Knowing how to write memoir with some of the conventions of fiction (plus what makes life-writing compelling) will ensure your memoir interests and immerses readers. Read nine ideas to vivify your slice-of-life story:
How to write memoirs that move and interest readers
- Know memoir vs autobiography differences
- Choose a life-writing format to suit your subject
- Lead with a great story hook
- List pivotal or watershed moments to include
- Highlight changes in who, what, why, where, or when
- Put your reader there with you
- Change names if necessary to stay true
- Share honest voice and persona
- Speak to people who were there for details
Let’s look closer at this specific type of life-writing:
1. Know memoir vs autobiography differences
What are the differences between memoir vs autobiography?
A memoir is:
- Typically a slice of life rather than the entire chronology of a person’s life from birth
- Often narrowed to a subject, event or theme. For example, the story of how a CEO revolutionized an industry, or a health and wellness memoir about living with a tough condition or disease
- Memoir is often framed around a specific watershed moment that changed everything for the life explored in a memoir’s pages
- Autobiography is usually written about famous or public interest figures (since these are lives fans or curious parties may want to know every detail about, from start to finish)
The word memoir comes from the French mémoire, literally meaning memory. It is useful to think of memoir in that way, compared to autobiography. If an autobiography is as much of the archive of a life that can be crammed into a book (and autobiographies often are doorstoppers), then memoir is selective, well-chosen memory.
2. Choose a life-writing format to suit your subject
Authors use various forms to write memoirs. Some choose a fragmentary, almost aphoristic approach (short fragments meant to express broader truths).
An example of this type would be Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, in which the literary scholar writes brief fragments of memories interspersed with photographs.
Barthes’ approach is more experimental, of course (though not necessarily less affecting or intriguing for that). If you want broader commercial appeal for lovers of story, though, then a more linear narrative memoir format may be more suitable.
In choosing representation of life events, think about the focal point of the memoir you want to write, and your subject matter.
A memoir dealing with fragmentation of some kind (or example one about fractured mental health) may suit a fragmentary format well.
David Sedaris’ collections of humorous essays drawing from his adult life and childhood such as Me Talk Pretty One Day, provide slices of life in loosely grouped essays, so you could also choose between separating your memoir into thematically (or otherwise) grouped essays or one continuous narrative.
3. Lead with a great story hook
The above are choices to make in deciding how to write a memoir or represent events from your life.
Once you have an idea of how you want to frame life events from a specific time or experience, what next? What – specifically what to foreground first to write a strong hook.
Great memoirs, like great novels, have intriguing, make-you-want-to-read-more hooks. A hook:
- Makes your reader ask questions early so that they want to keep reading
- May consist of a tense internal or external conflict with an unknown outcome, or else a call to adventure, or a hare-brained scheme that flirts with disaster. Whatever will create the call to your reader to continue towards the unknown
Examples of effective hooks from memoirs
- ‘Our first gig as Joy Division and it ended in a fight. Typical.’ Peter Hook, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division (2012).
- ‘July 26 2010. Today would be her wedding anniversary.’ Joan Didion, Blue Nights (2011)
- ‘Nobody really knew what the trouble was with Aunty Vi – all I knew was that it was Gran’s fault.’ Hedi Lampert, The Trouble with My Aunt (2020)
- ‘In the third grade, I challenged the fastest boy at Hunt Street School, in Central Falls, to a race at recess. It was the dead of winter and everyone showed up.’ Viola Davis, Finding Me (2022).
The hook examples above tease dramatic content such as:
- Significant or watershed events or occasions
- Important personal relationships
- Suspenseful situations
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4. List pivotal or watershed moments to include
In a recent Now Novel webinar on writing memoir, writing coach Hedi Lampert (whose fictionalized memoir’s hook is shared above) talked about what to include in a memoir, vs what to leave out.
These days, unless you really are super famous nobody wants to know about every single thing that has happened in your life. Writing memoir is more about taking a pivotal moment, something that was a watershed moment – a moment that I like to say was the thing that maybe created a specific before and an after. That moment which changed everything.Writing coach Hedi Lampert, ‘Let’s Talk about Memoir’
Hedi also talks a bit more about memoir and writing stories based on true events here:
When you sit down to plan how to write your memoir, make a list of key events and moments that you want to make the cut (keeping in mind that some you may need to cut for narrative focus at a later point).
Finding watershed moments for your memoir
- Before and after: Was there a defining moment or experience where your self-understanding or understanding of the world changed? Or your needs/values/resolve?
- Major losses or gains: What will be the high or low points of this story?
- Turning points and transformation: Turning points and transformations continue to fascinate readers because they are typically full of conflicts whether internal or external (for example, a formerly impoverished person grapples with staying grounded after gaining wealth)
- Emotional events: When in the life events recounted was there fear, joy, relief, apprehension, doubt, hindsight, wish, wonder and surprise? Contour your memoir around emotions that the average reader would empathize with and relate to
If you are taking the linear narrative approach, building a story made up of action and reaction beats that lead to (or between) these key moments will give your memoir cohesion and a sense of direction.
