Not sure how to start a memoir? Engage the readers
Writers have wrestled with the “how to start a memoir” question since quill pen was first put to papyrus. And there’s no single right way.
The primary goal is to make the readers want more. And that 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:
- 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 four of these “how to start a memoir” techniques: wonder, smile, remember, and worry. (We’ll cover the others, and more, 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 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, 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 is Susannah, 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 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 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 vegetables. ‘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. Its 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.” – from 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.” – from 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
It’s all about engagement
No matter how you start 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 “how to start a memoir” problem. For more on theme, see “How to Write a Memoir: Getting Started.”
Way to open a memoir, by type of memoir
There are different types of memoirs, include 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 start 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, or 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.
If you’d like help writing your memoir…
Contact Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, the memoir ghostwriters. Use the contact form on the website to send us a message, or call us at 818-917-5362.