Start by engaging the readers
Writers have wrestled with the “starting a memoir” question since quill pen was first put to papyrus. And there’s no single right way to begin a memoir.
The primary goal is to make the readers want more, and it can be done in many ways, whether shocking or understated, humorous or dramatic, literary or plainspoken.
In short, grab their attention any way you can!
There is no best way to start a memoir, but you can always consider beginning by making the readers:
- roll their eyes
- say “yuck!”
- wish they were there
- be very glad they are not there
- get angry with someone or something
Let’s look at examples of the first six of these “how to start a memoir” techniques: wonder, smile, remember, worry, roll their eyes, and sympathize. (We’ll cover the others in articles to come.)
1. Make them wonder
Humans are by nature curious, so if you start a memoir with a puzzling statement, there’s a good chance people will keep reading—they’ll want to unravel the mystery. Here are some good memoir openings that make the readers wonder:
- “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.” – The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls. We wonder why Mom was dumpster diving, and how Jeanette will react.
- “You have to go to the ends of the Earth in order to leave the Earth.” – Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, by astronaut Scott Kelly. We wonder why he’s going to the ends of the earth, rather than strapping himself into a rocket ship and blasting off.
- “Missouri is a state of stolen names, bestowed to bring the world a little closer: Versailles, Rome, Cairo, New London, Athens, Carthage, Alexandria, Lebanon, Cuba, Japan, Sante Fe, Cleveland, Canton, California, Caledonian, New Caledonia, Mexico, Louisiana. Paris, our home.” – Bettyville: A Memoir, by George Hodgman. We wonder what all this has to do with the author, and how this list of amusing city names will play into his life.
- “Susannah was murdered just before Christmas but I didn’t find out until after New Year’s.” – I’m the One Who Got Away, by Andrea Jarrell. We wonder who Susannah is, why Andrea didn’t know she was murdered, and what is going on.
- “A wanderer, uprooted and displaced. A nomad in both body and mind. This was what I had become since leaving China for the West. It had been fifteen years of transit, change, forgetting and adapting.” – Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China, by Xiaolu Guo. We wonder what it’s like to be a person without a place.
2. Make them smile
Working humor into the opening lines is a challenge, for you have little opportunity to set up the joke. But it’s well worth the effort – if humor is appropriate to your memoir.
Readers who smile at the opening lines will keep turning the pages, looking for more and more humor. Here are some memoir openings that make the readers smile:
- “When I was nine, I wrote a vow of celibacy on a piece of paper and ate it.” – Not That Kind of Girl, by Lena Dunham.
- “I was born in the house I built myself with my own two hands. I’m sorry. That’s not true. I got that from my official Senate website. We should really change that.” – Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken.
- “Over the last year or so since I decided to write this book, people have been asking me how I have the time and why I chose to write it. The truth is, last June I was driving through a tunnel while on the phone with my agent and my cell service was spotty. I said, ‘I just got a great IKEA table for my breakfast nook.’ My agent thought I said, ‘I’ve got a great idea for my newest book.’” – Seriously…I’m Kidding, by Ellen Degenres.
3. Make them relate
We love to see ourselves in the characters we read about; it makes us feel closer to them. That’s why starting off a memoir by describing something that many of your readers may have said, seen, or done themselves—something from their own lives—can be powerful.
Here are some examples:
- “I have a box where I keep all of the holiday and birthday and just-because cards that my friends and family send me. They are memoirs, tokens of love and thoughtfulness, and there is a part of me that can’t bear to throw them out.” – Coming Clean: A Memoir, by Kimberly Rae Miller.
- “One year ago, I was riding the train from the Portland suburbs toward downtown on a sunny fall afternoon when a pair of sparking brown eyes peeked around the corner of my book, and then quickly disappeared. A minute later, the eyes appeared for a second, and then disappeared again, and I realized the little girl sitting across the aisle was playing peekaboo with me.” – The Invisible Girls: A Memoir, by Sarah Thebarge.
- “The only bread that I knew as a child was store bought, machine made, sliced, plastic wrapped, and white. My mother insisted that my two bothers and I eat a slice of the airy bread smeared with Blue Bonnet margarine as part of our supper. ‘Eat your bread and butter and then you can go play,’ she’d say, as if it were a green vegetable. ‘Crust, too. It’s good for your teeth.’” – Bread: A Memoir of Hunger, by Lisa Knopp.
