What is a memoir?
A memoir is a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge or special sources. It's a book about your life, the lessons learned, and key moments that shaped who you are.
A memoir is a collection of memories that an individual writes about moments or events, both public and private, that took place in the subject's/person’s life. The assertions made in the work are understood to be factual. While memoir has historically been defined as a subcategory of biography or autobiography since the late 20th century, the genre is differentiated in form, presenting a narrowed focus. A biography or autobiography tells the story "of a life", while a memoir often tells a story "from a life", such as touchstone events and turning points from the author's life.
We all typically think of a memoir and cringe a little at the idea about someone else's life. Your memoir, helping people like you tell their story…
The importance of a memoir:
People naturally want to connect with one another. They want to share their stories and have stories shared with them in return. Memoir is an inherently personal genre, one that encourages its readers to talk about experiences that are important to them, things they may not otherwise be comfortable discussing. Perhaps that is the true power of memoir that it causes readers to relive their own memories and relate to one another, not in some fictional universe, but here in the real world. The only thing that brings people together more than a good story is a good true story. Many self and indie-published authors get their start by writing memoirs. When they become serious about writing as a career path, the first stories they share are often their own. These authors then move on to publish other books that may contain grains of truth, but are rarely as raw and personal as those first books. Memoir is a gateway, a phase in every writer’s life. Memoir is a bridge, connecting strangers to one another, and allowing a writer to transition from an amateur’s world to the realm of a published, professional author. It is so much more than simply another genre.
"Build your memoir around moments of highest emotion. Those are the moments when your true character emerges”.
Tips to note while writing a memoir:
Focus hard on detail and dialogue. This falls into the classic writing advice of ‘show, don’t tell.’ “Remember to describe how you felt about things as they happened,” Crofts says. “Don’t go into too much description (no beautiful sunsets). In fact, keep adjectives and adverbs to a minimum, making the nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting. Keep detailed information such as dates and times to a minimum unless crucial to the story.”
Take the lead from your favorite writer (or writers) and see how they write narration and dialogue to play out their scenes. “Use direct speech as much as possible,” Acton adds. “It doesn't have to be 100% accurate; it just needs to capture the personality of the speaker and the essence of what was said.” With these steps in mind, you will hopefully have enough inspiration to work your way through the first draft of your memoir.
Avoid the most common memoir pitfalls, as with any creative endeavor, writing a memoir about yourself comes with its own unique pitfalls.
1. Making yourself a hero:
While a memoir is often an opportunity to ‘tell your side of the story,’ don’t paint yourself as a complete hero or victim. Like any protagonist in a novel, it’s your strengths and weaknesses that will make you a compelling figure. Readers expect honesty and candor. If they sense that you’re stretching the truth or have an underlying agenda, they will quickly switch off.
2. Not getting an outside opinion:
At some point, you might want to share a draft with a close friend or family member. Their feedback can be priceless, as they might remember events differently to how you've portrayed them in your memoir. Based on their reactions, you can choose to work in their suggestions or stick to your guns. However, it's also important that you get someone who doesn't know you to read your manuscript.
Always remember that the reader may not know what you take for granted. Beta readers who don’t know you that well can help you see when your stories need more background information (and when they’re not compelling or relevant enough).
Professional editors are also an invaluable resource to tap into. On platforms like Reedsy, you can search for editors who have worked for major publishers on memoirs like yours. For those legacy projects, a professional editor can help you focus on the parts that matter; if you write something with a commercial edge, they can make all the difference when it comes to selling your book.
These are just a few tips that will help you get started. Along your journey, you may encounter well-meaning and highly qualified people who will question why you think you should be writing a memoir.
But if you have a story that you feel needs to be told, you shouldn’t let anyone stand in your way. Everybody has a tale to tell: just make yours a good one and the rest of us will come along for the ride.
Major things to decide before writing your memoir:
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.
1. 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, and 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.
2. 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, middle, and an ending that contains a climax and brings about a resolution. 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 does not fully know 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, 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.
The Mental Health Benefits of Writing a Memoir
Writing about your life is good for you. Our capacity to move forward as developing beings rests on a healthy relationship with the past. Psychotherapy, that widespread method for promoting mental health, relies heavily on memory and on the ability to retrieve and organize images and events from the personal past. If we learn not only to tell our stories but to listen to what our stories tell us to write the first draft and then return for the second draft we are doing the work of memory.
