11 Things You Need to Know When Writing a Memoir

Here is what you need to know to get started on your memoir.
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I love memoirs. They are snapshots from a person’s life that give insight into who they were and how they became the person they are today. My Grandpa Joe wrote down his life story – only about 3,000 words – and it was published locally in 1980 as part of a small collection of memoirs. It’s never going to win a Pulitzer but it allows our family to have a record of the places and people that led to our own existence. I so wish my other three grandparents had done the same.

This guest post is by Lisa Lepki. When she is not chasing her two noise-machines around the house, Lepki is a communications consultant and indie author. A word nerd, she loves the technical elements of writing almost as much as the writing itself. Currently she is helping other writers embrace the editing process through her work with prowritingaid.com. Her writing can also be found on bookbaby.com, The Write Life, and DIYAuthor.

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Too many people find the task daunting. “My life hasn’t been that exciting” or “I am not a good enough writer.” Grandpa Joe wasn’t a movie star or an author, he was a farmer whose father arrived in America in 1886 and eventually ended up raising his family in Saskatchewan. About writing his memoir, Joe said:

“[It] is not intended to be an accurate statistical report, as it is mostly written from memory, but rather a word and character sketch of my parents and a review of the past; the years of the pioneers; their hopes and disappointments, their struggles and triumphs, their inventive genius, their independence, and their ability to work together as well as individually. How patience and perseverance overcame many obstacles, hardships and tragedy; and we are entered into their victory.

As it is from memory, I will not vouch for every statement being absolutely factual, but they are true to life, as it was lived at that time. Nor did I want to write just a story of cold facts, but one of flesh and blood and spirit, with the breath of life pulsating through it.”

- Joe Hovedestad, “Celebrating Saskatchewan,” 1980.

Grandpa Joe died back in 1992 but his memoir was most recently included in a memory book, lovingly made by his descendents for a family reunion in 2013. We all loved re-reading it.

So, here is what you need to know to get started on yours.

[Understanding Book Contracts: Learn what’s negotiable and what’s not.]

1. Make a time line of your life

Sit down with a piece of paper and draw out a diagram of your life. It will help you pick out the pivotal moments. If you were writing an autobiography, you would need to write about the entirety of your life, but a memoir is different. A memoir is about capturing a moment that mattered. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] When did you meet the person who most influenced your life? Why was a certain year such a difficult one? How did you overcome the problems you faced? How did it change you? When you make a timeline of your life, certain moments will emerge as being transformative. That is where you should begin.

2. Think about who you are writing for

There are hundreds of reasons why you might like to write a memoir. Maybe you learned some things along the way that might help others. Maybe you want to document an ethnic or cultural background for your children. Maybe you want to try and make sense of the decisions that you made along the way. Think about who you want to read the memoir, what you want them to know and why you think it should matter to them.

3. Create an outline

This is the basic skeleton around which you will build your memoir. You don’t need to begin at the beginning – in fact, writing chronologically can be dull. Perhaps you can organise your memoir according to the people that influenced you. Or maybe it would be effective to jump back and forth between events that happened long ago and the modern-day consequences of those events. Don’t worry if that sounds too complicated. It’s your story. Create an outline that will be most effective for the story you want to tell.

4. Start writing!

Just sit down and start writing. You don’t have to write the first chapter first. Just write whatever you feel like writing about, whatever seems to be flowing. Don’t worry too much about whether it’s perfect as you write. Believe me, it’s not. First drafts never are. You can fix it all later.

As Shannon Hale says, “When writing a first draft I remind myself that I’m simply shovelling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

[Memoir or Novel? 8 Issues to Think About Before Writing Your Own Story]

5. What did you want? What obstacles were in your way?

Most novels are about a character who wants something (a wife, a new job, an education, a new life, enlightenment) but has to overcome some kind of obstacle along the way (fear, dysfunctional family, ethnicity, religion, poverty, disability). Try to reframe your memories to follow this pattern. What were your goals and what obstacles were in your way? How did you overcome them? Or if you didn’t overcome them, how did you come to terms with that?

6. Don’t be afraid to show your flaws. People relate to flaws.

Some of the most interesting memoirs are the ones written by people who have made mistakes; even big mistakes. A memoir is a chance to be honest and say “I wish I had treated him differently” or “I shouldn’t have done that.” Being vulnerable is the best way to touch your reader’s heart and help them understand the decisions you made.

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7. Find a partner who can help you

Some people’s brains work better independently and others work better when they are part of a collaboration or dialogue with someone else. Both methods are good, you just need to figure out what works best for you. Perhaps your partner or a close relative would sit down with you and help you make your timeline. You would be amazed how useful it can be to have someone saying “Wait, didn’t you decide to move because you got that inheritance from your great-aunt?” or “Remember when we were so worried we would lose the house if the business didn’t take off?” Talking things through can help bring the detail to the surface and remind you what was important at a specific point in time.

8. Make oral recordings

If you are still finding the blank page too intimidating, or aren’t great at typing, maybe you would be more comfortable recounting your stories orally. This can be as simple as setting up a basic recorder and speaking into a microphone. You can transcribe it later, or find someone online to transcribe it for a small fee. Or, if you like a bit of technology, there is some great voice recognition software that will attempt to turn your words into text. It won’t get all of the words right, but it will get most of them, and then you can go back and correct what’s wrong. It gives you a strong starting point from which to build. You can also engage with someone while making the recordings. You might find it easier if your son or daughter is there asking questions and laughing at your funny stories.

[Are you writing a memoir or an autobiography? Click here to learn the differences.]

9. Step Away

Once you have a first draft, whatever form that may take, step away for a few weeks. Give yourself some distance. When you go back to it, it will be much easier to find problems and see which parts of your memoir should be further fleshed out or cut back.

10. Face the edit

Remember when I told you just to start writing and not to worry about making it perfect? The edit is when you go back and fix all your spelling and grammar errors and try to make the writing stronger. Editing takes time, so be methodical and don’t rush it. Use an editing tool like ProWritingAid to help you find those long, rambling sentences and repetitive words. Clean up the writing so that when you are brave enough to finally show it off, you can be sure that it’s in as good a shape as possible.

11. Share it

When you are ready, share it! Start with a small group of trusted people and get their feedback. Friends and family are often great for giving support and building confidence. Then decide how far you want to share it. You might try to get it published or you might publish it yourself.

Above all, try to enjoy the process. Your memoir might be your opportunity to say all the things you were never brave enough to say in person. It might be a cathartic exercise to help you come to terms with a difficult time in your life. It might be a way to safeguard your family’s history and leave a legacy. Or you might just have some great stories to tell!

Go on, get started. What are you waiting for?

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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