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 transformational book coach, mentor and strategist. She writes a weekly blog on her website ICanHelpYouWrite.com. She is the author of two published books, the Journey of the Slim Soul and My Father Who Art In Heaven.
You can find her on Facebook, and on You Tube as AngedeLum.
I gained much from reading this article. When writing on certain subjects, emotions can spring out and we need to deal with them. I find if I am willing to share personal failures/obstacles on my blog, it is likely I am not holding them so close to my chest.
Interesting you mentioned we must avoid writing memoirs for others.
Ange de Lumiere says
Hi Phoenicia, I am glad you gained much from this article. Yes, memoirs can be tricky and we need to be prepared to address those feelings. It’s not as hard as we think it is.
Shama T. Bukhari says
Such a helpful article .
This advice cleared up a lot of questions for me. Thank you for sharing it.
Ange de Lumiere says
I am so glad you liked it Kelly. Feel free to ask me any other questions on my page on Facebook.
Kay Whitehead says
Thanks for your article. I have been reflecting on a memoir for some time. As a former long-time hopsice worker and now therapist, there are sacred stories to share, grateful moments and insights gathered along the way. All in good time.
Ange de Lumiere says
I am glad you liked my article Kay. Yes I can imagine you would have a lot of beautiful stories. Although writing other people’s stories does require permission unless they can be made anynomous. Collection of stories are very popular.
doug oudin says
In my memoir, I believe I followed all 6 suggestions without any previous coaching, knowledge of the process, or having done any research into memoir writing technique. I simply wrote my story, and I’m happy that it worked.
I did write with somewhat of a target audience; people that know and love Catalina Island, but I’ve discovered that many of my readers are not familiar with the Island, but still enjoyed the story. It’s enough to make me feel good.
doug oudin says
My memoir, ‘Between Two Harbors, Reflections of a Catalina Island Harbormaster’, has received 51 Amazon Reviews, nearly all 5 Star.
Ange de Lumiere says
What an achievement. Well done.
Graham Ride says
How much creative licence should come into a memoir is to my mind almost the most important of the issues you put forward. Certainly the one I wrote, Foundation Stone – The Influences & Shaping of Brian Jones – Founder of the Rolling Stones, demanded that I verified my memory as much as I could. The memory plays tricks and the longer the passage of time between event and memoir is crucial. Remembering back over forty years plus I used all manner of aids. I walked the streets we walked, photographed the buildings and vistas that were important, went to the library to check up on Kelly’s Directories to place the shops, the cafes and the pubs in the right places. I used the Newspaper Library to check on venues and dates and found people who had become lost to me.
When you use all these aids (and others) they can powerfully help to restructure events you were part of. As Ange says you need to tell the reader where you might be being creative. For instance, I didn’t know Brian Jones was going to become famous otherwise I would have written copious notes! So all the dialogue in the book helps the story flow and was made up to be how we spoke, how we expressed ourselves. Tell the reader this and they will not expect verbatim dialogue unless you really do remember some snippet and tell them so.
It is certainly important to remember what Gestalt Therapist, Fritz Perls, said (and I paraphrase) – Memory and Pride had an argument and Pride won. Be careful of that, it is an easy trap to fall into.
Ange de Lumiere says
Thank you for taking the time to comment on my article. When famous people are involved, even more caution is needed. There are endless important legal implications and even though I am trained as a lawyer, I wouldn’t venture down that road. It’s important to get advice.
Great article Joanna. Memoir is my niche and I have almost finished my memoir/family story. Ange says to “resolve your issues” first but what I have found is that THROUGH the process of writing my story, I have resolved (or tried to resolve some of my issues).
Writing your life takes you on an “unexpected journey” and for me, I have become so much closer to my family and siblings simply by interviewing them. The interviews provided a space to really talk, to really listen, and we have a new understanding and compassion for each other, and our traumatic family situation. Awesome article and couldn’t resist sharing! Thank you.
Ange de Lumiere says
Thank you Leeza. I agree with you writing is a healing process in itself. And can help resolve issues. But it is paramount to have healed them by the time your book comes out. Books that are written as therapy carry the wrong vibe. That’s just my opinion.
This was a great relief to read. Even with a quite unique story to tell, it seems a bit egotistical to write about yourself and it was refreshing to see that based on your writing, most of the bullet points were covered in my efforts (90% completed-200K words). Now the hard part…finding an agent…
“Talk the Walk”
Louise Jewell says
Joanna and Ange, thank you for providing this informative and inspiring article. I have deliberated for some time now on writing my memoir as well. As a therapist who specializes in betrayal trauma, I so agree with your statement Ange that, “[b]ooks that are written as therapy carry the wrong vibe.” Know that I have bookmarked this article and will refer to it again in the future!
