How to Write a Memoir: 6 Creative Ways to Tell a Powerful Story

How to write a memoir
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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 you, as a reader, for an exhilarating ride.

I’m a connoisseur of memoirs. In the past seven years, I might have read three books that weren’t part of the memoir genre. Not only do I devour memoirs, I also have written my own, and I coach memoir writers on turning their memories into manuscripts.

By dissecting memoirs from both the reader’s and writer’s perspectives, I’ve identified common elements that powerful, compelling memoirs all share. If you’re planning to write a memoir, here’s how to make sure your story takes your readers on a journey they won’t forget.

1. Narrow your focus

Your memoir should be written as if the entire book is a snapshot of one theme of your life. Or consider it a pie, where your life represents the whole pie, and you are writing a book about a teeny-tiny sliver.

Your memoir is not an autobiography. The difference is that an autobiography spans your entire life, and a memoir focuses on one particular moment or series of moments around a theme. You want your readers to walk away knowing you, and that one experience, on a much deeper level.

Perhaps you are familiar with Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. This memoir focuses on Frank’s life as a first-generation immigrant child in Brooklyn. Angela is his mother, and much of the storyline focuses on her and how Frank saw her, as well as the role she played in trying to hold the entire family together.

2. Include more than just your story

I know I just instructed you to narrow down your focus, but we need to think bigger in our writing pursuits.

For example, if Hillary Clinton wrote a memoir about raising a child in the White House, she would be pulling in tidbits about how she handled the media, who she let visit her daughter during sleepovers, and how she navigated the politics of parenting during her time in the White House.

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 is on your trip, as well as what you learned about yourself along the way, it would be wise to include other details as well.

You could describe the geography and history of the area, share interesting snippets about the people and donkeys you interacted with, and discuss your exploration of life-and-death questions as you progressed along your arduous journey.

Your readers want to know about you, but it’s the backstory and vivid details that make for a powerful memoir.

powerfulstory

3. Tell the truth

One of the best ways 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 tell the truth — even if it makes your journey as an author more difficult.

When I wrote my memoir, Breaking the Silence: My Final Forty Days as a Public School Teacher, I knew I 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 I 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 right for our nation’s kids. I wrote my book with brutal honesty, and it has paid off with my readers — and is 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. Don’t write in a snarky manner or with a bitter tone. The motivation for writing a memoir shouldn’t be to exact revenge or whine or seek forgiveness; it should simply be to share your experience.

Don’t exaggerate or bend the truth in your memoir. Your story, the unique one that you hold and cherish, is enough. There is no need to fabricate or embellish.

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 him visualize each scene.

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

I like to 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 love your characters or hate them, and you can’t do that by providing too much detail.

Introduce intriguing setting details and develop a captivating plot from your story. Show your readers the locations you describe and evoke emotions within them. They need to experience your story, almost as if is was their own.

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 which will provoke 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 events 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.

That moment when you realized your husband had an affair? Don’t just say you were sad, angry or devastated. Instead, you might say something like:

“I learned of my husband’s affair when the February bank statements arrived and I realized that in one month’s time, he had purchased a ring and two massages at a high-end spa.

Those gifts weren’t mine. He was using our money to woo another lady and build a new life. I curled up in a ball and wept for three hours — I had been demoted to the other woman.”

Will you write a memoir?

When you follow these guidelines while 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.

Have you written or are you planning to write a memoir?

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Shannon Hernandez is the founder of The Writing Whisperer, and her mission is to help heart-centered business owners and heart-centered authors find their brand voices, share their unique stories, gain more visibility, establish th... .

The Writing Whisperer | @WritingWhisper

M. Shannon Hernandez
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Comments

  1. Great advice! As the author of two memoirs, these suggestions are spot on. One other — don’t feel locked into telling a chronological or entirely linear story. Sometimes better told from the middle.

    • Hi David. Yes, that is a great tip as well. Some of the best memoirs I have read transport you back and forth across “times”, or start from the end, and then flashback. Thanks for the suggestion!

