[Podcast] An Introduction to Writing a Memoir

3 honing the writing craft podcast post Aug 05, 2021

By Dave Goetz and Melissa Parks

The reasons for writing a memoir are many. Some write to understand their past; others share truths from their past to help others with their future. Still others write memoirs as a way of preserving their family history.

Every person has a story to tell. It's how you tell the story that makes it a memoir. Here is an introduction to writing a memoir--and how to get started with 5 easy steps:

1. Tap into your "why." This question is the bedrock of all book projects - but especially of memoir writing:

Is writing about your past pure therapy?

For many, the act of writing is therapeutic, but does your "inner work" need to be revealed to the outer world? Will it be helpful to others?

Maybe. Maybe not. You have to grapple with the relevance of your story to a larger audience.

Sometimes the audience who needs to hear your story is small. Maybe you're writing a story of your past for your family. Some writers are motivated to preserve part of their family's history - and the meaning behind those moments.

When you grapple with why you want to write your memoir, you identify your purpose -and that purpose helps you determine which stories to tell.

2. Ask yourself, "Do I care if someone reads this?" Memoirs are deeply personal. Often the most painful and raw moments are those that allow you to impart the most wisdom. and connect with the reader. The conflict in these moments are tinder for a great narrative.

But check your motivations.

Are you spilling the entire can of beans just for shock value, a bid for sympathy, or to self-congratulate? Or do those moments have a purpose within the narrative? Successful memoirs have a purpose larger than narcissistic motivations.  

Keep in mind that over-sharing could be risky - and not just for you. Would someone else's reputation be damaged if you publish your story? Are you willing to risk the well-being of others? 

3. Your memoir needs a overarching theme. Or a thesis that ties the narrative together. Otherwise you will have a string of stories with no unifying purpose. A theme helps you narrow down the scope of your storytelling as well. It serves as a filter for what stories (and parts of a story) should and shouldn't be included.

A story can be told a hundred different ways and deliver a different message depending on how you tell it (Will you use humor or irony?) and what you focus on {What will you include, and what will you exclude?). 

Always go back to your theme. It will keep your memoir focused, interesting, and readable.

4. Memoirs are story-driven. Memoirs aren't autobiographies, which are typically chronological and fact-based, and sometimes rely on research and data outside of personal experience to provide context. Memoirs aren't necessarily chronological, but instead focus on moments in time.

These moments are narratives that should be written as good fiction stories are written: with tension, dialogue, setting, and character development. When you focus on the foundations of good storytelling, you'll take your reader on a journey. You'll move them froward- and help them understand deeper principles through transformation.

Keep your final destination in mind. And write your memoir's stories to lead to that destination.

5. Where do you start?  It sounds simple, but the best way to start a memoir is to Just start writing. What are the most salient stories? Identify the theme of that story, and try to write the story to underscore that theme.

Or you might take a step back and list all the significant stories of your life. Write a gist or theme under each story. Is there a common theme that can tie a set of your stories together? 

On the flip side, maybe you start with a theme you want to explore, and shape stories of your life to fit that major theme.

 Sometimes it's helpful to find a family member or close friend to get their input on the moments that come to mind. Maybe they'll trigger some deeper thinking on the topic, as you wrestle with your big idea for your memoir. You may even ask someone to interview you to tease out insights and details that you have buried.