How to Write a Memorable Memoir

Updated on March 5, 2020
billybuc profile image

Bill is a writer with his own garden, and he has a wealth of useful tips about composting.

Why a Memoir?

As you may or may not know, I recently published my first memoir, “And the Blind Shall See.” It is a self-published book about personal growth, and I’m damned glad I wrote it, but without the urging of friends and my wife it would have never been written. To say I was reluctant would be an understatement.

Why?

Because, in my eyes, I’m just a normal guy who has led a normal life. I’m not trying to be self-effacing when I write that. I really do not believe my life has been spectacular or note-worthy. Early on in my memoir, I make the statement that I’m just a pimple on the ass of creation, one of about one-hundred billion pimples since man began walking upright in the Fertile Crescent. Why would I write a memoir? Who would find it important or interesting?

But here’s what I finally came to understand: Normal is fascinating! Each and every one of us has a story to tell, and 99% of those stories are relatable to the general populace. And possibly more important is this fact: We all deserve to be remembered and immortalized in print! We paid our dues. We fought the good fight. We took on challenges and rose above them, and that right there speaks volumes about the resilience and perseverance of us all.

You should be remembered. Your children and your extended family should have a record of your time on this planet. Your story deserves to be told!

Write a Memoir, Not an Autobiography

The first thing to note is a memoir is not an autobiography. An autobiography begins at the beginning of your life and travels through it all until the present. A memoir concentrates on a specific theme. Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” is a memoir. It focuses on personal growth as her life unfolded. Much of her life story is not told because she did not find it to be applicable to the theme. In fact, her memoir begins in the middle of her life.

You can write countless memoirs about your life, all with different themes. You can only write one autobiography!

Choose a Theme

So, what would that theme be? Pick a good one. Pick one which others will find interesting. Pick one which others will find meaningful and relatable. The theme could be bravery in the face of overwhelming odds. The theme could be conquest over the struggles of life. The theme could be abuse or loss of love or self-growth or homelessness or PTSD. This is your story. It begins with what is important to you, and then you find a way to make it important to others as well. Mine was about self-discovery, and coming to the realization that I do have value as a human being. Yours may be entirely different.

Begin With a Diagram of Your Life

How to choose a theme? My suggestion is to sit down and make an outline of your life, or a diagram if you prefer. Include all of the important moments in your life.

From that diagram I want you to choose five significant moments in your life. We all have them so please, don’t say you can’t think of any. The loss of a loved one….bullying as a child….abuse as an adult….the time your father called you lazy and told you that you would never amount to anything…the time you lost a leg in a car accident…choose five and then choose your theme from those five. The other four can wait for your next memoir.

The most important person in my life
The most important person in my life

The Hook Is All Important

Right out of the chute you want to grab the attention of your readers. Even if you are just writing the memoir for yourself and close family members, it would be nice if it were interesting from the very beginning.

A hook is a slap to the face of the reader. It is the statement “you better read this or your life will not be complete” sort of opening. I have often said that the first five minutes of a book are the most important. Put another way, the first five pages will often make or break any book. That first portion must be interesting/fascinating/holy cow noticeable or you will lose the interest of the readers shortly after.

Use All of Your Senses

I cannot overemphasize this point enough: 99.9% of us share the same five senses. Use that fact to your advantage. Or, to put it another way, three simple words can make or break your memoir: show, don’t tell.

Don’t tell us about an event in your life. Show us through the senses. What did the scene look like….feel like…smell like…sound like? The senses bring writing to life. They are identifiable for us all.

Let me put it this way: I can say “he died,” or I can say “I felt his final breath upon my cheek as I told him I loved him.” Which would you rather read?

So  much left to learn about myself
So much left to learn about myself

Get Personal and Get Vulnerable

And closely related to the senses is the personal nature of a memoir. If you want to hook an audience, if you want to write something that others can relate to, if you want to deliver a powerful message, you must open your heart and allow us, the readers, inside of you.

