How to Write a Memoir in 29 Steps

By Eluned Murphy | Posted on August 6th, 2019

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” 

Maya Angelou, I know why the caged bird sings

Perhaps this is why you are reading this article. You have a story inside of you just bursting to get out.

Well, we hope with these 29 steps you will be sure of how to write a memoir. And to share your story.

We lead you through the basic steps to show you how to write a memoir, the process, tips and style techniques, and what to do once it is done.

Let’s get started…

Here are the steps that lead to your very own memoir:

  1. Know your theme (or significant event)
  2. Choosing a theme
  3. How to know you’ve chosen the right theme
  4. Check yourself
  5. Read (a lot)
  6. Who are you writing a memoir for?
  7. Write for the right reasons
  8. Know your why
  9. Find your own path
  10. Just start
  11. Write (a lot)
  12. Plan/Don’t Plan
  13. Don’t be afraid of bad writing
  14. Have a variety of characters
  15. Subplots
  16. ‘Aha’ moments
  17. Know story structure
  18. Character arc
  19. Be honest
  20. Be vulnerable
  21. Get uncomfortable
  22. Keep on theme
  23. Tone of voice
  24. Show don’t tell
  25. Write and rewrite again
  26. Consider privacy/confidentiality
  27. Edit
  28. Proofread
  29. Publish

How to Write a Memoir

Before we tell you how to write a memoir, it’s important to get one thing straight – what makes a memoir, a memoir?

The word memoir literally means memory. This means that your book will center around certain memories that have changed or effected you during your lifetime.

Memoir is, therefore, usually based around a theme or an impactful event. This could be anything; from getting a divorce, to escaping the world trade center, to starting a band or being abused as a child.

Your theme will determine the type of memoir you will be writing. The important thing is to have a theme and stick to it.

Possible themes include:

  • Tragedy and redemption
  • Nostalgia
  • Sports
  • Celebrity
  • Travel
  • Pets

You may have a few themes which overlap, but you will need one main theme. This makes sure that everything eventually ties together nicely. This is likely to occur as you go through your writing process.

Perhaps you already know exactly what you want to write. In which case, good for you! For the writers who are new to this or a little unsure, don’t be discouraged. Just start and you will discover your main theme as you go along. If you have a direction you want to start with, that’s good enough. So just start.

Memoir and Autobiography

Both memoir and autobiography are books about someone’s life, right? So what’s the difference?

Well, it’s pretty simple.

A memoir is to do with a specific part of the writer’s life. It has a theme. The author will likely have in mind a time when their perspective changed. The amount of time can span from an hour to over several years, depending upon how long the process of learning took.

An autobiography is a chronological sequence of events. It works from the moment the write was born up until now.

This means that if you’ve had an especially interesting life, you might want to write an autobiography. But if there is one particular happening in your life worth taking notice of, then you might be best going with memoir.

Before You Start Your Memoir

1. Know Your Theme (or Significant Event)

The most important thing to know, when learning how to write a memoir, is the main theme or event you will be writing about. This will save you a lot of time and energy.

To be sure you’ve chosen a strong theme, you might want to ask yourself these questions:

Is this a story I would like to read about?

What makes my story different?

Is my story universally relatable in some way?

If you can make a convincing case for all three, then you might just have your theme.

2. Choosing A Theme

If you have looked up how to write a memoir, the likelihood is that you already have something in mind you feel drawn to write.  But if you are unsure of your theme or have few to choose from, try this simple exercise:

  • 1. Write down any events in your life you think have had a large emotional impact upon you, or have changed you in some way.
  • 2. Keep a note of this in your pocket and add to the list anytime you remember something of significance.
  • 3. Check the list once you think you have everything you can think of written down, and choose the event that elicits the largest emotional response or the one you are most enthused to write about.

If this doesn’t work, the best way to work out your main theme is to simply write a lot. The subject you are most focused on? Yep, you got it – that’s your theme.

3. How to Know You’ve Chosen the Right Theme

Try sharing your idea with a few close friends or anyone you feel comfortable with and see how they react to your story in real-time. If it is with intrigue, that is a good sign.

The best way to know that you’re onto a winner is that people will say to you: ‘you should write a book about that’.

One other sure-fire way to know that your book should definitely be written is that you cannot not write it. If you have a burning desire to write about your experience and find yourself thinking about writing it when you wake up, are in the shower or at work, then it is asking to be told.

In that case, you owe it to yourself, to begin writing.

4. Check Yourself

Memoir can be a very sensitive and emotional genre to write. It can involve exploring difficult emotional issues and revisiting painful experiences that run deep.

So take your time.

If you do not feel like you have healed properly from these experiences, make sure to get emotional support from a friend, family member or trusted therapist.

If writing is truly a painful experience, then perhaps journalling or dropping it altogether for some time is a good idea. Remember, you are more important than art.

