5 Musts For a Powerful Memoir

Want to know how to write a memoir? It takes a bit more than fishing through your photo albums and diary entries and typing up your life’s story. Crafting a brilliant memoir is a writing feat unto itself; some of the most powerful, engaging, hilarious and heartwarming books out there are memoirs. Yet, there tends to be a lot of confusion surrounding what exactly a memoir is, much less what elements come together to create a good one.

Follow these 5 rules for writing a powerful memoir

1. Narrow your focus. Know that memoirs are not autobiographies.

While an autobiography (like Agatha Christie’s Agatha Christie: An Autobiography) covers the entire trajectory of one person’s life from beginning to end, memoirs are much more focused and exploratory. A memoir author’s first task is to determine the specific theme he wants to pinpoint and investigate, or the precise time period in his life that encompassed a great personal transformation that he wants to show.

Examples are Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, or Running With Scissors by Augusten Borroughs. Each does not chronologically list the author’s life events. Thank goodness — trying to squeeze too much into one book would have diluted the stories and smothered the themes and messages. You want the reader to come away with both a sense of enlightenment and a yearning to know more.

2. Borrow fiction techniques…

Anyone who’s gotten lost in a mesmerizing memoir knows that fiction methods like scene description, sensory detail and dialogue are what draw readers into the author’s own personal world. Even larger story-structuring techniques synonymous with novel writing (like constructing a story structure and plotting a character arc), can helpfully frame the memoir around life events you find significant.

Ask yourself: What was the moment in my life that sent me on a whole new trajectory? Were there moments of great conflict in my life? See how you can make them the key moments that your memoir’s structure revolves around.

3. …but, don’t invent.

Warning: While embracing the flowery nature of fiction writing can enhance your memoir, it’s important to make sure you don’t get carried away with fiction techniques. You cannot invent events that did not happen (e.g. a marriage that never occurred, a death in the family). While dialogue may not be 100% accurate, be sure that the conversation actually took place.

Being honest with your readers is important for many reasons. Remember the controversy surrounding James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces? Crossing the line of embellishment into deception not only cheats your readers, but can also damage your future as an author.

4. Show More; Tell Less.

I often urge this rule to show, not tell with my fiction authors, but for memoir authors, this concept is essential. Putting the reader in your shoes is the most effective way to not only share your perspective in the most meaningful way, but also to invite the reader to draw her own conclusions about your life. Unfolding a scene before readers instead of simply telling a series of events best deals with the often sensitive, emotional content of many memoirs.

When you show more, you avoid the trap of judging. For instance, instead of inserting your own opinion by caustically labeling someone an “abusive alcoholic,” or a “spiteful lover,” (which can mark you as a negative, potentially bitter voice in your reader’s eyes), show the reader how this character acted wrongly. Paint a scene where this person abused alcohol and then abused you. Show readers a scene where your former lover acted maliciously. Strive to make them feel the emotions you yourself felt. By using this technique to plant readers in your own point-of-view, readers will come to their own conclusions about your experience; this is much more powerful than simply telling them what happened.

5. Explore truth and don’t cast judgement.

As I mentioned above, many fall into the trap of judging others in their retelling of them. It’s only natural; as human beings, we can’t help but view someone — especially someone who wronged us — in a certain light. It is difficult to let go of the emotional charge we associate with another person. Yet, it is the duty of a memoir author to reflect on these experiences, explore truth, and try to view a person in all of his colors. Even if you are angry about this person, ask yourself: What was his perspective of the situation?

The point of a memoir isn’t to get back at people; it’s an alternate medium for exploring your past to shine light on a greater truth, to help others who may be in similar situations, to inspire, and to entertain. Above all, the purpose of a memoir is to reflect upon a life — without surrendering yourself to the truth-seeking process, you risk writing a work that doesn’t do your story justice.



26 comments on “5 Musts For a Powerful Memoir

  • I had to pounce on this post right away — I love it! I love memoirs and I always have, but I also think they demand a great deal of respect. The craft is hard to get right. I think you touch on all of the sticky situations memoir authors can get wrong if they don’t pay attention to one little detail.

    Another memoir I love (and that I’m sure others will chime in about too), is Eat, Pray, Love. It’s DEFINITELY not an autobio!

    • I agree, Melody. Also…

      * Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (Sedaris)
      * The Glass Castle (Walls)
      * The Audacity of Hope (Obama)
      * Elsewhere (Russo)

  • YES memoirs! I’m THRILLED this is up and the content is fabulous. There needs to be more memoir love in the publishing world — it’s so difficult to make it as a memoir writer and for good reason. One must truly surrender one’s life to the process. Self-examination is more grueling than simply writing a story about others. Anyone else agree?

  • Hi Diane,

    I think this post was great food for thought. What memoirs do you recommend? I’m more of a novelist, but I figured that I’d take your points about the similarities between fiction and memoirs to heart. Time to examine a few things. Thank you, great blog by the way.

  • Amen to point #5. I can’t imagine how the memoir authors you referenced found a way to let go of this “emotional charge” they came to associate with people from their past. It is a terrifying feat, I’m sure. I wonder if autobiographers are faced with such emotional hurdles when chronicling their life’s works? Perhaps it is more dramatic an experience because their book encompasses so much? I am not sure. Perhaps the focus, this important focus you designate a memoir to have, is what intensifies the pain. However, aren’t there happy memoirs out there?I suppse all memoirs handle some sort of difficult content.

