Whether you curl up with memoirs on a frequent basis or pick one up every now and again, you know powerful memoirs have the capacity to take readers for an exhilarating ride.
While all memoirs are different, the best ones have certain elements in common. Knowing what makes a memoir compelling and riveting is key when sitting down to craft your own.
When I teach people how to write a memoir, we talk about how to tell a compelling story.
In this article, we’ll review some common memoir elements so you can weave them into your own work. Before we start, let’s define memoir.
What is Memoir?
Memoir is not an autobiography. In other words, it is not the story of your whole life. Memoir is a slice of life, a story of part of your life or a story from your life.
The scope of memoir will vary depending on the subject matter, but more often than not, aspiring memoirists come to the page with too much story that needs to be pared down. One way to do that is to get clear about your themes. Memoir is often reined in by the writer knowing what her themes are and writing each scene while holding two questions in mind:
How does this scene relate to my theme?
What sense am I trying to make of my story through writing this scene?
Memoir is about creating understanding, making sense of your story so that others can relate. Memoir is not “what happened,” because unless you’re famous, what happened to you in your life is not what will draw readers to the page. What draws readers is the subject matter (surviving a trauma, trying to live by the tenets of self-help books, living in prison) or the theme (addiction, parent-child relationships, repeating family patterns, identity).
A memoir that lacks an author’s effort to extract meaning from their story is usually a slow read. A reader may find themselves wondering what’s the point? If there’s nothing in the story for the reader, the memoir is lacking reflection and takeaway, which are two key elements that are unique to memoir.
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How to Write a Memoir
If you’re planning to write a memoir, your goal should be to take your readers on a journey they won’t forget. Here are seven tips for how to write a memoir.
1. Narrow Your Focus
Your memoir should be written as if the entire book is a snapshot of a theme or two from your lived experience. Consider a pie, where your life represents the whole pie, and you are writing a book about a teeny-tiny sliver.
Since your memoir is not an autobiography, you can figure out your themes by making a timeline of your life. In the classes I teach, we call these “turning points” and it’s a valuable exercise to discover where the juice is, to sort out where to focus and where you might have the most to extract from your story. You want your readers to walk away knowing you, and a particular experience you lived through, on a much deeper level, but also to apply their own understanding of their own experiences to your story.
Perhaps you are familiar with Angela’s Ashesby Frank McCourt. This memoir focuses on Frank’s life as a child growing up in Ireland. Angela is his mother, and much of the storyline focuses on the mother-son relationship, and how Frank saw her, as well as the role of outside forces like alcoholism, loss, and trauma on their entire family.
2. Include More than Just Your Story
Even as you narrow your focus, we also need to think bigger in our writing pursuits.
For example, if Kamala Harris wrote a memoir about being a wife and stepmother while pursuing her career, she would pull in tidbits about how she juggled these roles when she had such a big job and big ambitions. She would let us into the intimate moments, including fights she might have had with her husband over the impossible kind of balance women in power who also have families face.
Likewise, if Madonna was writing a memoir about reinventing herself after 20 years away from the public spotlight, she most likely would include what it felt like to return to the music scene and how she continued to travel and perform while raising her children.
How does this apply to you? Imagine you are writing a memoir about your three-week trek through the Himalayan Mountains. While the focus would be on your trip, as well as what you learned about yourself along the way, you would be wise to also include other details about the place, the people your experience, and what you learned not only about yourself, but about human nature and the wider world.
You could describe the geography and history of the area, share interesting snippets about the people and animals you interacted with, and discuss your exploration of the meaning of it all as you progressed along your arduous journey.
Your readers want to know about you, but also about what got you to this place to begin with. What prompted the trek? What is your backstory? What did you learn about yourself along the way? It’s these kinds of vivid details and astute observations that make for a powerful memoir.
3. Tell the Truth
One of the best tips for how to write a powerful memoir is to be honest and genuine. This is often tricky because we don’t want to hurt or upset the people (our family and friends!) we’ve written into our books. But it’s important that you mine for the truth of your story—even if it makes your journey as an author more difficult.
When Shannon Hernandez wrote her memoir, Breaking the Silence: My Final Forty Days as a Public School Teacher, she knew she had a major dilemma: “If I opted to tell the whole truth, I would pretty much ensure I would never get a job with New York City Public Schools again.”
But she also knew teachers, parents and administrators needed to hear why great teachers are leaving education in droves and why the current educational system is not doing what’s best for our nation’s kids.
“I wrote my book with brutal honesty and it has paid off with my readers. It’s bringing national attention to what is happening behind closed school doors.”
