Tips on How to Write a Memoir
Write Your Memoir
Write Your Life Story
Writing your memoir gives you a chance to make sense of what happened in your life. Getting started isn't easy, but here are tips to get going and to help you get the words onto paper.
I've led groups in writing about their childhood memories and recently taught classes to seniors about memoir writing. Start writing if only for your own benefit, but you will find an audience in family members, friends, and even a wider readership. I recommend it for every person to preserve their memories and life story.
Think about What Kind of Memoir You Would Like to Write
Examples of the Types of Memoirs
Memoirs come in many different flavors. Some can serve as a portrait of the person or can showcase their professional life. Others types include the personal memoir, the public memoir, the professional memoir written to display someone's public achievements, the travel memoir, confessional memoir, and the transformational memoir. There is also the time capsule memoir that shows a life at one point in time, not the whole life. These can mix-and-match too.
For the confessional memoir, we might look at Running with Scissors by Augusten Burrough or Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. Each of these best-selling books featured dysfunctional childhoods with a full display of details other individuals might bury from public view. A murderer might write a confessional memoir or if they turned their life around, it might better suit the next category, the transformational memoir.
You can see how the transformational memoir might fit some of the titles above as well. Surviving the hardships of a Nazi concentration camp like Night by Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel was transformational. It doesn't always need to be so dramatic though. Coming-of-age stories can fit the transformational memoir category. Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard by Liz Murray is a fine example of this. Memoirs about coming-out as LBGT could fit this.
For the public or the professional memoir, we have examples of Hollywood stars writing about their achievements or a business or political person featuring their climb to CEO or achievements in Congress. The ones that make the best-seller lists tend to have a transformational or confessional element as well. Examples include My Wicked, Wicked Ways by Errol Flynn or All Creatures Great and Small by Herriot. After leaving office, it's expected that a former president will write a memoir of that time in his life.
A travel memoir features not just the life but how that life was influenced by travel. An example would be an account of climbing the Matterhorn. Think of The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin's travel memoir and field journal. Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes has traveling to Tuscany as an integral part of the person's life.
The time capsule memoir is one that captures a short time in a person's life. Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl could fit this. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion covers the year after her husband's death.
The portrait memoir focuses on sharing the characteristics of a person. Look at examples like Me by Kathryn Hepburn or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
Which Type of Memoir Do You Want to Write?
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Getting Started Writing Your Memoir
It's hard deciding what to include and what to leave out. With a biography, you'll want to include interesting or significant life events. The memoir is a bit different. It includes the parts of your life that link to your chosen theme. Leave out the bits that don't move the story along or contribute to the theme.
At first, you'll want to write without limiting yourself. Later, you can cut out some parts that just aren't that interesting or don't move the narrative forward.
As you write, you'll see pieces starting to fit together to form a picture of your life.
Probably the easiest parts to write will be often-told family stories. These will flow easily onto paper as they've already been honed through retellings and have good story-telling elements. Start with these, so you build up confidence and see progress.
Another way to get started is by writing about something recent. This is fresh in your mind and should be fairly easy to write.
One further way to start is to define the main character with a description. Most likely, this is you.
Write the Stories and Piece Them Together for Your Memoir
Arrangement of Your Memoir
With a biography that covers a whole life, it often starts with "I was born," and progresses from there. This is the chronological arrangement of a life story. There are other ways to arrange and preserve your memories.
Retrospective: Start with the current time and look back over the life.
Topical or Thematic: Choose a theme, for instance, a career, your religious beliefs, or travel to arrange your life experiences around.
Historical: Use a historical event as a frame for your description of your life. An example of this is my mother's life in the 1940s. As I work on it, naturally World War II is a huge influence on her actions and feelings during that era.
Turning Points in Life: You can arrange the events of your life to hinge around a major life event like losing a job or the death of a spouse. It doesn't have to be a sad event. Perhaps going to college provided the springboard to change your life and become a success.
Decide on the Arrangement
Identify Turning Points in Your Life
Write about each of those. What led up to that turning point and how did your life change afterward?
Have You Started Writing Your Memories?
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Memoir Writing Tips - Making It More Vivid
While writing a memoir, it's easy to get caught up in writing the facts. Looking back through what you've written, it may sound rather dry and lifeless. Here are some ways to make it more vivid.
Replace ho-hum words with more exciting ones. Look for descriptive words that are vague (a few, some, very, nice). If your sentence was "my uncle was a nice man," you need to add some punch to that. Expand on the topic. "Uncle prided himself on being the family helper when anyone was in need. Once he bailed me out when ..."
Instead of a basic statement like "some days, we went to the beach," punch it up to read, "anytime we could slip out of the house and avoid chores, my friends and I piled into Tommy's car and headed to the beach."
Look at bland verbs and substitute ones with more zip. In the previous example, they didn't just get into Tommy's car, they "piled into" it. This gives more of an active feeling and shows the crowding together.
Add feelings and opinions. How did you feel about escaping to the beach with your friends? What kind of group dynamics made the outings fun or memorable?
Look for more vivid descriptive words or introduce comparisons. Were the clouds just white and puffy or were they whiter and fluffier than a freshly washed poodle? Maybe they towered like giant snowdrifts in the ultramarine blue of the Kansas sky.
Get specific. Instead of "a bird landed a few feet from me," write "a chickadee fearlessly landed just an arm's length away." Sometimes you won't remember such exact detail, but you can enhance it a little. Who's going to say that it wasn't a chickadee?
I hope I've stirred your mind so you'll look over your memoir draft with fresh eyes.
Vary Your Words And Make Them Vivid
Stop Dragging Your Feet And Start Writing
It's easy to postpone starting on a big project like writing your life story. One way to overcome that is to do a small amount every single day. Could you spare 15 minutes a day? Surely, you could set aside that much time.
That 15 minutes adds up over the weeks and months. By the end of a year, you'll have over 90 hours of work accomplished on what seemed an overwhelming project.
Fifteen minutes is such a small amount out of a 24-hour day. Let's get going!
Originally written by Virginia Allain for Niume (a website that no longer exists).
Questions & Answers
Do you recommend using programs such as Grammarly or Scrivener when writing your memoir?
You can get the free version of Grammarly and it's quite helpful in correcting misspelled words, adding/removing commas, and alerting you to passive voice. The paid version of Grammarly has additional bells and whistles that are useful. While writing a memoir, this can be quite helpful. For Scrivener, you can get a free trial, but will then need to cancel or pay for the software. It is well-reviewed by writers.
© 2018 Virginia Allain