YOU’VE GOT A STORY to tell and you’ve been thinking about writing a memoir. Maybe you’ve already begun writing and have drafted a few scenes or anecdotes from your early life. And you’ve gotten good feedback from your friends or writing group. Or maybe you haven’t started writing, but whenever you talk about your life someone says, “You should write a memoir.”
I support you. I do. I believe that everyone has at least one story to tell and that everyone should write that story.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that a memoir is not a collection of anecdotes about experiences you’ve lived. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a collection of anecdotes. It can be fun to write and fun to share with family and friends. It’s just not memoir. And if you want to write your whole life story, from birth to the present, that’s not memoir either — that’s autobiography.
A memoir is a story — with a clear beginning, middle, and end — about an aspect of a person’s life. It is based on a theme or a particular period of time in which a challenge has been faced and overcome or in which important life lessons were learned that the author wants to pass on. A memoir is a story that is structured and reads like a novel. The difference is that memoir is a true story in which the events really happened, and a novel is a made-up story in which the events happened only in the imagination of the author (and then, the readers).
Writing a memoir takes commitment, time (years in most cases), and a willingness to delve deeply into the past and relive emotions with an eye to analyzing what happened and what you learned or how you were changed in the process. After all, it is the arc of change, the transformation in the protagonist that makes any story compelling. In a memoir, that protagonist is you.
Therefore, before beginning — or very early in the writing process — take time to answer the following questions. Knowing the answers to these questions will clarify your purpose and guide your memoir writing process.
- Why do I want to write my memoir?
Take some time with this question. If you don’t already keep one, I recommend starting a writing journal — a notebook (or section of an existing journal or notebook) dedicated to your writing process. Your writing journal is a wonderful tool you can use to analyze and work through any issues that come up as you are writing. To start, divide a page into two columns. In one column, list all the reasons you want to and should write your memoir. In the other column, list all the reasons you don’t want to and shouldn’t write it.
If you have difficulty coming up with reasons to write your memoir — you simply feel compelled to — then, dig deeper. Complete the following sentences: “If I write my memoir, then…” and, “If I don’t write my memoir, then…” Write until you feel clear about your reasons for writing. This clarity will sustain you during the long and sometimes painful memoir writing process.
- What’s the point or main message of my story?
Now that you know why you want to write, you need to narrow down and define what you want to write. Every story has a message. What’s yours? What is the lesson your readers will take away after reading your memoir, or what is the feeling or impact you want them to have? Do you want your readers to be inspired to overcome an obstacle of some kind? Or do you have an entertaining and humorous approach to a universal life experience you think others will enjoy?
Knowing the answers to these questions will clarify your purpose and guide your memoir writing process. Click To Tweet
- Who am I writing this memoir for, and why will they want to read it?
Why will your topic interest them? When I began writing each of my memoirs, I found this question particularly difficult to answer. In the beginning, my ideal reader was, naturally, a person exactly like me! But, this question forced me to consider a broader audience and to think about people with various life experiences who might be drawn to my story. This was a game-changer for me. Because once you’ve defined your audience and have a clear picture of your ideal reader(s) in your mind, your writing voice will adjust. You can write your story as though talking to a specific person, and your writing will take on a more personal and intimate tone.
- What obstacles do I face that could prevent me from finishing my book?
It’s important to understand your obstacles before you begin — so you can make plans to deal with those obstacles. The most common obstacle is time. Do you have children, or are you the caretaker for someone who takes up most of your waking hours? Do you have a day job? Are you retired and overcommitted to volunteer activities? Time management and commitment to writing during your scheduled time is critical to achieving your writing goals. Is your main obstacle emotional in nature? For example, will you be writing about a traumatic event (or events) in your past that writing will force you to relive? Your obstacles are personal. Acknowledge them. Plan for them. And devise strategies to go over or around them.
- How will I handle writing about my family, friends, and acquaintances?
Are you worried about what family members or friends will think about you and how they will react when you tell your full story? Are you willing to deal with some fallout? Will you use real names or pseudonyms, or a combination? These are important questions that only you can answer for your memoir and to your own satisfaction. To help you weigh different options and advice, here are a couple of other articles on my blog that may help: Entanglements: Writing about Family, and The Conundrum of Writing About Family.
- Do I have the writing skills needed to deliver a compelling story?
This question is not intended to make you doubt yourself. We all suffer from insecurity and self-doubt, writers perhaps most of all. Yet, it’s important to assess your skill level and to know your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. And then, no matter how skilled a writer you are, level up. Take a class to strengthen a skill you feel may be lacking, such as character development or dialogue. Apply what you learn to your memoir. Join a critique group and get feedback. Read a ton of memoir books and note how different authors have handled different situations. Emulate those who write compellingly and avoid the mistakes of those who don’t. Writing, in all its forms, requires constant study and practice. As you write and as you study writing, you will become a better writer. Your memoir (and your readers) can only benefit.
Answering these six questions will help you decide if you truly want to write a memoir.
Maybe, after answering them, you realize that you simply want to write a collection of anecdotes to give to your children. That’s perfectly okay.
Maybe, after answering them, you are even more convinced that you want to write your memoir. In that case, your answers to these questions will provide a firm foundation of intention and clarity on which to build your story. And, as you go forward, your answers will support your mental-emotional fortitude and guide your decisions about how to portray situations, as well as what to include and what to leave out.
Use your writing journal to explore and answer these six questions. You’ll be glad you did.