I read a memoir once written by an ex-slave back in 1890. Obviously I never knew her. In fact, I had never heard of the woman until a friend suggested I read the memoir.

I balled like a little baby while I read it. The author of that memoir allowed me access to her pain. She trusted me with her most private and painful thoughts and feelings, and it was an incredibly memorable experience.

You can do the same!

Your Memoir Is Not About You

Truly, it is not! A memoir is about a lesson or message you want to share with others. Writing a memoir about you is about as exciting as listening to someone drone on about themselves the first time you meet them. You’ve all had that experience. You sit down on a bus or in a plane, and the woman next to you introduces herself and then talks nonstop about herself while you sit in a catatonic state.

Avoid that at all costs!

Be Brutally Honest but . . .

We live in a society today which hides behind personal walls. It’s an interesting dynamic and I think it explains why social media is so popular. Social media allows us to interact with strangers without revealing too much of ourselves. A memoir must have honesty and it must have transparency. Otherwise it will appear to be shallow and contrived.

But . . .

Be careful if you name real people in your memoir. They may not want to be named. I struggled with this in my memoir, and it is a very real concern you need to address while you write.

To Publish or Not to Publish?

You finish your memoir, a nice 40,000 words, a portion of your complete story, and now you face the decision: should you publish this very personal book? Should you allow access to your private life?

For the love of God, YES, please publish it!

Your story is important and it should be told and shared. One of the best things I have ever done, as a writer, was to write and publish my memoir. I trusted others with my story. I became vulnerable. But I also gave eternal life to my family and my heritage, and I am mighty glad I did.

And now it is your turn!

Did I cover it all in this article? Most likely not; this article was written from my perspective, having already completed a memoir. Your approach may be different and that is fine. My point is simply this: you have a memoir in you, and I think it’s important that you write it.

2020 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

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    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I hope you do, Chardie. I really think it is an important exercise. Thanks for the visit.

    • Chardie Cat profile image

      Chardie Cat 

      2 months ago from Northern Mindanao, Philippines

      This is very inspirational and an eye-opening read. Thank you, Bill. I guess, I will have to begin writing my own memoir.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      3 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Rajan! I do hope you write a memoir or two. I think you would find it very gratifying.

    • profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 

      3 months ago

      Now that you mentioned it I realize that there are many small incidents that have made a strong impact on my life and they could be turned into memoirs. You have given some fine tips here.

      I would certainly get your memoir once the current situation gets to normal. I have always enjoyed your writing, Bill. Keep them coming. Keep safe and good health to you.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      3 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you greatly, Laurinzo! Take care, my friend.

    • Majestic Tells profile image

      Laurinzoscott 

      3 months ago from Kanab, Utah

      Well next week I will order it.. I look forward to reading...have a wonderful day]...in the meantime ill be soaking up your hubs

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      3 months ago from Olympia, WA

      LOL...Laurinzo, I would be satisfied with butt-cheek.

      The memoir is called "And the Blind Shall See: A Memoir" and it can be found on Amazon.

      Thanks for your kind words. I am humbled.

    • Majestic Tells profile image

      Laurinzoscott 

      3 months ago from Kanab, Utah

      Lol...oh Bill, you are far more than " a pimple on the ass of creation".. I laugh because you have positively affected the lives of a very many people...myself included, so that gives at least the status of " but-cheek!", anyway Mr Holland you are a wonderful addition to our ecistence...the actual pimples are the people that have sooo much money and "success", that thebonly lives they have a positive force on...is their own, and um actually thibjubg if writing a memoie for my daughter mostly...but well i'd live to read yours...send me info and ill purchase a copy

      ..so, I kniw a pu lished author, well things ARE looking up...great hub by the way, as always ;)

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      3 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Congrats on that memoir, Rodric and yes, most definitely, when you are ready we will hit it hard.