5. Read (A Lot)

Books. Source: aarp.org

Beings you are wanting to know how to write a memoir, you will need to read many memoirs. Watch films about other people’s lives, especially those who inspire you or have a similar story. Note what you liked or what stood out to you as emotionally impactful.

Notice how other people’s writing influences your own style. This can only be a good thing. As you incorporate other styles, you will eventually find your own unique style of writing.

Some examples you may have read (or may want to read) are:

  • Boy, Roald Dahl
  • Eat pray love, Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Why be happy when you could be normal? Jeannette Winterson
  • I know why the caged bird sings, Maya Angelou
  • Thunderdog, Michael Hingson, Susy Flory
  • A street cat named Bob, James Bowen
  • As I walked out one midsummer morning, Laurie Lee
  • A moveable feast, Ernest Hemingway
  • I am Malala, Malala Yousafzai

6. Who Are You Writing A Memoir For?

Many writers write for themselves. This can work well. If you find something interesting or emotional, oftentimes your readers will, too. Other writers will have ‘reader consciousness’ from the word go. Either way, at some point, the reader must be included in the mix. But it’s a balance. You need both.

When considering how to write a memoir, it can help to have a reader in mind. Steven King writes for his wife. If you’re writing a memoir about domestic violence, you may be writing to another survivor, real or imaginary.

The first draft can be written just for you. But by the third draft, your editor will certainly be considering the reader’s experience. And if you want them to love it, then you should, too.

7. Write for the Right Reasons

Want to know how to write a memoir? One thing to know is, this not the place to just vent feelings about annoying people or events. It’s about overcoming the difficulties of life. Not moaning about them.

If you have written 800,000 words about your exhausting trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, there will likely be some golden moments hidden within the text. But no reader is going to wade through that much detail. So cut it out!

Neither is your book is not a place to get revenge. So, if you have some grudge against your 9th-grade teacher and want to get your own back, this is not the place to do it. If you really want to feel good about using that anger, you’d be better using it in a fictional piece of writing as fuel for one of your more unpleasant characters.

8. Know Your Why

Everyone has a reason for writing a memoir. Work out yours. It will help guide you when you feel like giving up.

9. Find Your Own Path

Take all of the tips we are giving you on how to write a memoir with a pinch of salt. Every writer has their own individual path to walk in order to get to a fully published novel. So don’t feel like any are obligatory – all are optional and are meant to guide you and hopefully create the best memoir you can create. So if one of them stands out as particularly useful to your process, then go for it.

If you feel completely lost, you may try all of them and see what you think. But never let a plan or memoir outline make you think that you don’t know what you are doing.

Your insights and instincts will guide you much better than any article post can. And that is what gives your book your own individual stamp. It’s what makes it uniquely you. So trust yourself.

10. Just Start

Memoir is not always as easy to write as you might think. It is the equivalent of a novel, but all of the events are true. Fitting this all in and making it a compelling read can in some ways, be more challenging than writing fiction. But the genre is also very fulfilling.

There is nothing else like writing down your own experiences personal to you and being able to share them. With any luck, they will have a positive impact on your reader, and the world.

If you are writing a memoir, you will likely know what you want to write about. Maybe you have been through a certain experience in your life, such as a car crash and found a new perspective on life that others would benefit from hearing. Whatever it was that sparked your interest in writing a memoir, then write that down and jot down a few ideas around it, such as other stories relating to it.

Ideally, have a writing routine. This sets up your brain to expect to write at a certain time, so it becomes as habitual as brushing your teeth.

When writing your first draft, let it all hang out and just go for it. If you feel you need to vent and get it all out there on the table, then this is the time to do it.

Thinking about how to write a memoir can be a daunting task. Freewriting and using writing prompts as a regular practice before your writing sessions will help loosen up any worries you might have about writing or any other concerns. Think of it as a way to settle into the writing session.

11. Write (A Lot)

Writing a memoir is rarely easy. One sure way to know how to write a book is to write a lot. Try not to worry too much about anything in the beginning stages. Just make sure to express everything you have to express.

If you want a simple plan to get you started, try thinking up three different titles that relate to your theme. Don’t expect any of them to be the final title, but for the sake of writing, pick one.

Next, write out three possible first lines for your novel. You want to hook readers in. Again, this is just a practice exercise and the first line is likely to change during the rewrite.

Then, once you have this, decide on your most intense memory. This can be your climax.

12. Plan/Don’t Plan

There are two types of writers. Those who plan and those who don’t. A plotter is called just that, and a ‘pantser’ is someone who flies by the seat of their pants. There is no right way to get to your finished product, but this is something to consider.

