how to write a memoir

Are you struggling with how to write a memoir? Here are 10 things you need to know.

how to write a memoir

You certainly know the story because it’s yours, but it can be difficult to decide what parts of your life to include, how to structure it all, get it published, and more.

To help you get started, we’ve prepared this page with thirteen of the questions people most commonly ask us about memoirs and the memoir ghostwriter, along with our answers.

If you’re still in the exploratory stage, you may enjoy reading this Q&A about memoirs and the memoir ghostwriter.

If you’re ready to get started on your memoir and would like ghostwriting assistance, call us at 818 917-5362.

1. How do I write a memoir?

This question vexes many people, for there is no single approach—no preferred structure, tone, or predetermined starting place for your story.

So, 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 “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.

Once you’ve identified your theme, you can then select your “slice,” which is the portion of your life story that best illustrates the theme. The most powerful memoirs focus on a “slice” of the author’s life, revealing what the author was thinking as well as what he or she was doing.

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.

For a discussion of writing voice, see “How to Find Your Memoir Writer’s Voice.”  

2. What are some memoir themes?

Potential ideas are tucked into every nook and cranny of your life. But don’t just think about the funny, dramatic, or exotic things that have happened to you; think in terms of theme. Zero in on an idea, a question, a situation, or a challenge that can serve as a through-line for your story.

Some common themes are:

  • Accepting change – We’re all faced with change as we go through life. Sometimes change makes us stronger—sometimes weaker. If you’ve lost a loved one, for example, you’ve had to accept the changes created by the void. Show your readers how these changes affected and altered you, for better or for worse. Then take your readers with you on your journey to acceptance.
  • Belonging – Many people have struggled to find a place in society, in their families, at work or school, or in other important areas of life. If you have immigrated to another country, been bullied at school, or otherwise felt like an outsider looking in, you might choose the importance of belonging as your theme.
  • Overcoming adversity – This country was built on the idea that it is possible for anyone to succeed—a concept that remains popular today. If you have worked your way up from poverty, survived abuse, lived with a terrible illness, built a company from the ground up in spite of naysayers, or otherwise overcome adversity, tell your story in such a way that readers can understand the mindset that propelled you to success.

There are many more potential themes, including coming of age, rags to riches, it’s a wonderful life, 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.

Are you not sure if your life has the makings of a great memoir? Nadine offers you 22 reasons why it probably does in this video:

3. How do I turn my stories into a memoir theme?

The process of writing a memoir should begin with a review of 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. Possible themes include overcoming a major difficulty, finding love, surviving a loss, and being changed by a relationship.

Don’t push to make themes appear; just keep sifting through your stories. Several themes will emerge naturally. And as they do, you will probably answer the “Am I writing a memoir or an autobiography?” question.

Select your theme

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

Once you have selected your primary theme, go back through your stories and make two piles: those that work with your 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 is to create a powerful memoir, and that requires a seamless blend of theme and stories.

Now you can start writing

When writing a memoir, taking the time in advance to settle on a theme, then matching theme and stories, will make everything that follows much easier, and the results much more satisfying.

4. Does a memoir have characters, like a novel?

Absolutely! You are a character in your life 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.

In your mind, you can see them, hear them, and maybe even smell them. 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

Once you’ve gotten past the basic stuff, begin to delve into the personal by asking questions you might hesitate to ask in real life, 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 about your life?
  • 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?

The more you learn about your characters, the more real you or your professional ghostwriter can make them seem in the pages of your memoir.

Know thy memoir characters!

Keep asking questions and writing down answers until you can write a description of each character that is so complete, you’ll know what that person would do in virtually any situation. Only then should you begin writing and developing your characters in the memoir.

5. How do I begin my memoir? Which words go first?

There are numerous powerful ways to begin a memoir. They include:

  1. Recounting a distressing scene from the beginning of your life
  2. Casually describing a situation fraught with danger
  3. Describing the genesis of a horrible event that shattered your life
  4. Pinpointing the exact moment you realized that something was terribly wrong
  5. Describing what it was like before entering a potentially fatal arena
  6. Taking us to your lowest point
  7. Stating your philosophy
  8. Describing a dilemma that simultaneously describes your life

Your challenge is to figure out which memoir opening works best for your story. For samples of the openings described above, see “8 Great Ways to Start Off a Memoir.”

If you’d like to view a video presentation of “How to Begin Your Memoir,” click the start arrow below. If not, scroll down and keep reading.

6. Is a memoir the absolute truth?

A memoir is a piece of “remembered history” that presents a slice of your life, showing how a certain situation, time, place, or person 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.

7. Should I be writing a memoir or something else?

In other words, is it memoir or autobiography? The two are similar, but they aren’t the same thing.

An autobiography covers your entire life, 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 life.

A memoir, on the other hand, shines a light on your reactions to a certain portion of your life, highlighting the emotions that arose and the changes that resulted.

Your memoir ghostwriter can help you determine whether memoir or autobiography is the best approach for your life story. For more, see “Autobiography or Memoir?”

8. Should I follow all the writing rules I learned in school?

Despite what your junior high English teacher taught you, there are several “writing rules” you can safely ignore when writing a memoir. Let’s look at three of them.

Writing rule #1 to ignore: always start at the very beginning

Many memoirists 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 pivotal points in your life, such as an important relationship or a couple of life-changing events.

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 story-line.

But in many memoirs, descriptions of the author’s birth and childhood are not terribly important, and may be completely irrelevant.

Writing rule #2 to ignore: always be grammatically perfect

One of the silliest “writing 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 memoir writers, 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 writing 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.

Writing rule #3 to ignore: always put your best foot forward

Of all the “writing 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 your life 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 writing my memoir?

After slaving away for months, you have finally finished the first draft of your memoir. You heave a big sigh of relief. At last, you practically shout, it’s done!

Well, not really. In fact, your work has only just begun. 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. Think of it this way: Now that you’ve finished the first draft of your memoir, you’re ready to begin the real writing. But before diving into this new phase, take a breather. Step back and let your mind clear.

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.

Stay excited

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, and keep improving the manuscript until you’re as thrilled as you were the day you began writing.

Get feedback

Once you think your memoir is as good as it will ever get, show it to a small number of people. Pick friends, family members, or colleagues whose judgment you trust. But when they offer critiques, don’t assume that everything they say is gospel.

You might also join a group of writers who offer feedback on each other’s work and share memoir writing tips. Carefully consider any comments you receive, but trust yourself to know the difference between those that are valid and those you can safely discard.

Consider some professional advice

Once you’re thoroughly satisfied with your umpteenth draft, consider hiring a professional 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.

For tips on getting the best out of your ghostwriter, read “Working With a Ghostwriter.”

Remember: “Revise” is a big word

Revising means changing many things—maybe in a big way—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!

10. Should I read other memoirs to see how it’s done?

Yes! There’s nothing like reading great books to stimulate your thinking. While there is no single list of the best works, you might try looking at these compilations:

If you’d like help writing your memoir…

Barry Fox, Nadine Taylor, ghostwriters, memoirs, business books, art books, history books, health books

Contact us! We’re Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, professional ghostwriters and authors with a long list of satisfied clients and editors at major publishing houses.

Check out our Testimonials Page to read their comments.  Then call us at 818-917-5362, or use our contact form to send an email. We’d love to talk to you about your exciting book project!  

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