A look at eight great ways to start a memoir.
There are many ways to start a memoir, ranging from the conventional to the startling, the conversational to the literary, and the deceptively mundane to the outspokenly confrontational.
You can begin a memoir by giving the reader a peek into what you are thinking now, what you thought then, or what you’re thinking now about what happened back then. You may decide to start off with a quick rundown of your family genealogy if it’s relevant, or just dive right into the moment of crisis that shattered your life.
Many memoirs start slowly, perhaps with a description of the room in which the author played as a child, watched her parents quarrel, or spent hours and hours with a beloved friend. The author may devote several paragraphs to setting the scene and describing the circumstances that would influence her life so greatly.
Other memoirs begin at a sprint as the author races to victory or watches his life careen off course.
Sometimes a memoir starts off introspectively, barely alluding to themes and facts that will later be crucial parts of the story, while other times it begins with the author shouting out to the readers, telling them in no uncertain terms what is important.
All of these ways to start a memoir are good; the only question is, which is best for your life story?
Let’s see how eight different authors have chosen to start off their memoirs.
1. Recounting a distressing scene from the beginning of your life
In her New York Times bestselling Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey From Homelessness to Harvard, Liz Murray needs only 44 words to sketch out the unfortunate circumstances of her first days:
“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. My sister, Lisa, then just over one year old, sat propped against Ma’s hip.”
Murray doesn’t have to start off her memoir with a description of an empty refrigerator or a leaky roof; she needn’t talk about her family’s income and expenses, or even tell us why Daddy is in prison. We instantly grasp the situation, sympathize with Murray, and are primed to wait for the specifics.
2. Casually describing a situation fraught with danger
Piper Kerman’s Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison begins casually, using the first two sentences to describe a familiar situation. Then she drops a bombshell in the third sentence:
“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.”
With tongue slightly in cheek, Kerman turns a common problem—retrieving luggage at the airport, into a set-up for her arrest and subsequent prison sentence. We instantly feel like she is one of us. We wonder how she got herself into this situation, and we want to read more.
3. Describing the genesis of a horrible event that shattered your life
Ishmael Beah was only 12 years old when war forced him to flee his home, and he soon found himself a child soldier, carrying a gun and committing acts he could never have contemplated. Here’s how he starts off his A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, a national bestseller:
“There were all kinds of stories about the war that made it sound as if it were happening in a faraway and different land. It wasn’t until refugees started passing through our town that we began to see that it was actually taking place in our country. Families who had walked hundreds of miles told how relatives had been killed and their houses burned. Some people felt sorry for them and offered them places to stay, but most of the refugees refused, because they said the war would eventually reach our town.”
We don’t need to read descriptions of bloody bodies or burned houses to get a sense that war is approaching. Nor do we yet need to know what country we are in or which war is raging. The sad march of refugees tells us what we need to know, just as it told Beah and his family what they needed to know.
4. Pinpointing the exact moment you realized that something was terribly wrong
In his Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, William Styron uses only 11 words to convey where he was and what it was like when he realized his life was about to change for the worse:
“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.”
Reading this, I instantly imagine a man shuffling down a dark Parisian street, holding his coat close, then suddenly stopping as the realization hits him. Perhaps you imagine something different. It doesn’t matter, as this brief description invites us to “see” it as we choose and in so doing, become a part of Styron’s horrible moment of realization.
5. Describing what it was like before entering a potentially fatal arena
In his Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, Chester Nez describes what he saw and felt as he prepared to throw himself into a hailstorm of bullets that might easily cut him down before he got a single step closer to the enemy:
“Nothing ever dried. My damp combat uniform chafed at the back of my neck. Water ran down my forehead and into my eyes. The railing of the transport ship dripped with rain, but in the tropical climate, its wet surface was warm to the touch. The ship rolled slightly in the South Pacific waters, a constant unsettling movement that, just weeks ago, would have made me queasy. But my stomach held steady.”
