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

How to Write a Memoir: 6 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 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 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.

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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,, 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?

This post originally ran in April 2015. We updated it in April 2017.

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Filed Under: Craft

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162 comments

  • Ndubuisi says:

    I want to thank you for the beautiful insight, and I think it’s really going to be helpful. I’ve been planning to write about the period of my national service, but the starting point has been my greatest challenge. Hopefully with what I’ve learned here, I believe I can now start.

  • Thank you for the tips! There are so many memoirs that I plan to write! A few years ago I actually wrote a memoir about something that took place during my teenage years. In real time the story took place over 3 days, but during those 3 days – I lived a lifetime of experiences and lived to tell people some very interesting things! But when I sat and wrote out the memoir, I wrote the exact facts of what took place, it only took up 4 pages, and there needs to be a lot of things added to to it! I need to go back and rewrite my memoir using the above tips…..because afterward I believe that my story would interest very many people! So, wish me luck! thanks again, sincerely, Josie
    p.s. I have never joined a writing website or blog or purchased a program online that could help with my writing; however, I am extremely interested in receiving more tips and tricks of the trade…. how do I go about doing this??
    Thanks!

    • Rayan says:

      Sorry if I have replied in error, I’m not at all competent in the internet and all that it encompasses. I am looking for someone who is interested in writing my memoir. Trust me, it is an interesting one. If this reaches you and you are interested, text me a msg saying so. 919-280-6139

  • Jennifer says:

    I goigled ‘how to write my memour’ because I want to do it but I’m not sure where to begin. Narrowing my focus is probably the best ‘tip’ for me. I still haven’t quite narrowed it enough to feel like I can actually start my first draft.. I have a theme – sort of – and a period of my life I want to write about, but still it feels too broad. This article helps and I bookmarked the site because it looks like it may be a helpful resource for me as I work this out.. Thank you

  • Jen says:

    At the beginning stages of writing my Memoir. I have endured many traumas, all forms of abuse, an abduction, and have developed some pretty severe mental disorders bc of my history that I fight with daily, some days hopeful I’ll get better, other days sure I won’t. I can’t figure out what to focus on or if I should do it as a journal, using actual journal entries, the few I haven’t destroyed as a means to forget, with flashbacks for the events or what. Definitely the most difficult writing venture I’ve undertaken.

  • Thanks for the suggestions and examples. I am writing my mother’s story – history through her eyes at the age she was for the event or situation. It focuses on her emerging independence and determination to become a pioneer in the male-dominated field of accounting in the 1940s, leading to being an inspiration as a mother and career woman from the 1960s onwards with ‘family friendly’ contracts. The first part of the story seemed easier to write. I’m researching and writing the middle to current years and points 4 & 5 of your article will be good to keep in mind for those latter parts of my mother’s story. (as a result of the earlier research my mother Patricia Evans has just been accepted into the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame in Alice Springs Australia)

  • I am a mid list author of YA and children’s books and have been working on a memoir of my time as a child radio actress while living in an amazing enclave of old movie stars and moguls. My agent says memoirs aren’t selling well right now unless you’re famous. Is that the case?

  • Bonnie Orange says:

    Thank you for sharing this article and providing some insight into the topic of writing a memoir. I like how you distinguish between a memoir and an autobiography. Also, I like how you describe a memoir as “the truth as seen through your eyes” but you also suggest the use of “elements of fiction.” This is something I personally struggle with because I want to stay true to the truth, but I also want to stay focused on a theme and keep the reader engaged and entertained.

  • Jimmy Wales says:

    Wow!! This is something I was searching for many days. My thirst has been quenched now after reading your article. I am highly thankful to you for writing this article. I haven’t written memoirs yet. I was searching for a good platform to write and then I found Peoplepedia, an free website to
    . Now I’ll definitely write memoirs on Peoplepedia by following your great advice and tips.