One more note on honesty: Memoirs explore the concept of truth as seen through your eyes. Never write in a snarky manner or with a bitter tone. The motivation for writing a memoir shouldn’t be to exact revenge, whine, or seek forgiveness; it should simply be to share an experience that readers can relate to.
Don’t exaggerate or bend the truth in your memoir. If you find you can’t remember, that’s alright. You can write composite scenes. You can lean into what “would have been true,” insofar as the details—your mother would have worn a particular style of dress, your best friend would have been chewing her favorite gum, your brother would have yelled something like the insult you decide to write.
You don’t need to fabricate or embellish, but you also didn’t live your life with a tape recorder strapped to your belt, so memoir is all about recreating what happened while honoring the emotional truth of your story.
4. Put Your Readers in Your Shoes
Powerful writers show, not tell. And for a memoir writer, this is essential to your success, because you must invite your reader into your perspective so she can draw her own conclusions.
The best way to do this is to unfold the story before your reader’s eyes by using vivid language that helps your reader visualize each scene. Mary Karr, author of three memoirs and the book, The Art of Memoir, writes that you must zip the reader into your skin. Another way to think of it is to imagine you’re carrying an old-school camcorder on your shoulder as you guide your reader through the scenes of your life. You want to place your reader right there next to you, or better yet, inside of your experiences.
Perhaps you want to explain that your aunt was a “raging alcoholic.” If you say this directly, your description will likely come across as judgmental and critical.
Instead, paint a picture for your audience so they come to this conclusion on their own. You might write something like this:
“Vodka bottles littered her bedroom, and I had learned the hard way not to knock on her door until well after noon. Most days she didn’t emerge into our living quarters until closer to sunset, and I would read her facial expression to gauge whether or not I should inquire about money—just so I could eat one meal before bedtime.”
5. Employ Elements of Fiction to Bring Your Story to Life
Think of the people in memoirs as characters. A great memoir pulls you into their lives: what they struggle with, what they are successful at, and what they wonder about.
Many of the best memoir writers focus on a few key characteristics of their characters, allowing the reader to get to know each one in depth. Your readers must be able to feel emotions about your characters—love or hate or something in between.
To bring your characters alive, bring details like the characters’ tone of voice, how they talk, their body language and movements, and their style of speech. Read other memoirs to get a sense of how writers introduce place and setting into their stories through their characters—their accents, their behaviors, their shared values.
While your memoir is a true story, employing elements of fiction can make it far more powerful and enjoyable for your readers, and one point of craft is learning how to create strong characters your readers will feel like they know.
6. Create an Emotional Journey
Don’t aim to knock your readers’ socks off. Knock off their pants, shirt, shoes, and underwear too! Leave your readers with their mouths open in awe, or laughing hysterically, or crying tears of sympathy and sadness—or all three.
Take them on an emotional journey that motivates them to read the next chapter, wonder about you well after they finish the last page, and tell their friends and colleagues about your book. The best way to evoke these feelings in your readers is to connect your emotions, as the protagonist, with pivotal reflections and takeaways about the happening throughout your narrative arc.
Most of us are familiar with the narrative arc. In school, our teachers used to draw a “mountain” and once we reached the precipice, we were to fill in the climatic point of the book or story. Your memoir is no different: You need to create enough tension to shape your overall story, as well as each individual chapter, with that narrative arc.
In Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Garcia, we witness a boy growing up undocumented in the United States, the child of parents who crossed him over the US-Mexico border when he was just five years old. You’ll never find Marcelo telling us he was sad, angry, or devastated.
Instead, he writes of his disappointment after his mother didn’t get her green card:
“It’s okay, mijo, we tried,” Ama said to me as I drove her to church one day.
“Yeah, Amá, we tried, I said, hoping that between each of our admissions, at least one of us would actually believe it was worth it.
Marcelo Hernandez Garcia
Or of his fear when ICE raids his childhood home:
We stood there, frozen, unsure of what to do. The inner urge to flee was replaced with paralyzed submission—we were cemented in place. In that moment, if anyone wished to do so, they could have walked through the door, commanded us to cut ourselves open, and we would have probably listened.
Whatever experiences you had throughout your book will carry more weight when you show how they affected you along your journey, and how you grew and changed as a result of what you lived through, or what you survived. How did what you went through change your approach to life? Change how you thought about others or yourself? Help you become a better or wiser person in some way?
