Memoir Writing Tips

posted in: Writing | 0

(photo credit for header: Jernej Furman)


You’ll never believe what I’ve been up to lately. I’m writing a memoir!

Will I publish this memoir and will people actually read it? That remains to be seen . . . but what I will say is this: I’m only about 21k words in and it’s been very therapeutic so far.

So why am I writing a memoir at this point in my writing journey, you might be wondering? There’s a long story here, but I’ll give you the short version. Three factors led to my decision to start my memoir: 1.) The idea has been swimming around in my brain for a long while now. 2.) I recently finished major revisions on my latest YA novel, The Devil in Us All, and needed something else to do (I’m taking a break from book #7 for . . . reasons). 3.) I recently read Brandi Carlile’s memoir, Broken Horses, and in her acknowledgements, she encourages anyone with the desire to write their memoir to go for it. Say no more, Brandi! I’ve answered the call to action.

I always knew my memoir would center on my life with horses–my greatest teachers, so that’s exactly how I’m framing it. In fact, I’m calling it Lessons from Horses. I’ve already cried more than a few times while writing (or reading certain sections to my husband). What can I say? I’ve had some really special horses in my life that have helped shape who I am today and writing about them has been an emotional experience.

But alas, I’m not here to share about my memoir, but rather to share some tips I’ve picked up about memoir-writing, in general. Let’s face it–most of us are everyday Janes who don’t have the all-powerful name recognition like Prince Harry or Michelle Obama. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have equally important life stories to share with the world. Everyone has an important story–I sincerely believe that–but whether or not that story will be marketable to the general public is dependent on framing (and the writing, itself). How are you going to frame your life’s story? Within the context of trauma? Illness? A sport? Religion? Your vocation? This is what you first must decide.

So with this first question in mind, here are some further tips for writing your memoir:


A memoir is not an autobiography

We’ve all probably written an autobiography– in early grade school, most likely. It probably started with “I was born in such and such town in such and such year, amIright? Yes, that was good practice for writing a memoir, but it’s not a memoir. A memoir should be much more nuanced than an autobiography spanning a person’s entire life thus far. Again, go back to my question above. How do you want to frame your life’s story? What do the significant moments in your life revolve around? What parts of your life will an audience most likely relate to? In other words, you need a theme. Instead of sharing the bland, day-to-day details, choose vivid emotional memories or turning points that have shaped who you are as a person.


Don’t start at the beginning

The best memoirs don’t start at the beginning of a person’s life. We don’t remember those early details anyway, so why start there? Pick a pivotal moment in your life to start with and then go back in time. This is most likely to catch a reader’s attention. Keep in mind that, like fiction, memoirs don’t have to move in a chronological order either. You can switch from adult moments to child or teenage moments and back again if that works well for your story.


Write it like fiction

Memoirs should be just as enjoyable to read as fiction. Yes, you’re sharing true-life experiences, but you can still employ fiction writing techniques. This means utilizing dialogue, appealing to emotion, and following the “show, don’t tell!” rule. Too much exposition can bore the reader. Also, don’t forget to add sensory details to help the reader better engage with your story. Vivid details, in which you recall all of your senses, can help transport the reader back to that moment in time and really pack a punch.


Tell the truth

While this may seem like a no-brainer, being truthful and honest in your memoir is perhaps one of the most important keys to making it a story that will resonate with readers. Don’t embellish or exaggerate events to make them sound more exciting than they were. In fact, readers can likely pick up on disingenuous content. We may not remember every detail of an event and that’s okay. In these instances, you can write what “was likely true” as far as smaller details go. For example, even though you don’t remember exactly what she said, your sister likely would have hurled an insult such as “pea brain!” during a certain scene. Or your father likely would have been wearing a certain brand of jeans such as Levi’s. It’s the bigger events and emotional truth that are more important to portray accurately that those small details.


Create an emotional experience for readers

Every good book–fiction or not–should make the reader feel something. Inspired. Awed. Wistful. Angry. Nostalgic. Hopefully, many of those things. Memoirs are no exception. The best way to evoke emotion in the reader is to connect to your own emotions as a writer. Don’t just tell what happened; tell how events or people (or animals, in my case) affected you. Share pivotal reflections and takeaways throughout the story. Also, keep in mind that a memoir should have a narrative arc with enough tension to keep the reader turning pages.


Read good memoirs

Of course, in order to write a memoir well, it’s important to read well-written memoirs. Here are a few I recommend:


Are you considering writing a memoir? Or have you already started one like I have? If so, feel free to share about it in the comments!