The Art of the Memoir

Are you someone with an interesting personal story to tell? Do your experiences offer others a new or unusual perspective? Have you collected anecdotes from work and life that you feel could be of particular value or provide insight to people? If so, you might have a memoir to write.

But a memoir isn’t just a collection of stories and experiences. It’s also a narrative, which means it takes some crafting. If you keep your readers top of mind and follow the tips below, you’ll be able to create a memoir that not only tells your story well but also resonates with people. When writing or reviewing your draft:

  • Think about what makes your story unique.
  • Be candid.
  • Keep your narrative moving forward.
  • Cut parts that don’t fit with your narrative arc.

Make your story unique

There are a lot of interesting stories in the world, but only you have your specific background and set of experiences. What can you offer your readers that no one else can? Why would readers need to hear it from you? How might you frame your story?

Tapping into what makes your story unique will allow you to find your memoir’s heartbeat and write something that’s fresh, honest, and real. Once you determine what makes your story—and also your voice—distinctive, narrow your focus and stay true to that theme. Readers will always want to stay with you when you’ve found a way to draw their interest.

Be candid

Readers need you to connect with them in order for them to be engaged by your story. A memoir isn’t just a simple retelling of your life; it’s a crafted narrative that brings a reader in, builds empathy, provides a different point of view, motivates, teaches, inspires, surprises. In a sense, you’re bringing a reader on a journey and, even if they can’t relate to your experience, they must decide that they’re willing to come along for the ride.

A good memoir offers its readers something real. To earn the trust of your readers and sustain their interest, it’s important to be honest, open, and often vulnerable. In certain cases, even experiences that may not shed you in the best possible light can help readers see you’re human. Allowing readers to witness when something went wrong, when you didn’t make the best choice, or when you weren’t particularly the greatest may prove interesting or insightful to them; they could relate to an emotional truth you share or learn from your mistake.

Your ability to be candid with readers is the very thing that may keep them turning the pages.

Move the story forward

Even though you’re writing a memoir, your story must still have a compelling narrative arc. Think of what may be of value to your readers and move them toward an ultimate goal. This keeps your story moving forward.

One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is through an outline. Even if your outline is just a loose plan, it still serves as a road map that shows the journey in its entirety. Your outline/road map needs to lead somewhere. When you take the time to identify the stopping points and also the ultimate destination of your memoir, you’ll be able to more easily see where you have holes or gaps in your story. You’ll also be able to quickly spot where you are going down the wrong path or a rabbit trail.

Make sure your memoir has a beginning, middle, climax, and end. All your points along the way should stay on theme. Then, keep your story moving forward toward that climax or end. Remember: a memoir isn’t just a bunch of events; it needs to be hinged around a problem and allow readers to move toward some kind of solution to that problem.

Don’t be afraid to cut

While it’s nearly impossible to look at your memoir with an objective eye, on some level, you need to be able to do that. Superfluous details or scenes that don’t move the narrative forward may need to be cut. Although a memoir is your own story and therefore deeply personal, it shouldn’t be self-indulgent. Your goal is to serve your readers.

To do this, it helps to take a step back and ask yourself if specific sections or details contribute to the overall arc of the story. Will the parts in question keep your reader interested? Is the writing focused on your theme and ultimate goal? When in doubt, look to your outline and see if you’ve stayed on track. Maybe something simply belongs in a different place. But if it doesn’t, it may need to go.

A memoir is different from an autobiography. While an autobiography is a chronological telling of your life events, usually covering the larger chunk of your life, a memoir focuses on a more specific aspect of your life, speaking to something more universal in which you play a part. While the sum of your experiences are important, in a memoir, you don’t need to tell people every single thing about your life. It’s the particulars of your experience and the focus of your perspective that will make your memoir a good read and enable you to stand out in the crowded market of memoirs.