How To Write A Memoir That Grabs Your Readers
Writing a memoir is not the same as writing a book about your life.
While you’ll use anecdotes from your own life to tell a compelling story, the real star of your memoir is your reader.
And the real message isn’t, “This is why you should remember me,” but “This is something you can do, too.”
The theme of your memoir is the message, and it’s there not to put you on a pedestal but to help your reader.
The theme is the takeaway. If the reader remembers nothing else, you want them to remember how your memoir’s theme relates to their life.
You want your memoir to open your readers’ eyes to their own potential for growth and transformation.
Memoirs that only celebrate the life of the author collect dust and join the ranks of books that make little, if any, impact on the world.
If you’d like to learn how to write a memoir worth your reader’s memory, read on.
What is a Memoir?
Before we go into what a memoir actually is, let’s start with answering the question, “What is an autobiography?”
The two are not the same, and the differences are important.
An autobiography tells the story of your life in a chronological manner — from birth to the present or to the most impactful moment in the recent past.
A memoir uses an anecdote — or multiple anecdotes — from your life to support a theme, which is the message you want your book to convey to its readers.
So, the point of this article isn’t to show you how to write a book about your life but how to write a book that tells a story, based on your own experiences, to send a life-changing message to your reader.
When it comes to compelling or popular memoir ideas, you have plenty to choose from:
- Rags to riches memoirs
- Personal transformation memoirs
- Humorous memoirs
- Travel memoirs
- Celebrity memoirs
- Spiritual memoirs
- War memoirs
- Mental illness memoirs
- Coming of age memoirs
- “Love conquers all” memoirs
- Parenting memoirs
- Work/professional memoirs
- And plenty more
The Story Of Your Life (or from It)
As we said before, the memoir isn’t so much the story of your life as it is a message using stories from your life.
Memoir writing, then, begins with identifying the message — or theme — of your book and selecting appropriate anecdotes from your life to illustrate that theme and make it more emotionally resonant.
And the anecdotes you’ll want to use are those that have a powerful emotional impact.
Only with that impact can you then imprint the message of your book and its stories on your reader’s subconscious mind.
Effective marketing techniques make use of this all the time.
They start by provoking an emotional response in the viewer and then proceed with the message they want the viewer to uncritically (or less critically) accept and remember.
And if you don’t (yet) have a reason to distrust the messenger, you’re more likely to take their message to heart.
What you’re trying to accomplish with your memoir, though, isn’t to sell something your readers don’t need but to help them realize a truth about themselves they’ve yet to acknowledge — and to make the most of it.
How To Write A Memoir in 3 Steps
Now that we’ve covered memoirs vs. autobiography, let’s move on to the subject of how to start a memoir and take your idea from a vague list of personal anecdotes to something your readers will devour and recommend to others.
Step 1: Identify your memoir’s overriding theme.
Your first step is to get clear on the message you want your reader to receive from your memoir — from each story and from all your stories put together.
If you’re not clear on the takeaway, your reader won’t be either.
The most powerful memoirs use universal themes to tie their experiences to those of the reader.
The purpose of a memoir, after all, isn’t to cry out for attention or indulge in a need for cathartic expression. There can be a place for cathartic expression in a memoir, but it must serve the theme — not the author’s need to be noticed.
Because while the stories are from your own experience, the memoir really isn’t about you. It’s about how your experiences can help the reader grow.
Make a list of themes your memoir could explore and consider which ones best fit the experiences you’ve had.
The types of memoirs listed earlier provide clues to each one’s thematic selling point, but it might be more helpful for you to make a list of the most important lessons you’ve learned and how you learned them.
Or list the most painful moments of your life and what you learned from them — or what you’re still trying to learn.
We’re all a work in progress, so don’t be afraid to admit that.
Share anything good that has grown in the dark places of your life and why those things mattered.
Then choose and underline the main message you want to share in the most powerful possible way with your memoir.
Step 2: Choose anecdotes from your life that will imprint that theme on your reader’s subconscious.
I hope you like making lists.
For this step, you’ll be making a list of anecdotes from your life that will not only illustrate your overarching theme but imprint your message on the subconscious of your reader.
For that to happen, your stories must play on your reader’s deepest fears or pain points, which can include one or more of the following:
- Loss of a loved one
- Loss of something on which they depend for their livelihood
- Loss of something on which they base their identity
- Abuse (emotional or physical) with a surprising degree of violence
- Separation from a child or other loved one
- Anything that results in acute and overwhelming pain
Chronic suffering won’t produce the same effect in your reader as an acute pain so powerful that it eclipses everything else. This is especially true when that pain leads to the nadir — or lowest point — of your life.
The reader then wonders, “What did you do, then?” and “How did you get yourself out of that?” because if you’ve played on one of their own deepest fears, they’ll want to know how you turned that pain into something good.
Step 3: Write your memoir like a fast-paced novel.
Once you’ve identified your theme and the most powerful anecdotes to support them, it’s time to create an outline for your book and to get down to the business of writing it.
This is where narrative nonfiction comes in. You may be relying on true stories to send your message, but you’ll draw your readers in more effectively if you write it like a novel.
