So you want to write a memoir?

As a journalist, I’m often assigned stories where I have to interview an individual. 

Guess what? The people I’m told to interview are not being written about because they are boring, “do-the-same-thing-everyday” people, they are chosen because they have done something extraordinary, something that is considered news-worthy. They have risen above life circumstances and they’ve done something that people want to read about.

I actually love these assignments. They tend to inspire and renew my faith in the condition of man.

But one thing that comes out all the time is that when I interview these people, invariably they say “I should write a book about all this.” Sometimes they should, sometimes they shouldn’t, that’s not my call but from my experience, if you want to write a memoir, at a minimum, this is what you will need for your story.

A story line
A good story line has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. It also has a plot with tension. Your experience shouldn’t be a breeze, we want conflict, we want to hear about getting a wrong diagnosis, being caught in an elevator when it’s time to deliver your baby, having your arm stuck between a rock and a hard place. If your experience doesn’t have a little bit of drama, a moment or two of “I don’t think she’s going to make it.” then it’s not going to be read by too many people.

Winning a multi-million dollar lottery is not going to make a good memoir. Winning that lottery and then spending all that money until you go into debt so that you have to work at a fastfood restaurant in order to feed your family and make ends meet, but learning there is honor in work – now that might be a story.

Just the facts ‘mam
Your memoir shouldn’t be your life story (unless you are incredibly famous and people might want to know everything about you) limit your story to the beginning, middle, and ending of your specific life adventure. This doesn’t mean that you can’t pull in relevant experiences from your past, by all means if faith kept you alive for 23 days on a raft then mention your Sunday school experiences as a child.

My point here is to limit the information. Make sure that everything supports the main experience, if it doesn’t then consider not keeping it in the story. Consider the extraneous the gristle on the steak, if you don’t get rid of it, your readers are going to have to work too hard and will probably end up leaving your book on the plate.

A memoir has to have an ending
A beginning, a middle, and an end. I talk to a lot of people who might have a good story but there is no ending yet, they haven’t finished chemotherapy, they haven’t risen above welfare, their child has finally gotten the medical help they’ve needed but have not fully recovered yet.

If you’re in the middle of an experience that you think might be good for a memoir, keep constant notes, maintain a journal, and hold onto all documents. You might even want to blog about it as it happens, the point is, you can’t write your memoir until there is some sort of closure to your experience (think a recovery, or rescue.) And please, if you have anger about your situation, let it cool off a bit before you write your memoir. Anger is a great motivator but it can also be quite the poisonous pill to writing making you seem bitter instead of victorious.

Could I do it?
The reason we read memoirs is because we want to learn from them. How did that guy find the strength to cut his arm off to survive? (and could I?) How did another mother battle illness while raising her large family (and could I?) What exactly does Daniel Craig do for his daily workout? (and can I pretend that I could? – see what I mean about famous people?)

Rise above
The point of a memoir is to show how you endured a terrible or unusual situation and you lived to tell about it. We want you to be a better person for having gone through what you did.

We do not want to hear about how chronic illness stinks, what we really want to know is how despite chronic illness stinking, you were able to overcome and persevere. Inspire us to become the better person you’ve become because of your experiences.

***

 Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens).

And yes, I am currently working on a memoir about living with the children and chickens. 

Photo Credit: Chris Friese

45 thoughts on “So you want to write a memoir?

  1. Really good article! I am going to keep it and refer to it often as I’m in the middle of writing a sort of self-help book on stress chronicling my own battle with it.

  2. Great, specific advice. We’re launching a nonfiction imprint this year through C&R Press, and some of the high end material we’ve received is from people who’ve done amazing things outside the world of writing and now have a compelling story.

    • Good question but, um, no. It would not be a memoir. Think back to James Frey’s Million Little Pieces fiasco. He claimed it was a memoir when in fact it was fiction (with a few little personal anecdotes thrown in.)

      Although you are allowed to change names and some details in a memoir to protect privacy, the fact that it is a memoir is an indication that the story has a factual basis.

      Wendy

      • Oh, but you can write a fictional memoir — i.e. the memoir of a fictional character. Think “Bridget Jones’ Diary” or the better one that came before it, was it Ella Leffland’s journal? That’s not it either, but it was a fictional diary. Very powerful. Does anyone know what I am talking about?

    • You’re right, you can write a fictional memoir but it would then be considered fiction and not a memoir.

      But lines get blurred all the time – like historical fiction. Perhaps memoir-fiction (based on all the first person fictional stories out there) will be a new genre.