      • CARLA DAY says:

        I’ve recently completed my memoir and chose to place the segments in chronological order, as there are many smaller chapters. It seems to work better, as it looked a little bit like a patchwork and would have readers scrambling and back-peddling to check on a date etc. It’s all fixed now and is on the final stage. Any tips on approaches as I’m terrified of getting it out there?

  2. MKPhoto&Ink says:

    Thank you. I’m in the middle of writing the memoirs of my sister for the first time so this piece was a great help.

    • Hi there! Would love to hear more about your memoir–do you have a theme yet? How exciting for you!

      • April Bartaszewicz says:

        Just finished research for my memoir and I also have all the documents that I need as evidence of truth. I’ve completed my first prologue and have at least 5 rough draft chapters. I’m low income parent. Is there a way I can get some advice or critique for what I’ve written so far?

  3. Neil Larkins says:

    Thanks, Shannon, for these helpful tips. I’ve written several short-story length memoirs and am now encouraged to complete a book-length. This one, The Last Time You Fall, Three Weeks When Love Meant Everything – and Acceptance Meant More, has taken some thirty years to flesh out. But I’ll finish for sure now.

    • Yay Neil! Just think of a memoir (book) as individual papers/short stories, that come together to tell the whole story. When I coach memoir writers, it’s easier for them to think in terms of shorter pieces, rather than the whole book. Good luck–and keep me posted!

      • Neil Larkins says:

        Yes, that’s partly how “Fall” finally came together: short stories and vignettes, both directly and indirectly related, with back story and flashbacks thrown in…because that’s much the way things happen in real life. Only you aren’t aware of it at the time. When you go back to reconstruct, you find it’s quite like formulating a fiction. This story happened when I was in college and met the girl who became my wife. The time was filled with heavy emotion because I also stood at a crossroads. And so did she. So I’ve included her memoir within mine. Tricky, yes, but I believe I’ve pulled it off.

  4. Shannon thank you for this brilliant post and extremely excellent timing! I had a small crisis of confidence this week and I’m so happy to read that travel memoir/narrative is still a valid and loved genre. I am less than a month away from hitting the “publish” button for “Postcards from France”. MERCI

  5. Shannon,

    This is such a great article and with tons of nuggets. Loved it and learned a thing or two as well.

  6. Faith Singer says:

    Thank you Shannon for your sage advice. I’ve been working on my memoirs in essay form for about 10 years now with the help of my writer’s group. I appreciate what you say about creating a story with arc and viewing the people in the memoir as characters. In addition, I’m grateful for the recommendation of picking one time period (“a sliver of pie”) rather than doing a chronology of everything. Now I realize that I have 3 distinct events that happened in my life to shape me and I look forward to gearing my memoirs towards that goal. Your advice opened my eyes to the possibilities…

    • Hey Faith. Yes, go for the sliver method. I started working with a memoir writer today and once we narrowed the focus to overarching theme, it was much easier to find the slivers that fit that theme. Good luck! Can’t wait to see what you come up with!

  7. Thanks for the helpful article. I’m wondering how much of your advice I can apply to my current project. I have been hired to write the story of a 95 year-old woman. I’ve been interviewing her once or twice a week for several months. Her children approached me to do this, but she is excited about it and looking forward to seeing the book. I guess it will be more of a biography than a memoir, but I want to include stories written as scenes, with details to keep it interesting.

    • Hi Carolyn! I think you have the “write” idea to think of each chapter as a scene and lead your readers through those scenes as they progress through the book. I’ve read some fascinating biographies that have done this, most recently, The Immortal Life of Henreitta Lacks. Have you read this book? You might want to snag a copy and study the organization!

  8. Thank you Shannon for the great article! I am looking to start writing a memoir of my wife’s struggle with, and ultimate demise from Cystic Fibrosis, and how it relates to parenting, grief, and life in general.

    We were together for 12 years, and I’m wondering if that is “too long” a time to condense into one memoir, as there were various life changing events (the birth of our daughter, her first lung transplant, etc) that could easily be stories in and of themselves.

    Most of my recent exploration into writing has been in blog format, specifically regarding grief and loss, and I would really like to begin writing about the happier times, and I believe a memoir is the way to begin.

