and are retellings of past events that happened to the writer. In a way, a memoir can be a part of one’s autobiography, yet even so, an autobiography usually does not focus on a specific part of the writer’s life and is not focused on specific events connected by a common theme. Instead, autobiographies focus on facts and research, dates and very specific events regardless of theme.
More importantly, memoirs tell stories – autobiographies relay facts.
Part One: Choosing the Theme
As previously mentioned, what sets apart memoirs from autobiographies is the theme that connects the events depicted in the memoir. When you’re setting out to write the memoir, choosing the connecting theme or prevalent situation should be easy. Unlike writing a novel, you do not have to come up with a new story all on your own – the story has more or less been written, you’ve lived it, and now you wish to tell it.
However, your memoir will not consist of a single event, but of several, and as such, not every event will fit into the theme, or the story you’re trying to tell about your own life. For this reason, you will need to decide, before you start writing the memoir, what you will focus on, and what will be the prevalent theme or element in your memoir. After that, you will be able to eliminate memories and events that are not related to the theme and the things you’ve learned through those events.
1. A sliver of life
Here is why a memoir can be easy to construct, especially after you’ve decided on a theme. The sliver of your life you will show to the audience can span a single day, a month, or it can span several events over several years (or even decades). The first advantage here is that you’re making a certain point about something: family, wealth, faith, happiness, health – just like fictional stories all have a point and revolve around a theme. The second advantage is that you’re not writing fiction – you’ve already lived through it and lived to tell this tale.
The disadvantage here is the fact that it can be difficult to choose which events of your life – which days, months, or even years, will fit into the theme and help you make your point. However, there are ways to tackle this problem, and we will start with the major one – do you tell the truth?
2. The importance of truth
There are two things you need to be careful with when writing a memoir: the truth, and how that truth can affect the people whom you will mention in your memoir. Yes, maybe you think that Aunt Becky is not a good person, but if she is loved by her children and grandchildren, you might offend half of your extended family with your portrayal of her person in your memoir.
Here is the problem: no matter how much we want to believe otherwise, we experience our lives through our own distinctive perspectives, our own truths. Yes, maybe your Aunt Becky was horrible to you personally, but perhaps she was good to everyone else. So, how do you tell the truth in this case?
Well, stick to your own truth, your own perspective. It’s your memoir and it should be a reflection of your thoughts and emotions. However, if you wish to avoid estranging family members, friends, coworkers, or, you know, avoid possible future lawsuits, consider making changes. In names, descriptions, appearances. In other words, if your memoir was a fiction novel, which parts are important to the plot (your emotional journey as depicted in the memoir)? And which parts are not?
The parts that are not crucial to it can be subject to change. However, do not make so many changes that your memoir does read like fiction. Fiction gets a certain pass: every time you read a book, you suspend your disbelief for the sake of enjoying a story. Memoirs are not autobiographies (where the reader does not go through the process of suspension of disbelief), but they do get certain allowances. So, while it’s okay to change names to avoid repercussions after you’ve published your memoir, it’s not okay to twist events, or invent things that never happened, just for the sake of telling a better story in a memoir.
Readers appreciate candor, before everything else.
3. Creating a map
We mentioned that the second biggest problem was knowing which events of your life will fit into a theme. For this reason, before beginning to write your memoir, outline it by creating a map of events that brought you where you are today, fit your theme, and help you make your point.
This does not mean that you need to go back to childhood. You might be telling the story of how you became a writer, but is there really a need for you to go back to being four years old and listening to bedtime stories? Does the actual content of the story you were listening to matter? The answers to these questions would be yes – if that’s the moment when you first wanted to be a writer (doubtful, since you were four years old), and no – unless you’ve ended up retelling the same story, and your memoir focuses on how you went from hearing the story when you were four years old, and then rewriting it (retelling it), at the age of thirty.
However, this is why you’re creating a map of memories – because later on, you can choose which ones to discard. Ask yourself, for each memory, two things: how is this memory/event important to the theme, and, how much of it do you need to really relay to the audience? For example, let’s say that Christmas back in 1999 was an important event for you, but were the descriptions of everyone’s clothing and the menu for the Christmas dinner really that important?
4. Creating connections
Once you have your memory map, you will be able to create the connections between your memories. These connections are different than in fiction or an autobiography. In fiction, one is bound by the rules of cause and effect. An autobiography is bound by all events in one’s life, regardless of their connection. Real life is chaotic, fiction is structured, and memoirs fall somewhere in between.