Engaging your brain to write your memoirs can leave a recorded history for your descendants as it helps improve your cognitive fitness.
As we grow older, there may be a tendency to feel less relevant to the people around us. We tend to withdraw as a result, and this isolation can lead to a greater risk of depression.
We often counsel our clients to "let it all out" in a first draft for two reasons: first, you are more likely to write authentically without self-editing or judging; and second, it is cathartic. (For some, this is freeing; for others painful.) But it is in the process of reviewing, organizing, and editing the writing that those cognitive connections are made, that perspective is achieved. And perspective is power. While we can't always control our situations in life, we can often control our perspective.
Leaving some kind of legacy can be a driving force for many older men. How do you want people to remember you? Sure, you'd like to leave behind money or personal items to your grandchildren, family, and friends, but the gift that literally can last forever is your personal history. But here's an idea that will help you stay in the game as it helps your family better understand their own history. It's simple: write your life story.
The story of your life and the power of memoir engaging yourself in an endeavor like writing your memoirs can be rewarding for you and others. You would be surprised at how interested your peers and family members are in your stories and personal history that others don’t, and leaving a recorded history of your life can be an important gift to both you and your descendants.
Writing your memoirs offers many benefits beyond simple storytelling. For instance, they can be an opportunity to pass along specific wisdom and life lessons. Even if you write about parts of your life that you have never told anyone because they were unhappy or painful memories, revisiting them can show others the strength it takes to overcome life barriers when they face their own.
The actual writing aspect also can be a therapeutic tool as you explore issues that may still trouble you. JAMA Psychiatry found that writing about a specific upsetting memory was just as effective as traditional cognitive processing therapy in treating adults with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Reasons why writing can help your brain and your spirit:
- Create order out of chaos: Just the act of organizing your past into a system, whether chronological or otherwise, can help you see your life in a different way and, according to neuroscientists, can even change your brain's organic structure.
- Beyond catharsis: Yes, getting it all out can be helpful, but careful editing after the catharsis can help you determine what is really most important for you to impart to others.
- Overview of your accomplishments: Give yourself a hand; you've probably accomplished more than you think you have. And those accomplishments are more than just what you've owned or achieved, but who you've become.
- Gratitude for what you have: Your life isn't just hardships and challenges, it's the luck you've found and the blessings you've received. And realizing that sometimes they are one and the same.
- Keep your mind sharp: Organizing your life into a structure, looking for patterns, and finding the words to express yourself are great mental exercise.
- Identify your strengths: Looking at the past can remind us of how tough we must be, because, hey, we're still here.
- Motivation for the future: Looking back helps you realize what you still haven't done and what priorities you have moving forward.
- Release valve: For years, you kept "junk journals" in which you would get out all your fears and frustrations so you could face your day in peace. They were never meant for public consumption but they served their purpose. Just the act of writing, not the words you wrote, can helped you get through a tough time.
Tell Your Story. Write Your Story, Change the World…
The more memoirs you read, the more lessons you learn, first about the literary form, second about other people, and third about yourself. These benefits intertwine to form one of the best systems of self-development.
1. Insight into cultural mixing, the melting pot of modernity:
In modernity, cultures and races mingle at an ever increasing rate. Now, more than ever, we urgently need to understand each other. Through memoirs we penetrate the veil of the other, by accompanying them on their journey.
2. See deep into another’s point of view, including gender, war, celebrity: In order to live in the world, we need insights into the way other people think and feel. By reading memoirs, we no longer need to guess. Each author tells it themselves.
3. To share their story, authors overcome shame and privacy:
Some memories evoke the emotion of shame, which tries to convince us to lock our thoughts away and never reveal them. It requires courage to share such memories with the world. Every time someone achieves that goal, it offers a role model for other aspiring memoir writers.
4. In the River of Culture, Writers and the Writing Life:
All memoirs reflect the journey from life to literature, but when memoirs take us inside the writing life, we gain an even deeper appreciation for the written words that form the fabric of our culture. These stories shed light on the nobility and magic of being literate human beings.
A walk down memory lane:
Where should you begin your life story? You don’t have to follow a straight year-by-year account. Instead, creating a timeline of your life based on the places you have lived. “Begin with writing about your homes. “Think about the house you grew up in, or the first house you owned. The places you’ve lived often invoke a wealth of visual memories and long-forgotten stories that are tied to those places.”