5. Highlight changes in who, what, why, where and when
In memoir, as in fiction or journalism, there are five crucial W’s: Who, what, why, where and when.
Foregrounding the important W’s and making them change in interesting or surprising ways is key to what makes a story effective and emotionally satisfying.
In life-writing, many of these changes are ‘already-written’ (in the sense that events have already happened).
If you are writing ‘creative memoir’ (fictionalized versions of real events), though, that does give you some creative license to alter events so that your version creates dramatic and emotional involvement.
Example of who, what, why, where or when in memoir: Writing about addiction
Say, for example, you were writing a memoir about addiction and the path to sobriety.
You could organize ideas for scenes and chapters around the five W’s thus:
- Who: Who introduced you to the source of your addiction? Who helped you realize you needed to seek help or quit? How were these players impacted by their part in the story and what is interesting or intriguing about them?
- What: What are the exact specifics (e.g. what was the addiction to?) What of the specifics is particularly interesting or surprising?
- Why: Why did you personally start using? What were the underlying motivations or circumstances that influenced this development? Why did you have a turning point?
- Where: Where did this life experience take you at your highest or lowest points? Where did key events unfold and which environments are important to feature?
- When: When did this slice of your life begin and when did you enter a new era? Leading from this, when should the story start and where should it end to ensure there is a defined, clear dramatic arc?
6. Put your reader there with you
One of the many ways how to write memoir is not that different from writing fiction is in how crucial it is to show, not only tell.
Set the scene; put the reader there with you in your lowest and crowing moments.
It’s fitting for a chapter titled ‘Running’ in Finding Me (about all the ways Viola Davis had to run growing up) that on page one we read about a race in heart-in-mouth terms, as though we’re right there with her.
Don’t say ‘It was at my sixth birthday that [x watershed event] happened’. Inflate the bouncing castle, blow out the candles.
Showing and telling are both necessary (as Ursula K. Le Guin says). Yet giving your reader a filmic, movie-lens view of life events (instead of ‘this happened, then this, then that) will immerse them in the emotion and the guts of your story.
7. Change names if necessary to stay true
A topic that came up in our post-webinar Q&A (and often comes up when discussing memoir) is the issue of privacy/rights. What if your memoir features real people – a sibling, cousin, parent – who are still living?
This is especially tricky for authors writing about personal subjects such as abuse or domestic violence that have legal implications.
If you’re concerned someone may simply not want details of their personal life in print, ask anyone who appears in your memoir their permission. If they do not consent to appear, change their names. Ditto if you don’t even want them to know you’re writing your memoir. You could also alter other elements such as:
- Key names of places
- Years and dates
- The exact sequence or details of events
This would ensure that it’s harder for any reader who may know people who feature in your memoir to connect the dots back to them.
‘Based on a true story’ does not make a memoir ‘lesser than’ or less capable of imparting truths and insights.
The important thing is to stay true to the story you need to tell. To find the courage to be naked, raw, and real wherever your story requires it.
8. Share honest voice and persona
In fiction, readers love to hear distinctive voice, to form a full sense of the persona of a character.
The same is true for memoir. Great memoirs allow us to get to know the memoirist, not only through the nature and scope of their lived experience but the persona, tone and diction of their writing.
Think about how you want your voice to come across. You may be writing about joyful, life-affirming experiences or a story of how you survived horrific ordeals. Yet you could approach the same type of content in a multitude of ways.
In his part travel narrative, part memoir about trying to write about DH Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer uses, for example, a wryly humorous, slightly neurotic self-effacing voice:
Looking back it seems, on the one hand, hard to believe that I could have wasted so much time, could have exhausted myself so utterly, wondering when I was going to begin my study of D. H. Lawrence; on the other, it seems equally hard to believe that I ever started it, for the prospect of embarking on this study of Lawrence accelerated and intensified the psychological disarray it was meant to delay and alleviate. Conceived as a distraction, it immediately took on the distracted character of that from which it was intended to be a distraction, namely myself.Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage (Little Brown, 1997)
Roland Barthes begins Roland Barthes by writing ‘all of this should be read as if spoken by a character in a novel’.
Thus it is also possible to say something true and honest, perhaps, via a fictionalized version of yourself, a character who has elements of you and your lived life plus whatever embellishments you need for the sake of story.
9. Speak to people who were there for details
One of the helpful things about writing memoir is that you most likely have a ‘living archive’ in people who lived through the same period of your life.
To find extra details or interesting context to add to your memoir, speak to other people who were there – they may remember details you had forgotten or have insights that add richness to the story you’re telling.
Speaking with a writing coach who understands how to make memoirs have all the ingredients of great stories helps too. Find a writing coach who’ll help you get the most interesting slice of life down on the page.
If there’s anything I’ve paid for this year that’s been worth it, it’d be this. I submitted my first three chapters to be reviewed. Mind you, I haven’t written more than a hundred words at any given time since high school and I’m 25 now. I wasn’t expecting the amount of detail in the constructive criticism provided in the review. Annotated line by line, explaining the good and how things can be further developed. It’s perfect. — Nashon