A guide for the memoir writer—10 things you need to know.
Estimated reading time: 16 minutes
You know the story, because it’s yours. But it can be difficult to decide which anecdotes to include, how to structure it all, get it published, and more.
We’re bestselling authors and ghostwriters Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor. We’ll help you get started writing your memoir by answering eleven of the most common questions people ask us about how to write a memoir.
If you’d like to hire a ghostwriter to write your memoir for you, call us at 818 917-5362.
1. What is a memoir? Is it the same thing as an autobiography?
The two are not the same thing, although they have similarities.
An autobiography presents your entire story, from birth to the present day. It is designed to capture all of the important people, facts, events, and dates, making it a complete record of your years on Earth. It is a complete record of your life.
A memoir, on the other hand, shines a light on your reactions to selected people, places, times, or events. It highlights the emotions that arose and the change(s) that resulted. It offers us a glimpse into your mind during a particular portion of your life.
A memoir also overlaps with a life story, but the two are not necessarily the same thing. (See “Telling Your Life Story Via Its Meaning.”)
For more, see “Autobiography or Memoir?”
2. Are there different types of memoirs?
Yes. There are many, including:
- inspirational memoirs such as Michelle Obama’s Becoming.
- celebrity memoirs such as Jeff Tweedy’s Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back).
- nostalgia memoirs such as Jennifer Worth’s Call the Midwife.
- political memoirs such as Hillary Clinton’s What Happened.
- “growing up” memoirs such as Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.
- motherhood memoirs such as Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work.
- memoirs of sorrow and survival such as Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave.
There are also travel memoirs, sports memoirs, coming-of-age memoirs, family memoirs, and more. There’s even the autobiographical novel, which allows you to take literary liberties when telling your life story.
3. How do I write a memoir?
Beginning memoir writers are often frustrated by the fact that there is no single approach to writing a memoir. There is no preferred structure, tone, or predetermined starting place for your story.
There are, however, four important things to consider before putting pen to paper. They are your:
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?
What are you offering to your readers? What do you want them to think and feel as they read your book?
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.
Think about it for a couple of days or weeks, then look at what you wrote. Does it still ring true? If so, great! If not, go back to the drawing board and rethink your intention.
Ask yourself: What is 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.
Common themes include coming of age, coping with loss, discovering oneself, learning a vital lesson, and the importance of persevering.
There are many more potential themes, including rags to riches, courage and honor, family struggle, good versus evil, embracing or rejecting your cultural heritage, romance, becoming a parent, going broke, sports, war, and a profound religious or spiritual experience.
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 your purpose.
For more, see “Memoir Ideas Are Everywhere!”
Ask yourself: 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.
It could, for example, 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 segment 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.
Once you’ve identified your theme, select the segment. Find the sliver that best illustrates the theme.
Ask yourself: Which structure works best with your purpose, theme, and slice?
You’ve figured out your purpose, developed a theme, and selected the appropriate slice. Now, how do you begin telling your story?
You have many choices when considering how to start your memoir.
You can simply relate what happened from beginning to end. Or, you can start with the climax, then go back to the beginning and move forward. You might also 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 mix is the one that does the best job of bringing your story to life.
For a discussion of writer’s voice, see “How to Find Your Memoir Writer’s Voice.”
4. How do I develop a theme for my memoir?
Begin by reviewing your stories, those amusing, dramatic, heart-wrenching, or heart-warming tales you’ve been telling your friends or running through your mind for years.
Imagine laying your stories out on a table
Then, pick up each one and review it carefully. What did it mean to you when it occurred? What does it mean to you now? How did it help you or force you to become the person you are today?
Next, mentally sort the stories into different piles according to where they occurred, how they affected you, who else was involved, how old you were, and so on.
Continue to group and regroup your stories until themes begin to emerge.
Don’t push to make themes appear; just keep sifting through your stories. Several themes will emerge naturally.
Mentally sort through your potential themes. Don’t force the process; let the themes play through your thoughts as they will.
Soon enough, one of them will leap out at you. It will demand your attention; you’ll find yourself thinking about it over and over again.
This will become your primary theme, your memoir’s through-line, and the underlying idea that turns a collection of random stories into a powerful narrative.
Match your stories to your theme
Now go back through your stories and make two piles: those that work with the theme and/or naturally flow from it, and those that do not.
Be ruthless. Even if a story is a particular favorite of yours, if it doesn’t fit with the theme, it will stick out like a sore thumb and take the focus away from your overall message. Put it in the reject pile.
Yes, it can be painful to let a favorite story go. But remember that your goal as a memoir writer is to seamlessly blend theme and stories.
