How to Write a Memoir: 7 Creative Ways to Tell a Powerful Story

How to Write a Memoir: 7 Creative Ways to Tell a Powerful Story

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.

When I teach people how to write and sell memoir, we talk about how to tell a compelling story. While all memoirs are different, the best memoirs all have certain elements in common.

Let’s review some of those common elements, so you can weave them into your own memoir.

What is a memoir?

Before we start, let’s define memoir.

Memoir is not an autobiography. In other words, it is not the story of your whole life. Memoir is 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, and are therefore also two key elements that define the genre.  

How to write a memoir

If you’re planning to write a memoir, you’ll want to take your readers on a journey they won’t forget. In this post, we share tips for writing a memoir well, as well as share plenty of memoir examples.

Here’s 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 Ashes” by 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,” she said, “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 or 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 okay, too. 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.

Or of his fear when ICE raids his childhood home: 

We stood there, frozen, unsure oof 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.  

7. Showcase your personal growth

By the end of your memoir, you need to have shown growth or change or transformation of yourself, the protagonist of your story.  

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 be 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 you want to 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.

Some examples include coming-of-age memoirs, like Kiese Laymon’s “Heavy” or Daisy Hernandez’s “A Cup of Water Under My Bed,” or memoirs that are narrowly focused, like Lori Gottleib’s “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone,” or Jennifer Pastiloff’s “On Being Human.”

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.

Countless categories of memoir point to big-picture themes: addiction and recovery; parenting; travel; cooking; coming-of-age; dysfunctional family; religious experience; death and dying; divorce; and more.

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.

Single-issue memoirs about things like addiction, body image, or illness — including books like “Hunger: A Memoir of (My Body)” by Roxane Gay;  “Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood” by Koren Zailckas; “Sick: A Memoir” by Porochista Khakpour; or Laura M. Flynn’s “Swallow the Ocean: A Memoir”, about growing up with an mentally unwell parent are all great examples. 

For travel memoirs, or food memoirs, or memoirs of leaving home, check out books like “The Expedition” by Chris Fagan; or “A Tiger in the Kitchen” by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan; or “Blood, Bones, and Butter” by Gabrielle Hamilton.

Examples of memoirs with strong takeaways

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.

Takeaway: A gift to the reader

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?

As an example, here’s a reflective passage from Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia:”

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 guidelines while writing your memoir, you will captivate your audience and leave them begging for more.

But more important, you will share your own authentic 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.

Filed Under: Craft

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179 comments

  • C.Vichi says:

    I do so appreciate your advice. Simply put and easily understood. Unfortunately, I am still a hot mess regarding whether to opt for writing an autobiography or memoir. I have much to write about as I have had both a tragic and unique life from birth. Unfortunately, much of what a few people close to me have constantly suggested that I capture on paper pertains to my sexual past. For me to be at ease with the theme of a memoir, it would require both expressing my upbringing/early events that have molded my personality and mind set that contributed to those events along with how those events have continued to cause pain in my adult life to this day. That, to me means it is more of an autobiography rather than a memoir and I struggle with that as a result of the thinking that “nobodys” DO NOT WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. Add to that the trouble of calling it an autobiography when the majority of actual event recollection are sexual in nature…and you have a disorganized mess. All I know is that I have enough thoughts and actual events to fill a book and interest and relentless suggestion to memorialize it all on paper. Help!

  • cecy ortiz says:

    Hi

    I have started writing my memoir and I began a non-fiction short story, but it seems like there is so much to tell that it might become another memoir. I have picked the titles “1981 Detour” and “Sweet October. I am trying to learn as much as I can as I don’t want to sound plain, thank you for sharing these tips anything helps.

    C

  • Narva Thomas says:

    Hi,
    I have a question. I just started a memoir and I need to know if it is o.k. to keep the original names of places or locations, even though I’m changing the real names of the people described in the story.

  • sacha beaumont says:

    Hi I was wondering if I could get some help on my history memoir its about someone else and something significant that has happened in their life that has changed society and I was wondering how do I start it off and how do I hook my readers into this memoir
    thanks much appreciated

  • Stephinie says:

    Hello, I just wanted to comment on here to say thank you for your advice. I’ve been searching for useful tips to help me with my memoir, and your advice was very to the point, easy to understand and also easy to relate to, from reading other memoirs and especially points about needing to be brutally honest and to try and not worry about who that may upset.
    I’m writing my own memoir of a very difficult time in my life, that has actually played a huge part in who I am and everything since the event. I’d love it if you could give me some more advice please, with how to balance putting all of the raw emotion that needs to go into the book by revisiting some old feelings from when I was 16 to then carry on about my day now, raising two toddlers. I feel a little scared to get stuck into the memories entirely as I don’t want to dwell and let my thoughts be overtaken. If that makes sense? Perhaps that’s exactly what is needed here but I would love to hear your thoughts.
    Thank you so much, Steph

  • Anita Percudani says:

