How to Write a Memoir

Here’s something that I’m noticing: Everyone wants to write a memoir. Let’s face it: we’re all interesting people (at least to ourselves!), and writing about ourselves is a useful way of processing events and emotions. But before you put pen to paper, let’s back up a bit.

Of course you can write a memoir; the real questions is--should you?

Let’s start with the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. They’re both about you. An autobiography follows your life closely, from birth to the present moment, and I’ll be honest with you: unless your name is Barak Obama, or Angelina Jolie, or Alex Rodriguez, you probably want to stay away from the autobiography. What we consider interesting lives are rarely that interesting to anybody besides ourselves, our mothers, and our spouses.

A memoir is something different. A memoir takes a part of one’s life and builds the narrative around that. Say for example you joined a Buddhist monastery in Thailand for three years: aside from the introductory chapter, your memoir would be about those three years. Perhaps you survived a natural disaster: in that case, your memoir is about that time … but with a twist, making sure that you share what meaning you took from these events, and what they can mean for your reader.

The bottom line is this: it's more personal than an autobiography. A memoir brings the subject back to the reader. What did you learn from the time you’re writing about? How did it help you grow as a person? Did it answer any deep questions for you? How can you share what you learned with the reader in such a way that they, too, can learn something from it?

And then there are a few rules:

  1. Don’t write things exactly as they happened, in the order in which they happened. Even in a memoir, readers need a dramatic arc, a story, not just a recitation of facts. “But that’s how it happened!” clients have told me. Maybe so, but just because it happened doesn’t mean it needs to be included. Pick and choose the events, thoughts, and people who make your memoir into a coherent story, and discard the rest.

  2. Stick to broad strokes, don’t get bogged down in the details. That’s right. Everyone is bound to find every conversation you have absolutely riveting, aren’t they? Um, no. Many of us remember the beginnings of social networks, when we were treated to the particulars of someone’s breakfast menu or the moment they decided to take a nap. There is nothing interesting about the details of anyone’s day. Trust me on this. If you have something interesting to say, say it. Otherwise, leave it out.

  3. Don’t assume that just because something is interesting to you, it will be interesting to the book-purchasing public. I’ve noticed that in general the people who live the most interesting lives are not the same ones who go around sayingthat their life is interesting. Check out your premise with a critique group before you assume that it’s going to capture the world’s attention.

  4. As we saw before, memoir and biography are different genres. A biography is a straightforward narrative that does in fact capture an individual’s life in chronological order. It’s generally written about someone who has accomplished many significant things (being president of a country, discovering the cure for cancer, founding an opera company). If that just described you, then go for it. Memoir, on the other hand, follows a theme: a time, relationship, career, or task that was particularly significant and that can be woven into a story arc. If you’re still unclear, take a look at Frederick Buechner’s memoir, The Sacred Journey. In it he says, “memory is more than a looking back to a time that is no longer; it is a looking out into another kind of time altogether where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and change with the life that is in it still.”

  5. It’s probably not going to be a bestseller. I think that writing a memoir can be healthy. It can be cathartic. By all means, write yours: perhaps the world would be a better place if we all took the time to write about and reflect on important milestones in our lives. But before you decide to seek publication, remember that some personal things really should stay personal.

And if you still think you have a great memoir after all that, then go for it!