When people ask me what I do and I tell them that I write memoirs, they usually respond: “You must hear some great stories,” to which I answer, “Absolutely!” And then they often follow with, “So, how does one write a memoir?” Read on to learn how.
There is no simple answer to how to write your memoir because each memoir tells the unique stories of a unique person. Each memoir, therefore, is a unique piece of art. However, as a business owner who’s written nearly fifty memoirs to date—including a couple anthologies, each telling the stories of many people—I have my own approach. In today’s blog, “How to Write Your Memoir,” I am going to give you some pointers and approaches you can use to begin telling your family stories to add to the collective memory box.
With these pointers, you can generate a ton of incredible material, stories you’ve told a thousand times and want to be sure to commit to the page so you can pass them on to your children and grandchildren, as well as stories you haven’t thought about in years, even decades. When I interview my LifeStory Memoir clients, what always happens is that through our conversations, the Storyteller remembers family stories and details they haven’t thought of in years. These are special moments when I can see the fireworks sparkling behind their eyes. These are moments that you are aiming for. You get there by being personal.
These are special moments when I can see the fireworks sparkling behind their eyes.
In a previous blog, What is a Memoir?, I talked a little bit about how I started writing memoirs and how I developed the idea for my business. It was personal and deeply felt, because it all started with my Grandpa, a World War II fighter pilot who asked me to write his life story back when I was earning my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in writing. I knew right off the bat that we would discuss his combat stories, which included getting shot down over the shark-infested Pacific Ocean.
While the highlights of interviewing Grandpa included stories I’d already heard countless times, I was also pleasantly surprised by the stories I’d never heard before, details he hadn’t thought about in years. It seemed these stories and details were like bubbles floating up to the surface, reacting to the commotion we were creating in the ocean of Grandpa’s memory. The interviews are generative—they generate life and lead to the unexpected…every time! The same thing often happens during the process of writing on your own.
Here’s an example: When Grandpa returned from the war, instead of going to college he had to go to work and help out his sisters. He took a job down in the meatpacking district of Manhattan, 14th Street on the West Side, with his brother-in-law who owned a huge meatpacking fridge and warehouse. After a number of years, Grandpa owned his own fridge and warehouse.
He ended up meeting Paul Castellano, the famous gangster, who arranged to buy Grandpa’s beef fat trimmings, which he used to manufacture and sell soap. “It was a legitimate business,” Grandpa said. While there were brutal stories that came to light about the mafioso, Grandpa’s experience was that Castellano was a nice guy. In fact, Grandpa and Nana even socialized with Castellano and his wife one time. Nana had no idea she was dining with a gangster. After dinner, she turned to Grandpa and said in an offhanded way, “What a nice couple.”
When Grandpa finished telling me this story, which he’d pulled from his dusty memory box, he tumbled into heavy laughter. Tears fell from his eyes as he remembered how innocent the whole thing had seemed. Then he told me how he had no idea how long it had been since he’d remembered that anecdote.
It was a classic moment. With each of the clients I have interviewed over the years, I have had similar experiences, and you will too once you jump into the pool of memories and stories, and stir it up.
How to Write Your Memoir
Writing a memoir is a deeply personal and rewarding experience. Here are some ways to approach writing your memoir:
1. Reflect on Your Life
Take time to reflect on significant moments, experiences, and people in your life. Consider the themes or lessons you want to convey through your memoir.
2. Create an Outline
Outline the major events or chapters of your life that you want to cover in your memoir. This will provide structure and help you stay focused while writing.
3. Choose a Narrative Style
Decide on the narrative style you want to use. You can write in a chronological order, focus on specific themes, or use a combination of both. Experiment with different approaches to find what works best for your story.
4. Be Honest and Authentic
A memoir should be a genuine reflection of your experiences and emotions. Be honest with yourself and your readers, and don't be afraid to share your vulnerabilities.
5. Use Vivid and Descriptive Language
Bring your memories to life by using descriptive language that engages the senses. This will help your readers visualize and connect with your experiences.
6. Include Dialogue and Anecdotes
Dialogue and anecdotes can add depth and authenticity to your memoir. Use conversations and specific incidents to illustrate important moments or relationships.
7. Show, Don't Tell
Instead of simply stating facts or emotions, show them through vivid descriptions, actions, and dialogue. This will make your memoir more engaging and relatable.
8. Consider the Perspective of Others
While your memoir is your personal story, it can be helpful to consider the perspectives of other people involved. This can provide a more well-rounded portrayal of events and relationships.
9. Edit and Revise
After completing a draft, take time to edit and revise your memoir. Pay attention to the flow of the story, clarity of expression, and consistency of tone. Consider seeking feedback from trusted friends or professionals.
10. Embrace the Journey
Writing a memoir can be an emotional process. Embrace the journey and allow yourself to explore your memories and emotions. Remember, the purpose is not only to share your story but also to learn and grow from the experience.
The Benefits of Sharing Your Memoir
The benefits of sharing your memoir are numerous and life-changing for the ones who share their stories as well as their loved ones who enjoy the gift of family stories for generations to come. In a previous blog, “10 Benefits of Sharing Your Story in a Memoir,” I listed a few of those benefits in detail.
I encourage you to take a moment to imagine what your memoir would look like: what picture of yourself would you choose for your cover? What would be your title? What would you name chapter 1, and what would be the first sentence of your LifeStory?
Visualize your book. Now visualize your children or grandchildren reading it and learning exactly what you would want them to know, in your own words. What do they learn about your life from reading your story? What is the character of the road you traveled in order to develop into the person you became? See your family discovering who you were. Does that make you smile?
Now visualize your grandchildren smiling. Imagine they know where they come from, the detailed stories that led to their existence, how easily things could have unfolded very differently, and yet how destined they were to unfold just as they have.
There is no cookie-cutter approach to writing your memoir, but there are many repeatable strategies and exercises you can do to start generating excellent material and building momentum.
I began writing memoirs because my grandpa asked me to help him share his story with his family. I already knew many of his stories, but I learned so many more during our interviews.
Telling personal stories, whether on the page or to an interviewer, is a generative exercise—you will always think of things you did not expect would float to the surface.
The ten guidelines for how to write your memoir above are an excellent place to begin. Those items will help get your mental juices flowing.
The benefits of writing your memoir and sharing your story with the people you love are many, for both the Storyteller and the people receiving the gift of your story.
If you are looking for help capturing your story or a loved one’s story, or you have already begun but need help moving to the next stage, please reach out to me.
To see examples and learn more about our process, philosophy, and how we can help you, visit my website, LifeStoryMemoir.com.
Richard Squires is a memoir writer living in New Jersey. He has written forty-plus memoirs and published fiction and book reviews in myriad literary journals. His company LifeStory Memoir helps people keep their family stories alive forever by writing their memoirs.