Writing a memoir can be a daunting task. It must be a balance of both storytelling and factual, personal experience. But it can also be an incredibly fulfilling process, and a powerful memoir can truly resonate with readers.
Though I don’t write nonfiction myself, I have worked on a number of narrative nonfiction projects, including memoirs, as an editor. Based on those experiences, here are my tips for writing a memoir:
- Narrow your focus
One of the biggest issues I see with memoirs is that they’re too broad. The writer often wants to include a number of details about their life that ultimately don’t fit within the narrative that they’re telling. Keep in mind that a memoir is not an autobiography. It doesn’t span one’s life from beginning to end. A memoir focuses on particular moments within one’s life that share a theme. Your focus might be your childhood within a particular community, or your unusual career path, or your experiences traveling overseas, etc. But it can’t focus on all of those things at once, even if all of those things are present in your life. That doesn’t mean you can’t include the occasional tidbit or anecdote where appropriate, but make sure you know what your focus is.
- Be honest
This should be obvious, but I can’t overstate how important it is. The best, most powerful memoirs are those that feel genuine. Don’t be afraid to share your flaws and mistakes. As difficult as it may be to tell the truth about certain aspects of your life, it’s important to be honest with your audience. And though it might be tempting to embellish here and there, don’t. Your story is enough without fabrications.
- Show, don’t tell
The advice to show instead of tell is often given to fiction writers, but it’s just as important for memoirs. It can be tempting to describe people or events in your life exactly as you see them, but this can lead to telling your reader things instead of using vivid descriptions that will truly show them the story. For example, describing someone as “petty and mean” might be true, but it’s not going to evoke any emotion from your reader (and it might make you, the narrator, seem critical). Instead, think of an incident that demonstrates those characteristics, and write that scene so your readers can see it for themselves.
- Think of it as fiction
This might seem contradictory, since I just told you to be honest. But when I say “fiction,” I don’t mean fabrication. I mean that you should think of crafting this story in the same way you would craft a fictional one. The people in this story are characters, the events are plot, etc. Much of the advice that’s given to fiction writers can be adapted and applied to memoirs, and following traditional storytelling conventions may help you to tell your story just as well as a fictional one.
- Think about who you’re writing for
This goes along with narrowing your focus. It’s important to understand who your audience might be, as that will help guide the tone and content of your work. There are lots of reasons why you might want to write a memoir, and those will determine your choice of audience. Maybe you want to document your history for your descendants. Maybe you learned something from your experiences that will help others. Or maybe you just want to examine your choices for your own personal understanding. Think about who you want to read this book, what you most want them to know, and why they should be interested.
6. Don’t lost your voice
While it’s important to remember that you’re writing for an audience, don’t lose what makes your voice unique. Ultimately, this is your story, and readers want to connect with you as a person. Don’t be afraid to inject your own personality and style into your work. Let your readers get to know who you are, so that they’ll want to know your story.
What do you think? Have you written a memoir, or are you writing one? What are the tips and issues I missed? Let me know in the comments!
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