    • Mike–what a great idea for a memoir. I think that if you think about the theme of the book, and then relate the stories to that theme, you will be just fine. As yourself, what do I want my readers to walk away knowing when they close the book? That is the theme, and then pick the bits and pieces that fit to that theme. Sound good?

  9. I’ve been needing to write a memoir for most of my life; but there’s so many ways to approach it, I end up spinning my wheels trying to decide which way to come at it. Not to mention the focus of the book is,well, depressing, so if I’m feeling good, I don’t want to bring myself down writing about it, and if I’m feeling the focus TOO much, I don’t want to do ANYTHING.

    • Hey Wendy, I hear ya. I had to go to my parent’s cabin to finish my book–where I could scream and cry and yell and hit the pillow (all of these did happen!) when I needed to relive the hard parts. But to get all that off my chest and into something I am now proud of is key! 🙂

      When I work with my memoir writers, we talk about the emotions, and ways of handling them and dealing with them as we write. It’s natural–know that you are not alone in this! xo

  10. I know there is a memoir within me, but I didn’t know how or where to start. Your article has certainly ignited some ideas in my mind….thank you, Shannon! #HUGS

    Kit

  11. Thank you, Shannon, for this insightful advice. I’m attempting to write a memoir about five years I spent in Palestine. I’ve used too much time thinking about it and not starting. Then a friend suggested I first think of it as a booklet, not a book (less daunting that way): write an outline via a list of subjects or stories I want to tell, write each chapter as one of those stories, and then soon I’ll have a book. This is working for me. Your six rules will enhance what I’ve completed and guide me to add more depth to the remainder. -Bettye

  12. Shannon – super great post, thanks! Insightful and actionable. I loved your reminder on narrowing the focus… how a memoir is “slice,” not the whole pie 🙂 The first chapter of my book is written and free on my site. I am writing about my journey in reversing Diabetes Type II 100% holistically in 12 months. Where it all started.. where I’m at now… 🙂

    • Hi Nicki! Such a very important topic indeed. Be sure you have a content strategy to get the word out. I have seen my book and podcast explode the past two months because I followed a content strategy (one I developed) and have stuck to it. Authors are brands too!

  13. Thank you ever so much Shannon, this is a brilliant and very helpful post, I am just an aspiring writer I am no where near writing a memoir yet but I decided to blog. I have two blogs one where I share my daily life experiences and encounters whose address I have put above. The other is about the breakdown of my marriage whose address is december18blog.wordpress.com. I am certainly going to take your advice and make my blogs authentic and help my viewers to get to know me and my life story. Thank you once again.

  14. I have been meaning to write my memoir for several years now in hopes to find some healing in the loss of my 19 year old daughter while she was in the Air Force. It has been to scary because of the pain whenever I think about it. Your ideas are well stated and clearly stated and give me some direction where I think it is now time to sit down and write this.

    • Hey Michelle. So sorry to hear about the loss of your daughter. Writing memoir can be painful, but the end result is that it will impact so me–it will be powerful! I am happy you found some clarity and inspiration.

  15. Fantastic article! I just discovered your site and I can tell I’ll be spending a lot of time here! I just finished a business book, my first, 20 years in the making. As I read I imagined myself writing a memoir about the journey. Thank you!

  16. Marlene Tucker says:

    Yes, I have written my memoir and interestingly enough, it appears as if I have captured what you recommended in your article. Confirms I am on target. ou can find a short recap of my book on BooksDaily.com. Thank you!

    Marlene Tucker
    Author of “Loosed: You can live again” now available at Outskirts Press, Barnes & Nobles, Books A Million, Amazon, and their affiliates.

  17. Marlene Tucker says:

    Yes, I have written my memoir and interestingly enough, it appears as if I have captured what you recommended in your article. Confirms I am on target. You can find a short recap of my book on BooksDaily.com. Thank you!

    Marlene Tucker
    Author of “Loosed: You can live again” now available at Outskirts Press, Barnes & Nobles, Books A Million, Amazon, and their affiliates.

  18. I am currently working on a memoir, which I hope to have published in a month or two. This is great advice. I’m going to order your memoir to see how you wrote yours.

