Learning how to write a memoir won’t be easy! It requires brutal honesty, courage, and a naked rawness to share hard lessons with the world.
But if you have a personal story you’re dying to tell, you’re in the right place.
Writing a memoir might feel intimidating, but it’s straightforward. You just need a blueprint. Simple-to-follow steps to get your creativity flowing. Plus, you might find the writing process fun!
Below, we’ve compiled a list of steps to get you going.
Let’s get started.
What is a Memoir?
Good memoirs are written from all walks of life and are personal accounts that capture a defining moment. They are stories of strength, courage, tragedy, heartbreak, and so on.
While memoir writing has aspects of personal development, the overall tone needs to be narrative and a compelling story.
After all, you’re sharing a personal experience through a storytelling lens.
The primary focus isn’t on you; it’s on a personal experience, the feelings and messages you can share with the reader.
Autobiography or Memoir?
While they seem similar, there are key differences between an autobiography and a memoir.
An autobiography is about an author’s life. It typically follows a chronological order, covering all aspects of their life — personal and professional.
A memoir focuses on one specific period of the author’s life. There might be multiple stories about their journey, but it all relates to a singular theme.
And although they won’t always be in chronological order, there is a narrative arc.
7 Pivotal Steps to Writing a Memoir
If you’ve experienced a pivotal moment that’s altered who you were and changed the course of your life experience, the steps below will help you create a memoir readers want to devour…
1. Narrow the Focus by Choosing a Theme
What story do you want to share? There should be one overarching theme or event that ties everything together.
Your theme could be something like:
- Discovering the best in yourself once you lost everything
- Finding a balance between life’s work and family
- How you recovered from a near-fatal accident
While these are your stories, you need to consider the reader. You are using your experiences to share with others how they shaped you, giving the reader a clear benefit.
- What life lesson would you have readers take away from your experiences?
- How can you help someone facing a similar situation?
- What do you hope people will gain from reading it?
- What message do you want to share?
Decide what you want to write about, why you want to write it, and whom you want to write it for.
2. Put the Readers in Your Shoes
Empathy is key to a powerful memoir. You need to pull readers in and have them experience the emotions you did.
When choosing what to share, look for universally appealing moments. We know feelings of elatedness, betrayal, grief, or longing. Tap into those emotions. Readers relate if they can feel it themselves while reading your journey.
Don’t gloss over the ugly or complex — the more powerful the emotions, the more compelling your story.
It may feel too personal, or you’re sharing too much, but being brutally honest with your readers, will build a connection.
Writing a memoir should be an empathetic journey for your reader. Readers who walk a mile in your shoes will be engaged and more receptive to your message.
3. Write Truthfully and Be Detailed
Honesty and passion — you need to write with an authenticity that people will hear.
Sometimes you won’t look good because of things you said or did. It’s uncomfortable to bare yourself and show the not-so-good parts. After all, it’s only human nature to present yourself in the best light.
But when you’re brave enough to be authentic and transparent, your words will resonate with your readers.
The vulnerability you show when you tell your “true story” makes you human and relatable. Your readers will respect your honesty.
Regarding presenting the truth in what others may have said, you might be worried about presenting quotes as facts.
Maybe Uncle Johnny said XYZ, but you write he said ZYX.
The exact wording isn’t necessary for a memoir. It’s enough that you present the idea of what they said.
4. Dramatize Your Story: Show, Don’t Tell
When sharing an event in your memoir, don’t just recite the plain facts.
Instead of saying:
It was a cold fall day when I reluctantly agreed to see him.
The fallen leaves crunched beneath my boots as I trudged towards the park bench, tightening my scarf around my neck as the wind whipped my hair across my face.
In the first example, you’re telling the reader the circumstances.
In the second, you’re putting the reader into the experience. They feel your reluctance. They feel the cold and the discomfort.
Equally, try to add suspense where appropriate.
But don’t recite a whole encounter from beginning to end.