5. How do I begin my memoir? Which words go first?
There are numerous powerful ways to begin a memoir. They include:
- Recounting a distressing scene from your earliest days
- Casually describing a situation fraught with danger
- Describing the genesis of a horrible event that shattered your life
- Pinpointing the exact moment you realized that something was terribly wrong
- Describing what it was like before entering a potentially fatal arena
- Taking us to your lowest point
- Stating your philosophy
- Describing a dilemma that simultaneously describes your life
Your challenge is to figure out which memoir opening works best for your story. For examples of the openings described above, see “8 Great Ways to Start Off a Memoir.” And if you’re writing a business memoir or autobiography, see “How to Begin a Business Memoir.”
6. Does a memoir have characters, like a novel?
Absolutely! You are a character in your story, and there are likely many more—some major and some minor.
These people typically interact with you, they likely have dialogue, and they may have a bit of a story arc of their own.
But while you know your characters well, your readers don’t. They have no idea how these people look, sound, dress, or smell; how they think and behave; what drives or delights them; which jokes they laugh at, and what brings tears to their eyes.
It is your job to bring these characters to life. And the better you do so, the richer and more emotionally engaging your memoir will be.
Ask your characters who they are
Begin by imagining that you can ask each of your characters this simple question: “Who are you?” How would that person respond? Ask this question and more, and take note of the answers.
Then, make a list of words and phrases that describe each character. The longer the list, the better you will be able to develop your characters.
Start with the routine stuff
To help define each character, pretend you don’t know that person and start with basic questions, such as:
- What is your age, gender, race, ethnicity, and religion?
- Where are you from?
- How would you describe your family of origin?
- Where did you go to school?
- What do you do for a living?
- Where do you live?
- Are you married?
- What do you do for fun?
- What are your favorite foods, sports teams, colors, and songs?
- What books or magazines do you read? Which websites do you frequent?
- What do you dislike doing?
Now get personal
You’ve covered the basic stuff. Now it’s time to delve into the personal by asking questions you might hesitate to ask real people, such as:
- What do you love and hate about yourself, and why?
- What’s your darkest secret?
- What are you afraid of?
- What would make you murder a person?
- What would make you throw aside all your dreams to follow another person?
- What do you most regret?
- What makes you proud of yourself?
Then ask yourself some questions
Now, ask yourself questions about each character. Questions like:
- What does she look like and dress like?
- What is his voice like? What kind of accent does he have? Which words does he favor?
- What are the most likable and irritating things about her?
- What is really unusual about him?
- What is she thinking?
- Is he trustworthy?
- What is her greatest strength and greatest weakness?
Keep asking questions and jotting down answers until you can write a description of each character. A summary so complete, you’ll know what that person would do in virtually any situation.
The more you learn about your characters, the more real you can make them seem in the pages of your memoir.
7. Is a memoir the absolute truth?
Yes, and no.
A memoir is a piece of “remembered history” showing how a certain situation, time, place, person, or event changed you, for better or worse.
A memoir is called “remembered history” because it is understood that you are interpreting things as you saw and understood them, rather than attempting to write a complete, factual, and impartial historical account, as you would with an autobiography.
You can even push into the realm of fiction, as Barry explains in his article titled “Telling the Truth, But Not Quite! The Autobiographical Novel,” on the “Live, Write, Thrive” blog.
8. Should I follow all the rules I learned in school?
Despite what your junior high English teacher taught you, there are several “writing rules” you can safely ignore. After all, these rules were not written with the modern memoir writer in mind.
Let’s look at three of them.
Rule #1 to ignore: always start at the very beginning
Many memoir writers believe they must begin the story with their birth.
But remember, a memoir covers just a slice of your life—perhaps the years you spent working on an oil pipeline or flying a rescue helicopter. The slice may focus on a single pivotal point in your life, such as an important relationship, or on a couple of events that changed you.
That said, it’s certainly possible that the slice of life you present will include your birth.
For example, if you’re writing about growing up in the foster care system, events surrounding your birth and early childhood may be essential to your theme and storyline.
But in many memoirs, descriptions of the writer’s birth and childhood are not terribly important and may be completely irrelevant.
Rule #2 to ignore: always be grammatically perfect
One of the silliest rules is this one, which insists that everything you write must conform perfectly to the guidelines laid out in your junior high grammar textbook.
This notion can paralyze memoirists, and some may never get past the first sentence for fear of making an embarrassing mistake.
But we don’t speak to each other using perfect grammar, and don’t think that way. So sometimes, using partial sentences, slang, split infinitives, or saying “is that them?” instead of “is that they?” is absolutely appropriate for your memoir, and anything else will sound stilted and false.