With the theme in mind, seek out the connections between the memories you’ve chosen to include in your memoir. With the connections, you’ll be able to write your memoir in a more cohesive manner, by connecting events even when it seems that they are not bound by cause and effect. And if some of these memories are years, or even decades, apart, the only way to do this is through self-reflection.
The one thing that most memoirs have in common is the change; usually from negative to positive, the writer recounts how they overcame adversary, personal demons, and whatever else life threw in his or her path, and became the person who they are today.
Self-reflection is important in order to create the connections between the memories, but it can be a difficult thing to do for your memoir. If your story follows the same journey, you might need to admit moments when you made mistakes, or did not think everything as well as you could have – or maybe you made mistakes because you were overthinking everything. However, while self-reflection can be difficult, it can be done, and reflecting on past mistakes is often easier when you remember that, after all, it’s all in the past and cannot hurt you anymore.
6. Important memories and events
Ask any writer about the most important events in their book, and they will be able to list at least three: the problem, the first (wrong) solution, and the second (correct) solution to the problem – or the resolution.
Treat your memoir in the same way, and determine which memories and events will get more attention from you as the writer (and as a result, by the readers as well), and which ones will not. If a memoir contains the highlights of your life (highlights in terms of importance), then you need to decide which of these highlights will be the highlights of your memoir. If you spent most of your life struggling with poverty, then the menu of that Christmas dinner in 1999 is important – because it would help show your situation better to the readers.
But, if you’re writing a memoir about how you struggled with understanding romantic relationships your whole life, then perhaps the fight your Mom and Dad had during that 1999 Christmas dinner is a lot more important than the food itself, because it was that fight (and maybe their possibly destructive relationship) that created the problem inside of you that you had to overcome in order to find love and be happy.
7. Lessons learned
The lessons you’ve learned along the way, through all of those things that you did and happened to you, are the meat of your memoir – the reason why the readers will pick it up to read it. In a memoir, you reflect on your memories, and you recount how you changed – not only your circumstances, but yourself as well.
Because most people would not want to read a memoir about a successful person, or a person who has found happiness, but faced no hardships in life and made no mistakes. No one is perfect, and we all make mistakes and learn our lessons along the way. If you leave the lessons (and your mistakes) out of your memoir, then you need to go back to your theme, your point, and ask yourself whether you’re writing a memoir or a novel (and even in a novel, the protagonist makes mistakes and learns things along the way).
Part Two: Writing the Memoir
You’ve done all the planning you could have – from creating a memory map to outlining events and memories, and now the task ahead of you is to actually write the memoir. Now, here is the where you might hit the snag, especially if you’re not a writer (or, perhaps, never thought of yourself as a writer).
First, you might start viewing writing your memoir as a certain form of therapy, and second, you might not have the determination to write every day, especially if you find the grind jarring and difficult.
Writing is therapeutic in nature, especially when you’re writing about your own life. Often, you discover that your perception of past events has changed drastically, and then you might want to reflect on that…and before you know it, you’ve written about ten thousand words of which you can only use (or keep), a thousand or two. Here is where the memory map helps, as well as the theme. If you’re writing about growing up in an abusive home, for example, maybe that lonely train ride through the snow is not really that important and can be glossed over, leaving you time and energy to focus on memories that have an impact and are relevant to the theme.
As for the grind, the only advice we can give you is to keep writing every day until the book is done. You might be advised to get a ghostwriter, for example, do write it for you. However, a memoir is the place where you remember your own life – and since no one else has lived your life, no one else will be able to recount it successfully, even if they’re a skilled writer.
So, let’s take a look at the act of writing a memoir, and what kind of things you need to be aware of during the process, and how they can help you create a very good first draft of your memoir.
1. Language and tone
Before you start writing, ask yourself: who will read this? Will it be read by close family members and friends, or are you writing for a larger audience? The preferable answer, of course, is that your memoir (regardless of who you are), will be read by a wide audience. Now, some of your readers might have gone through similar things as you have, and some of them will not. Using the right tone and language is very important, because even if you’re over some things (and have overcome some major pressing issues), some of your readers will not, and they might be triggered if you use too much humor in your memoir about overcoming cancer (especially if they’re still fighting it).
In this case, memoirs need a certain harmony, and not balance, in tone. Here is another example. Let’s say that you’re writing about some of the most traumatic events of your life. A dash of humor in your writing will bring about some levity that will enhance the reading experience (and writing experience as well, for yourself as the writer). However, and this depends solely on the theme, topic, and events you’re describing, using too much humor and levity when talking about traumatic experiences might turn off some readers (again, especially if they have gone through a similar experience as well). Balance implies that you use levity and gravity equally, which might not have the desired effect. As such, decide on the tone you will use, and sprinkle in humor and other elements to add a much needed relief (especially if you’re writing about a serious topic) and color in your writing style.