This is often the hardest part of writing a memoir because it requires introspection—sometimes in the form of hindsight, certainly in the form of self-reflection. It requires you sometimes to write with an understanding that your character might not have known then—at the age you were. This is why it’s so important to learn how to weave in reflections that don’t break the fictive dream.
You don’t want to constantly interrupt your narrative with asides, like:
“Now I understand… ”
“I still wish my mother had treated me better … ”
Instead, allow for the reflection to exist almost as if it’s an omniscient knowing, because in many ways it is. No one knows your story better than you—and you’re allowed, throughout your story—to extract meaning and apply understanding. Not only are you allowed, the genre demands it.
If you make meaning from your story, your readers will find meaning in your story too.
Memoir Examples as Inspiration
Let’s look at a few memoir examples.
We broke these into three categories of memoirs, those that can help us learn about structure, theme and takeaway. Each of these are essential elements of the genre.
Examples of Memoirs that Use an Effective Structure
Although you’ll hear from memoirists who didn’t use an outline, or who prefer a process over a structured experience, most memoirists can benefit from having a structure in place before they start writing.
The most straightforward memoirs are those that start at point A and end at point B, moving the reader along in linear time.
Then there are framed memoirs, like Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance which chronicles the A to B linear journey of finding out that the father who raised her was not her biological father, making use of flashback and memory to piece together the front story of what’s happening as she figures out the truth of who she really is. Wild by Cheryl Strayed, is another famous framed memoir, because the A to B story is her trek along the Pacific Crest Trail, but the use of flashback and memory has her constantly leaving the front story and entering into the backstory to give context for why she’s on this journey in the first place.
There are also thematic memoirs, like Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries,which focuses on themes of identity and trauma and its impact on her and her family, but reaches more broadly into the experience of being Native American.
Examples of Thematic Memoirs
Thematic memoirs abound typically sell better than other memoirs because they’re what the industry calls “high-concept,” meaning that they’re easy for buyers and readers to wrap their minds around.
Your theme (or sometimes themes) infuses every chapter you write, and it/they can be quite nuanced. For instance, a theme might be healing through running.
Once you identify your theme, you must always keep sight of it. I liken this to wearing a pair of tinted glasses. If you put on glasses with purple lenses, you can still see the entirety of the world around you, but you will never forget that you’re wearing the glasses because everything you look at is tinted purple.
The same should be true with good memoir: introduce the reader to your world, but keep your memoir contained and on point by keeping your principal (and sometimes secondary) themes front and center.
Takeaway is your gift to the reader. It’s a message, reflection, or truism.
Sometimes these fall at the end of scenes or the end of chapters, but that’s not always necessary. Takeaway can happen at any moment, when the author shares something heartfelt, universal, and true.
It’s those moments in reading memoir that hit you hard because you can relate—even if you haven’t had the exact experience the author is describing.
Understanding takeaway is a long process, and some authors, when they first start thinking about takeaway, make the mistake of being too overt or trying too hard.
These are subtle moments of observation about the world around you, a wrapping up of an experience through a lesson learned or the sharing of the way something impacted you. The idea is to sprinkle these moments into your chapters, without overwhelming or spoon-feeding your reader.
Good writers do this so seamlessly you don’t even realize it happened, except that you feel like he or she has burst your heart, or crushed you with the weight of their insight. You feel like you know the author because it’s as if she’s speaking directly to you.
Good takeaway is, in fact, mirroring. It’s a way of relaying that we are not alone and the world is a crazy place, isn’t it?
But is it such a bad thing to live like this for just a little while? Just for a few months of one’s life, is it so awful to travel through time with no greater ambition than to find the next lovely meal? Or to learn how to speak a language for no higher purpose than that it pleases your ear to hear it? Or to nap in a garden, in a patch of sunlight, in the middle of the day, right next to your favorite foundation? And then to do it again the next day? Of course, no one can live like this forever.
Not all reflective passages have to be questions, but you can see that this technique is effective. Gilbert is ruminating over the life she’s living, but which she cannot maintain; in her experience—through the vantage point of her American understanding of the world—it’s not possible, and undoubtedly 99% of her readers agree.
We all know what it feels like to be saddled by the burdens of everyday life. Gilbert’s readers would feel this passage on a visceral level, even if they’d never before been to Italy, because everyone understands the longing that’s wrapped up in allowing yourself to just let down. And that’s what makes this a takeaway; it’s a universal connection to the reader.
Now get out there and write!
When you follow these examples and these seven guidelines for writing your memoir, you will captivate your audience and leave them begging for more.
But more importantly, you will share your own authentic story with the world.
Ready to learn more about sharing your story with the world?
This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.