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Memoir Writing: Ideas, Techniques, Strategies

I'm a book blogger, the Book Lady at YouTube, and a novelist and memoir writer.

That's me, at the age of four or five. My mom took the picture, or my dad... not sure which one, really. Mom used to buy lovely birthday cakes from the bakery. This one was a carousel with animal figurines on it.

That's me, at the age of four or five. My mom took the picture, or my dad... not sure which one, really. Mom used to buy lovely birthday cakes from the bakery. This one was a carousel with animal figurines on it.

How to start writing your memoirs

Do you want to know how to write memoirs?

This page is for collecting and sharing memoir writing information: techniques, strategies, ideas and inspiration.

Have you had a harrowing experience you need to share with others - such as a medical disaster, a paranormal event, an adventure that went awry, or a relationship meltdown?

Are you looking for a way to let younger generations know what it was like for you, back in the old days?

There are thousands of reasons why someone might feel inspired to write about their life. You may have several good stories in you, and deciding which one to share could be your first memoir writing challenge.

"Into every life, some rain must fall." ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Everyone has a story, one that could help others when written into a book length manuscript.

I'm writing a book length memoir and write short memoir stories about my childhood in California, where I was raised back in the 1950s and 60's.

I've done a lot of research on how to write memoirs and use this page to compile information so that others writing memoirs, or wishing to write memoirs, will have the information at hand.

I hope you find this helpful!

How to start writing a book length memoir

...find a focus!

If you're planning to write a book length memoir, you'll need a focus. Memoirs are popular with the publishing industry but they need to be focused. Rambling autobiographies from childhood to old age aren't as popular. If you're not a famous person, who would care to read all about that, except maybe your grandchildren?

A book length memoir needs a clear focus. What is there in your life that was the most devastating thing you've gone through? What affected you the most? How can you make your life an instructive object lesson for future generations?

Get a writer's notebook to record your ideas. Right now you're just brainstorming, and there's no need to hurry this part of your project. This will quite possibly be the most important part, because you need to angle your memoir so that people will want to pick up the book and read it.

Consider writing your first draft in a notebook instead of on a computer.

Consider writing your first draft in a notebook instead of on a computer.

Next: How to tell your story

...decide on the chapters for your memoir.

When you write a book length memoir you'll need to decide what the chapters will be about. Just as you're focusing your memoir on one segment or issue of your life, you'll also want to focus each chapter on one time or issue that led up to your big crisis.

Yes, you need a crisis! Good memoirs these days are very much like novels. With novel writing, you need to start with an interesting situation that builds with vivid characters and intense subplots - until the story reaches a major crisis near the end of the book. Then there's a denouement - the final chapter in which all things are put right. By that time the main character is a changed person. Hopefully, changed for the better!

Good memoirs do the same thing. They should read like a novel while at the same time being as true to your memory as you can make them. Analyze your life to see what led up to that major crisis you're planning to tell people about. Then each component of the story should fit neatly into a chapter segment.

Again, this is a brainstorming process, and you should take your time with it. It will make it so much easier to write the actual memoir if you have a plan.

Write your chapter brainstormings and the final plan in your writer's notebook!

Your Life as Story - If you can afford only one memoir writing book, this would be an excellent choice. It is thick, comprehensive, and very helpful.

Telling your story

...one chapter at a time!

Once you get down to the actual writing, you need only worry about one chapter at a time. Write your first draft, then go back over it and add more - as much as you can remember.

If you have to fictionalize the dialogue, that's generally considered okay. After all, what memoir writer really remembers what someone said thirty years ago? It is better to tell an intriguing story that holds a reader's attention than it is to remember exactly what someone said, long ago. For most of us, that information is long gone - and perhaps only hypnotism could bring it back. If you don't have easy access to a hypnotist, then improvise! This is about your memories, not about having a perfect memory!

When you finish your chapter, and have gone over it several times to try to jog more information out of your sub-conscious, and have added some nice descriptions and conversations and philosophy, it is time to let it rest and get on with the next chapter.

Don't fret about anything at this stage. You're mainly trying to get the first draft down on paper, and jog your memory. You're not to be an editor or a perfectionist. Just do your best and above all, enjoy the process!

When you have all the chapters written for your memoir

...let it rest, then give it a first read-through.

Okay, you're done writing all your chapters, so what do you do next?

Well, common writing wisdom is to let it rest. How long you let the project rest is up to you. For some, a few weeks or a month will do. Others take an entire year! Eventually you'll come back to the project and be mentally ready to look at it with fresh eyes and a prepared heart.

Read that memoir! Yes, read it through for the first time, from beginning to end. While you're doing this, keep your writer's notebook nearby so you can take notes on things you'd like to change or add. At this time you're looking at the overall picture.

Did the manuscript do what you set out to do? Does it tell the story of one very important series of events in your life? Is it clear, or murky? Will your reader enjoy the story as much as you do? How can you change it to make it better?

Isn't it wonderful that we no longer have to type on typewriters like this? Computers make memoir writing simple, by comparison.

Isn't it wonderful that we no longer have to type on typewriters like this? Computers make memoir writing simple, by comparison.

