Writers tell stories. Stories about the world, stories about love and war. Sometimes, if the writer is bold and courageous, he’ll try to tell you his own story. A memoir. But for many writers, the question is, “How to write a memoir?”
“In order to write about life, first you must live it.” — Ernest Hemingway
Have you ever tried to write a journal?
It’s quite simple actually. You jot down your thoughts about the events of the day, how you felt or what other people said or did. I urge you to try it — it’s cathartic.
Now, imagine writing a journal about your life. The journal would contain your memories, your intimate thoughts, your worst fears and deepest desires.
It would mention the hurdles you overcame, the moral dilemmas you solved, the heartbreaks and the skipping heartbeats.
You’re getting close to writing a memoir!
Before you start sharpening your pencil, keep reading to find out how to write a true memoir, instead of simply a boring re-telling of your memories.
How to Write a Memoir
To know how to write a memoir, you first need to understand what a memoir is.
Before I give you the typical memoir definition, we need to establish what a memoir isn’t: A memoir is NOT an autobiography.
People usually conflate the two. Don’t get me wrong, an autobiography has many similarities with a memoir:
- It contains events about your life
- It’s usually written in the first-person narrative
- It’s not fiction, it’s factual
But there are some key differences between a memoir and an autobiography.
A memoir, according to the Wikipedia definition, is a collection of memories that an individual writes about moments or events, both public or private, that took place in the person’s life.
Instead of writing about your life like a historian, detailing every single event, you show what shaped your life and helped you reach your goals.
A memoir IS about your life, but it’s NOT your life story.
A memoir focuses on specific parts of your life to support the overarching theme. But the question remains, how to write a memoir?
Steps to Write A Memoir (Even if You’re Not A Writer)
You don’t have to be a world-famous athlete, politician or actor to write a memoir. It doesn’t require some super unique or out-of-this-world story to be valuable.
A memoir is about your memories, your story. And if you dig deep enough, you’ll find that you have a lot of things to say to the world.
After all, the struggles of “ordinary” people are always more relatable.
1. Choose Your Memoir Theme
You have to design the framework of the story you want to tell people. As I’ve already mentioned, a memoir isn’t your whole life story, rather a part of it that focuses on a specific narrative.
Think of this as an A to B journey. Some examples include:
- Rag to riches
- Unfit to fit
- Depressed to grateful
To write a memoir, you need to be introspective and discover the path you took years ago. Ask yourself:
- What’s your starting point?
- How did you manage to move forward?
- Where are you right now?
But don’t just tell people. Show them!
This isn’t really about you. It’s about how your story relates to other people.
2. Highlight The Things That Matter
We all have experiences. Some become valuable lessons while others become shameful memories.
It’s your job to find the relevant anecdotes that support your theme. Most importantly, you need to showcase “how” these experiences pushed you towards the end-point.
But you don’t have to spoon-feed them to your readers. You have to be subtle.
Instead of saying: “It was really hard to get into college. I had to work for 12 hours every day and study when the boss was away.”
You could say: “One day, my boss was supposed to be away for a business meeting. So, per usual, I grabbed my “Calc 101” and snooped in the back of the store to finish my paper for tomorrow…”
Use storytelling as a way to be impactful with your writing. Obviously, you have to use real stories.
It’s up to you to write them down in a meaningful way.
3. Observe, Don’t Judge
One of the worst things a writer can do is preach.
It’s a common pitfall to try and justify your actions and decisions when you’re the protagonist of a book. In my opinion, it’s better to let the story do the work.
There’s no need to blame other people or make yourself appear to be infallible.
Memoirs require brutal honesty. Especially when it comes to the lies we tell ourselves.
“What if some of the things that happened to me are objectively wrong and not my fault?”
Go ahead and write them down. With as many details as possible. Write down your feelings and the things you’ve learned.
It’s important to be honest, but it’s also important to be fair.
4. Fiction, If Fiction Were Real
Remember, this is not an autobiography. You don’t need to take a linear approach to your story, you don’t have to cover every single detail, and you don’t have to write like you’re just remembering.
Your memoir should have a distinct plot, different characters, and a thrilling arc.
It should read like a proper novel.
Quick Guide To Write Like a Novelist
- Develop the main characters of your story, so they’re relatable.
- Focus on the pacing. You don’t want to spill the beans too early.
- Grab their attention from the first page.
- Leave out just enough details to create suspense
- Don’t be afraid to talk about difficult subjects like death.
- Show, don’t tell!
- Use all of your senses to describe a scene.
Writing a real story like it’s fiction feels counter-intuitive but it’s perhaps what makes a memoir great. Everyone has a story to tell.
It all comes down to how well you can show it to the world.
3 Memoir Examples
There are two ways to improve your writing skills:
- Write more
- Read more
And when it comes to reading more, it’s very important to be familiar with the genre you chose.
In this case, reading exceptional memoirs could do wonders for you when you decide to write your own.
1. The Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank
The Diary Of A Young Girl is the story of a young Jewish girl, Anne Frank, that she wrote while she was hiding from the Nazis during the war. It’s a breathtaking, inspiring and heartbreaking tale of a real-life experience during turbulent times.
2. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Eat, Pray, Love chronicles the author’s trip around the world after her divorce and the story of discovering herself. (I bet you’ve seen the film.)
3. On Writing by Stephen King
The world-renowned novelist describes his experiences in writing through his memories. It shows you how writing consumed every
You’ll notice that these books are written using different structures and unique storytelling techniques. For example, King’s memoir reads like a writing manual.
This particular literary genre doesn’t obey strict rules, like the autobiography. It’s up to you to decide how you want to present your life.
Final Tips on Writing A Memoir
“I think many people need, even require, a narrative version of their life. I seem to be one of them. Writing memoir is, in some ways, a work of wholeness.” — Sue Kidd Monk
A memoir is perhaps the most difficult thing to write. Because it’s intimate and requires opening up your life to the public.
Most writers use fictional characters to tell their stories. But a memoir demands the writer to be the protagonist.
There’s no hiding, there’s no subtextual narrative. There is your life.
I’ve seen people break down trying to write a memoir.
Here’s a little experiment you can do (it’s an exercise my mentor taught me back in college).
Think about a childhood memory — a significant one. Now, draw a line from that memory to a major life-altering event. Can you connect the dots and find a cause and effect?
You’ll be forced to analyze your decisions and notice how everything is interconnected. Remember, you’re supposed to be honest.
Don’t force a connection if it’s not there.
Even if you don’t want to publish your memoir, it’s still worth it to try and write one. Looking back at your life objectively could be a valuable lesson.
You discover many things you didn’t know about yourself.It can be a form of active meditation.
So, go ahead and pour out your soul. Bleed into the paper and reveal the story that made you who you are.
Have you ever tried to write a memoir? If not, what’s holding you back? Comment below and I might be able to help you!
About the Author
George Kourakos is an ad-man by day, a writer by night. He is a mathematician with a creative side. Working full time as a copywriter, George wants to explore his creative side by writing about his favorite topics.