What Every Memoirist Needs to Know

Like many people, I have experienced several significant events that have had important meaning in my life, such as the loss of a job, emotional challenges, ends of a marriage, and death of loved ones.  And, for some strange reason, I’ve had an unquenchable desire to share my experiences, especially in regard to what I’ve learned from them. I thought about writing a memoir, but I didn’t know much about it.

I decided to read a few books on writing a memoir. In my research, I quickly discovered that there is no shortage of information or advice on “how to write a memoir.” In fact, on the very small Island where I live, there are many fantastic resources to teach you how to write a memoir (in the library).

Definition of a Memoir

What is a memoir? The word memoir (from the Frenchmémoire from the Latin memoria, meaning “memory”, or a reminiscence), is a literary genre, forming a subclass of autobiography – although the terms memoir and autobiography are almost interchangeable in modern parlance. Memoir is autobiographical writing, but not all autobiographical writing follows the criteria for memoir set out below. The author of a memoir may be referred to as a memoirist.

Memoirists that I work with as their writing coach often explore particularly meaningful insights in their life that were transformational, whereas autobiographies can be told in ways that are linear, information-heavy and systematic (not always as artful).

What should you include in a memoir? Anything and everything can be included in a memoir, but it should be relevant to your imagined reader. It is the writer’s decision to choose what to include. It can be about uncovering truths that make your life unique, memorable and fascinating. It is a chronicle—that need not be linear—about a time or period in your life. It is also about what you have learned from that time or experience.

A good thing to remember about writing about your life, your family members may never agree with your version of history.

You write a memoir using the first person point of view (“I”). You always include your feelings, thoughts, recollections, beliefs, values, and opinions. But, to be sure, you need not be an example for the rest of us. As a matter of fact, the more truthful (i.e., vulnerably honest), the more your readers will relate to your story.

Much of your memoir will also be based on emotional truth. In other words, you can write about how you feel about an experience. This does not mean that you fabricate the events. But it does mean that you can write about the truth of your feelings. Often each person—in your family of origin—has a different feeling about specific events in the family. For instance, in my family (of four + 2 half-siblings), we each experienced a different set of parents. The eldest grew up with a fairly happy couple of parents, the youngest grew up with two adults fighting over who was at fault in the breakup over “infidelity” and who gets what in the divorce. Make sense?

What Can You Write About?

Start by selecting an important event, experience, milestone, or turning point in your life. Some popular topics include death, divorce, life-changing events, illness, abuse, unexpected loss, and/or addiction. Next, plot your life’s important experiences and events. What events stand out? What experiences changed you? When did you say to yourself, “Because of this event, I’ll never be the same.” For me, such awareness occurred at pivotal moments:

* Parent’s separation

* Male babysitter’s violation

* Mother’s remarriage to an active alcoholic

* Feeling “sent away” for a year and consequently failing at school

* Negotiating anorexia

* Gaining faith/losing faith/gaining a different kind of spirituality

* Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage, Divorce (each relationship lasting no more than 356 days)

* Job search, jobs found, jobs lost

* Professional crises and reinvention in midlife

* Negotiating a happy life as a single woman, etc.

For each event or incident that you intend to write about, ask yourself: “What is the particular meaning of this event or that personal experience?” Set your 15-minute timer and write down all of your thoughts and feelings and impressions of the experience and as author Natalie Goldberg commands, “GO!”

Ask yourself these questions: What is the universal truth that I can share with others? What have I learned that can be helpful to others? What might others find fascinating about my experiences and turning points? What is the significance? What is the meaning? What is the lesson learned? What would other people find astounding? Tedious? Offensive? Shameful? Unbearably boring? How can I spin that into a good short story of an event?

Another way of determining what to write about is to answer the question: “What is my legacy? What do I want to leave behind for others to learn from my experience?” Be careful to keep it real. For instance, though my grandmother was a conservative republican, she was also advocate for Planned Parenthood (pro-choice) and believed every woman should have the option to not bear children. If I were to share my memoirs in a preachy way, I would miss portraying the complexity of my checkered heritage.

Why Write a Memoir?

Do you even want to leave a legacy? Do you have something important to share? There are many reasons to write a memoir. Each writer has different motives. Here are the most common reasons why a person writes a memoir:

To remember or unlock memories

To validate who they are or who they’ve become

To release emotional pain and suffering. (Catharsis, can be a form of therapy)

To share success or something unique or something transformational that you have learned.

To share what you have learned from adversity, struggle

To warn future generations (i.e., see my book: CRACKING UP: LESSONS FOR MY NIECES

You feel that you have something to tell others

To honor your life

To leave a legacy

To get published: memoirs are easier to publish than fiction.

Reading List

Before you begin writing your memoir, consider taking inspiration from these popular memoirists:

Called Back by Mary Cappello

Lit by Mary Karr

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Night by Elie Wiesel

Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson

The Last Lecture (www.lastlecture.com )

The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin

Resources to Help You Write

There are many good books that can teach you how to write a memoir. Here are the books that I consider to be the best:

Your life Story by Tristine Rainer

How to Write a Memoir by William Zinsser

Writing a Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington

Inventing Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir by William Zinsser

Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature by Bill Roorbach

Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola

Modern American Memoirs by Annie Dillard

Old Friends Far and Wide: The Practice of Writing a Memoir by Natalie Goldberg

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Elements of Style by Strunk and White

Be sure to schedule a 15-minute complimentary book coaching session via email: AuthorizeU@gmail.com.  If we begin working together, my eBook—Writing From Life: A Wise Guide to Publishing Your Memoirs—will be yours as part of the coaching package.


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