I found this really interesting as I’ve led what I’ll call “an eventful life” and had considered a memoir – but after reading your advice I think I’ll just use my life experience as inspiration for a novel – or what may become one!
Alessandro Tinchini says
You shed good light on my thoughts, Ange, because I am starting to copy, rewrite and edit the content of seventeen handwritten notebooks about my three years of life in Brazil.
Those years changed my life forever. But my fear is, and you just pointed this out oh-so-well, that the wound is still open. No, sorry, the wounds are still open and there’s plenty of them. The worst thing is that when they had started healing, I came back here in the inland of Brazil, from where I’m writing right now, and it all came back rushing into me. Plus, the people involved back then are now in a subtle level of pain for various reasons, so I’m pondering.
Your article is very useful and very well written. Besides, I discovered my spiritual side in Brazil, and I think you know what I mean.
Thank you for sharing.
Your article was quite thought-provoking for me.
When I started writing, it was to get a lot of pain from the past out where I could see it. Things changed when I sent my manuscript to an award winning author who loved it. Then I got serious about publishing, and self-published about four years ago.
After having a few promotional speaking engagements, I realized that everyone has their story, and could identify with mine.
The idea of culture clash as a vehicle of change came to me as I moved along with the project.
I am 67. About 12 years ago I began a memoir, spent 2 years wrestling with the contents and my own emotions. I tried to get it publish, had a few bites, and then one day discovered that I did not write it to be publish, I wrote it to process my life experience through the act of writing. It was self-discovery-writing and it was quite painful. But it was also one of the most therapeutic things that I have ever done for myself. I doubt a psychologist could have helped me better. I then shelved the memoir never to touch it again … until this fall. It sat in the closet for 10 years.
Recently I was having a conversation with a friend and she told me I should write a memoir. I laughed and told her that I had, and that I got out of it what I needed to get out of the writing. But her suggestion was like a seed planted in very fertile soil and I did not have the heart to kill the thought so I decided to sit down and begin writing without even looking at my 10-year-old manuscript. I’d simply start from whatever came up within me and in one single day I wrote over 5,000 words. It just flowed out and I actually enjoyed the process. No pain at all. But I had a problem: why am I revisiting my story? What was the point? Looking for motivation caused me to suddenly hit a wall.
This article, especially the last paragraph under “Do not write a memoir to help others,” echoed the motivation that my friend suggested: just do it for you even if it never goes anywhere but back in your closet. Your article has giving me the motivation I needed to continue on. Thank you for that.
I am more than halfway writing the story of how my son and I reconciled our fractured relationship through hiking and the eventual summitting of Mt Whitney, the highest mountain. Peak in the 48 states it is a story about recovery, reconciliation, relationships. setbacks, success and love titled POPS TAKE US TO THE TOP ….
Hi, I find your article very interesting and am asking myself “why didn’t I see this before I started writing?” I am a first time writer of a Memoir which is currently in the hand of a publisher, however, I feel so pressured when asked to change the names of the people in my story or even change the location, as well as my name and image for the cover. I have spent a number of years writing and now that I am done, I feel like I have to write the book all over again. Although I am not writing this memoir to help others, I believe I have a fascinating story to tell and we can each learn from someone else’s story. I believe my story must be told. Any suggestions as to how I can do that without having to make so many changes? Is it better to share my story in a Novel?
Jacqui DeLorenzo says
To write a memoir that inspires, you need to be expressive, emotionally courageous, and encouraging as an author. Your main aim should be to let others find hope in your story.
Byron Conner says
This is interesting stuff to read. I have more opportunity when I compose fiction, yet my diaries have had a lot more grounded sway on my readers. In one way or another the ‘message,’ regardless of whether I am not even mindful that there is one, is passed on better in this structure.
James Stone, Glass Artist says
What a lovely and helpful article, thank you for the post. I am not a writer. In fact I have been thrown out of almost every school I have attended since grammar school. As it happens, I do have an internet presence. There have been dozens of articles written about my artwork and I have been on local television about 70 times over the past 20 years. A year ago I was interviewed for a full double truck article in a local monthly publication. The writer commented that I had a very interesting life and that I should write a memoir. 275,000 words and a year later I have a first draft completed. I fully realize that the writing portion really represents the smallest part of a memoir project. But I have no idea where to go from here. I’m pretty sure that because of my artistic career, there must be an audience for a story about a troubled young man who found his way to peace and happiness through his artistic journey. At this moment my biggest challenge seems to be understanding who and where I will find my audience. Being a visual artist, if you could point me to a road map of what to do next, that would be very very helpful. In advance, thank you for any advice you are willing to share.
Joanna Penn says
Hi James, I’d suggest these 2 interviews with more book recommendations and options for next steps
All the best!
Tex Hooper says
That is true that memoirs are more subjective than objective biographies. I need to get an author to help me with writing. I want to write about my earlier years.