We start the road to writing a memoir when we realize that a story in our lives demands to be told. As Maya Angelou once wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
How to write a memoir? At first glance, it looks easy enough—easier, in any case, than writing fiction. After all, there is no need to make up a story or characters, and the protagonist is none other than you.
Still, memoir writing carries its own unique challenges, as well as unique possibilities that only come from telling your own true story. Let’s dive into how to write a memoir by looking closely at the craft of memoir writing, starting with a key question: exactly what is a memoir?
What is a Memoir?
A memoir is a branch of creative nonfiction, a genre defined by the writer Lee Gutkind as “true stories, well told.” The etymology of the word “memoir,” which comes to us from the French, tells us of the human urge to put experience to paper, to remember. Indeed, a memoir is “something written to be kept in mind.”
A memoir is defined by Lee Gutkind as “true stories, well told.”
For a piece of writing to be called a memoir, it has to be:
- Based on the raw material of your life and your memories
- Written from your personal perspective
At this point, memoirs are beginning to sound an awful lot like autobiographies. However, a quick comparison of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, for example, tells us that memoirs and autobiographies could not be more distinct.
Next, let’s look at the characteristics of a memoir and what sets memoirs and autobiographies apart. Discussing memoir vs. autobiography will not only reveal crucial insights into the process of writing a memoir, but also help us to refine our answer to the question, “What is a memoir?”
Memoir vs. Autobiography
While both use personal life as writing material, there are five key differences between memoir and autobiography:
Since autobiographies tell the comprehensive story of one’s life, they are more or less chronological. writing a memoir, however, involves carefully curating a list of personal experiences to serve a larger idea or story, such as grief, coming-of-age, and self-discovery. As such, memoirs do not have to unfold in chronological order.
While autobiographies attempt to provide a comprehensive account, memoirs focus only on specific periods in the writer’s life. The difference between autobiographies and memoirs can be likened to that between a CV and a one-page resume, which includes only select experiences.
The difference between autobiographies and memoirs can be likened to that between a CV and a one-page resume, which includes only select experiences.
Autobiographies prioritize events; memoirs prioritize the writer’s personal experience of those events. Experience includes not just the event you might have undergone, but also your feelings, thoughts, and reflections. Memoir’s insistence on experience allows the writer to go beyond the expectations of formal writing. This means that memoirists can also use fiction-writing techniques, such as scene-setting and dialogue, to capture their stories with flair.
Another key difference between the two genres stems from the autobiography’s emphasis on facts and the memoir’s reliance on memory. Due to memory’s unreliability, memoirs ask the reader to focus less on facts and more on emotional truth. In addition, memoir writers often work the fallibility of memory into the narrative itself by directly questioning the accuracy of their own memories.
Memoirs ask the reader to focus less on facts and more on emotional truth.
While readers pick up autobiographies to learn about prominent individuals, they read memoirs to experience a story built around specific themes. Memoirs, as such, tend to be more relatable, personal, and intimate. Really, what this means is that memoirs can be written by anybody!
Ready to be inspired yet? Let’s now turn to some memoir examples that have received widespread recognition and captured our imaginations!
If you’re looking to lose yourself in a book, the following memoir examples are great places to begin:
- The Year of Magical Thinking, which chronicles Joan Didion’s year of mourning her husband’s death, is certainly one of the most powerful books on grief. Written in two short months, Didion’s prose is urgent yet lucid, compelling from the first page to the last. A few years later, the writer would publish Blue Nights, another devastating account of grief, only this time she would be mourning her daughter.
- Patti Smith’s Just Kids is a classic coming-of-age memoir that follows the author’s move to New York and her romance and friendship with the artist Robert Maplethorpe. In its pages, Smith captures the energy of downtown New York in the late sixties and seventies effortlessly.
- When Breath Becomes Air begins when Paul Kalanithi, a young neurosurgeon, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Exquisite and poignant, this memoir grapples with some of the most difficult human experiences, including fatherhood, mortality, and the search for meaning.
- A memoir of relationship abuse, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House is candid and innovative in form. Machado writes about thorny and turbulent subjects with clarity, even wit. While intensely personal, In the Dream House is also one of most insightful pieces of cultural criticism.
- Twenty-five years after leaving for Canada, Michael Ondaatje returns to his native Sri Lanka to sort out his family’s past. The result is Running in the Family, the writer’s dazzling attempt to reconstruct fragments of experiences and family legends into a portrait of his parents’ and grandparents’ lives. (Importantly, Running in the Family was sold to readers as a fictional memoir; its explicit acknowledgement of fictionalization prevented it from encountering the kind of backlash that James Frey would receive for fabricating key facts in A Million Little Pieces, which he had sold as a memoir.)
