Writing a memoir can be incredibly fulfilling, for you and for readers, but it can also be overwhelming. Where do you start? How long is a memoir, anyway? What should the writing style be like? What if you can’t remember all the details?
Recently, I’ve been coaching a few memoirists who want to tell their stories, but don’t know how to start. In this post, I’ll break down some of the common advice I share with them.
- Consider why you are writing. If you want to be famous, or want oodles of money, you are probably going to be sorely disappointed. It’s hard to get a memoir published unless you already have some kind of platform: an existing audience. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to publish a memoir, or build a platform, but it’s going to be a long, hard road that will likely end in disappointment if you’re in it for fame and money. Here are some good reasons to write a memoir, reasons that will keep you going when you’d rather sleep or watch TV than write, when you get rejections, when you have to revise that draft you thought was perfect: write a memoir because you love writing and find it personally fulfilling; because you think your story will help your readers lead better lives; because you want to document your story for friends and family members.
- Read books like yours. Read famous memoirs, and read memoirs by people with similar stories to yours. Even if you’ve already read many memoirs, reading them now that you’re thinking about writing a memoir will be a different experience. Pay attention to the style of writing. See how they take a memory and turn it into a scene, like it’s in a movie? See how real live people are portrayed in all their detail and complexity, stranger but truer than fiction? See how tension keeps you turning the page?
- Read craft books. Writers love to write about how to write. Get advice from the best! More so than trade or prescriptive non-fiction, memoirs share many narrative qualities with fiction. Thus, craft books about both memoir and fiction can be helpful. Mary Karr’s “The Art of Memoir” is a great place to start, but I would also recommend Larry Brooks’ “Story Engineering” for thinking about structure, and “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” for help bringing a scene to life with vivid prose.
- Start small. Do you even like writing about your own life experiences? Give it a try by writing personal essays before you dive into a memoir head first. Think about the small yet significant moments in your life. The moments that changed you. As my co-founder, writer Mia White, says, “Each time you write an essay, you’ll get a better sense of whether that area of your life has something deeper to explore. I personally always found it surprising that moments that felt really big turned out not to have as much weight or power as some smaller ones.” Writing shorter essays can help you figure out how to focus a larger work, and give you practice with the writing and revision process that will serve you well when you start a larger project. Plus, publishing essays can help you build that platform I talked about in the first step.
- Map out your internal and external arcs. Just like a fictional character, when you portray yourself in a memoir, you should have both an internal and external arc. Internally, you should show how you as a person changed and grew. Treat yourself like a character you are trying to develop. Externally, the arc will come from the conflict in your life. Most memoirists I talk to start out thinking too internally or too externally. A memoir that is too internally driven and lacks external conflict will read like a counseling session, with no story. A memoir that is too externally driven with no internal arc could be a great skeleton of a story…but like the tin man, will have no heart. For example, in Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” (another great book to read!), externally, we root for King to succeed as a writer, and to recover after a terrible accident in 1999. Internally, we root for King to build resilience in the face of rejection, and tragedy. In Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” externally, we’re rooting for Strayed to successfully hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Internally, we’re rooting for her to overcome her grief from the loss of her mother, and the self-destructiveness that led to the dissolution of her marriage.
- Narrow your story down. Most memoir is relatively narrow in focus. Trying to cover too much could mean you don’t spend enough time to develop any one part of your story. For example, while King’s “On Writing” ranges several decades, and includes writing advice, it is focused on just one area of his life: writing. Tobias Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life” focuses solely on his childhood, and brings us into his early life as if he’s a character in a novel. Wolff has other memoirs covering different parts of his life. “Wild” focuses on a short period of time while Strayed is hiking, and all flashbacks are framed by this journey. Memoirs are not autobiographies. They are narrower, telling only a certain slice of your life story. Thinking about what external and internal conflict you want to show can help you figure out what slice of your life you’d like to write about. For the rest, you can always write another book.
- Get ready to work. Writing a first draft is a lot of work, and that’s just the beginning. If you want to pursue publication, prepare to revise upwards of 10-15 times, and even do some complete rewrites. Even if you hire a ghostwriter or an editor, you will still have to spend many hours in interviews, or making the final decisions about changes to your prose. Are you prepared to make the time? This ties back to my first suggestion: make sure you are writing this memoir for the right reason. When you don’t have fame or money, what is going to keep you working hard?
While writing a memoir is a much-larger process than I can describe in a blog post, going through these steps will get you started. What other questions do you have about writing a memoir? Share them in the comments, and perhaps I’ll write another post to answer them. And of course (shameless plug), you can always hire a writing coach or editor from Sounding Sea to help you stay on track.