    • Rodric29 profile image

      Rodric Anthony 

      3 months ago from Peoria, Arizona

      I did it, Bill! I published or self-published a memoir. I believe that we all have at least two good books in us. I cannot wait to check out yours I experienced all the joy of what you wrote of here. I just submitted my second memoir which covers only one week of my life. I cannot wait to get coaching with you to improve my delivery. In the meantime, I plan to crank out the books.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      3 months ago from Olympia, WA

      When it is the time, William, I have no doubt it will be a good one. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • lifegate profile image

      William Kovacic 

      3 months ago from Pleasant Gap, PA

      Much to think about, Bill. I've thought about writing one. I even took a class on writing memoirs. Maybe it just isn't the time, but thanks for the gentle push.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      We can always hope, Eddy! Thank you!

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Oh Marlene, you have a story to tell, believe me. I think you have a perspective which would be interesting to many. I hope you consider it, my friend.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I appreciate the prayers, Dora. Thank you! I can never receive too many prayers.

      Blessings to you always

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 

      4 months ago from Wales

      Great advice once again Bill which I am sure will help and inspire many to write that memoir which has been lurking for so long.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 

      4 months ago from USA

      This is very interesting. I learned to see memoirs from a different angle. I lead such a boring lifestyle, I felt it would be a crime to the reading world for me to write a memoir. To read that a memoir is not about me makes all the difference in the world. Thank you for this enlightenment.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      4 months ago from The Caribbean

      I appreciate this article. I will get your book. Apart from your theme of self-growth, I bet I can also gain some literary lessons. Congratulations, and I pray for your prosperity.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Nithya! I did name a few people, but they were dead and so no consent was necessary. Good suggestion, though.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I really do appreciate that, Zulma. Yes, it was personal and yes, at time painful, but it needed to be written, and I'm not one to back down from a challenge.

      Happy Weekend to you!

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Linda! I would love to read yours...hint, hint

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Look out, world! Eric is thinking! lol

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 

      4 months ago from Dubai

      A great guide to writing a memoir, thank you for sharing. Naming people who are involved is a delicate issue but I guess it can be handled by getting their consent. Congratulations on publishing your memoir.

    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 

      4 months ago from United Kingdom

      I imagine there were times when you considered abandoning the project when things got too painful. But you stuck with it and even shared it with us. One has to admire that and I do. Well done, my friend.

      I'm smiling now because there were times when I thought, 'This seems rather personal. I shouldn't be reading this.' Then I remember that it was a book and books are meant to be read, shared and learned from.

      Have a good day, Bill.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      You've provided an interesting and useful description of a memoir, Bill. As others have said, it's good to know the difference between a memoir and an autobiography.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 

      4 months ago from Fresno CA

      Very interesting that you covered the difference between memoir and autobiography. I always hesitated because an autobiography seemed so daunting and even boring. But I bet I could possibly tackle a memoir. Oh, no. Now you've done it!

      Blessings,

      Denise

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Very cool indeed Mr. Holland. Trouble is that this got me thinking and you know that is dangerous. I like the difference from an autobiography.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Well then, Richard, I feel pretty good about the article. Hooray! I'm glad you are inspired, and I'm sure your tale will be a good one. Carry on my friend!

    • Richard Hampton profile image

      Richard 

      4 months ago from Texas

      You did it again, Bill. You have inspired me to try something I would have never even thought possible. As I read this article, my mind raced through half a dozen "wow" ideas in my life that I could use as topics for a memoir. I also love that Beetles tune.

      Thank you, your highness!

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks so much, Zulma. If my memoir passed your inspection I feel much better. It is hard to write about so many personal moments. It really is stripping away flesh to expose wounds at times. Still, I'm happy I wrote it, and thrilled that you enjoyed it.

      Happy Thursday to you, my friend.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      That is for sure, Brfonwen! What a remarkable achievement, to have lived a good life that long. I should be so lucky! lol

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      As always, Heidi, you are right on with your comments and expertise. I wish I could have afforded an editor for my memoir. I'm sure I would have benefited from it.

