Are you wondering how to write a memoir? With COVID-19 keeping most of the world housebound these days, a lot of people are thinking about writing that memoir they’ve always wanted to write. And if you’re one of them, one of the first things you might be wondering is where to begin. The first place to begin is by understanding what a memoir is, and especially what it is not.

A memoir is not your life story.

A memoir is not an autobiography—it’s not the story of your life. Think about it. How many life stories have you wanted to read from strangers you’ve never heard of? Chances are, you aren’t interested. Autobiographies are best left to celebrities, political leaders and other people who have left a mark on the world. Memoirs, on the other hand, are books written by anyone who has a story to tell. So how to write a memoir?

A memoir focuses on a specific event or theme.

Think of the memoir as the story of a specific event in your life, or a theme that has marked your life. Even if you have had several interesting events in your life, keep your memoir focused on one at a time. What happened? How did past events, experiences, your upbringing, certain relationships in your life affect how you were able to cope, or unable to cope, with the event? In what ways did the event change you?

Stay on theme.

If you are writing about a specific theme, such as abuse, mental illness, overcoming adversity, or some other struggle that has permeated your life, stay on theme. We don’t need to know your whole life story in order to be impressed and interested in the way you have lived with that theme. Stay on theme. Don’t tell us about your first love, your bad relationship with your parents, your trip to Hawaii—unless the theme you are writing about involves one or more of those experiences.

Write a timeline.

No matter what your story, if you want to know how to write a memoir, start with a timeline. Don’t start the timeline with your birth, because much of who you are has been shaped by events that happened before your birth—such as the births and deaths of your grandparents, parents and siblings. As you reach your birth, note all the important events in your life. Then go over that timeline and note important events in pop culture, politics, national history—whatever was going on at the time.

Read other memoirs.

The timeline will give you a sense of your life history, but don’t build your narrative arc around it. Chronological memoirs are not always all that interesting. Start with an event, give us some backstory about you to help us get to know you, then return to the event. Return to the backstory later. Read as many memoirs as you possibly can to get a sense of how other writers present backstory and construct their narrative arcs.

Identify the conflict you are battling.

Keep in mind that the narrative arc requires a conflict—what are you battling? It might be a devastating injury or illness. It might be your own patterns of self-sabotage. It might be a career marked by victories and setbacks. But whatever it is, readers want to feel the conflict, and they want the stakes to get higher as they get deeper into the book.

Keep the tension building.

Learning how to write a memoir means learning how to tell a story. About a quarter of the way into the book, something has to happen which sets the scene for the rest of the story. By midpoint, the tension has to have been raised significantly—what obstacles were you overcoming up to then? Now what has happened that threatens to bring you toppling down? Let’s feel the tension as we root for you to win.

You need to change over the course of your story.

By the end of the book, we want to feel a resolution, but we also want to see how you have been transformed by the story you’ve just told us. If all these things happen throughout the book and you end up the same person you were before they happened, then they had no impact on you—and they certainly won’t have an impact on us, your reader. Let’s see how you grow emotionally through the course of the book. How do your insights change? How have this story made you who you are today?

When you’re done, rewrite it.

Finally, once you’re done, rewrite your memoir. Professional writers always revise, revise, and revise. New writers rarely do. Don’t be afraid to cut out whole chapters, write new ones, change the tone dramatically, cut away slow-moving or off-theme sections like a skilled surgeon. Do your characters need developing? What about setting? Can the reader see where you are throughout the story? Can the reader feel s/he is right there, with you? If not, work on it. Revision will make your memoir tighter and better. The important thing is not to rush into publishing. Take the time to write well, and your readers will follow. Rush into it, and your readers will rush away from it.

Let your memoir entertain, transform and heal you.

Ultimately, however, how to write a memoir is as varied as how to live a life. Writing a memoir can be a remarkable experience into your own private world as you relive and rethink the past and share your experiences and insights with others. Memoir can be healing, transformative, and entertaining. Let yourself be entertained, transformed and healed by your own story. There’s no better time to do it—and if you need help, feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute consultation.

©2021 Janice Harper