Memoirs are their own class of writing, but they have to adhere to the principles of great storytelling. Here are four things to consider before you write your memoir.

 
A memoir is a special kind of writing. It is not an autobiography – it doesn’t cover an entire life. A memoir is about a particular phase of a life, one with its own beginning, middle, and ending. A memoir is akin to fiction in its being a story; but it is a true story.

Memoirs fall into their own class of writing. Yours is special to you because it is your collection of memories and the meanings attached to them. Ideally, you are writing them down because you think others can learn from them – the good, the bad, the unique. You are trying to inspire, warn, or impart some form of hard-won life lesson that might benefit your reader. Or you’ve lived through an utterly unique life situation that most will never experience. As such, it offers a different perspective that makes it great story material, whether others will envy you or thank their lucky stars they didn’t have to endure what you went through.

The best designed memoirs have a take-away message that stays with a reader, and this is what binds the story. Often this message is captured in the title.

Yes, even though they are fact, life accounts have an element of design in that you need to decide exactly what to tell and how to tell it. This can mean knowing when to dip in and out of real time. You have to give a condensed version of real life, and it has to adhere to the same principles of great storytelling as fiction does.

There are several challenges associated with writing a memoir. Deciding how to cope with each challenge before you begin to write your memoir will greatly accelerate the process of getting your story down on paper.

1. Decide which span of time you are describing.

What is the opening and what is the ending? This is the same as a novel; all good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an ending that contains a climax and brings about a resolution.

2. Decide whether you are sticking with pure fact, or whether you are going to embellish.

Embellishment might only mean changing the names of those involved to protect privacy. Deeper changes might involve the omission of key events, changes in the true chronology of events, or slight changes to help focus the story. For example, two people who helped you along your way might be merged into a single composite character to help the “plot” and the reader. Fiction has a similar balance, but it is often in reverse. Pure imagination is inspired by aspects of the truth. For example, a fictional character might be based on a friend.

3. Decide how personal you are going to get.

The whole purpose of writing your memoir might be to air out everything that happened, especially if your experiences might help someone else know they are not alone in what they are going through. On the other hand, you might be willing to share certain aspects of your life, but not others. Decide where to draw the line and how it will impact the story.

This choice can prove difficult. Key details you may be reluctant to share could be pivotal to the story. If you decide to exclude your motivations for events to keep them private, your plot might suffer or your character may be incomplete, unsatisfying, or inauthentic. Of course, this applies to everyone in your memoir as well. While you might be willing to share details of events and actions that took place, the real people involved may not be, and you’ll have to deal with this. Fiction has a similar aspect in that each author puts some personal experience and a private world view into any work of fiction, it’s just a matter of degree, and what is private is never explicitly defined.

4. Decide the message of your memoir.

Focus everything around this message. What is the take-away a reader should be left with? Remember, the best memoirs are like parables. They are not only intriguing – they help others improve their lives.

What was the purpose of taking the time to write the memoir? How is this message specific to you but universal? How can others relate and what can they draw from it? This is where the power of personal narrative lies. This spirit of the memoir is the magic of the genre.

All the same writing tips that apply to fiction apply to memoir writing. You need to focus on crafting a compelling story that’s accessible and engages your reader. Leave out the mundane details and focus on what makes this a story different from anyone else’s.

Believe it or not, one trap memoirists can fall into is not fully knowing their story. It’s yours, but you yourself change. And just as a fictional character only knows parts of the larger story he’s involved in, you may discover new angles to the story you’re telling. As humans, we grow and learn constantly. Writing your memoir will likely change you as a person. You might be surprised as you dig deeper into your story, and especially as you get feedback from others, that you see things differently from how you first saw them.

And for the sake of the story, per point number two, you might decide to take some poetic license. This can make a project seem quite different as it progresses than it might have appeared at the start. Don’t be surprised if this happens. If you’ve decided ahead of time to stick to pure facts, this will likely not be a variable.