      Thank you for reading my memoir...and for always sharing your knowledge with us.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I appreciate it,Devika. I'll help you if I can, my friend.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      You are very kind, Peggy! I happen to be quite proud of the opening for Tobias, so I'm smiling because of your kind words.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      MizB, you are many things, but gullible and fool are not among them. Thanks for making me laugh. I happen to think your memoir would be fascinating.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Flourish. Yes, there are, and I'll share some with you on Monday in the Mail.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Sounds good, Tamara! Thank you and I hope you are well.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Exactly, Meg! I know you could do it.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I appreciate that very much, Pamela. Thank you for the wonderful words about my memoir.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      My pleasure, Thelma! Perhaps you should think of writing one?

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I know you do, Ann!

      bill

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you so much, Sha! Let's hope this article inspires others to write a memoir.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I do not agree with you, Susan. I think you have a fascinating story in you.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      We are both old men for sure, Manatita, and yet we enjoy life like young men. We are filled with blessings.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I like this idea of writing a memoir and would email you to further details. Your writing is encouraging and worthwhile to all writers.

    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 

      4 months ago from United Kingdom

      Hi, Bill. I finished your memoir a few days ago and it's still on my mind. That's how I know something is good. Whether it's a book, a movie or a song, it leaves an impression that stays with you long after the last line is uttered.

      There was so much in your memoir that resonated with me, especially the Catholic education. I honestly never knew that being Catholic was an issue back then. Probably because most everyone else in my neighbourhood was Catholic.

      You, my friend, really went through the wringer. Jesuits! Lord have mercy. We had Dominican nuns in grade school. (shuddering). In the first year of high school, we had Marist brothers who taught in the boys' school and they were pretty chill. That was the first time I realized religious teachers were actually human. It was a pretty earthshaking revelation for me. Sadly, most of them were reassigned the following year when the entire school went co-ed.

      This is a good post, Bill, and I imagine a few people will take that fateful leap and write their own memoirs after reading this.

      Have a good day.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

      4 months ago from Victoria, Australia

      Thank you for this illuminating hub. I'll need to remember the difference when I write in the future. One book I wrote - and which sold well - about the life of another person, I titled it a 'Memoir' as I visited the good lady weekly for some months and it was about her memories, but now I think it should have been a biography. By the way, I've been invited to her 100th birthday! Now that's something to write about!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      4 months ago from Chicago Area

      One of an editor's pet peeves are authors who say they've written a "memoir," when they've actually written an autobiography. These days, it seems that it's somehow cooler to say you wrote your memoir.

      Your memoir had autobiographical elements since it truly went from Day 1 to the present day. But you selected events that supported your theme.

      I can't emphasize enough the point you made about "naming names." This is tricky legal territory. Some author consultants suggest that if you plan to write a memoir or autobiography, hire an attorney to advise you on how to proceed safely. Memoirs can get scandalous, libelous, slanderous, and litigious in a flash. There is media liability insurance. But it's expensive.

      Speaking of normal people, yes, I think normal is interesting. Unfortunately, authors can think their normal is extraordinary. They don't know how to frame the normal so it is extraordinary.

      Memoir is one of the most challenging genres because authors are too close to their own story. While you might be able to get away with self-editing other work, memoir is one that you definitely want to have some outside editor perspective on. I've reviewed a few manuscripts that were memoir-ish, meaning that they intended to be a genuine memoir, but often slipped into autobiography and blathering on the most minute and irrelevant of details. Ugh!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      4 months ago from Houston, Texas

      Thanks for explaining the differences between a memoir and an autobiography. You are an expert at writing opening sentences and paragraphs that grip people from the start and make them want to read more. I am remembering your book "Resurrecting Tobias," and even your series here on HubPages where innocent children are being savagely murdered. The latter is not my normal choice of reading material, but I am hooked on the story.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      4 months ago from Beautiful South

      Well, it looks like you straightened out a whole bunch of us with this article, Bill. I thought "memoir" and "autobiography" were synonymous. Funny thing, I'm an extrovert, and to other people, I'm an open book, but I just don't have the guts to bare my self that naked. I guess I don't want people to know what a gullible fool I really am. LOL I am going to have to buy yours and read it, my friend. Maybe I'll change my mind.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      4 months ago from USA

      I like that you differentiated autobiography and memoir. Are there specific examples of famous people who have done a particularly good job writing their memoirs? (Feel free to save this for your column if you wish.)

