Memoir is one of those genres that many writers start with because it’s a slice of our own lives. It seems like it should be easier than making something up.
But actually, memoir is one of the most difficult genres to write. There’s your own personal process to go through, but there’s also the way you need to structure the story for the reader. Because it is a story, even though there is a vein of truth. In this article, Ange de Lumiere gives some tips on writing memoir.
For more, check out this great interview on writing memoir with Marion Roach Smith.
Memoirs are not reserved for celebrities. They can be written by any person who has an interesting life story to share. In fact, a lot of readers love a good memoir. But what are the specifics of memoir writing, and the issues to consider that do not crop up in other genres? Here are my thoughts.
(1) You need to have processed the events you write about in your memoir
It is essential that the emotions in the story told in the memoir be resolved. What I mean by that, is that it is not wise to write a memoir about a part of your life that is still raw and painful. At least, not with the intention of publishing it.
And here is why: As all of us seek validation on some level, if the content of your memoir is controversial or painful, a bad review by a reader will feel like a personal attack, and it will cut very deep. So for any memoir writers out there, please make sure that you have healed your wounds properly before you stand naked in front of your audience; because don’t fool yourselves … writing memoirs is like standing completely nude in public view.
(2) Get some legal advice
It is recommended that you have some legal advice about the content of your book. Memoirs are tricky because they mention real people and there is always a risk of defamation and invasion of privacy. I am not going to give a legal lecture on those two topics, which are complex, but suffice it to say that you would be on reasonably safe grounds if you make sure that you don’t write anything out of malice, you are not seeking vengeance with your book, and that you use discernment on how you talk about events and people, possibly even changing real names.
It is also important to add a disclaimer, at the start of your book, to the effect that you are aware that other protagonists in your story might have a very different take on the events that happened, but that this is your truth. Also when you write an opinion, make sure it is clearly perceived as an opinion, not a fact. However, in case of doubt, always consult a lawyer, especially if you self-publish.
[Note from Joanna: I recommend getting Helen Sedwick’s book, The Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook, which has tips about these types of issues.]
(3) A memoir is a story and needs to be structured like one
This is something that came as a surprise to me: a memoir needs to be structured like a story. It needs to have a main character, one or two secondary characters, an arc of development, a beginning, a middle, and an end. The hero, you, must be changed by the story that happened to him or her. Most of the elements of a good story apply to a memoir. The setting is essential too.
My memoir is set in France, where I was born; more specifically, Paris. It talks about the last weeks of my father’s life, as he succumbed to a brain tumour, and how I had to make a choice of making the most of the time with him. Now, I decided to set the book in central Paris in a building that my parents never lived in, but close to where they had lived when I was a child. The reason I did this was partly to preserve their privacy, but also because I wanted the book to be set at the heart of the Montparnasse quarter, where I had grown up before my parents had moved to the outskirts of Paris. This is part of the creative licence of a memoir writer.
Although it is not strictly true that the memoir took place on Boulevard Raspail, it actually makes the book more interesting, because it enabled me to write beautiful scenes about Paris that add a real dimension to the book. I also merged two friends into one, because there were too many secondary characters and it made the book messy. These two small changes do not affect the authenticity of the memoir and they go a long way to improve the story.
(4) Work on your fear of visibility
It is also essential to work on one’s own fear of visibility. Even if you use a nom de plume, you will feel exposed; and if you have any fear of visibility, it will be triggered. You cannot count on your neighbours or your friends being discreet. It is likely that everyone will boast about your book, including on social media. So you need to be very clear about being OK to stand on centre stage.
Writing a novel is very different. Even though most writers use a lot of their lives to shape their novels, they can always say that they invented a character. It is fiction after all. With memoirs, you do not have that luxury. It is a whole different ball game. Criticism of your book will feel like a personal attack. And if you think how hard it is for authors to deal with bad reviews on their novels, with your memoir, it will feel ten times worse.
I don’t have a magic pill for solving this issue, but please think about it long and hard. And if visibility is an issue for you, then write a novel based on your life instead. That’s what most authors do. In a way, this is a much easier and safer way to write. I love how Jeanette Winterson dealt with this in her book Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which is a work of fiction that she then revisited it in her memoir called Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal.
So even if you decide in the end to turn your life into fiction, you can always change your mind at a later date and tell the true story. Your readers will love you. And you will sell more books.
(5) Be moved by your story
Write from the heart. The strength of a memoir is in the emotions and the personal experience.
A lot of people read books to learn about the human experience. I know I certainly do. What does it feel like to have your husband cheat on you? How do you cope with losing a child? Then they can go back to their own lives and feel relieved that it hasn’t happened to them. But if you are not willing to dive deep into your emotions, your memoirs are going to miss the point.
You need to be willing to be moved by your story and to show your shortcomings. Personally, I believe this means you need to have done a lot of work on yourself so that when you write your memoirs, you can dive into these emotions safely. A good therapist can come in handy too.
Your book is not your therapy.
When I wrote the book about my father dying, I did expect to be taken back to the emotions that I felt when he was given one month to live. But I was grateful that I had done a lot of work on myself so that it was not too painful.
I wasn’t writing for the sake of sharing my pain; I had a message to share, which is that death is not the end. My book’s purpose is to show that there is another way to see death and to start a revolution in the way we approach it. So it is very important to be clear about the purpose of your memoir and to allow yourself to be vulnerable and authentic.
(6) Memoirs do not to have to be accurate
You don’t have to write about events and recall conversations verbatim. Memoirs are not biographies. You are expected to be subjective, so long as you remain true to the spirit of what happened. Just be clear when you talk about a memory, and even say if you are not sure if you remember something correctly; again, your readers will love you for it.
When you write opinions, remember that memories are not written to settle accounts with people who have hurt you. That would really be the wrong reason to write a memoir. When you write a memoir, as when you write any book, you need to think of your reader. You need to think what is in it for them. So unless you are a celebrity, your dirty laundry needs to be kept where it belongs. In my opinion, even celebrities should stick to that principle, but that is a subject for another article.
These are six things to bear in mind when writing a memoir, and I hope you do write one. Writing your own story is powerful. It gives you a voice. It allows you to be heard. Don’t worry too much about all these issues when you are getting started.
Just write your story. Clarity will come along the way.
When I wrote my first memoir, I had no intention of publishing it. I wasn’t ready. And I had to try several times before I couldn’t actually put it on paper because it was so painful. I kept on starting and couldn’t get past chapter one. When I was finally able to complete it, I knew I had put that story behind me, and it felt like an amazing achievement.
Don’t write your memoir to help others.
It is a noble intent, but first and foremost, you should write it for yourself, or for your children. And then, when the book is born, quietly reflect on whether getting it published is the right thing to do for you and everyone involved. If you decide not to publish it, it won’t be a failure. The book was written. It is still your beautiful creation. And with the advent of print-on-demand, you can have copies made for your loved ones. And if this is the purpose of your memoir, it’s as good as any other purpose. Happy writing!
Have you considered writing a memoir? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Ange de Lumiere is a spiritual lawyer and the author of two books, The Journey of the Slim Soul, a non-fiction book self-published in November 2009 and My Father Who Art In Heaven, a memoir launched as an ebook in March 2017.