That takes away the suspense, the element of surprise. If they know up front that everything was a success, they’ll lose interest in the details that made the situation challenging.
Start with the blunder! Then tell the reader how everything worked out.
5. Be Bold and Give It Personality
A memoir is a conversation, not a research paper.
Don’t be afraid to write the way you talk. You can be as informal as you wish and include your quirks.
Do you use profanity in real life? Drop those four-letter words into your memoir.
Are you known for your sarcasm and dry humor? Insert touches of those traits in your storytelling. Add that humor. Especially if it embodies a point, you want to make.
Your voice sets your memoir apart and makes it unique. It personalizes it, making it come alive for your readers.
If you find yourself writing in a stiff or formal tone, try using speech-to-text software. As you dictate your story, the software will transcribe your words. Then you can edit it where necessary to make it sound like you.
6. Expose the Impact It Had on Your Life
Your memoir isn’t just about sharing the experiences that shaped your life. It’s also about the impact those experiences had on you and those around you.
Think about the memoir as a case study of someone else’s life. It helps to have an objective side where you describe your experiences and feelings.
But also a subjective side where you analyze the impact those experiences made. Use storytelling to weave in lessons you learned during the event in your memoir.
Include moments of self-discovery, growth, and determination to show how your experiences changed your life.
7. Reveal Your Metamorphosis
A memoir is a metamorphosis your life has taken. After all, that’s the point of why you’re sharing it.
Focus on your learned lessons and candidly share how they helped you grow and change, becoming the better version of yourself.
Write about that transformation — the significant and long-lasting changes to your personality, character, purpose, or worldview.
It doesn’t need to be radical. Minor changes are just as valuable.
By explaining the most important lessons you’ve learned, readers will better understand how you’ve become the person you are. This transformation guides the reader to apply it to their own lives.
5 Tips For a Successful Memoir
Now you understand the pivotal steps, it’s time to break it down. These straightforward tips will help your readers know how to create a binge-able memoir…
1. Humanize the Elephant in the Room
Everyone knows the memoir is about you. But it’s vital to find a connection with your readers.
There needs to be a clear takeaway to make them think, “wow, this is much more important than I thought.”
Humanize those moments and lessons and turn them into something the reader can relate to.
After all, the whole point is to take something you’ve” shared and apply it to their own lives.
2. Hold Your Reader’s Hand Thru Difficult Emotions
Your memoir should lead your readers through a series of emotions. Feeling the pain, you felt when a loved one died or the excitement when you got the good news about a promotion.
Although some of these emotions can be uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to write about complicated feelings. You will create a lasting connection and build empathy with your readers.
Hold their hand through the experience and guide them gently through the challenging emotions.
3. Writing Messages So Shocking That Readers Will Get Goosebumps!
This is an opportunity to bring about a seismic shift in perspective for readers and forever change how they view the world. Don’t shock for the sake of shocking but make the most of this moment.
Your shocking moments can inspire. Essentially giving them goosebumps as they connect with you.
The truth is often shocking, making it a powerful and memorable moment. So be brave. Make this a lesson-learning moment that stands out because that is what readers will remember most about your memoir.
4. Just The Naked Truth — Don’t Lie
Your memoir ideas might include elements of creative writing, but that doesn’t mean it can be an outlet for fictional encounters.
Don’t lie or exaggerate to sound more exciting or explosive for the readers. If they sniff out a lie or an exaggeration, they’ll lose their trust in you. You need to find a balance between a creative story structure and creative nonfiction.
There are two caveats to keep in mind.
First, no one expects you to remember word-for-word conversations. It’s okay just to have the gist. That’s different from making up entire discussions that never took place.
Second, it’sThat’sIt’s perfectly acceptable to change details that protect the innocent. We’ll cover that in more detail in the next section.
Just don’t lie about the event that didn’t happen or misrepresent the other people in your story.
5. Credibility & Censure And How To Avoid Memoir Contamination
There’s a fine line between telling your truth while being respectful of others. For example:
What if you want to include a story where you overheard your aunt ridiculing you because of your weight to someone else?