    • Rhyme Vine Poetry profile image

      BBYCGN 

      4 months ago from Uninhabited Regions

      Excellent post, and so inspiring! I will plan to write you an email.

    • DreamerMeg profile image

      DreamerMeg 

      4 months ago from Northern Ireland

      I never thought of writing a memoir, as opposed to an autobiography. What a great difference - writing several memoirs from different points of view or on different themes!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      4 months ago from Sunny Florida

      I think you have given us a wealth of good advice as to how to write a memoir. Your memoir is very good as I very recently finsihed reading it.

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 

      4 months ago from Germany and Philippines

      It is a wonderful and inspiring article Bill. Now I know that a memoir is different than an autobiography. Thanks for sharing.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      4 months ago from SW England

      I appreciate it!

      Ann

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      4 months ago from Central Florida

      Bill, I think one of the most valuable points of this article is discerning the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. You explained it very well, making a memoir more of a doable goal since it sends a message but doesn't chronicle a person's life.

      Excellent article, Bill.

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 

      4 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      I have thought about writing a memoir but not sure if my life is all that exciting that people would want to read it. But after reading this I may just do it anyway. Thanks, Bill!

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      4 months ago from london

      I'm an old man, like you. He had a nice send-off recently at 101.

      The book Papillion was so gripping! Way better than Steve Mc Queen and he was good.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Ruby, that is exactly why I think you should write one. People could learn from your "grace under fire" approach to life.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      4 months ago from Southern Illinois

      I loved the difference between, he died and you felt his breath on your cheek. I think I am learning to expand my thoughts in writing. It takes time to be a good writer like you, and I learn something every time I read your articles. I have had so many ups and downs in my life, but a memoir?

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Manatita! Sparticus...a flash from the past. I saw that with my dad a long, long time ago.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      4 months ago from london

      Yes.

      We never know how something can hit us. When I saw Crouching Tiger, Sleeping dragon, I really cried and again the entire cinema was silent. El Cid was like that as was Spartacus. But generally, the book is better than the film and some are so moving!

      Kudos to you bro. Awesome advice!

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you for stopping by,Umesh!

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Linda and I obviously completely agree with you. Blessings to you always.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you for your kind words,Chitrangada Sharan. I really appreciate your support.

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I know you're always busy, Ann! Just consider this a gentle nudge.

      bill

    • bhattuc profile image

      Umesh Chandra Bhatt 

      4 months ago from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India

      Very good guidance. I feel encouraged. Thanks.

    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 

      4 months ago from Washington State, USA

      Bill, even if never published, I think this might be a valuable, cathartic exercise. All of us have had disappointments and carry a bag of unresolved issues. Getting them out might just be the start of healing. Blessings to you.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 

      4 months ago from New Delhi, India

      Wonderful and motivational, Bill. I am sure this article will inspire many, to write their memoir. You lead by example and your own memoir is a proof of that.

      Thank you for sharing this valuable post.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      4 months ago from SW England

      You obviously know too well that I take too much time to get round to things! I'll do my best!

      Ann

    • billybuc profile imageAUTHOR

      Bill Holland 

      4 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm so happy to hear that, Ann! I hope you consider doing this sooner rather than later.

      Wishing you a brilliant Wednesday!

      bill

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      4 months ago from SW England

      This is really useful and encouraging. I like the idea of a diagram - visual works well with me and it means you don't forget things! I used to use 'mind maps' with my pupils; they could see everything at a glance without trolling through pages of notes or memory. An added suggestion would be to use colours for 'connections' as that also helps to make links.

      You've helped me tremendously with my own thoughts on this, bill. Thank you!

      Ann

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