    • Hey Marilyn! Keep writing–and please shoot me an email (email at back of my book) when you are doing reading my memoir. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  19. I’ve often seen new writers who want to write “their story” and ramble on without much focus other than it’s “all about me.” This is a great reminder that memoirs need to be compelling stories that focus on emotions and situations that can tug at the readers hearts who didn’t grow up with you.

    • I think it is best to start out with a theme for the memoir, Chris. And this helps pull all the pieces together. Everything I wrote — I checked against the theme to see if it “fit”. Narrow focus and relating to audience are certainly key.

  20. Beautifully writen, clear concise, insightful.
    Two thumbs up and a smile.

  21. Hey Brian! Thanks so much for your kind words! Two thumbs up and a smile right back to you!

  22. Shannon, it’s amazing post! I haven’t written memoirs yet, but I’m going to try. And I love to read memoirs that include interesting details not only the sequence of what happened to the person I read about.

  23. Delanie says:

    I’ve been up a good portion of the night, as I usually am, pursuing the Internet to discover true inspiration for writing. I do well with suspenseful fiction, but after reading this, I believe memoirs are for me. As an impassioned Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” My spark has been reignited after years of lying dormant, and all it took was a grade 12 English course, and the approval and commendation of a truly dedicated teacher. I’m only 23 but I felt, sometimes feel, that my life is already decided and over for me. What I’m really asking is, is the fear of ostracism for exposing your true self greater than the reward of unleashing your soul, not for the world, but for your own inner peace, or is this a rationale that slowly subsides to the latter with age. I have a story to tell, I do. I Just don’t know if it’s the time. By the way, you are a very captivating writer and it’s moments like this I’m so very upset for anonymity of the vast Internet, as I probably won’t ever truly ‘know’ writers like yourself.

  24. I am very close to the end of my memoir. It seems as if I was following your advice without knowing it.

  25. I am so happy I clicked on your sight. I am just beginning to write. You have given me great tips on how to begin my story. I’m looking into doing a memoir. Looking forward to getting my truth out there. Hopefully it’ll give someone else faith and guidance to live a productive life after being dealt a bad hand in life. So thank you for your words.

  26. When writting do many people write it in the first person of “I”?

  27. Do you have a mini-memoir-moment to share? Why not enter it in Writer Advice’s Flash Memoir Contest? Everyone gets detailed feedback. Deadline is March 1, 2016. Details are at http://www.writeradvice.com. You can’t win unless you enter.

  28. I would like to write a memoir. Is it a good idea to change names? Some people in my life might not be alright with having their name in my story.

  29. donna brown says:

    Thank you for your great advice. I just started to write my mother’s life story this month. I was confused and overwhelmed at first how to include her interesting life story from birth, being born during WWII under Japanese invasion, to her prosperous and happy marriage that became abusive and end up separating, and raising 8 kids on her own. Reading your tips gave me the idea to perhaps just focus on the marriage first and write another about her own life? Do i write as a daughter? a narrator? Do Iwrite “my mother” my parents” or using fictional names when i am retelling and narrating the story? I insert dialogue in first person experience, but the rest of the story is narrative 2nd person (he , she), would that make sense. Thank you.

  30. Thanks for the great tips and the encouragement to keep putting my story down, one word at a time.
    The process, for me, has been cathartic and painful as I’m recalling the years I spent dealing with chronic pain and sickness with the goal of encouraging others who feel alone in their pain.

  31. not sure where to start my story

  32. Hi Shannon, I’ve been wanting to write a memoir but i have no idea as of how to start it or even where to begin. I believe once i get a head start, im confident enough i can finish the rest with a little coaching. May please ask for your guidance in this journey.

    Thanks,
    Kacy

    • Hey Kacy! This article should help you being your journey. A memoir is one slice of your life. Start there. A marriage. A child. A job. An epic trip. Good luck!

  33. Sharon Annable says:

    I just came across this. I’ve been struggling to write a memoir for several years now. I’d started it as fiction, but it didn’t fit. I’ve scrapped it four different times. But your article has helped me sort things out and now I think I know how to go about it. I can’t wait to get started, actually. Thank you so much! 🙂

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