How to Write a Memorable Memoir
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.
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 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?
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.”