How to Write a Memoir in Six Steps
Many writers—and even many people who never considered themselves writers—want to write a memoir. There’s just something so compelling about making art of our experiences. And probably everyone has an interesting story to tell. But writing a memoir that other people will enjoy reading requires commitment and hard work.
The definition of memoir is a story that the author writes about his or her life. It doesn’t usually cover that person’s whole life; more often it covers one aspect of it. For example, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild covers a hike she took in her twenties. She wrote about other times in her life in the book that related to the transformation she experienced on the trip, but the story focused on the hike.
Why Write Your Memoir
The first memoir I ghostwrote for a client was about a highly competitive swimmer who experienced burnout at the peak of her career. And while the book spanned her life, it focused on her swimming career. So we didn’t include any experiences from her life that didn’t directly relate to and support her story about swimming.
Many memoir writers are motivated by the idea of sharing their story and helping others who are going through similar experiences. Others are interested in writing their memoirs to leave a legacy for their family or to tell the stories they want their family members to know. And some people have such unique and amazing stories that they just have to be shared.
Regardless of your story or your motivation for telling it, writing a successful memoir requires art and craft. And especially when you have other commitments you must fulfill, like a family or a job (writing or otherwise), writing a memoir requires some time management as well.
Here’s how to write a memoir, broken down into six steps.
1. Get all your memoir ideas in one place.
If you’ve been thinking about writing your memoir for a while, then you probably have a million memories, experiences, and ideas you want to write about. And maybe you’ve already started writing some of them. By making a list of everything you have and can think to include, you can gain perspective on what your story is about and how to structure it. I have all my clients start with making this list.
2. Identify the transformation you had, or big lesson you learned, as a result of your experiences.
The main character in every memoir ideally achieves some greater perspective or new understanding as a result of their experiences. Stories are about change. When you look at your list of ideas you want to include in your memoir, what did you learn from all of it? How are you a different or better person as a result of these experiences? Your memoir will tell the story of this change.
3. Fit your experiences into a narrative arc.
Although we don’t always know how all the pieces of our stories fit together, and writing a first draft can be an act of discovery, it helps if we at least know the major turning points. Once you know the turning points, you can start fitting your experiences into the story structure. This is how you start to build an outline for your book. Depending on how you like to write, this outline doesn’t have to be detailed. And it can change as you write and revise.
4. Write the first draft.
Drafting is the heavy lifting part of writing work. Drafting involves lots of time at the computer, and often lots of research. Getting the first draft done can take forever. But lots of authors get this part done pretty quickly. Your pace will determine how much time you can devote to writing and how productively you use that writing time. And, at least for me, getting all my ideas drafted before I really start revising helps me get it done faster.
5. Revise your memoir.
Every first draft is filled with problems that must be fixed for the book to work. A book can’t say what it’s supposed to say if it has too many problems. So revision is about finding those problems and figuring out how to fix them. If you drafted your memoir to tell the story of your character transformation, and you used the narrative arc to structure things as you went along, then—believe me—the revision process will be much easier.
6. Get feedback on your memoir manuscript.
When you’ve done all you know how to do to improve your manuscript—or you know there’s more to fix, but aren’t sure what to do next—it’s time to get someone to read your memoir. This can be hard because asking someone to read your book is kind of a big favor, unless that person is a writer-friend with a manuscript to swap. And if you don’t have a writer-friend who can offer constructive feedback, then consider hiring an editor. An editor can offer insight on your work-in-progress and help you improve your writing skills. Once you have some good feedback on your manuscript, you can finalize revisions and call that memoir written.
Writing Your Memoir
The steps are simple, but writing a memoir requires commitment and work. Use these tips to plan, draft, revise, and stay on track through the memoir writing process. The work will challenge you, but the reward of having finally done it will be worth it.
And if you need help, you can always contact me about editorial services. Click here to request a free consultation...
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