Genre tips / writers tips

18 Tips for Memoir Authors

memoirOver the last few months, I’ve been writing a series about genres. So far I have:

Today, let’s talk about memoirs. What is a ‘memoir’. According to Google, a memoir is:

…a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge or special sources. An essay on a learned subject.

A lot of people confuse ‘memoir’ with ‘autobiography’. Sure, they’re similar, but with big differences. According to Linton Weeks (“It’s the ‘Me’ that Makes a Memoir an Incomplete Tale”):

“A real autobiography traffics in facts: a memoir relies on memory”

That’s the core of it: If you write an autobiography, you must be accurate. You can’t claim you took the plane to NYC when no such plan existed. Autobiographers must fact check. A ‘memoir’–that’s based on your memory. You rely on that imperfect nine pounds north of your shoulders for data. Everyone understands the story may or may not be accurate, but it’s as you remember it. ‘Facts’ are as you remember them, which may be at odds with reality. There is no apology for that and much value in it.

Another form of writing that memoirs are NOT is journaling. According to those who journal (which doesn’t include me), these chronicle a life where memoirs often focus on one event of note in that life.

Some famous memoirs–

  • Elie Wiesel’s Night (true stories of fellow concentration camp sufferers during the Holocaust)
  • Irene Spencer’s Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamists’s Wife

Do you get the trend here? As a reader, we are less concerned about historic accuracy than how the person starring in the memoir handled events. What is it like to live in a concentration camp? How could anyone agree to wed a polygamist?

If you decide to take up this writing genre, here are some tips to help you excel:

  1. Make sure the topic of your memoir is interesting. Most people’s lives aren’t. True, the writer’s skill can make it so, but what will inspire readers to pick up the tome? You need a hook–maybe you’re Octo Mom. Maybe you raised George Will. The theme must generate enough interest to make people turn the first page.
  2. Write in first person, from the author’s POV
  3. The unique voice of the person telling the story should be human, approachable, and not sound like a ‘writer’.
  4. Write narrative non-fiction, but in story form. This is similar to creative non-fiction which uses the characteristics of fiction to make nonfiction more interesting.
  5. NPR’s William Zinsser says memoir authors should “think small” (you don’t have to provide all the details) and make a series of “reducing decisions” (same idea). And–’be yourself’, ‘think freely’
  6. Memoirs can be written at any time in your life, about any corner of your world. It need not sum up your existence, just that event.
  7. According to literary agent, Barbara Doyen, a memoir questions “what happened and come(s) to some kind of new understanding or lesson learned by it. The author shows us how he or she was affected by this experience, how it has profoundly changed the way (s/)he sees the world. And by extension, reading the book will change the way the reader sees the world.”
  8. Sometimes memories are difficult to uncover. Heather Sellers, author of You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, suggests you just start writing. It’ll come.
  9. Don’t worry about gaps in the history. That doesn’t matter in a memoir. Just get to the next part that deals with your theme.
  10. Understand that when you write a memoir, you will hurt people. It can’t be avoided. They’ll disagree with your memory and that’ll upset them. Be prepared.
  11. Can you get sued for writing your memories? Maybe you’re writing about abuse and the perpetrator’s identity will surprise readers. Yes, there are topics and reasons that could generate a law suit. Consider what you’re writing, your purpose, before publishing. Consider consequences and if you’re willing to face them. Consider whether you’d prefer to hide real names and focus on the event.
  12. In memoirs, ‘emotional truth’ is more important than ‘factual truth’. Understand the difference.
  13. For many people, the one book they have inside of them is a memoir.
  14. Readers don’t connect with whining. Be substantive.
  15. You are the protagonist in your memoir, what William Zinnser calls the ‘tour guide’.
  16. Be honest. Don’t sugar coat, don’t tweak. Represent your memories honestly, in the raw. See what comes out.
  17. Know how to tell a story. Don’t include the boring stuff readers will skip. Only include the meat.
  18. Pearlsong Press’s Linda Wisniewski suggests using props to jog your memories.

What do you suggest? What works best for you when writing a memoir?

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. In her free time, she is  editor of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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17 thoughts on “18 Tips for Memoir Authors

  1. What an excellent post. Establishes guidelines and makes clear the distinctions between memoir and autobiography. Great idea also to suggest changing names. The purpose of writing a memoir is not to start a forest fire but to explain the one you already saw.

  2. I actually think that everyone has at least one good story about their life, often times more than one, and I love to hear those stories. I suggest everyone write a memoir. Maybe you’ll be the only one interested in reading it, but it might help you gain some focus on what’s important to you and where you wish your life to go in the future. It may also help you hone your writing skills and give you a sense of accomplishment once you’ve written it. You can think of it as cheap therapy, but in that case, don’t force your friends and relatives to read it.

    • Good points, Nanette. I’m far too private for sharing memoirs, but I can see among friends how much it helps them come to terms with awful/sad/difficult situations. In your line of business, I bet you’ve seen a lot of memoir-worthy stories.

  3. I’ve been in a class with several memoir writers, and the strategy that many use to get started is writing little vignettes that can eventually be put together in their memoir. It seems easier to tackle than trying to envision their whole life story, helps them discover their voice and content that is unique to them.

  4. Pingback: 8 Tips for Historic Fiction Writers | WordDreams...

  5. Pingback: 8 Tips for Creative Nonfiction Writers | WordDreams...

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