If you are a pantser, you will want to write aimlessly at first – write a lot of your story, everything, even things that don’t seem relevant or interesting. Explore every avenue. That freeflow will mean the nuggets of the story – the real emotional gems can be mined afterwards. You will then later need to tussle with the idea of some kind of structure as you bring it all together.

If you are a planner, on the other hand, you will already know what you are going to be writing. This may save you some time, but it doesn’t make rewriting any less important. This means writing each section several times to make sure you have the strongest prose possible. The first chapter of harry potter was rewritten 20 times before JK was satisfied, so bear that in mind.

If you’re really wanting to write a memoir outline in detail, you will want to make a note of who is in each scene, the location, date, conflict and the momentum of each scene (i.e. what the end result will be). Online tools, such as Squibler can, of course, help with this process. While this is useful, make sure you don’t to get too bogged down in the details. And to allow it some room to breathe. That could mean allowing some extra time before or after your planned scene to write and just see what happens.

13. Don’t Be Afraid of Bad Writing

Don’t be discouraged if your first draft is terrible. It’s meant to be. That’s why it’s a first draft.

If you’re really not happy with the content of your work, don’t be afraid to completely get rid of what you’ve done and start all over again. Sometimes you need a fresh slate.

Mostly, however, you need time, and a lot more words down on the page, before you discover anything worth putting in the final manuscript.

14. Have A Variety of Characters

Richard from Texas. Source: fusionmovies.to

Just like a novel, you will be wanting to have a variety of characters featured within your memoir. Make sure they are interesting and varied i.e. don’t have all good or all bad characters. Even if your story is about someone stuck in a box for two days, you can draw characters out of the woodwork by using flashbacks.

A great example of this is Richard from Texas calling our main character ‘groceries’ throughout the book. This term of endearment, along with his description of looking like James Taylor, gives us a clear depiction of a character who would otherwise have been tragically flat.

15. Subplots

An important part of memoir is having different levels of story happening at the same time. This is the same as for any book. It keeps the reader interested and on their toes.

To do this you can tie in other thoughts or experiences that relate to what is happening. This should happen quite naturally, as our memories are often not linear. And neither is story.

16. ‘Aha’ Moments

A good memoir often includes little pockets of insight left for the reader. While there will be a main takeaway at the end of the memoir, they are often also sprinkled with ideas that most of us can relate to. (Even if we have not been through the same exact experience as the author.)

For example, when talking about her divorce in Eat Pray Love, Gilbert notes, “This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means we have tried for something.” 

Don’t try and make these moments happen – they should appear organically. No one likes to read a lecture. You’ll know the difference because the insight will likely pleasantly surprise you.

17. Know Story Structure

A satisfying component of story is the idea that something is difficult to obtain, and by the end your character has got it. This happens in all genres and memoir is no different. Have a point A and a point B in mind. This will keep you on track and help you if you ever get lost.

You can (be as flexible with this as you like,) changing the protagonist’s (your) aim, if needs be. But always know where you’re headed and where you’ve been.

18. Character Arc

In the same way you need a structure for your story, you will also need your protagonist to go through some changes. Just like in a novel, a memoir requires the main character to go through enough trials and tribulations that by the end of the book they have evolved and grown.

This means you yourself must have found some way of using your experience to see things in a different light. Or, that you have changed your life in some way as a result.

19. Be Honest

The magic of a good memoir is its raw authenticity.

When someone is being vulnerable and pouring their inner thoughts and fears onto the page, this vulnerability is what the process is all about. If you can open up, then you become much more appealing and relatable as a character.

On the other hand, if you feel you have to lie in order for the story to be compelling, consider writing a fictional work with truthful elements laced within its pages. Readers who have been deceived in a non-fiction work, are not happy readers.

20. Be Vulnerable

Memoir is the art of connection. The person that has shown us their soul on paper, is someone we will inevitably care about. We naturally want to read on, to find out what happens to them.

So open up, relax into what you are writing and being totally, unapologetically, you. Only then can the reader can really see you. And that is the only way they can see themselves in you.

21. Get Uncomfortable

You will eventually come across a passage that feels a little bit tender or raw, most probably too embarrassing to show in the light of day, maybe you even feel a little ashamed of it. THAT feeling is what vulnerable writing is all about. The part perhaps, where you’re too embarrassed to share it with your closest friends? That is most likely the best part of your writing. So don’t shy away from it. Check with an editor. The hardest hitting parts are most often the scariest to share.

This is the part that makes you most relatable and attractive as a character, and to your readers. (If you’re writing a memoir about a difficult subject, this may happen a lot. That’s the juice. Just be careful to make sure, as iterated above, to take care of yourself, first, over the art.)

22. Keep on Theme

This is probably the most important point.

While writing a memoir (once you have gotten all of your thoughts down on paper) make sure you don’t go too far off the beaten track. If you do, then perhaps you were meant to be writing about something else, anyway. But for argument’s sake, keep on topic.

