First Steps to Writing a Memoir

Woman with typewriter.We all have stories inside ourselves – and the longer we live, the more we acquire. Our pasts are filled with quirky characters, impossible situations, remarkable adventures, and lessons learned. At some point, most of us think about writing it all down, if only to make sense of our lives and capture important moments from our past before time can snatch them away.

Before starting on the process of recording the past, a few questions should be answered.

Biography or memoir?

A biography is a life story, an account of a person’s life from beginning to end told by someone else. An autobiography is the story of your own life told by you (or dictated to someone else). Your history is a great gift to give to your friends and family.

An individual’s memoir is a biography or autobiography of the important events in that person’s life. It is focused, usually has a theme woven throughout, and tends to be more anecdotal. Memoirs are a good way to explore the “meaning of life” as you’ve experienced it in the context of certain events or within a particular period of time. A person can write multiple memoirs, each covering something different from life experience (but an individual will have only one biography).

As an example, President Obama’s biography/autobiography would chronicle his life from birth through the present, whereas his memoir might focus on his years in the White House.

My publisher tells me that bios and memoirs are the hottest selling books on the market right now. But it’s “who you are” that will be the selling point. So unless you’re a celebrity, making it onto the bestseller list will likely be an unfulfilled dream. That leads me to my next point. 

Overall goal of the memoir?

When I first began working on This New Mountain, a memoir of AJ Jackson, the reason was to help AJ leave a record for her family of the things she’d done as a private investigator, repossessor, and process server. But after I finished the drafts of a few chapters of her adventures, we both thought the audience of the book could be much wider – reaching beyond her circle of friends and business associates (see my post “Beginnings: The Goal of a Memoir”).

In my case, shifting the goal meant refocusing and strengthening the elements of fiction writing (scenes, dialogue, beginning-middle-end structure, etc) to create a piece of creative nonfiction that would appeal to a larger group of readers. At this point I knew the road to publication would be a long one, but a journey doesn’t start until you take the first step.

Some writers enjoy the process of writing for the sake of writing itself. For them, finishing a poem or larger manuscript – and knowing they have done their best – is an accomplishment that brings its own joy. Writing for yourself or for friends and family are both goals on par with the “loftier” one of publication.

Purpose of the memoir?

If you’ve decided you want to publish your memoir, ask yourself why.

Writing for revenge or betrayal

Your story can be about revenge, absolutely, but the story itself should not be wielded as a blunt object, a cat-o’-nine-tails, or a bludgeon. Instead, while writing about the hideous aspects of life, you should attempt to teach us something about the behavior of those involved, about your behavior, about all human behavior. Let us into your story by shedding light on our own dilemmas, fears, happiness, or wide-eyed wonder…. Writing a tale that seeks revenge, you’ll quickly see that tale as merely a list of hurts, which, when you get to the end of that list, is a list that may not interest even you anymore. Revenge as a topic is good; as an intent, it’s not.  ~ Marion Roach Smith, “Don’t Write A Memoir to Get Revenge”

Writing a story focused only on pain or as a means of self-help for others

Writing through grief and tragedy is a proven method to heal, but it is not a proven method for getting published. I say this not to be insensitive, but to bring needed attention to the fact that these stories are prevalent, and very few publishing houses are accepting them…. Life experience, or overcoming a personal challenge, is not enough expertise to help others, especially when it comes to physical and mental health. ~ Jane Friedman, “Five Common Flaws in Memoir Projects”

In “Writing Memoir: Art vs. Confessional” Susan Cushman writes:

There are plenty of opportunities to talk about the trauma in your life… If it’s healing you’re after, there are the traditional and private venues like the psychologist’s office and the church confessional. If you believe you just have to write about what happened to you, go ahead. But don’t try to get it published, unless you do the hard work of spinning that painful experience into the golden threads of an artful memoir.

Deciding on the type of biography you want to write, along with its goal and purpose, are the first steps that lead to the foundation of your memoir, and will drive the course of the entire manuscript. In future blog posts, I’ll talk about how to make a memoir more artful and less confessional.

Are you thinking about writing your biography or memoir?

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