But maybe your aunt is deceased, and while you want to discuss the humiliation and anger you felt then, you don’t want to besmirch your aunt’s memory.
Instead, you can create a composite character or change identifying markers in this case.
So, instead of your story involving the aunt, change it to your best friend at a Christmas party.
The specifics about who said it and where aren’t vital to the story. The feelings you experienced and how they affected you are the details that make the story.
And if you have any doubts about the legalities of your story, always consult an attorney.
Memoir Examples: From the Famous & Not So Famous
Show the readers that they can be inspired and feel empowered — if others can bear their souls, then they can too.
By gaining the historical value from the memoirs below, your readers can grow and be more assertive in writing their own.
1. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
A Moveable Feast is a collection of essays recounting Hemingway’s years in Paris in the 1920s. As the main character, we learn about Hemingway’s awkward early years as a developing writer.
And we gain insights into the work of his contemporaries like James Joyce and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
2. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Angela’s Ashes tells the story of McCourt’s childhood years. Growing up in extreme poverty with an alcoholic father in Limerick, Ireland, McCourt’s tale could be bitter. However, this memoir writer infuses his work with humor and compassion, offering grace to those around him.
3. Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
Born Standing Up reveals how Martin developed his love and talent for standup comedy and why he walked away from the comedy spotlight at the pinnacle of his career. His book is an excellent example of writing about the complexity of family relationships.
4. Undone by Michele Cushatt
Undone is a life story full of twists and turns. Cushatt shares raw stories about her cancer diagnoses, foster children, and blended families in a way that leaves you feeling you’re not alone.
5. Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl
Boy: Tales of Childhood covers the first 20 years of Dahl’s life.
Witty and charming, we see how Dahl can spin a personal essay that relates to life events from the 1920s-1930s England. Dahl spins tales that both children and adults enjoy. Shocking by today’s standards, we get an insight into how different things were generations ago through his memoir essay.
6. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Eat, Pray, Love is an example of how a great memoir can repel some while resonating with others. Gilbert shares her journey of using travel to find herself after a divorce. Criticized by some as indulgent navel-gazing, it resonates with many who’ve battled the demon of depression.
7. On Writing by Stephen King
On Writing is a successful memoir well-loved by writers and fans of King’s novels. In On Writing, King discusses his views on writing and what it takes to be a successful writer. His approach makes this memoir equal parts how-to and inspirational.
8. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Glass Castle chronicles Walls’ personal narrative of years of being raised by an alcoholic father and a self-absorbed mother. While the topic isn’t original (unfortunately, it’s a fate of many childhood experiences), Walls’ personal memoir stands out for her decision to design a life that looks forward.
9. Beautiful Boy by David Shepp
Beautiful Boy deals with drug addiction from the parent’s perspective. Shepp’s son’s addiction to methamphetamines causes heartbreaking distress to his father. But David learns the battle to save a family member can become an addiction of its own.
10. Direct from Dell by Michael Dell
In Direct from Dell, we learn about the CEO who disrupted the traditional supply chain. He made the direct-to-consumer model the new approach to computer sales and service. Dell shares business lessons that stand the test of time.
11. Get Me Out of Here by Rachel Reiland
Get Me Out of Here is an account of one woman’s struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder. Not intended as self-help or medical research, Get Me Out Of Here is a source of support for those who struggle with the same diagnosis.
12. Broken by Shy Keenan
Broken shines a spotlight on the failures of a system that should’ve protected an innocent girl. Keenan doesn’t shy away from the horrific abuses that make readers recoil in horror.
Final Thoughts On How To Write a Memoir
Knowing how to write a memoir because you want to share your story — that’s objective to get readers hooked.
You don’t need to be a professional writer or a famous person to write your memoir.
You just need to share your truth in a way that inspires or resonates with others. With our step-by-step guide, you have everything you need to write a memoir.
Your story could have a profound impact on its readers.
All that’s left is for you to get started.