4. Make them worry
Readers love humor and to see themselves in the book’s characters. They also love, just as much, to be worried and frightened and horrified.
Notice how the three memoir openings below capture attention by making the reader worry that something bad is going to follow:
- “I am standing in my hallway. It’s early morning, maybe five o’clock. I’m wearing a sheer white lace nightgown. High-beam, fluorescent light blinds me. ‘PUT YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR,’ a man’s voice yells—he sounds aggressive but emotionless…I raise my trembling hands and my eyes slowly adjust to the light.” – Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World, by Molly Bloom.
- “About two years ago I bought a euthanasia drug online from China. You can get it that way, or you can travel to Mexico or Peru and buy it over the counter from a vet. Apparently you just say you need to put down a sick horse and they’ll sell you as much as you want. Then you either drink it in your Lima hotel room, and let your family deal with the details of shipping your remains home, or you smuggle it back in your luggage for later use.” – Dying: A Memoir, by Cory Taylor.
- “Alpha Company was point that day—a hundred gaunt exhausted men, trudging through the jungle with their sixty-pound loads. The rest of the battalion, roughly four hundred strong, was strung out behind us in one long, ragged column. We have five hundred meters to go before we reach our destination—a landing zone called Albany—where we could rest.” – Baptism: A Vietnam Memoir, by Larry Gwin.
5. Make them roll their eyes
People love to feel superior to others—to be voyeurs observing from a safe distance as people get themselves into trouble. Here are two examples:
- “International baggage claim in the Brussels airport was large and airy, with multiple carousels circling endlessly. I scurried from one to another, desperately trying to find my black suitcase. Because it was stuffed with drug money, I was more concerned than one might normally be about lost luggage.” – Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison, by Piper Kerman.
- “Joey Coyle was crashing. He had been high all night, and coming down from the meth always made him feel desperate and confused. When he was cranked up the drug gave him gusts of energy so great that his lungs and brain fought to keep pace. That was how he felt at night. When he slept it was usually during the day.” – Finders Keepers: The Story of a Man Who Found $1 Million, by Mark Bowden.
Odd as it sounds, we get a thrill out of watching people as they circle the drain and then go down.
6. Make them sympathize
As much as we enjoy feeling superior to others, we also like to sympathize with them. Notice how the openings below invite you to commiserate with the authors, for you know their situation is dire and not of their own making:
- “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.” – Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey From Homelessness to Harvard, by Liz Murray.
- “In Paris on a chilly evening late in October of 1985 I first became fully aware that the struggle with the disorder in my mind—a struggle which had engaged me for months—might have a fatal outcome.” – Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron.
- “I don’t know if I was born an alcoholic, but I was definitely born anxious. The alcoholism came to me later in life, after years of drinking to ease stress and worry, and to fend off panic.” – Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction, by Elizabeth Vargas.
It’s all about engagement
No matter how you begin a memoir, if you can engage your readers from the start, you’re more than halfway home.
Remember: Make the readers want more!
Develop an engaging opening—making sure it matches your theme—and you’ve solved the problem of beginning a memoir. For more on theme, see “How to Write a Memoir: Getting Started.”
Ways to open a memoir, by type of memoir
There are different types of memoirs, including celebrity memoirs, political memoirs, and sports memoirs. Click on the links below for more examples of how to start the specific kind of memoir you’re planning to write:
And check out our article on 8 Great Ways To Start Off a Memoir.
Still not sure how to begin a memoir?
Don’t worry too much about it, and certainly don’t let it prevent you from writing. It’s perfectly legit, and sometimes a very good idea, to begin writing your memoir in the middle, the end, or in segments that you’ll figure out how to assemble later.
It you can start writing your memoir at the beginning, great!
If you can’t, equally great!
The point is to write, and keep writing. Often times, as you get further and further in your writing, your memoir’s theme emerges, then strengthens, and the perfect opening becomes obvious.
Need help with your memoir?
If so, give us a call at (818) 917-5362, or fill out the contact form on this page. We’re Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, bestselling, professional ghostwriters of memoirs, autobiographies, and more.