Struggle is universal.
People love reading stories about people triumphing over obstacles, overcoming bad circumstances and abuse, and redeeming themselves. We watch them in movies and read them in books.
And you don’t have to look far to find suffering and loss in the human experience. Lots of people have amazing stories, and unfortunately those stories aren’t always pleasant. If you’re writing a memoir, or thinking about it, then perhaps you’ve got some difficult stories to tell, too.
Writing a memoir is a great way to make sense out of what troubles you the most.
But writing a memoir about your troubled past also means facing uncomfortable memories. And depending on your mindset at the time you sit down to write, the results can be just as ugly.
Writing a memoir requires a careful balance between sharing your truth and sounding whiny or overly self-involved. No one likes to read stories about people like that.
The trick to writing a beautiful memoir is creating art and deeper meaning from your personal experiences that resonate beyond what happened to you. It’s more than your experiences, it’s also about how they made you better as a person.
So how can you accomplish this? Consider the following tips before you put your past on the page.
1. Be a protagonist worth reading
Writing a story about your life means, as far as your readers are concerned, making yourself a character and revealing information about yourself that moves the story forward.
So in the same way a novelist invents a compelling protagonist for their fiction, a memoirist must develop him or herself in a similar way on the page.
You want your reader to care about you and spend 200 or so pages reading about your life. So be conscious of how you create yourself on the page.
What were your goals? What motivated you? How are you flawed? What were your mistakes?
When writing a memoir, be harder on yourself than you are on anyone else you write about.
2. Show all sides of the story
The people you write about in your memoir must be three dimensional.
Not just you, but your heinous parents as well. So maybe your mom rivaled the wicked witch. And maybe your ex-husband was an idiot. You know that, and you want everyone who reads your story to know it too.
But you can’t only focus on the negative aspects of the people who wronged you.
For example, when you write about how your parents neglected you, you can’t completely bash them, no matter how heinous they were or how good it feels to get back at them. If you do, your story will come across as one-dimensional and biased.
When you write about something — no matter how much you don’t like it — put your preconceptions aside and seek to understand.
I learned this rule in journalism school and it definitely works in creative writing. If you can portray your characters as three-dimensional human beings, their true nature will show through regardless. As a result, your story will have more depth.
3. Write from a positive place
Sure, it might feel good to write terrible things about the people who’ve wronged you. But that sort of writing is like therapy: it’s a way to release all your emotions, which is important and perhaps even helpful when writing a memoir.
That emotional material doesn’t belong in your memoir. It belongs in a diary where it won’t ever see the light of day. Once you’ve gotten the raw emotions out, you can hopefully start fresh when you’re ready to write for an audience.
Revenge isn’t good motivation for writing a memoir.
To make sense of your past experiences, you need to have already made peace with your past. If you can’t honestly say you’re over it, then writing in your diary is probably a good place to start.
4. Be honest
Nonfiction, even creative nonfiction like memoir, means the story is factual. You can tell your story in an artful way, but if you’re calling it memoir, it has to be as honest as you can make it.
Don’t blur details or invent scenes for dramatic effect. Don’t make composite characters even if it’s easier that way. Don’t say you went to prison if you didn’t. Don’t say you spent the money to build a school if you used it for travel.
Write your memoir like you’re going to be fact checked, but don’t let that stop you from writing.
Not remembering is okay. You can come right out in your memoir and say you don’t remember something if that’s the case. Even better, if you don’t remember everything, ask someone else who was there.
In fact, you should probably ask even if you think you remember, which leads me to my next tip.
5. Research and report
Memoir is based on memory, but you can add depth and meaning (and accuracy) to your story by looking beyond your own memories.
Research the events you’re writing about. Talk to you siblings and friends about what they remember. And talk to your antagonist and their friends, if they’re still around. Then present the facts you gather. Researching a memoir helps find truth, which is the heart of all successful memoirs.
6. Face the hard truths
If you have a story to tell and are committed to telling it, you should definitely write a memoir.
If you want people to read and enjoy your memoir for the amazing story it is, then you have to avoid writing a one-sided therapy session.
Do your best to get the facts straight, and render everyone in your memoir as a three-dimensional, human character. When you use these tips, you can write a memoir that communicates the deeper meaning and universal truth of your personal history.
Have you thought about writing a memoir about a difficult time in your life?