- Of the many memoirs published in recent years, Tara Westover’s Educated is perhaps one of the most internationally-recognized. A story about the struggle for self-determination, Educated recounts the writer’s childhood in a survivalist family and her subsequent attempts to make a life for herself. All in all, powerful, thought-provoking, and near impossible to put down.
While book-length memoirs are engaging reads, the prospect of writing a whole book can be intimidating. Fortunately, there are plenty of short, essay-length memoir examples that are just as compelling.
Short Memoir Examples
- “The Book of My Life” offers a portrait of a professor that the writer, Aleksandar Hemon, once had as a child in communist Sarajevo. This memoir was collected into Hemon’s The Book of My Lives, a collection of essays about the writer’s personal history in wartime Yugoslavia and subsequent move to the US.
- “The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week.” So begins Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life,” an essay that the writer eventually expanded into the best-selling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
- In “What We Hunger For,” Roxane Gay weaves personal experience and a discussion of The Hunger Games into a powerful meditation on strength, trauma, and hope. “What We Hunger For” can also be found in Gay’s essay collection, Bad Feminist.
- A humorous memoir structured around David Sedaris and his family’s memories of pets, “The Youth in Asia” is ultimately a story about grief, mortality and loss. This essay is excerpted from the memoir Me Talk Pretty One Day, and a recorded version can be found here.
So far, we’ve 1) answered the question “What is a memoir?” 2) discussed differences between memoirs vs. autobiographies, 3) taken a closer look at book- and essay-length memoir examples. Next, we’ll turn the question of how to write a memoir.
How to Write a Memoir: A-Step-by-Step Guide
1. Generate memoir ideas
how to start a memoir? As with anything, starting is the hardest. If you’ve yet to decide what to write about, check out the “I Remember” writing prompt. Inspired by Joe Brainard’s memoir I Remember, this prompt is a great way to generate a list of memories. From there, choose one memory that feels the most emotionally charged and begin writing your memoir. It’s that simple! If you’re in need of more prompts, our Facebook group is also a great resource.
2. Begin drafting
My most effective advice is to resist the urge to start from “the beginning.” Instead, begin with the event that you can’t stop thinking about, or with the detail that, for some reason, just sticks. The key to drafting is gaining momentum. Beginning with an emotionally charged event or detail gives us the drive we need to start writing.
3. Aim for a “shitty first draft”
Now that you have momentum, maintain it. Attempting to perfect your language as you draft makes it difficult to maintain our impulses to write. It can also create self-doubt and writers’ block. Remember that most, if not all, writers, no matter how famous, write shitty first drafts.
Attempting to perfect your language as you draft makes it difficult to maintain our impulses to write.
4. Set your draft aside
Once you have a first draft, set it aside and fight the urge to read it for at least a week. Stephen King recommends sticking first drafts in your drawer for at least six weeks. This period allows writers to develop the critical distance we need to revise and edit the draft that we’ve worked so hard to write.
5. Reread your draft
While reading your draft, note what works and what doesn’t, then make a revision plan. While rereading, ask yourself:
- What’s underdeveloped, and what’s superfluous.
- Does the structure work?
- What story are you telling?
6. Revise your memoir and repeat steps 4 & 5 until satisfied
Every piece of good writing is the product of a series of rigorous revisions. Depending on what kind of writer you are and how you define a draft,” you may need three, seven, or perhaps even ten drafts. There’s no “magic number” of drafts to aim for, so trust your intuition. Many writers say that a story is never, truly done; there only comes a point when they’re finished with it. If you find yourself stuck in the revision process, get a fresh pair of eyes to look at your writing.
7. Edit, edit, edit!
Once you’re satisfied with the story, begin to edit the finer things (e.g. language, metaphor, and details). Clean up your word choice and omit needless words, and check to make sure you haven’t made any of these common writing mistakes. Then, once your memoir is ready, send it out!
Learn How to Write a Memoir at Writers.com
Writing a memoir for the first time can be intimidating. But, keep in mind that anyone can learn how to write a memoir. Trust the value of your own experiences: it’s not about the stories you tell, but how you tell them. Most importantly, don’t give up!
Anyone can learn how to write a memoir.
If you’re looking for additional feedback, as well as additional instruction on how to write a memoir, check out our schedule of nonfiction classes. Now, get started writing your memoir!