Issues to consider - ...while planning and writing your memoir

  1. Choose a focus for your multi-chaptered memoir. Exciting things have happened in your life. Choose a series of events you are excited about sharing with the world.
  2. Choose an ideal reader. Clearly picture this person and write directly to him or her. Keep that person in mind as you plan and write the memoir.
  3. In preparation for writing your memoir, write a page or two about each person who will be a major player in this story you're telling. List that person's characteristics and give examples of things that happened that showed character traits. You don't want to have "flat" characters - the solution is to give them depth with personal histories and psychological understanding of who they really are.
  4. Write a list of chapters, along with possible titles. This will be your guide as you put that memoir together. Write one chapter at a time, as a complete story or section of story, without worrying about the entire project.
  5. Remember you're writing a rough draft. It is okay to make mistakes and be imperfect. That can all be polished and edited later. Right now, just get the story down on paper.
  6. In writing a memoir there are legal issues. Remember to balance your story telling with a respect for the privacy of those you write about. You don't want to be accused of invasion of privacy. Change names for all guilty parties, jerks, and villains. Some memoir writers change names for everyone unless they can obtain written permission to use real names.
  7. Clearly define your beginning, middle and ending prior to starting the actual writing of your memoir. Know where you're going, and you're likely to get there just fine.

Revising and editing your memoir

...this part is necessary.

Someone has to revise and edit that memoir. Usually, the writer does it. If you can afford a professional editor, that's a great option! It helps to have a second opinion on a project!

Another way to get a second opinion is to join a writer's critique group that will accept book-length memoir manuscripts. You will "pay" for your critiques by doing critiques for others. This can be a lot of fun and very, very helpful!

In any case, you will need to do several edits:

(1) The first read-through to get the overall picture of what you've created, and to decide on changes you might want to make.

(2) Make those changes, and read through it again. Make sure your words flow and that there's continuity in the story, and no plot holes. Plot holes are inconsistencies that don't fit the story.

(3) Get a critique either from a critique group or a professional editor.

(4) Be grateful for every critique you get even though they may make you fume inside. Each comment by a critiquer is a valuable "heads up" so you can slow down and analyze that section of your manuscript.

(5) Make all changes suggested, insofar as you believe they are truly needed. If you don't think they're needed, well, it is your manuscript and you need to follow your heart! My experience in working with critique groups is that 99.99% of suggestions received should be taken seriously, with appropriate changes.

Write a Seven-Chapter Memoir in Three Months

I hope this twelve week, three month writing plan helps you see how easy and doable memoir writing can be. Self-publication for Kindle is a great first-step and could be followed by creating a paper version on CreateSpace.

WeekAction

Week 1

Brainstorm focused memoir ideas.

Week 2

Chose topic; write seven chapter titles and descriptions.

Week 3

Write chapter one, edit and add to it.

Week 4

Write chapter two, edit and add to it.

Week 5

Write chapter three, edit and add to it.

Week 6

Write chapter four, edit and add to it.

Week 7

Write chapter five, edit and add to it.

Week 8

Write chapter six, edit and add to it.

Week 9

Write chapter seven, edit and add to it.

Week 10

Compile the seven chapters, and read the entire manuscript. Edit as you go along with your first read-through.

Week 11

If possible get an editor or critique friend to give their opinion on your manuscript.

Week 12

Make any changes suggested, then publish on Kindle.

A good video on memoir writing

How to Write a Memoir - A few helpful resources

Your feedback is welcome - ...as always.

Linda Jo Martin (author) from Post Falls, Idaho, USA on April 12, 2014:

@JacentaShianne: Just write one chapter at a time. Then compile them. You can do it!

JacentaShianne on April 11, 2014:

Thank you so much for sharing this information. I have been wanting to write a book about my life for years now, but honestly I have continually been putting it off due to the fact that I just didn't even know where to begin. Thanks for giving me some great ideas to get started.

bobnolley lm on February 17, 2014:

I am so luck y to have found this lens...thank you so much!

And congratulations on your appointment as Bookworm Contributor!

RuthieDenise on January 21, 2014:

Love this lens. Very good tips.

Joanne Reid from Prince Edward Island/Arizona on January 19, 2014:

Wonderful lens. I have been writing for years but coming here is like entering a whole new world of wonder. And did I learn a lot!!! Wow.

lesliesinclair on January 18, 2014:

Such a valuable resource for others who want to write their stories too. It helps to not have to remake the wheel, so thanks, and congrats. I'm not surprised that others also find such merit in your lens.

Delia on January 18, 2014:

Trying to find my niche and think maybe this would be of interest to me, since I'm always writing about my life or a family member.

Guy1982 on October 08, 2013:

I absolutely love your lenses! THey are always a great read!

Christine Larsen from South Australia on September 06, 2013:

Hallo again Linda. I've almost finished editing the first book in a series of memoirs I'm writing about our 40+ years of farming in Australia, most of it in the last century. These will be a collection of short tales of our colourful and often steep learning curves as two city slickers became farmers. As such, there is no plot or climax as such - just a progression that's mainly humorous, sometimes poignant and thoughtful. I'm thinking Smashwords for these, after having self-published my first series of children's books with Amazon. Interested in the differences, IF I can get my head around Smashwords editing requirements!

