How to Write a Memoir
As we leave 2016 behind, you may be reminiscing on the year, getting nostalgic for all you’ve done both during 2016 and your life as a whole. Perhaps that nostalgia has driven you to write a memoir. Memoir-writing is a unique experience: it’s all about you and the nitty, gritty truth. When writing fiction, you decide where the story is going. When writing memoir, the story is already there, you just have to write it. This doesn’t make it easy, though. Writing a memoir is tricky: it can be difficult to appease everyone in your life, and writing the truth and making that truth interesting can be the hardest part.
What is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?
You’ve probably heard the two used interchangeably, but that isn’t quite right. An autobiography covers the chronological events of the author’s life—from start to end. A memoir, however, covers one specific moment or theme in the author’s life. A memoir can still span many years of the writer’s life, but a common thread must be present to tie all the events together. In this way, a memoir is more cohesive, or more like a fictional, plot-driven story. Memoirs can also be comprised of short essays. Because memoirs are more focused, they can be immensely more interesting.
So how do you find a theme for your memoir? This is where your writing must begin, and it isn’t simple. This step could stall the entire process. Memoir-writing takes reflection, and your reflection begins here: how can you link your life experiences together? What is a common thread, besides you?
Don’t worry: it’s possible. Maybe your common thread is perseverance—make your memoir about struggle, determination, and overcoming the odds. Or, maybe your common thread is comedy. Each of your essays, then, should be funny, light, and undeniably unique to you. Whatever feels truest to your story is your theme.
Make sure your family and friends are comfortable with it
Once you’ve found your theme, and you’ve outlined your memoir, be sure to talk to those closest to you: your spouse, your parents, your siblings, or your best friends. If they’re going to be in your memoir, then it’s important to let them know how they’re going to be represented or what stories you’re choosing to write them in. Some people might be uncomfortable being in your memoir, so be sure to get permission.
You don’t need to go as far as letting them read the book before publication. Ultimately, this is your memoir, and you have the final say. It will just make the whole process easier for you if you know that your loved ones are supporting it.
Write your truth
While you’re writing about your life, you may find it hard to recall the specifics of certain events. This, while completely normal, can be incredibly frustrating to the memoirist. You want to remember things correctly and completely, since memoirs are supposed to be honest and true.
A helpful tool to have is William Zinsser’s Inventing the Truth, which, if you keep up-to-date on our blog, you know we recommend for both memoirists and writers in general. In Zinsser’s collection of essays by popular memoirists, the truth is relative. How you remember something may not necessarily be how another remembers it, but does that mean their truth is truer than yours? A pure truth isn’t possible, so however you remember something, that’s what you need to write. Sometimes it’s about how you remember something rather than what is the ultimate truth, as Jill Ker Conway says in her essay in Zinsser’s book “Points of Departure”:
[The] narrator imposes by his or her own authority a certain meaning on the ebb and flow of events: that you change the story by where you begin and end it, and that you impose your own meaning on events that’s different from the meaning everybody else in the story puts on those events (57).
Or, more simply put: how you remember it is how you should write it.
As your journey writing your memoir progresses, remember that at your core, you’re a storyteller, so make your memoir as interesting as possible. Memoirs of well known people–such as political figures and celebrities–sell the most because of the name. For non-famous people, your memoir must be well-written, intriguing, and unique to draw in readers. It’s possible, so long as you market it, and yourself, well. Just stick to your New Year’s writing resolutions, and 2017 will be the year of the self-published memoir.