    Hi, My name is Anita. I want to write a memoir not to be published but for my children,grand children and there children. I would be a family history starting from present as I approach a milestone birthday,and looking back
    I have gathered some important information and am still doing the gathering.
    I want my children and grand children to know “where we all came from” how we got here and the story of my life which includes there lives. I thought of breaking it down to chapters from a particular year to let say the following years ( could be 5 year increments or 10 or less.What are your thoughts. I will be 80 on my next birthday. Please advise. Anita Percudani

  • Maire Hanley says:

    I have written the first chapter of my memoir and have an agent interested. It’s a complex story mostly about my father and mother. It’s taking me ages as there is so much emotion attached to the story. I am aiming to have it to my agent by the end of the year. I need to get disciplined now. Your advice is very useful. I am sort of thinking of mine like a novel in terms of structure, even adding in conversations that ‘might’ have happened, to explain some of the things that happened that I did not witness myself but which had a big impact.

  • Shannon,

    Thank you for this informative, detailed and exciting piece. I am walking away from this read, feeling confident and more educated and certain of my plans and agenda.
    All of us about who are writing are doing so for different reasons and many of us are going to do most of this alone with no help. For more reasons than one.
    I am writing a memoir about my own life transformations and experiences. Doing so because I am called to share and reveal how God called me to service and life change even though I was a hopeless candidate, living in darkness and misery.
    In the 13th year of my 15 years inside American prisons, I finally gave my life to CHRIST and then before was released, I was blessed with a visions of a Youth Outreach ministry helping At Risk youth, families and communities.
    Released in 2006 and nothing of course happens in our time and in my life nothing is possible without CHRIST, but He keeps on opening doors and blessing me abundantly and FIERCE YOUTH OUTREACH was established in 09 as a gang outreach ministry.
    Newspaper articles, radio station interviews, 700 club aired testimony, what a blessing it is to share with the WORLD what JESUS can do with the least of us, but that is nothing unless it is HELPING someone and that is the basis for a memoir for me.
    I want m mistakes, pain and bad decisions to help others.

    Thank You for this information

    • Shannon says:

      Brandon,

      You are most welcome. Glad you found it inspiring and uplifting. Good luck on your memoir!

      Shannon

      • Mandi quincy says:

        Shannon…ok well im at the sad end of a true life journey…a journey that began yrs ago but the “sliver” of the journey that i want to make into a memoir is a 6 week real life journey that I took with Matthew who is only 35.still young and still alot of life to live yet…. and I so want to get it out there first..i will be the one narrating….there are many people that took short rides off and on through this journey but 5 main ppl to start,and a couple tht pop in and out at various times on this journey,but are a very important part of this journey and will keep readers reading..this journey will break your heart,it will shock you in disbelief ot will make you cry and make you laugh…it is a 33 day journey,with a 3 day event that actually happened 2 weeks before this journey actually started and then it was bam! Straight into disbelief,shock,and grief and defying the odds and that 3 day event pops in and out at various times on this journey and then at the end thy both come together as a bittersweet end to a journey…but this journey will keep people reading because they will not know wht the nexts days events entailed due to the nature of this joirney and the time frames and then when those dont hold true and something ooposite happens,thy r shocked and wanna know did he or did he not…thy wanna knw thy will want to know the nxt chapter of this journey..cuz its been up and down and back and forth.. this joirney has kept me in suspense every single day and i am living it watching it…i need help,i have never wrote anything..i am a reader but this is something i HAVE to do for Matthew…his struggles his fight and his joirneys end,all in a sliver of his pie..i never ever thought abt being a writer before this very moment until 2016 dealt me some pretty rough and trying times and has tested my strength to the fullest…and as i sat here in my home tonight,it smacked me like a rock in a slingshot!! And i sat up and said,i am going to write a book,a book for matthew,to tell his story, and hope that at least one day his journey will help jist one person headed for the same joirney..i need help!! Dont know a thing about this but am determined to get matthews joirney out there..it needs to be told!I promise it wont disappoint

      • Brandon Duncan says:

        I’m actually doing the BIO and writing anything but a Memoir .
        Blessings and thank ALL who contributed and especially YOU for this entire piece….

  • Tia Titus says:

    Thank you for this! My husband and I are writing our memoir. I know that it’s going to help millions and help us tell our story.

  • Acquah Gabriel Kwame says:

    This is great to read. I am way into a memoir of my own. May I please know how many chapters are ideal, and how many words. Thank you.

    • Shannon says:

      Hi Acquah,

      Don’t get caught up on the chapters. Write until complete. Your editor will help you when it’s time to narrow down or add more!

      Shannon

  • 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! 🙂

  • Kacy says:

    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

    • Shannon says:

      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!

  • tammie says:

    not sure where to start my story

  • Karen R says:

    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.

  • 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.

  • Mandy says:

    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.

  • 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.

  • Carol says:

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

  • Laura says:

    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.

  • David Mike says:

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

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