How to Write a Memoir

Fri May 27 2016

Today I am making a plea to would-be memoirists:

Please, please, before you write your memoir, learn a few things about what you're doing.

Don't do it for my sake. I'll edit it just the same no matter what shape it's in. Do it for your own. Memoirs are such demanding work, emotionally, that you owe it to yourself to get it right the first time.

The first rule of memoirs

Understand this above all else.

A memoir is a novel.

That probably sounds counter-intuitive. But what I mean is that the reading experience of a memoir should be no different than for a novel. For your audience, your memoir is just a novel that happens to have happened to somebody.

If you can keep that rule in mind, everything else follows pretty naturally.

Learn how to write narrative

I don't care how you do it. Take a creative writing class. Join a critique group. Practice writing short stories or flashfic. Read some writing books. Whatever you want, but learn how to narrate, which more or less boils down to learning how "show, don't tell" works.

The inner workings of "show, don't tell" are better saved for another article [Edit: I have since written a series on show, don't tell, starting here], but suffice it to say that it is the core technique that makes narrative work. If you "tell" all the time, the story is flat, unemotional, and boring. If you "show" everything instead, suddenly it all comes to life.

And isn't that what you want? Why write a memoir at all, if not to give readers a visceral sense of your story? If not to make us feel something of what you felt?

Learn about story structure

For readers to become enthralled with a story, that story needs to have certain elements. There's a bunch of them.

The story needs to have an inciting incident that kicks the story into motion. It needs to have a strong, meaningful goal that the protagonists are pursuing. It needs something to oppose the protagonists along the way. Doesn't matter whether the opposing force is an antagonist or just tough situations, so long as that force creates significant challenges for the protagonists to overcome. It needs a climactic moment in which the story's central question or challenge is resolved, showing how the goal was attained or lost. And it needs to wrap everything up in a satisfying fashion.

And all those elements have to interlock just right. Learning story structure means learning how to weave those elements into a structure that works and supports your vision.

So do that, because just as a novel isn't a list of everything the main character does, neither is your memoir just a list of all the "lemme tell you about my Austrian vacation" things you've ever done.

Learn about character arcs

The most satisfying stories are those in which the protagonist grows and changes throughout the adventure, becoming a wiser, more capable person by the end.

This is particularly important for memoirs. If we're going to read about your life we want to know that it all meant something. Seeing how you grew and changed, how you became a better person for the lessons you learned along the way, is where the meaning comes from.

This, by the way, is some of the hardest emotional work you'll do in writing a memoir. Because not only will you have to demand of yourself that you actually became a better person somehow, but also because showing that growth (versus just telling us about it) means re-acquainting yourself with your old, flawed self. A self you may not be too eager to share with the rest of the world.

But you have to, because that's the only way the meaning will come through.

Pick the right part of your life

Too many memoirists think "memoir = my whole life", rather than "memoir = true-life novel", leading them to start in their early childhood and write straight-through until the narrative reaches their current situation.

A key secret to memoir writing is to pick whatever portion of your life best fits the demands of story structure and character arc. Can you find such a place?

Memoirs center on some specific challenge you faced at some part of your life. The memoir should start at whatever inciting incident touched off that challenge or made you aware of it. It ends after the challenge has been overcome, or else after you've learned to cope with the situation.

Let's say your memoir is about being stranded in the wilderness after your Cessna went down, and how you survived to reach civilization. Great! Sounds like a good story. Lots of inherent challenge, and you probably learned some things about yourself along the way. But start with the plane crash and end with you being re-united with your family. Don't start with the moment, twenty years prior, when you decided you wanted to take flying lessons, or with your early years as a child in suburban Chicago. And don't carry the story past that emotional reunion to tell us what you've been doing since then.

The world is full of memoirs by cancer survivors and others facing grave illness. Those should generally start right around the time of your diagnosis. And they end when you've either beaten the disease, or else have learned how to live alongside it.

Either way, keep your memoir bounded to a discrete portion of your life that best fits the demands of story structure.

A memoir is not...

Ultimately, a memoir is not you sitting there in your chair thinking, "Well, I think I've had a pretty interesting life, so let me tell you all about it." Because to be honest, if your purpose is simply to tell us about all the cool stuff you've done over the years, that's just you stroking your ego and nobody really wants to read that.

It's different if you're Bill Gates or Venus Williams or somebody famous like that. Readers generally do want the "I started out as a child" version of those people's stories. Not because of the story itself, but because we want a voyeuristic look into the lives of our cultural icons.

It's also different if you're not writing for general publication. If you are writing merely to capture your personal history, to share only with your children and grandchildren, then go ahead and give them your whole life. They'll be interested because they have a personal connection. To them, where you were born and what your childhood was like matters in a way that it won't matter to people outside your family.

But if you're just an ordinary citizen looking to share your story with the whole world, you'd better write your memoir like a novel.

A memoir is...

For the average citizen, a memoir is you, showing us a challenging time in your life, because you want to share a significant message or lesson you learned from the challenge.

It's you being brutally honest about yourself, in public, to any total stranger who wants to read it.

It is you, doing the emotional work of ripping your memories, long-buried feelings, the triumphs and tragedies of your the past, writhing and bloody from your mind, and then shaping them through dead ink on paper to tell a story that feels raw and alive to your readers.

It's a big job. Are you up for it?

Why does it matter?

All of this matters because the emotional labor involved in writing a memoir is flat-out staggering.

The sitting-down-to-write isn't any harder than for a novel. The wrestling-with-words isn't any harder either. But the emotional labor will crush you.

To write a proper memoir, you have to bare your soul. It will exhaust and drain you, leaving you wrung-out and empty.

Now, do you really want to go through more than once? Because if you don't structure it right the first time, that's what you're going to have to do.

That's the point of this entire article. Please, for your own sake, don't set yourself up for having to do all of that twice.

And I guess partly for my sake, too, please don't make me have to be the one to tell you that your memoir doesn't work. That you have to learn about story structure or character arcs and take another run at it. I've had to deliver that message before, and it's no fun.

It breaks my heart every time, because I know how hard those clients worked on their manuscripts. I can see the emotional labor right there on the page. I hate having to give an client that news, and I wish so much that they'd just learned a little more before they started.