5 Tips for Writing Memoir

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A woman is allowed to change her mind—and a writer, her genre! I have come full circle in my writing career. I began with documenting snippets of my life for a memoir, since I was afraid I’d forget my childhood. My almost 100 year old mother went home to heaven, and my father, years before. I was an only child—who could jog my memories now? I panicked and began my quest. But somewhere along the way I got side-tracked (in a good way) with historical fiction picture books and middle-grade novels.

After 7 years of revising, submitting, taking craft classes and going to conferences, I’ve published only one novel: The Heart Changer. Of course, I’m thankful, but I was counting on finding a publishing home for at least one other MG Historical. So far, that has not happened.

Without going into detail, I began reading memoirs, and found myself fascinated with the stories. Memoirs are not the same as autobiographies. The latter is a chronological telling of a person’s life. A memoir chooses snippets that relate to a theme in someone’s life: loving and losing, rising above abuse, all roads lead to home, etc.

Writers have heard this advice countless times: “write what you know.” Well, I can’t think of anyone I know better than myself! I can accurately describe (after thorough research) my historical character, but I was never there—never lived in her skin. So, it felt just right for me.

Have you considered writing a memoir of your life, or that of a family member? If so, I have a few ideas for you. . .

5 Tips for Writing Memoir

How does one begin?

  • First and foremost, Read good memoirs. Here are a few suggestions: Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt-very raw) At Home in the World and Notes from a Blue Bike (Tsh Oxenreider), Julie and Julia (Julie Powell), I’m a Stranger Here Myself, (or any of Bill Bryson’s travelogues—very witty), Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert), The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank), and The Innocents Abroad (Mark Twain)
  • Begin to reminisce or ask yourself questions, then share them on social media or in a blogpost. If you are not ready to reveal yourself to the world, keep track in a document, Evernote, Scrivener, or any other app or format that you’d like. Can’t think of anything to say? Read Share Your Stuff. I’ll go First (Sarah Tremaine) for ideas. Or, filter through your journals and diaries, looking for a common theme.
  • A memoir, although it has fictional aspects, must be outlined. Write down 10 memorable life events that changed you or your perspective. Certain memories will spur other memories and how you felt about your life then, or insights you would have gained. Triggers can be music, photos, objects, and even scents.
  • Create a timeline of your life, then narrow down to a certain period, or theme (what I learned from other cultures, what my mother taught me, coming of age, loving and losing made me stronger, what God taught me during the pain points of my life, etc.) Then, trash all events from your timeline that don’t relate to your theme. Be a minimalist memoirist. 😄
  • Write the first draft for yourself. The whole truth and nothing but the truth, as much as you can remember. You can disguise details later.

Resources for Writing Memoir

  • Breaking Ground in Your Memoir by Linda Joy Meyers PhD and Brooke Warner is an excellent resource to simply guide you through the process without weighing you down with details. I have the ebook version, which I can highlight.
  • Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer is comprehensive and insightful. Not only does she compare autobiography to memoir (aka “the new autobiography”), but also with the elements of a good story. There are prompts, in-depth discussion of the types of memoir, framework for your story, and all the sticky stuff such as: permission to share, privacy (one’s own and that of friend’s and family), and much more. Examples of memoir are mentioned throughout the book, and also at the back.
  • The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith which is thorough guide to writing memoir (in some places raw, as she includes aspects of her mother’s fight with Alzheimers to illustrate). She has stellar courses on the craft of writing memoir which can be found here.
  • Writing About Your Life: a Journey into the Past by well-known craft author William Zinsser, is another resource. Brilliantly written, Zinsser plants scenes from his own life to harvest tips for the would-be memoirist. Does he write his memoir from the perspective of him as a young boy, or looking back as an older adult? Or his warning: ‘You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arm like a drunk and say, “And then I did this and it was so interesting.”’ Not everything in your life is important to share with your readers.
  • Are you more productive with workbooks? Consider Ready, Set, Memoir! (Lindsey Grant of National Novel Writing Month fame). It uses you favorite memoirs as a basis for the activities that formulate your own story.
  • If you want to have someone else compile a memory book professionally with text and photos, check out Memory Lane Jane. It will be a treasure for family members! This would be a visual autobiography vs a memoir.

Below is a short but informative video by Jerry Jenkins with gems for memoir writers. He describes memoir as “theme-oriented” and “reader, rather than self-oriented.” Can the reader relate to my story? Can he see how I’ve changed, to give him courage to do the same? Am I able to be vulnerable? At the end, he offers a list of suggested memoirs to read.

Even if you are not planning to write a memoir at this point in your career, using prompts to capture your past is a valuable way to develop your writing skills. Those tiny slices of life may bless your family or get you started on writing a memoir. Who knows where the stories of your life can lead?


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