2. Personality in writing
If you were writing fiction, we’d advise you to keep your own personality away from your writing, lest you suffer from a certain syndrome called “writer’s insertion in a novel."
However, memoirs are all about writer’s insertion. In fact, you want your readers to get a very good glimpse of your personality in your writing. Every person has a distinctive voice, and a memoir is where you want that voice to come through clearly and loudly. While it’s a good idea to think of your readers, and to make sure that you’re clear in your writing, do not forget to keep your own voice and use it when writing your memoir.
3. Showing vs. telling
It’s one thing to write:
“My mother was a raging alcoholic."
And it’s a completely another thing to write:
“When Mom had a few drinks, the house trembled, pieces of broken china littered the floor…"
The first example is telling, and the second one is showing, and when it comes to writing, the second one is preferable. It’s easy to just tell something, it’s a completely different thing to show it in writing. You’re taking the readers on a journey, and you want them to experience your memories along with you. If you just tell what happened, you will not get an emotional reaction, because you do not enable the readers to experience how something happened, how it felt, and what was its effect on you, your body, and your mind. In other words, showing is painting an image with words, and it’s not an easy feat.
4. Painting with words
How to use your words to create a better picture in the readers’ minds?
The simplest answer is: by using the senses. And here, you have an advantage, because you already lived through. Now, you have to remember sensory details. For example, yes, you felt bad when someone broke up with you, however, ask yourself, what did you feel at that moment? Was there a rushing in your ears? Did you feel your mouth tremble? Or, perhaps a shiver ran through you, even though you wore warm clothing, and a block of ice fell into your stomach and settled there.
Sight, sound, skin (touch), taste, scent. Begin with them and move on to feeling motion, heat, vibrations, and wind, for example.
Now, this does not mean that you need to use all of the senses all at once, whenever you describe something. It would be quite difficult to read, not only what a house looks like, for example, but also how it smelled, how its walls felt, and how the wood felt to the touch, all at once. Instead, use the senses to slowly build an image of the house, maybe even over several different anecdotes or chapters (for example, if this was a house you visited often, or perhaps it was your home). Use contrast to immerse the readers even more, especially when visiting repeating places over the years – how did your perception of the place change?
For example, maybe you visited a place as a child and remembered it fondly, but when you visited it as an adult, you realized that the paint was peeling off of the walls, the wooden floors had begun to rot, and a certain smell that could only be mold permeated your nose. Maybe at that moment your perception changed, and maybe with that, you came to realize something new about your own self.
Showing instead of telling is an art in and of itself, and as such, it needs practice. However, make sure not to clutter the reader with too much showing too. Sometimes, telling can work too, just as long as it’s sprinkled sporadically throughout your memoir.
5. Opinions and preaching
We previously talked about your personality shining through in your writing. Your writing style should be a reflection of yourself – a mix between you as the writer and you as the person who experienced all of the events and anecdotes you’re describing.
Whenever we go through something difficult – or achieve something good, or have managed to solve a problem successfully, we tend to believe that anyone could do the same if they only followed in your footsteps. For that reason, you may be tempted to switch to the present on occasion and advise the readers on something that they should do or consider.
However, your readers will probably (or make that definitely) not appreciate this. Remember, a memoir invites the reader to go on a journey together with you – not on a spiritual retreat where you’re the life coach or guru and now you will solve all of their problems.
As such, use your own story to enable the readers to understand all of these things on their own. Readers are smart, and they don’t need to have lessons or morals or opinions shoved down their throats. Remember, showing is better than telling, and preaching is nothing but telling.
6. Storytelling vs. truth
On the other hand, you may get tempted to embellish your stories and anecdotes and memories in certain ways to make them more interesting, or to connect them better and, basically, tell a more interesting story. Now, how far can you go with this embellishment?
The truth is: very little. We already spoke about how it’s better to avoid using real names and places, especially if you’re about to speak some hard truths about said people and places.
However, it’s not okay for you to invent things that never happened in order to tell a better story, especially if you’re talking about serious themes, like battling cancer, overcoming abuse, or surviving rape.
The truth always has a way of coming out. Especially today, when we literally have a lot of information at our fingertips. Perhaps that is the reason why in the past two decades, several memoirs published by renowned publishing houses like Penguin and Random House were actually proven to be fake.
