Writing a Memoir: First Steps

The thought of writing a memoir is exciting!

But eager as you may be to rush to the keyboard, it pays to step back and do a little planning before you begin typing away. Think long and hard about four things:

  • your purpose
  • your theme
  • your “slice”
  • your structure

Getting a handle on these will help you create a rough “blueprint” for your memoir, and this guide will help you get on track and stay there throughout the creative process.

Ask yourself: What’s your purpose in writing your memoir?

Why, exactly, are you writing your memoir? What are you offering to your readers? What do you want them to think and feel as they read your book? Which lessons or impressions would you like them to walk away with? By the time your readers have finished your memoir, they should feel they have shared an intimate journey with you and have been changed because of it. The “takeaway” is what makes your book unforgettable.

So what is your purpose? Write it down in a sentence or two. Then think about it for a couple of days, or weeks, and look at it again. Does it still ring true? If so, great! If not, go back to the drawing board and rethink your intention.

And be sure to give careful though to whether you are writing your memoir or your autobiography.

What’s your theme?

The theme is a common thread that runs through your memoir. It’s the central idea, the motivating principle that turns a collection of stories into a compelling narrative. Some common themes include coming of age, coping with loss, discovering oneself, learning a vital lesson and the importance of persevering.

What is your common thread? What’s going to turn a random assortment of stories or a wandering tale into your own powerful narrative? Once you decide on your theme, ask yourself whether it blends well with and complements your purpose in writing the memoir.

For a look at developing ideas that can lead to your theme, see my “Memoir Ideas Are Everywhere!”

What’s your “slice?”

While an autobiography is a complete presentation of your life story, a memoir gives readers an in-depth look into a finite period of time – a slice of your life. It could be a defining event (the week you were stranded in the wilderness), a struggle (your battle with alcoholism), or a triumph (your journey from homelessness to Harvard). Think about which slice of your life best fits your purpose and your theme. Perhaps it was that summer at camp when you were fifteen, or the year immediately following your divorce, or the two-year period when you were madly in love with your college professor.

Which structure works best with your purpose, theme and slice?

Now that you’ve figured out your purpose, developed a theme and selected the slice of your life you’ll be presenting to your readers, how do you begin telling your story? You have several choices when considering how to start your memoir. You can simply relate what happened from beginning to end. You can start with the climax, then go back to the beginning and move forward. You can divide your story into different elements, then talk about each in turn.

The entire story may take place in the present, or it might jump around in time. The way you decide to tell your story is a very personal decision. But you should always favor the approach that works best with your purpose, theme and slice.

The answer is…

There is no single right answer and no best combination of purpose, theme, slice and structure for a memoir. The best combination is the one that does the best job of bringing your story to life.

Writing your memoir is a rewarding but challenging undertaking. If you are looking for a professional ghostwriter who can help you zero in on the best combination of purpose, theme, slice and structure for your story, contact Barry Fox. I can help you create a compelling memoir.

If you’d like help writing your memoir…

Contact Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, the memoir ghostwriters. Use the contact form on this page to send us a message, or call us at 818-917-5362.

To learn more about memoirs and memoir writing, see our “Memoir Ghostwriter” discussion. And for more on ghostwriters and ghostwriting in general, read our “What is a Professional Ghostwriter?” page.