      Wendy

  3. Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt in the sun?And what is to cease breathing,but to free the breath from its restless tides,that it may rise and expand and seek Frends unencumbered?
    Only when you have reached the mountain,then you shall begin to climb.
    And when the earth shall claim your limbs,then you shall truly dance.Your thoughts and my words are waves from a sealed memiory that keeps of our yesterdays.—-Piotr from Poland:)

    • I’m afraid that I don’t speak Polish and need to rely on Google translation but your post on human rights violations certainly sounds like quite the experience of which to overcome.

      If a memoir is what you are after, keep blogging and taking notes. Stay with it until you have a resolution.

      Wendy

  4. Very good advice,

    I started to write my own, but realised I was better with blogging it. Altogether I prob do have a story worth telling, but also know its a story that can be used in bad ways. So I’m keeping most of it for those that know me. 🙂

    • Blogging is a good way to test the memoir waters. You can gauge how much interest or excitement your story is creating and then use that to launch a book. Many blogs have been turned into books (Julie and Julia for example) although to be fair, many more have not.

  5. Hi – great post & some solid advice. Memoirs, of course, must follow the same structural rules as every other book – something, I suspect, that doesn’t always happen. Or which is maybe enforced if the memoir’s ghost-written.

    My publishers told me, years ago, that they regularly fielded unsolicited memoirs, some very well styled, though not structured or angled. Usually – as you’ve outlined above – they could be summed up as ‘my struggle to survive Disease X’. Valid personal stories but not presented in a way that might draw a wider readership. That quintessential question for novelists – why do we want to identify with the protagonist – applies here, too.

    They ended up on the slush pile by default, but I was told that they WERE properly read by a junior editor and given constructive comments before being returned.

    Matthew Wright
    http://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com
    http://www.matthewwright.net

    • We’ve had the planner/pantser discussion many times before on this blog. I tend to be a planner, it doesn’t mean that my work is any less creative, it just means that I work within parameters (might be left over from my tech writing days.)

      You bring up some very good points about the art of crafting a memoir.

      Wendy

  6. Do you Homeschool your kids? And is struggling with the life-altering condition of Fibromyalgia while raising a child with autism worthy of chronicling? The school distict essentially violated my child’s civil rights and after spending thousands of dollars we didn’t have, we now Homeschool, much to the chagrin of her medical practioners. I have much to share about special education rights, disability rights, and how to confront fibromyalgia head-on and win! The entire experience sounds more like a Lifetime movie, but the tale I can relay is frighteningly true. Any advice? I forgot to mention that families like mine typically divorce, go bankrupt and lose in many, many ways: my little family somehow get by year after year! That’s a whole other story. Thank you for the memoir tips!

  7. Pingback: So you want to write a memoir? « moreStories. moreSmiles. moreSharing. moreSinc.

  8. Thank you so much for fine-tuning my thinking about any memoirs I may choose to write, including those that I disguise in my allegorical fairy tales as being part of some critter’s life! You rock, Wendy!

  9. I really enjoyed your post Wendy. I teach a class on writing, publishing and promoting a non-fiction book, and it tends to draw a lot of memoir writers. I wish I had a dollar for every time that a student has said, “Everyone is going to want to read my book!” I will be posting a link to this post for my students to read.

    • Kim,

      As a journalist, I also hear that all the time. I once met an older man who, because he was wealthy, had been able to climb many mountains, he biked all over the world, and sailed in fine boats. I should write a book about my life, he told me.

      While he talked, I sat there thinking that it wouldn’t be something I would read. Where’s the life altering event? Where’s the point where you drastically changed your perspective? Where’s the point where you had to survive?

      Just because you’ve had a privileged life and have been able to do things, does not a good story make.

      People need to understand that a memoir is ultimately about change. How life events have caused you to learn and change.

      Wendy

  10. Pingback: Blogtalk: Memoir Writing Advice — Writing Through Life

  11. Solid advice. I am working on mine, as a 29 year old who has survived the suicide via prescription drug overdose of my mother, and the only person in my entire family not currently an addict, or in the legal system. Bits and pieces of my story have been published through SHE magazine (in which I am a contributing writer), newspapers, as well as TV news stations. All written/ spoken by me. Every time, it has sucked the very life out of me. But I know once I compile my memoir, it may save lives. My story of survival already has. The burning desire to put it together is there. I cannot say no. Thank you for this post!

  12. I wrote my memoir to keep alive the memories of both my husband and son. I raised my son alone after my husband died from complications due his disease.My life was again changed forever after the tragic death of my son five years ago at age 20. it has been a long road from heartbreak,to hope, healing and finding happiness again.

  13. Pingback: Motivation to tell life stories – Memoir resources

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