Finding Your Story In Your Memoir

man writing his memoir

Your personal story can teach others some of life’s lessons, and you might even learn a thing or two when you write your memoir.

Stephen King once said, “I write to find out what I think.” Telling part of your life story, in the form of a memoir, suggests an extension of this concept.

In many ways, it raises profound questions, like, “What have you learned in your life?” That can be a difficult question to answer, particularly if you want to be honest in your story. And you’d better be, because readers can sniff out dishonesty as ruthlessly as a truffle pig can detect the scent of… well, you know.

You can write a fanciful tale filled with self-aggrandizing passages or create a self-serving epic, but you have a better chance of capturing a reader’s interest — and heart — by being honest.

Adopt the storytelling conventions of fiction

Avoid writing your memoir starting with the date of your birth and proceeding year-by-year through the events of your life. That’s not a memoir, anyway — that’s an autobiography (and likely a boring one, at that). The best memoirs adopt storytelling conventions common to fictional works.

Lure the reader into your tale, adding elements of mystery to drive the narrative forward, teasing the reader with details that foreshadow coming revelations, creating tension by presenting challenges and adversity, and setting memorable scenes and locations for the characters to play out their roles. Even if you haven’t written any fiction, you can employ successful storytelling conventions from books, movies, and plays in your memoir.

Use your own voice, attitudes, and familiar expressions

We all develop a unique voice over our lifetimes, a certain way of speaking, maybe even a way of thinking that is uniquely ours. Use it liberally. This voice is often composed of familiar expressions we hear growing up, the idioms native to certain regions. All those curious turns of phrases and quirky local verbal twists add spirit and color to storytelling and enliven conversations.

It’s likely your acquired voice has more than a few expressions or funny stories that are passed along over generations. My grandfather, who emigrated from Sweden, told us this nonsense poem in the mid-‘50s — which is popular enough that you can find multiple sources for it on the Internet — probably communicated by word of mouth much like folk tales or traditional songs.

One dark day in the middle of the night, two dead boys got up to fight.
Back-to-back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot each other.
A deaf policeman heard the noise and came and shot the two dead boys.

It is kind of weird that this verse has stuck in my head for decades (and I remember I found it eerily enchanting when my grandfather first recited it).

None of this means you have to write in the dialect of your rural New England town, include the chatter picked up at a farm stand just outside Taos, or go overboard injecting expressions remembered from the southern juke joint you used to frequent, but you can add a bit of seasoning to your memoir by adding a few, select local gems.

Let the theme establish itself

If you can methodically map your life’s progression and neatly see how your life story points in a finite direction, more power to you. It might be worth considering, however, letting the theme establish itself as you write. A memoir can be a vehicle of self-discovery in powerful and surprising ways. Unless you can map the theme early on (I knew I would become the most skilled plumber in the city when I was eight and crawled under the kitchen sink to patch a leak), give yourself some room to build a theme from the incidents that unfold as you write.

Be sensitive about friends and family

You are the gatekeeper of a treasure trove of details about friends and family, some of which could be embarrassing, hurtful, or damaging if put into print. Be sensitive to the feelings of those you care about, especially if you plan to have your memoir printed.

On the other hand, you might want to write a memoir that scorns the rules of polite society, in which case anything goes. Just tread carefully in passages where libel and slander laws may turn around and bite you on the tuchus or cause you to quickly become the family pariah. Burning bridges is a one-way pursuit, and you may find yourself on the wrong side of the bridge.

Read noteworthy memoirs for inspiration and to spark your imagination

A fine way to learn how to write is to read voraciously, not to try to mimic the style of a certain writer, but to get some background on how others handle their life stories. There is no one right way to write a memoir, but you can expand your writing chops by studying the different ways the task is approached. In the spirit of pathfinding, here are a few examples to get the neurons firing.

The Do's and Don'ts of Planning a Book LaunchHumor can be an effective tool in memoirs (even black humor). Augusten Burroughs used it generously in his memoir Running with Scissors, tracing his strange childhood from ages eleven to seventeen. Given away by his mentally ill mother to her psychiatrist to be raised, Burroughs’ childhood is awash in cheerfully demented characters who could be straight out of an absurdist novel.

Patrimony, by Philip Roth, tells the heart-wrenching story of the last years of his father’s life. Herman Roth is a bullying, often obnoxious, human being, who at the age of 86 wakes up with half his face paralyzed and begins a miserable descent into medical deterioration. Roth tells his father’s tale with compassion, humor, stark realism, and startling revelations, elevating the story to a poignant, memorable paean of his father as only a skilled writer can.

William Finnegan won the 2016 Pulitizer Prize for his memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. Beginning his surfing adventures in his childhood in California and Hawaii, Finnegan travels the world’s coastal regions in an endless quest to discover the most challenging waves, explore some of the most remote regions of the world, and enrich his life experiences.

See what the New York Times rates as the fifty most compelling memoirs over half a century.

And, finally, see what Literary Hub considers the ten Best Memoirs of the Decade.

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  1. All most interesting. When it was suggested I write a Memoir a few years ago, ago, I dived in with gusto…Called My Gentle War, it was World War II itself which provided one of the most significant changes in my life. Evacuation and separation made me more self-reliant, despite being shy, and taught me about the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots!’ Although a member of the hoi polloi, I had one set of grandparents (paternal) who were ‘comfortably’ off’ and Aunts clever with their hands, so – being the only girl on both sides – I was well dressed compared with my playmates on a mountain village above Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. Unemployment was sky high in MT before the war, and I was horrified to witness real poverty first hand. Fortunately my foster aunt and uncle had a good income and were kindness itself. I was allowed to roam on my own for the first time, aged seven and joined the local library, so was in heaven…There were numerous adventures, and evacuation to two other venues, and – after the war – (all stirred but not shaken…) I included excerpts from my father’s war diary and found it all great fun. (The book went to No. 1 on Kindle for a while in the Social History and Memoir category.) Cheers!


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