This is not to say that proper grammar is unimportant. But don’t let the fear of getting it wrong stand in your way, especially when working through your first draft.
Pour your heart out as you tell your tale, and let the participles dangle and the infinitives split as they may. You can always go back later to work on the grammar or hire an editor to do it for you.
Rule #3 to ignore: always put your best foot forward
Of all the so-called rules, none contradict the spirit of the memoir more than this one.
That’s because, as a memoir writer, you must be honest—sometimes brutally so. Life isn’t always pretty, and if you try to convince your readers that yours always has been and always will be wonderful, they probably won’t believe you.
Remember, you’re not writing a memoir to win a popularity contest or convince your readers that you’re perfect.
Instead, you’re sharing your deepest thoughts and feelings so your readers will understand you, warts and all. Your struggles and obstacles are part of what shaped you; own them.
The more honestly you present your shortcomings and the challenges you have faced, the better.
9. What should I do when I’ve finished my memoir?
Many a memoir writer thinks she is done when the final page is written. If only!
Take a few moments to savor your triumph, then get back to work! It’s vital that you revise your manuscript, then do it again, and then revise it some more!
Each time you go over your manuscript, you’ll find more issues to wrestle with, more items to correct, and better ways to tell your story.
Set it aside
What you have right now is a first draft, which is really just the clay from which you’ll mold your masterpiece, shaping it into an enjoyable, inspiring memoir.
Put your first draft aside for six weeks or even two months, then come back to it with fresh eyes. You’ll be able to read what you’ve written much more objectively.
As you reread your draft, its problems will become so obvious they’ll practically leap off the page and hit you in the face. And, hopefully, the answers to those problems will be equally apparent.
Your memoir is all about you. So you, of all people, should be able to read and reread it a dozen times and still feel excited. If you’re bored, there’s a serious problem!
When you find sections that don’t hold your interest, rewrite or delete them. Tweak or even jettison characters that bore you. Keep improving the manuscript until you’re as thrilled as you were the day you began writing.
Consider some professional advice
Once you’re thoroughly satisfied with your umpteenth draft, consider hiring a memoir ghostwriter or editor to read and critique your memoir.
These experts can often provide memoir-writing tips you would never have thought of. You can then rework the manuscript yourself, following the ghostwriter’s or editor’s advice, or hire the ghost to do it for you.
Remember: “Revise” is a big word
Revising means changing many things, maybe in a big way, and not just moving a few commas around.
With each revision, pieces of your story may be moved from here to there or eliminated entirely. Dialogue may be significantly changed, with entire paragraphs cut, rewritten, or written from scratch. Entire thematic elements may be added or dropped, and so on.
As you go from draft to draft, if you’re not revising a lot, you’re probably not revising enough.
When you’ve finished the first draft of your memoir…
…you’re ready to attack it again.
There’s a good chance you’ll want to make major revisions and a good chance those revisions will lead to a better book. It’s worth the extra effort!
Being willing to put in the extra effort is often the only difference between a successful memoir writer and a dreamer.
10. Should I read famous memoirs to see how great writers write?
Yes! There’s nothing like reading works by great memoir writers to stimulate your thinking.
There is no single list of the best works. But you might try looking at these compilations:
- Oprah’s “The Best Memoirs of a Generation”
- The Washington Post’s “Best Memoirs of 2016”
- Barnes & Noble’s “50 Essential Memoirs”
- Daily Beast’s “The Best and Worst Presidential Memoirs”
- PBS NewsHour’s “The 4 Coming-of-Age Memoirs You Need to Read”
Advice from an agent
Literary agent Rachelle Gardner suggests that you also read books about the art of memoir writing. Her favorites include:
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
Still Writing by Dani Shapiro
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Inventing the Truth by William Zinsser
Living to Tell the Tale by Jane Taylor McDonnell
Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas
Writing for Story by Jon Franklin
Story by Robert McKee
Follow the Story by James Stewart
11. Where can I see examples of memoir openings?
For more memoir examples, specifically, how to start a memoir, see our articles on “How to Start a Celebrity Memoir,” “How to Start a Family Memoir,“ “How to Start a Political Memoir,” “How to Start a Sports Memoir,” and “How to Start a Military Memoir.”
If you’re still wondering how to write a memoir and need help…
We’re Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, professional ghostwriters and authors with a long list of satisfied clients and editors at major publishing houses.
You can learn about our memoir ghostwriting work and credentials on our memoir ghostwriter page.
Call us at 818-917-5362 or use the contact form below to send us a message. We’d love to talk to you about your exciting memoir!
You can see some of our memoir projects below.