It’s easier to write a memoir when it’s far enough in the past that you have fully processed what happened and have gained perspective on the events. If you are still in the process of trying to understand those events, it might just be too early to write your memoir. Then again, writing, with all the analysis and retrospection it requires, can be a great trigger for moving ahead in life by gaining distance from the past. The more you learn from your own story, the more your readers stand to benefit as well.

 

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Dawn Field

About Dawn Field

Dawn Field has written 36 posts in this blog.

Dr. Dawn Field is a book lover interested in what makes great writing. After a 20 year career as a research scientist, her first book, Biocode, was published by Oxford University Press. Now a columnist of The Double Helix, Dr. Field is exploring new writing venues and writing a second book. Based in Virginia, Dr. Field is looking to collaborate with a range of fiction writers as a writing coach, editor, and consultant on the publishing process: fiedawn@gmail.com.

12 thoughts on “Four things to decide before you write your memoir

  1. Lp Johnson says:

    Well thought and very informative. Thank you.

  2. In working on my memoir, THINGS WE LOST IN THE NIGHT, A Memoir of Love and Music in the 60s with Stark Naked and the Car Thieves, there were a series of progressions that the manuscript, and I, evolved through. What began as a project to recall and relate the events of an amazing six-year journey I took with 3 other friends from the Midwest before it was lost in time, turned into a very personal story for a number of important reasons not necessary to mention here. Since these events begin 50 or so years ago, I had the advantage of perspective. One of the things that began to emerge, and which I freely used, was the concept of three different narrators, though they were, of course, all me. The first and by far most common narrator, is the one living the story as it happened, without the perspective of time, or the maturity the experiences brought and still locked in the emotions of the moment. The second narrator is the transformed me at the end of the story, at least somewhat wiser through the immediate knowledge of the story’s outcome. This narrator’s voice is subtle and provides the foreknowledge that pulls rather than pushes the narrative forward. The last, and almost god-like narrator, is the author who is producing the story. The one who can see the actual and final transformation in the frame of a lifetime. Not used often but supremely powerful at the right moments. These three points of view are powerful multi-layering tools that allow an author to provide added dimensions to the intimacy of memoir’s first person narrative.

    I would say that if you can define your memoir time and space and story arc structure, check to see if you also have the distance to produce these three points of view. They can provide a powerful way to relate a historical story to readers in the present.

    Larry J. Dunlap
    Author of NIGHT PEOPLE, Book 1, and ENCHANTED, Book 2, due in Summer of 2017.

  3. John Clark says:

    My advice? (ok, you didn’t ask, but anyway . . .)
    I think the problem with a memoir is recognizing that there is a separation between what you didn’t know before, what you discovered as you navigated through life, and the conclusions you yourself have drawn. How to set these distinctions down is the question.
    You could START with where you are now, then look back. Or START with yourself at the beginning, filled with innocence, wonder, and confusion, then get on to how you tackled it. The choice is yours, but with revelation, there’s no curiosity and becomes predictable. A buyer will probably flip through the index, so be sure there’s a sex filled chapter.
    You need to draw the reader in with some kind of teaser. I’d say beware of too much detail, like you remember every tiny detail in an event you are recounting. That smells of invention, and brings on disbelief.
    Legal worries are about privacy, especially these days. If money-making and a best seller, a smart lawyer will come after you on behalf of a character in your life (ex-wife, g/f, boss, nanny or whatever). And if you don’t care, maybe your publisher will, and knock the balls out of your story.
    Me, I’m 84, so I don’t give a shit. Come after me if you like, and I shall self-publish, probably on Amazon. The carrier can’t be sued.
    I like to think that if my story was imprinted on a space vehicle, it would give an alien an idea of life in our weird and strange world. They would probably hurry off back to their planet far far away. Maybe it’s best to wait until you are still healthy but near death’s door.

    1. BookBaby BookBaby says:

      A little patience, John. I just hadn’t gotten to approving comments until now.