Each point in your story will, ideally, link together nicely, some stories will not directly relate to your lesson learnt but will contribute to the realization of it. In the same way, never tell an anecdote just for the sake of it. Instead, make sure that the logic of your story falls like dominoes, i.e. one section leads to the other.

23. Tone of Voice

The more you can show your personality through your style within your text, the better.

During your first draft, you will mostly be just getting your thoughts and ideas down onto paper. By your second, you may want to begin thinking about the tone of your writing. The more honest you are, the easier this process will be.

If you’re stuck, try speaking into a tape player before writing another word. Otherwise, you can try a speech recognition tool while writing. This will capture your exact tone of voice when speaking and may give the book a more personal and authentic touch.

24.Show Don’t Tell

Show not tell. Source: clickprophotographers.com

This is another simple stylistic point, and it makes all the difference. But what does it mean?

Essentially, showing through your writing means to give a vivid picture that plants the reader within the scene. It takes them right there. Telling, meanwhile, is basically a summary of whatever it is your describing.

It won’t engage the reader or writer in the same way.

It could be useful, as you write your first draft, to note down all of the things you could see, smell, touch and taste. This will help bring back the memory immediately. It will also make your writing more vivid.

During the later drafts, you can use this tip to make your writing come alive. A feeling of distrust becomes a tension in your shoulders as the hairs on your arm bristle. A tree branch breaking becomes a sound like the fracturing of bones. Showing and not telling ensures your writing is colorful and engaging for your reader.

25. Write and Rewrite Again

This is simple. Once you have your first draft checked off, you might want to take a rest before jumping into the second draft. Or not. Either way, bear in mind the fact that you will likely need to write at least three drafts before you have anything that resembles a finished piece of work.

You can split up this process by rewriting individual chapters, to ensure each are well-written, or you can work on it as a whole.

“If the language is right, then the emotion and the thought will be right: and that is the powerful moment, when the reader understands you, regardless.”

Jeanette Winterson, author of Why be happy when you could be normal?

This is what you’re aiming for.

The rewrite is a good time to develop more precise descriptions and your use of language. It is also a good time to consider changing the order of events. Play around with style and form until you’re happy.

26. Consider Privacy/Confidentiality

At this stage, you will want to consider the people involved in your book. If it is a serious and tragic confessional, then it’s likely that at least one of the people involved might be hurt by your ‘outing’ their identity.

This is where it’s important to have an attorney at hand. And you will likely want to make sure their privacy is intact, that their name has been changed, and that there are not distinguishable features that would mean they could be recognized and/or shamed by their community. In certain cases, you might also want to consider hiding your own identity.

27. Edit

This is the point where your message becomes razor sharp. Your chapters, succinct. And your story structure, coherent and exciting.

Editing can vary from changing the order the events take place in the book, to simply making sure your style and characterization is consistent.

Whatever it is you need help with, make sure you choose an editor that you like and trust. And who is experienced. This is most important with a memoir as such personal material needs to be treated with care and a certain delicacy.

Be prepared to kill your darlings. And try to be open to criticism, as your editor, as long as they know what they are doing, will ensure a good book becomes a great one.

28. Proofread

Once fully edited, you will want your book to be proofread. You can ask friends and family to help out with this (if you are lucky enough to know some who are patient enough to do this). As well as this, getting at least one professional proofreader to look over your work is advisable. The more you can get, the merrier.

You don’t want to put all this work into something, pour your heart and soul into it to find that you have a typo on page 67. More than one typo or punctuation error will begin to look unprofessional, so this is an especially important stage of the writing process.

29. Publish

A large part of how to write a memoir is to be determined, in part, by whether you have thought through how your book is going to be published. During the second or third draft may be a good time to start thinking about marketability and where it would sit on the bookshelves in your local bookshop.

If you intend on going with a traditional publisher, then knowing what sells and whether your concept is marketable is really important. If you want to self-publish and market it yourself, then being aware of your target audience is also a plus.

If you’re not worried at all about sales and simply have to get this down on paper, then great, you won’t have to worry about the market at all. Bear in mind that hugely successful books can sometimes become a big hit, because the author did not make this their first priority. This meant their books didn’t quite fit in, they were so niche that they stood out amongst the crowd.

H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald, for example, is a memoir filled with insight into grief and loss as the main character deals with the loss of her father through learning falconry, something he loved to do during his lifetime. McDonald was concerned it would not fit in anywhere, as she couldn’t find any other book that were both a memoir, and a book on birds. This difference and originality, however, could have just given her the edge.

So this is the end of our guide on how to write a memoir. We really hope it has helped you to have a broader understanding of what it takes to write a memoir and has given you a few ideas on how to get started.

Now all that is left is to write it.

So what are you waiting for?

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