In addition, the readers expect honesty in your memoir, and candor. Embellishments often have a way of standing out in memoirs as being too exciting. The readers, remember, have zero suspension of disbelief (even if your memoirs are about how you come from a family of real witches), and it will be easy for them to spot the fake memories. And these days, it only takes for one reviewer to leave a comment on Amazon or Goodreads, and your memoir will never recover after that, nor will you as the author.
7. Chronology: yes or no?
Fiction is not bound by chronology. You can write a novel in a linear fashion, or you can go for a nonlinear option, wherein you begin with the ending, then go back to the beginning, or back and forth between different events and maybe even timelines. Autobiographies are bound by chronology, starting with childhood, then teenage years, and adulthood. Memoirs are similar to fiction novels in this aspect. You do not have to begin with your childhood and end with the moment of writing. If you prefer it, you can start with the moment of writing, then begin with an anecdote from a couple of years ago, then go the oldest anecdote, and so on. As to which option is better – linear or non-linear, the answer lies in you.
You’re the one who lived your story, and you are the one who needs to tell it. A memoir is a sliver of your life, and you do not have to remember each anecdote from that sliver in a linear fashion.
Part Three: Editing the Memoir
First drafts are rarely the best versions they can be, unless you’re writing and editing at the same time. Even in that case, you need to go through your draft multiple times and focus on editing for grammar, typos, misspellings, repetitive words and phrases.
In addition, you need to take a good look at the structure of your memoir, for starters, before focusing on each memory, each anecdote, and decide in which ways you can improve them. Since the memories will be fresh in your mind, you might consider taking a week (or more) off; forget about it for a while, so that you can look at it with fresh eyes.
1. Editing the first draft
Once you’re ready, read through your first draft and take a critical look at the structure of your memoir. Ask yourself the following things:
Does the juxtaposition of anecdotes in your novel help you carry your message across and tell a well-rounded story? If you are writing in linear fashion, is there a clear arc that shows that the person who wrote the memoir is very different from the person that started the journey? If you’re writing in non-linear fashion, ask yourself, are you “giving away" the most impactful memories too soon in the memoir? What’s the impact of the first and the last chapter?
Moreover, take a look at your anecdotes (or memories). We’ve already mention the fact that memoirs borrow a lot of elements from novels, and if there is one thing that novels have, it’s scenes driven by drama and conflict, followed by reflection scenes where the protagonist makes a decision for the next course of action. Since you’re not bound by cause and effect, you can still use direct cause and effect to help drive the conflict in your anecdotes, along with dialogue.
2. Focus on the readers
Once you’re past that first editing for structure and story, you can proceed to edit your memoir with a focus on the readers. In other words, try to determine if all of your anecdotes are easy to understand by the readers. For example, you may mention people in some anecdotes that you had never mentioned before, and the readers will be confused about who that person is. In this case, you may wish to go back and introduce this person earlier in your memoir, especially if that meeting was important to the overarching theme.
On the other hand, even in novels, there are characters that are just there to fill out a scene and to serve a certain one-shot purpose. They appear in one scene, or maybe a few consecutive scenes at most, and disappear afterwards. If this character belongs to this group, then maybe there is no need for introduction, and moreover, ask yourself if that person is really important to the anecdote or not.
Take a critical look on people, names, places: will the reader understand, in each anecdote, where you were at, how you got there and why, and what were you trying to achieve in that anecdote/memory? To borrow from novels again, the protagonist has a direct goal in each scene and their attempt to achieve said goal is what drives the conflict and, through that, the scene itself.
And finally, take an objective look at your message: is it clear enough to understand? Will the reader be able to go on your journey together with you and learn everything you have?
3. Overarching message
Whenever you feel that your message is not coming across right, ask yourself why and what’s missing from it. It may be a lack of describing your emotions, or not stressing your momentary goal in an anecdote enough, or maybe not elaborating not only on what you learned – but how you changed your life using the lessons you learned along the way.
Beware of preaching: remember, your goal is not to push your message on the readers, but to show it to them, because it’s your own truth. So, avoid and minimize uses of “and if you could just do this or that" followed by many positive life changes. And on the other side of the coin, analyze your scenes and try to determine if you are already trying to preach. Use the example above as a sign of moments where you might have (unconsciously) preached in your writing, and reword such passages to ensure that your message is coming across to the readers, but it’s not being drawn into the spotlight constantly.
4. It’s not just about you
Which may come as a surprise, since we’ve mentioned several times that memoirs are about how you remember your own life. However, at the end of the day, you are writing a memoir that will be read by other people. And here, you need to remember that you’re not alone. There are billions of people in the world, and you can bet that at least a fifth of them will be able to identify with you and your story – if not directly, then indirectly.