  • Mary J. DOss says:

    Glad I found this site. Have just graduated from college with a degree in Creative Writing and a Degree in Journalism. Want to start on the first of my three memoirs that I hope to write. The first focuses on my younger years until graduation. The second focuses on After graduation and the grandchildren. The third will focus on my great-grandchildren. Really want to interact with individuals who are interested in telling interesting stories about their life.

  • Oh my goodness….I stumbled upon The Write Life early this morning and have not touched anything else for the last two hours. I have found more information regarding how to get what sits lazely in my brain out onto “paper”. Your site is a wealth of knowledge….I cannot thank you enough for confirming that…Yes, I have a memoir and a novel ……now, after reading and actually inhaling all the how to, where to, what to and who to information on your site has given me renewed energy.
    Thank You.

  • Helen Corson says:

    As I read your suggestions on memoir writing, I was reminded of my own three week trek in the Himalayas and an opening sentence came to mind. Thank you for the start of an adventure in writing about my amazing life.

  • Beth Hopper says:

    I am starting a memoir about the lives of my parents mostly for my children and grandchildren. They are faith walkers, believing in the power of God and have shared with others from Africa to Alaska and in- between, influencing people across culture lines. Currently I am struggling how to share their story as two different people. How do I write in first person yet tell the story of two different people’s viewpoints. I am also unclear how many years to share as they have too many stories between their 60 years together.

  • Gerard L Horton says:

    I have often read stories by writers to the local newspapers on community and other social issues and thought how I’d like to be able to write like that. Your article inspires me to think that I, too, could
    learn to express myself clearly and interestingly enough , in writing , that people would want to read what I have to say. I think I’d like to explore this idea further. Your article is so positive.
    I recently retired from work and am intrigued by the idea of writing a memoir. To date, however, I have written poetry and have enough material that I have been thinking about presenting them in book form . I would welcome any comments or suggestions.

  • Hi:
    I’ve thought about writing a Memoir, and people are always telling me write a book. I think I’m finally ready to begin… But where do I start?
    Sincerely,
    ~David Johnson

  • Ruth says:

    Hi Shannon,
    I have been wanting to write my memoir but I have no idea where to start. My problem is, my grammar. My daughter and all my friends have told me to write about my life. Do you have any suggestion to where I can start?
    Thank you,
    Ruth

  • Diana Raab says:

    My book, WRITING FOR BLISS, can help you transform your life by helping you tap into your authentic voice! Open yourself up to creative possibilities using techniques like self-acceptance, mindfulness, and Eastern thought, and use my writing prompts and ideas for journaling to keep you writing every day.

  • Jake Lesa says:

    The excerpt about vodka bottles from #4 is taken from Mary Karr’s “The Art of Memoir.” Give credit where it’s due, or come up with original content. This is poor ethos, especially for someone trying to push their “own” brand.

  • Marc says:

    I have wrangled the thoughts of writing a memoir and have had so many people say to me please write a book !
    I am struggling on just where to start and have done so for many months which always leads to me saying….one day…
    It was an inspiration to read your guide and will look for your memoir.
    Best wishes
    Marc

  • Carmen says:

    This was an exceptionally helpful little article!

    I am about a third of the way through writing my memoir focused on the year of my life when I crossed the South Atlantic Ocean on a hand built yacht with a father and son who had named the yacht after their late mother/ wife.

    It is really quite the story, involving a number of set backs and even us being attacked by pirates!

    Sometimes I feel like I am not doing the story justice, like it’s too big for me. Even though it’s my story!

    I am also truly up in the air about writing it in journal entry form or small chapters in present tense. Any idea?

  • milimo katongo says:

    Great article and very inspiring.Thanks Shannon.My sister just lost her baby son at four months last week and she is so devastated.i want to do a memoir about child loss to help others cope and for my sister to have a recorded memory of her son and her journey through this pain.

  • Kathy Larson says:

    I have been writing a memoir about living in the wilderness at age 11 to age 18 with my father and my sisters and brothers. I have really enjoyed writing about my life as it has been a healing process. This site has been very helpful, thank you,
    Kathy.

  • Kathy Larson says:

    Happy Holliday’s 🙂

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