Nez masterfully brings us into the moment by focusing on the water and dampness, the rolling boat, and the fact that he is no longer getting seasick. We know he’s about to enter battle, but he holds it at arm’s length for now, as he invites us to squish our toes inside his damp boots and imagine we’re about to fling ourselves over the precipice.
6. Taking us to your lowest point
Terri Cheney starts off her memoir, the New York Times bestselling Manic, by casually revealing the power associated with contemplating suicide:
“I didn’t tell anyone that I was going to Santa Fe to kill myself. I figured that was more information than people needed, plus it might interfere with my travel plans if anyone found out the truth. People always mean well, but they don’t understand that when you’re seriously depressed, suicidal ideation can be the only thing that keeps you alive. Just knowing there’s an out—even if it’s bloody, even if it’s permanent—makes the pain almost bearable for one more day.”
Her words are as clinical as they are filled with pain.
7. Stating your philosophy
Rose McGowan starts off her memoir, BRAVE, by laying out her understanding of life, or, at least, an important part of life:
“Here’s the thing about cults: I see them everywhere.
If you’re deep into the Kardashians, you’re in a cult. If you watch your favorite TV show and go online and you’re in chat rooms with everybody else who’s obsessed with that show and you’re breaking it down episode by episode, you’re in a cult. If you’re bingeing, scrolling, absorbing from one news source more than any other, especially if it happens to be fair and balanced, you are in a cult. You’re living your life through other people. If you blindly vote for so-and-so, you’re in a cult. If you’re deep into your country’s propaganda machine, you’re in a cult. Look around you and see where the cults are, because they are everywhere. Anywhere there is group thought and group mentality: you’re in a cult, you’re in a cult, you’re in a cult.”
Pulling no punches, McGowan tells us exactly what she thinks about cults. And without explicitly saying so, she also reveals what she thinks of you, because you probably belong to one. Yes, McGowan risks alienating some readers, but I suspect that many more are delighted that she speaks up so boldly.
8. Describing a dilemma that simultaneously describes your life
In his New York Times bestselling Dry: A Memoir, Augusten Burroughs begins by laying out a common problem in his industry:
“Sometimes when you work in advertising, you’ll get a product that’s really garbage and you have to make it seem fantastic, something that is essential to the continued quality of life. Like once, I had to do an ad for hair conditioner. The strategy was: Adds softness you can feel, body you can see. But the thing is, this was a lousy product. It made your hair sticky and in focus groups, women hated it. Also, it reeked. It made your hair smell like a combination of bubble gum and Lysol. But somehow, I had to make people feel that it was the best hair conditioner ever created.”
As he breezes through his description of this “little problem,” we can be forgiven for feeling that Burroughs is resigned to fooling people—and maybe fooling himself, as well.
8 Great Ways to Start a Memoir: The List
Here are the ways to begin a memoir described above:
- Recounting a distressing scene from the beginning of your life
- 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
There are many other approaches, including beginning a memoir with:
- A recitation of facts about yourself, your family, career, schooling, or whatever else is important for the readers to know right off the bat
- A cliffhanger: a dramatic moment that doesn’t resolve until later in the book
- A crushing defeat that takes readers to your moment of greatest failure
- An anecdote illustrating how you did or did not fit in at an early age
- An explanation of why you’re now putting pen to paper
I’ll look at these and other ways to start a memoir in articles to come.
For tips on your writing voice, see “How To Find Your Memoir Writer’s Voice.”
How to best start a memoir?
I wish I had an easy answer to this question, but there isn’t one. Sometimes an ideal opening springs to mind instantly, while in other cases, you must work your way through several possible openings until you find the one that brings your story alive from its very first words.
What I can say with certainty is that it’s worth any effort you need to expend to create a great opening, as your first words will serve as the introduction to and foundation of your memoir.
Still not sure how to start a memoir?
Click on the links below to see how authors chose to begin their memoirs:
To learn more about memoirs and memoir writing, see our “How To Write a Memoir”
If you’d like help writing your memoir…
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