Another way to trigger ideas is to look through photo albums. Focus on a single picture and write about the story behind it. Or use writing prompts, by asking yourself questions such as, “One of my fondest memories of my best friend was …”; or “The time I was happiest or most scared was …” Or write about your favorite hobbies or sports.
Writing can be tough for some people. Here are some strategies to help you find your rhythm.
Write at the same time each day to establish a routine. Choose a specific time to write, whether it’s in the morning while you drink coffee, or before bed, or any time in between.
Write for a set period. In the beginning, set a timer and write for 10 to 15 minutes. Gradually extend the time to 20 minutes or longer. Don’t worry about spelling and grammar. Your writing is about record keeping and not publication, so write the way you speak, and don’t focus on correcting mistakes.
Use a recorder. If you aren’t comfortable writing, then record your stories on a tape recorder or your smartphone. There are many speech recognition programs that can convert audio into text documents, such as Sonix, InqScribe, and Dragon Naturally Speaking.
Try writing longhand. Research has found that handwriting, especially in cursive, can activate parts of the brain associated with short and long term memory. The slower process also can help improve attention and information processing, since you have to focus on forming letters and words.
Look for writing groups. Some community centers offer memoir-writing workshops that can offer further support and give you a chance to share your writing with other people. Or reach out to friends about forming your own writing group. The slower process also may help improve attention and information processing, since you have to focus on forming letters and words.
Other sources of inspiration are early jobs, or hobbies or sports you enjoyed. "For instance, if you were once an avid tennis player but are no longer able to play, you could share your knowledge, insight, and love of the game with future players like your grandkids. Once you get going, you will be surprised at the memories that will bubble to the surface and motivate you to write them down. You'll discover that your life and your stories are still quite relevant."
Reasons Writing a Memoir was Worth the Time and Effort:
Once you finished writing this story of life-altering events you had carried inside for so many years, it will no longer be in you. Its energy was now literally outside your body in a tangible form. Writing the memoir will remove the story from your body. It roto-rooted remnants of the trauma you had written about out of your cellular memory, out of your energetic being in a way that no therapy or other healing modality had been able to do.
The story, the past events that had loomed so large, that had seemed so overwhelming, so impossible, so challenging to write about, had shrunk from towering marble solid monument to flexible book size. you could hold and open and flip pages of this story in book form in your hand. You had transformed life altering events using the creative expression that had the most meaning for you writing. You had also created art and beauty out of a difficult series of experiences.
One humungous reason memoir writers persist on that sheer rock climb to tell their stories is to share them, to have them witnessed by others. Having other people enjoy your book is wonderful enough. But when your words move them, bring meaning, change their lives, the feeling is indescribable. You know you are in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.
Every hour of writing angst, every challenge flies out the window when you hear the words, “Your book changed my life” or “Your book gave me a whole new perception about my own situation, even though my circumstances were different than yours.”
Or, “I stayed up until 2 a.m. reading your book because I had to find out what happened next, because it moved me so much.”
Or, “Thank you for voicing what I could not about illness and abuse, and for sharing what you learned, too. Your experience gives me strength to face my own challenges.”
Many memoir workshops, people over 50 try to make sense of the events of their lives. This journey of discovery, and at the same the fine line that distinguishes memoir from autobiography. If you attempt to describe your whole life, the result is usually considered less literary, and more historical. However, evidence that with a sincere, artistic attempt to find the story; such writers can develop a compelling work. And how else will we ever learn to understand the entire journey, unless we write about it?
When people pass away, so often their stories die with them. Think about how, as you get older, you wish you knew more about your grandparents or great-grandparents and how they lived.
Besides sharing your stories, your memoirs can be an opportunity to pass along specific wisdom and life lessons. "Even if you write about parts of your life that you have never told anyone because they were unhappy or painful, revisiting them can show others the strength it takes to overcome life barriers when they face their own.
Writing your personal history also can be a therapeutic tool as you explore issues that may still trouble you. A study published online Jan. 17, 2018, by JAMA Psychiatry found that a type of writing therapy, called written exposed therapy, was just as effective as traditional cognitive processing therapy in treating adults with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In written exposed therapy, you write about a specific upsetting memory. By writing about their experiences, people often can process feelings that they tend to avoid thinking about or sharing, according to the researchers.
What is your story?
Write your life story that your loved ones and your descendant will treasure forever, every ordinary life story is extraordinary.