So, ask yourself, what are you offering in your memoir? Is it wisdom? Entertainment? Escapism? A rollercoaster ride of jumping memories, or a calm transition from one to the other? Moreover, would other people who have gone through the same thing as you be helped by your memoir?
Focus, not only on what your message is, but also on how it’s delivered. Think about the readers and determine if they can benefit from your journey. Look at each anecdote, and decide if you have managed to place the readers fully in your spot: from how you felt at the time, to how you feel at the moment of writing it.
5. Being PC and inoffensive
It’s important to not lie in your memoir, but it’s also important to be PC and inoffensive in your memoir. Remember, your goal with the memoir is to share your experiences and the things you have learned. And while we all have memories where either ourselves (since no one is perfect) or someone else has acted in a way that could possibly offend some people, this does not mean that they belong in your memoir, especially if your memoir does not focus on dealing specifically with issues of the same nature.
For that reason, make sure that you avoid stereotyping, especially in your portrayal of strangers (who may appear for a moment in your memoir), and in your attempts to enhance and embellish your anecdotes with more color. It’s very easy to pass judgements about everything, judgements that might alienate some readers (maybe even whole groups of them), and mark you as an author who is also a hater of one group or another. Like we previously said, all it takes is one comment on a big platform for you to lose many potential readers, even if your memoir tells your story of battling and surviving cancer.
6. Beta readers and feedback
Finally, once your memoir is the best version of itself, it’s time to get another pair of eyes on it. Beta readers are people who will read your manuscript and give you their honest feedback. With the help of their feedback, you can determine if your memoir is clear to understand, if it’s enjoyable, if it needs clarification about some things or others. In addition, you can determine, with their help, if your theme and your message are coming across correctly and positively.
Since all memoirs depict a journey from the lowest point of one’s life to a better place, make sure that your beta readers focus on the impact of the scenes and anecdotes that depict that low place, and if they are dramatic enough and if they come in the right place in the memoir.
Who can be your beta reader?
Well, it doesn’t hurt to ask family and friends. However, remember, they might be tempted to be kind in their feedback, rather than brutally honest, which is what you actually need. You need someone with a keen eye, not only for typos, misspellings and grammar errors, but also someone who can keep track of the structure of your memoir and let you know if you need to work on it some more. Family members and friends prefer to give us good news, and you might not be able to use their feedback constructively.
However, there are platforms where you can find beta readers – a simple Google search can lead you to many platforms where you can find dedicated beta readers. Some of them might be free, and some might ask for a fee. How you proceed is up to you, however, remember that you need feedback that’s constructive, rather than affirmative.
Writing a memoir means sharing a small piece of your life with a wide audience, a sliver wherein you learned something and want to share those lessons with the world.
However, the sole act of writing the memoir can serve as another journey, where you can affirm to yourself that today, you’re in a better place than you were back then, and help you gain an even more positive perspective of where you are today.
On the other hand, we often feel we are ready to face something, for example, if that something is more than ten years into the past, only to discover that we are not. As such, your memories and anecdotes might turn into rants that, while might be therapeutic for you, would be an absolute nightmare for the readers. In that case, you need to remember that the reason why you’re writing the memoir is because you’re in a better place now, and that it can’t hurt you now.
If you feel that it can, you might strain from immersing yourself fully into your memories; you might find yourself omitting details and events that are important to your theme but are too painful to talk about. You should consider making a break in writing the memoir until you’re over them, because your memoir might feel incomplete without them. In addition, that might be a sign that there are still things for you to learn, and maybe waiting for a while will help you write a better memoir.
Once you’re ready to write your memoir, be prepared for the act of writing – and keep in mind that doing it every day makes it easier and helps you become a better writer. It’s important to be determined and to keep going, all the way through the process until you have your first draft. After the first draft is done, the rest of the process is easier, and you can get help from professional editors and beta readers during this process.
Finally, remember to enjoy the process of relaying past events of your life to the readers, even if those memories are not the most positive ones. You’re writing a memoir for the readers, but you’re writing because you’ve gone from difficult circumstances and dark periods to a place where you’re comfortable, happy, and fulfilled, and that kind of a story always needs to be told – to remind us that it can happen to anyone, and not just in fiction. Best of luck!
Georgina Roy wants to live in a world filled with magic. As a screenwriting student, she is content to fill notebooks and sketchbooks with magical creatures and amazing new worlds. When she is not at school, watching a film or scribbling away in a notebook, you can usually find her curled up, reading a good urban fantasy novel, or writing on her own.