  • Diane,

    I very much enjoyed this and so I wanted to share my own favorite memoirs that I like to draw inspiration from:

    * Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (Sedaris, so funny!)
    * The Glass Castle (Walls)
    * The Audacity of Hope (Obama)
    * Elsewhere (Russo)

    I feel these all have the elements that you discussed here. This list is for anyone interested in reading more memoirs.

  • An insightful meditation on the memoir genre. However, this does paint memoirs as largely negative in subject. Are there any “happy” memoirs”?

  • Amen to #4 and #5. I’ve noticed that many self-published memoir writers simply describe what happened to them, using almost all summary and very little scene. As far as withholding judgment in your memoir, I think looking back on your experience with objectivity is one of the best ways to get the personal growth benefits that memoir writing promises and can help you finally feel a sense of resolution and closure about things people may have said or done.

  • Diane –

    Was so thrilled to see this pop up in my inbox this morning. Memoirs deserve a bigger spotlight, and this post does the genre a great service. Good tips. Thanx

    • You are welcome, Cal! I’m happy to hear you are subscribed to my newsletter. I’m always thrilled to hear from fellow fans of the memoir genre. Please do keep in touch — let me know what else you’d like to see on the blog!

  • So great to read the article and replies about the memoir genre. A great book for detailing what is and is not “allowed” in memoir is You Can’t Make This Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind. He takes several authors to task on crossing the line from non-fiction to fiction.

    In my own memoir-writing, I stick to some rules: Memoir/authobio MUST have the journalistic who- what- where- when accurate. The why and how can be interpretive. It helps if the author signals that it’s his/her opinion when it’s an interpretation of events.

    The gray area, I think, comes in on dialogue. To recollect conversations from several years or decades back in time always involves some construction. No one (as yet) has walked around with a recorder all their lives. Leaving out dialogue altogehter is the safest choice, but makes for a dull read. I try my best to summon the face and voice of the person, his tone, his mannerisms before trying to “remember” what he said. It’s tough to do. Sometimes it’s possible to check with the person directly.

    To the responder who asked about whether there are any “happy” memoirs, I’d like to throw in two categories of my favorite types of memoir: travel memoirs (as in Eat, Pray, Love) and pet memoirs (as in Marley and Me). It’s not all about celebrities, trauma, monster moms, etc. There are the “quiet” memoirs (sorry I can’t think of a good term) like those written by Anne Morrow Lindbergh and May Sarton about refections on daily life.

    • Hi Margaret,

      How great of you to chime in — your points call attention to some wonderful aspects of this genre. The “happy” memoirs you mention here are successful precisely because they don’t dwell on the more challenging moments of the author’s life to tell their stories; rather, they use them as a way of gaining insight and perspective, which has the effect of inspiring readers who may be going through difficult times. “Eat, Pray, Love,” if you’ll recall, contains such a powerful, “happy” journey only because of a real period of hardship that preceded it. I also recommend the hilarious “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened,” by Jenny Lawson.

      Also, you give fabulous advice in regards to writing dialogue. Although, if there ever were a generation to walk around with conversation-capturing tape recorders 24/7, this would be the one to do it!

      Thanks again for your valuable input. Happy writing!
      – Diane

  • Just splendid. Memoirs are about examining the individual, often confusing elements that string together to weave a meaningful life. Ironically, although the author must tap into his/her own life and delve deep into his/her own memories, there is an important step of the process where he/she must lift out of the life and examine it objectively.

    I feel like many first-time authors don’t necessarily understand this.

  • I think it means look at your personal ordeals in life as a bystander and then cast your opinion on what you have just witnessed and how it affected you and the other party then and now.

  • Excellent guidance. I have scribbled three pages so far, and now I am convinced I should write more and complete my memoir. Any thoughts on using a ghost writer? I personally enjoy writing, and have written and two languages other than English. Not confident of my writing skills in English.

  • One-third through a memoir now, so love this post. I must admit that number 5 is hard–not that we write to get even or rant, but I myself favor memoirs with a lot of comtemplation and being privy to the author pulling back from the text to hypothesize. Sometimes, that includes offering an opinion. I guess the trick is to find the line between opion and the cranky or pedantic or vengeful.

    • Hi Aine,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I’m always excited to “meet” a new memoir author. I completely agree with your point about admiring those memoirs that have the insight to step back and reflect from another angle, as well as how it’s at times difficult to find the right balance between informed opinion and a vengeful tone. That’s why it’s so key to bring in another editor throughout the revision process, particularly for memoir authors.

      Thanks again,

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  • I’m so enjoying what everyone said I had to comment.I wished I came across earlier. I ‘ve written my memoir (No More Secrets,My Pain His Glory) it took me years to feel some comfort about opening up.It started out as my way for my healing.I didn’t realize how not to be judgmental in my sharing.For me at first I couldn’t read my own story I had to do the work to find my peace.Which did bring me personal and spiritual growth.Thank you.

    • Janie – Thank you for sharing your experience. Learning to share without judgement is perhaps the hardest part for memoir writers. It sounds like you are well on your way.

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