  4. Darlene Maier says:

    Thank you because this was very informative. So many questions about writting a memoir was answered here. I appreciate the work yo had put into this post.
    Thank you. Darlene

  5. Andy Halmay says:

    I doubt very much that writing a memoir will change anyone. Writing an auto bio or memoir helps increase self-awareness and self-knowledge but that doesn’t necessarily lead to change. Perhaps if one writes memoirs in younger years, self awareness can lead to an effort to better oneself, but at 89 I can certify that in our declining years we are not about to make great changes.

    I tripped into a novel structure by combining diary notes with memoir. It is very natural in our older years. Many current events that we see or read about tend to remind us of experiences in our past.

    In my “The First 85 Years Are the Hardest,” I offer a whole collection of mini-memoirs growing out of diary notes. I added a chapter with a chronological account covering a period but the bulk of it is that collection of diary notes-cum mini-memoir.

    The deaths of celebrities with whom I worked or with whom I had had some personal involvement found me combining obituary with mini-memoir. Sadly my volume II, which I planned to edit and publish in 2017 is lost with a hard drive that that died with no backup.

    In my “The Zsa Zsa Affair,” I cover three short years on Madison Avenue leading up to producing a TV commercial with Zsa Zsa Gabor in Hollywood and then entering a partnership with her to launch a cosmetics company which was aborted. That effort would be categorized as straight memoir.

    In “It Ain’t Fine if it Don’t Rhyme” I combine memories of experiences in the music industry over a 60 year period with the publication of hundreds of lyrics and some sheet music which I had written in that period.

    If we live long enough, our experiences provide a mine from which we can dig tons of interesting data to present in an endless variety of ways. I never think of pleasing readers or making an effort to improve their lives. Writing about our own lives, particularly at an age where our short memory begins to fail us is a most healthful exercise. It lets us relive great moments, gives us perspective that we may not have had before on past relationships, attitudes, and experiences.

    I recommend it to everyone who has retired whether they intend to publish or not. Some future descendant who gets into genealogical search will bless you at some future date, long after you have gone. Most of us develop an interest in our roots too late in life – when all those in the family who could have helped provide information are gone.

    Where do I come from, please let me see
    What they were like who came before me?
    Will I be proud to learn of my past
    Or will I regret I probed and asked?
    Here am I now, but soon I’ll be gone,
    What is the meaning, why carry on?
    Where do I come from? I’ve got to know,
    I’ve got to dig it up and find my roots
    To get perspective before I go.

  6. Sylvie Nickels says:

    Very interesting. I’m incredibly old (86) with a childhood in World War Two. I’m planning a memoir covering the period from the end of that war to 9/11 – an unusually long period of world peace (as opposed to local wars), yet the world is more troubled than it has ever been. Am interested in examining why. Certainly society has radically changed, and I’m not sure social media has helped much. There is a marked dividing line between those who experienced that War and the austerity/Cold War of the aftermath and those for whom it is only history.
    Have written a trilogy of novels on the effects of war on the children/grandchildren of those who participated in them.

    1. Jude Crump says:

      Sylvie, I am the child of a WWII veteran with PTSD. I am writing about that childhood now. I am very much interested in reading your trilogy of novels and your memoir as well.

  7. John Mahoney says:

    Thank you for talking about the importance of making sure you are clear on the message you want to give before you start writing your memoir. It makes sense that doing this would help you have a better idea of the things you need to talk about and how you need to do so. It is important to remember that understanding this can help you be successful with your project and help other people understand it.

  8. Richard A. Gardiner says:

    I am in the process now, at 78. Encouraging to know that some haven’t written their memoirs until late in their 80’s. Maybe I should wai. Bult then I would be taking the chance that I wouldn’t get to my late 80’s, better to write it now when I have the ich to do so.

    In any event I have been looking for a writting of what and what not to do as well as insights on what is important and what is not.

    Thank you for the very interesting and useful article, and reflective insights and opinions of other writers who have written their memoirs.

    Richard A. Gardiner

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