Nice lens Linda, and great links. Thank you.

Christine

Kate Fereday Eshete from United Kingdom on August 24, 2013:

Another super lens, Linda. Great book recommendations and loads of links. There's lots to digest, so I'll be back. You've really motivated me to step up the pace in my memoir-writing. I have plenty of material - I just have to write it up and organise it.

StevenEMartin on August 01, 2013:

I like this information ,it is very useful

writergrey on December 31, 2012:

Some useful ideas here - thank you.

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on December 05, 2012:

I'm leading a class tomorrow on writing childhood memories. Just stopped by for a refresher on your page.

Linda Jo Martin (author) from Post Falls, Idaho, USA on November 12, 2012:

@radtaylor9: So now you are an expert... perhaps you should write a page on memoir writing too.

Linda Jo Martin (author) from Post Falls, Idaho, USA on November 12, 2012:

@RebeccaE: Ah, one step at a time. Have you already published your memoir?

Linda Jo Martin (author) from Post Falls, Idaho, USA on November 12, 2012:

@BlountyBoy: I'm sure your grandchildren will want to read your story!

Linda Jo Martin (author) from Post Falls, Idaho, USA on November 12, 2012:

@carolbrusegar: I'm glad you found this information helpful. I am adding new links and other items frequently now.

Linda Jo Martin (author) from Post Falls, Idaho, USA on November 05, 2012:

@julieannbrady: Julie, if you did, I'm sure you'd have a very interesting memoir and lots of people would want to read it..

julieannbrady on November 05, 2012:

Ah, Linda! I have enjoyed reading quite a variety of Memoirs over the years, but haven't contemplated writing my own.

Linda Jo Martin (author) from Post Falls, Idaho, USA on November 02, 2012:

@Jillynn: You've done a lot of great research! That's inspiring! Thanks for your comment.

Linda Jo Martin (author) from Post Falls, Idaho, USA on November 02, 2012:

@anonymous: Yes! I'm excited to hear that you are going to write your memoir. And "Your Life as Story" is a great book to guide your writing. I really love Tristine Rainer's books... the other one is about journal writing: "The New Diary".

Linda Jo Martin (author) from Post Falls, Idaho, USA on October 15, 2012:

@Deeann56: Denise Ann, I love to visit lenses... so totally, I was happy to see yours. Visiting lenses and forum networking are a big part of my daily life.

Deeann56 on October 15, 2012:

thank you for your valuable comment and 'like' on my lens and helpful answer in the forum :)

anonymous on May 12, 2012:

You have really inspired me to finally start writing on a memoir. I am feeling really excited and I have already purchased the book of your recommendation which is Your life as Story. Thank You so Much!

Jillynn on April 03, 2012:

I am writing a book-length memoir/biography centered on my grandparents. I've recorded and transcribed hours of conversations with family members and have a bit more to do on that. Also, I collected a bunch of pictures and written material. That being said, I plan to start organizing into chapters soon to begin my first draft. Thanks for your inspiring lens on how to get started!

jimmyworldstar on January 14, 2012:

I feel that for memoirs anything that's interesting culturally to the period or any major events that happened will be great things to write about. A lot of memories tend to intertwine with that so the mundane can be something curious and exciting to later generations. You'll definitely want to go over and over a written section and put down what you have in memory.

carolbrusegar on September 28, 2011:

Great lens! Very helpful information that gives clear steps.

BlountyBoy on September 28, 2011:

things i could do for sure

RebeccaE on September 28, 2011:

well done I've learned a lot with this lens, I wish i had found it earlier would have saved me a lot of trouble.

radtaylor9 on August 01, 2011:

On the mark! I appreciate your advice having recently published a memoir about weathering culture shock. I can see how reading your thoughtful, cogent advice would have very helpful - before I started writing.

Dadebud on June 03, 2011:

Awesome! This is the information I was looking for. The process of writing down the segments of my life have begun and see light at the end of the tunnel. Thank you for the info and the recommended reading. -Dade

Virginia Allain from Central Florida on November 30, 2010:

I'm starting work on my great-aunt's biography using her essays and letters.

Good info here, so I'm lensrolling it to Writing Prompts for Family Memories.

anonymous on July 25, 2010:

I have asked if I would ever write my memoirs, but didn't know how to go about it. Linda, this is very good information for anyone wondering just how to start. I have many notes from past things that happened and changed my life forever. Thank you so much. I may have to come back and read this again to let it all sink in, but your right...I am brainstorming now. Thumbs-Up!

Vicki Green from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA on July 17, 2010:

Very useful information.

anonymous on July 15, 2010:

Very interesting. My husband has started writing about his life...but mainly for our grandkids. I'll let him know about this lens.

KarenTBTEN on July 11, 2010:

Good advice -- If one reinvents those small details and makes choices about how to organize, a memoir can indeed read like a novel. I am familiar with "Your Life as Story" -- the "memories into memoirs, ideas into essays" book looks intriguing as well.