Begin your story in the middle of the action (in media res) to grab your reader’s attention. And make sure every sentence needs to be in there.
There’s no room for self-indulgent rambling or for going off on tangents that don’t serve the overall message.
Do this by drawing attention to your lead character’s fear or to something greater than that fear. Make the reader think, “That could be me,” or “I know exactly how that feels.”
Realistic detail can also help your reader more fully experience the moments you describe.
Use the following plot devices to make your story feel more like an epic novel:
Even though your anecdotes are based on true stories, the people in those stories are still characters.
And the lead character especially should have an arc — ideally a positive one — to show how this character grew as a result of (or in spite of) what happened.
Whether you’re the hero of your story, the comic relief, or the reader’s faithful sidekick, your arc is essential to the message behind your memoir.
The Hero’s Journey
There’s a reason so many stories use the hero’s journey as the basic structure for their character’s arc.
Joseph Campbell identified twelve stages of the hero’s journey or “monomyth”:
- Ordinary World — the hero’s status quo before the adventure begins
- Call to Adventure — the something that happens to disrupt the status quo and call the hero to action
- Refusal of the Call — wherein our hero tells the challenge to piss right off
- Meeting the Mentor — wherein our hero is schooled by a mentor and begins to think differently
- Crossing the Threshold — the point at which the hero accepts the call and begins the adventure
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies — wherein the hero and his allies face enemies and undergo tests
- Approach to the Inmost Cave — wherein the hero has to face a terrible danger or inner conflict that he’s managed to avoid up til now.
- Ordeal — wherein the hero undergoes an arduous ordeal or deep inner crisis and suffers a kind of death as a result
- Reward (Seizing the Sword) — wherein the hero defeats the enemy and survives, coming away with an object of great power or importance
- The Road Back — wherein the hero must return home with the reward but still has an important choice to make (the journey ain’t over yet).
- Resurrection — wherein the hero has his final and most dangerous encounter with death of some kind, and the outcome of this battle has far-reaching consequences.
- Return with the Elizir — wherein the hero survives the battle and returns as a changed person, bringing fresh hope to his people or a new perspective for them to consider
Keep these stages in mind as you collect and arrange the anecdotes for your memoir.
Showing vs. Telling
You probably remember your English teacher telling you, “Show, don’t tell.” And as a rule, it’s easier to draw your reader in when you paint them a picture of what’s going on — using clear, evocative language — rather than explicitly telling them.
It’s no sin to tell the reader something, though, and sometimes a simple, telling statement can be powerful — especially when it stands alone in a crowd of “showing” sentences.
Use “telling” sentences judiciously, though.
For the most part, you want to give your reader credit for having an imagination and the ability to visualize what’s going on from the “showing” description and dialogue.
Example of telling: “I was very young when my parents sensed there was something wrong with me.”
Example of showing: “I was six years old when my parents took me to see Dr. Sands, who asked me a few questions and seemed alarmed by my answers. He gave my parents a look that was familiar to me even then. His eyebrows rose, and his mouth opened a little. Then his forehead creased, and he rubbed his smooth chin as he looked from me to my parents as they sat fidgeting and shifting in their chairs. I thought Dr. Sands was angry with them. And I was glad.”
Dialogue is a great way to show what’s going on without explicitly telling your reader. Just make sure the dialogue sounds natural and appropriate to the characters who are speaking.
For example, a barista working in Eugene, Oregon probably doesn’t speak like a character out of a Jane Austen novel.
If she does, give the reader a clue as to why. If a character’s speaking style contradicts the reader’s expectations, it won’t sound natural or believable and it will push the reader right out of the story.
And once you’ve alienated your reader with poorly-written dialogue, good luck drawing them back in.
If you already know how to create an outline for a nonfiction book, you already know that it can start with something as simple as a bulleted or numbered list of points you want to make or topics you want to cover.
It could also be a list of the anecdotes you’ve collected for your memoir — and the takeaway you’re intending for each story.
Whatever you start listing first, make sure the headings for each chapter of your memoir get you excited about writing that chapter.
If they don’t evoke a reaction in you, they probably won’t in your reader, either.
One of the best ways to research how to write a memoir is to read other memoirs that have captivated others and continue to attract new readers. Here are just a few famous memoirs to consider adding to your reading/research” list:
- West with the Night by Beryl Markham
- All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott
- Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (Karen Bixen)
- Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
- Night by Elie Wiesel
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau
- A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
- Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Are you ready to write your memoir?
Now that you know how to write a memoir that will grab your ideal readers and find a permanent place in their memory, I bet you have some ideas worth exploring on paper.
So, get that list going — of life-changing lessons, of painful but transformative experiences, or of truths you’re passionate about sharing.
Write a list of questions you want your memoir to answer for your readers. And write a list of your most emotionally impactful stories and what you’ve drawn from them.
You have a book in you.
It’s just a matter of knowing how your experiences can help other people grow as you have. Think of your memoir as a contribution you’re making out of gratitude for the experiences you’ve had.
Maybe you’re the main character of the stories you share in it, but the race isn’t over, yet. With a well-written memoir, you’re just passing the torch.