If you’re thinking about writing a memoir, you should be prepared to do a lot of self-reflection. Memoir writing is much more challenging than journaling or simply writing down your life’s story in chronological sequence. Having recently published a memoir and debut book of my own―A Life Derailed: My Journey with ALS―there are a lot of practical steps to memoir writing that I learned in the process. For one thing, memoir writing requires that you ask yourself a lot of questions, and learn how to honestly answer them (we’ll get to that).
In this article, we’ll explore some of the essential questions you should ask yourself as you dive into the rewarding journey of writing your memoir. I’ll also share some practical tips you can leverage to help improve your writing process. You don’t need to have all the answers to these questions from the start, but they will certainly get your writing juices flowing!
1) Why should you write a memoir?
This may seem like a rudimentary question to ask yourself upon making the decision to write a memoir, but it’s a crucial one. Memoir writing can be an arduous and emotionally draining project, and you’ll need to incorporate overarching themes throughout the story to help your readers connect the dots between the scenes of your life. You can’t effectively create overarching themes without fully cross-examining yourself about why you want to write your memoir in the first place.
Why do you think readers will be interested in your story? What do you want to say? Not every memoir has to be heavy and dramatic, but themes are a must. Your memoir shouldn’t be a bunch of random stories your friends find entertaining; they need to fit together in some way.
The first sentence of the Preface of my book is, “I never thought I’d write a book.” But, of course, I never thought I’d be diagnosed with ALS at the age of 27. I’ve had a unique experience and perspective that provided the basis for my memoir. So ask yourself: What do I have to say?
2) Should you read memoirs to draw inspiration?
You absolutely should! Reading comparative memoir titles―whether bestsellers or obscure indies―can be tremendously helpful by offering guidance on how you might structure your story. You will undoubtedly absorb elements of memoir craft without even knowing.
As you read memoirs for inspiration, keep this checklist in mind:
- Read each memoir as a writer and creator. Understand that each tiny aspect of the story happened by a series of intentional decisions.
- Read the preface and keep it in mind: this is the author telling you about their process.
- Take note of scenes that impact you most. As you write your story, refer back to your notes. If you get writer’s block anywhere throughout the memoir writing process, refer back to your notes for a possible solution.
Both before and during the writing process of my book, I read a number of memoirs. I took note of the details, the front and back covers, chapter breakdowns, and grammatical choices. I meticulously observed the author’s voice, themes, and style throughout each. From Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime and Andre Agassi’s Open, to Dr. J.D. Remy’s Ballad of a Sober Man and Christina Crosby’s A Body, Undone, I gained useful craft techniques from each.
3) Where should your memoir begin, and where should it end up?
A memoir is not an autobiography; it should begin with a story central to its theme. Think of the most important moment in your story and how it might grab the reader’s attention from the start. It may not make sense to be purely chronological in the telling, so keep your audience in mind. If it’s difficult to follow, you might lose some portion of the effect.
My memoir does not begin with that most obvious scene: “that Wednesday morning at the hospital.”―my diagnosis. Perhaps I should have. But I did find a way to grab attention from the start. Allow yourself to be creative with how you organize the scenes throughout your memoir. You may not know exactly where your memoir will end, but you’ll certainly find out as your story unfolds.
4) How can you get started with writing?
Focus on the trees and the forest will come. There is no wrong place to start writing―start with whatever you want. Inevitably, you will begin with something easy to write and as you move forward, you’ll come to more difficult topics or scenes.
When I began making a record of some of my personal stories in my head, I had little picture of what the final product would be. I only considered each piece on its own. As my stories piled up, I listed ideas for more, slowly filling out the beginnings of an outline. I quickly found that my ideas beget ideas, and the more time I spent writing (and in my own head), the more work I marked for the future.
5) How can you stay organized while writing a memoir?
Taking notes and outlining are just a couple of the best practical things you can do to stay organized during memoir writing. As you dive deeper into your memories, you’ll most certainly recall scenes from your life that you forgot about, so it’s crucial that you take notes of those instances and add them to your outline before you forget. You can also use your outline to keep track of progress and see the big picture.
The outline I used for my memoir helped me to see an entire book in a numbered list on a few pages. I could easily see the order of each section, making it easy to add or remove something without losing sight of the bigger picture.
6) Is the idea more important than the work?
Record your ideas before they’re gone! This could be just a few notes or a pass at the entire piece. Don’t make the all-too-easy mistake of thinking the idea is the only thing that matters. You have a long way to go.
I often found myself feeling satisfied after merely recording an idea during the memoir writing process. The idea may feel like a revelation, however, writing it out might be much more of a grind than expected. You may also find that it doesn’t quite fit into the larger picture of your memoir. Keep in mind that your ideas are important, but the work you’ll undoubtedly put in is just as important.
7) Should each scene be perfect before moving to the next?
No first draft of your memoir is going to be perfect. Remember that you’re writing a first draft of each section only. It might not feel like only a first pass, but you likely will find out later how much work it still needs. Stay positive! Without exploring your ideas on the page, you’d have nothing.
In the editing process, I often found out that I’d gotten my point across, but in an awkward and uninspired way. I might need to go back and rewrite that last sentence, for example. I learned that despite my frustrations at a glaring lack of eloquence, getting the gist of my thoughts down was indeed the first step, without which there could be no second.
8) Should you work on your memoir every day?
You don’t have to, but it certainly helps! I found habits are important. Just as writing begets writing, a day off quickly turns into three―or five. I kept the progress bar relatively low, but made sure to get something done every day. With little goals, I kept myself motivated rather than frustrated.
Track your progress; measure your accomplishments. Keep moving forward. If you’re like me, try not to feel satisfied after only a small amount of work; keep going. If you’re more of a grinder, feel free to finish as much as possible in a sitting. Keep your writing sessions to a set time, though, or you may experience memoir writing burnout!
9) What if your memoir doesn’t pan out how you expected?
Try to accept that not everything you write will come together as you’d imagined in your memoir. It’s impossible not to get frustrated over time wasted on things that end up in the trash, but you might also find that the unexpected ends up better than what you originally had in mind.
I wrote a number of finished pieces that aren’t in my book, and had ideas that were never fulfilled. Spending hours or days on a thought that seemed to carry such promise, only to never get there, can be a difficult pill to swallow. I had to remind myself not to dwell on these minor failures and move on to the next task at hand.
10) Can your memoir include your thoughts and feelings?
A memoir doesn’t have to only show the reader, it can speak to them directly as well. What makes a memoir compelling isn’t usually the retelling of events, but getting inside the head of the author. Don’t spend so much time setting the scene; tell the reader what you were thinking at the time.
The best advice I received from my editor was to put more of myself in the writing. Make the reader feel what you felt. It’s a powerful tool that will draw people in and make them feel close to you as the author.
11) What if every scene isn’t your favorite?
Get over it.
I wish I could say that I read through my memoir and every line and every page is my favorite. But that’s not―nor could it ever be―the case. That’s not the measuring stick I used for my work. What I can say about each piece I included―that is, the actual measuring stick―is that it provided something unique to the overall story. If I felt that wasn’t the case, I had to consider its removal.
Just accept that not every scene will be your favorite, but they will be necessary in making your memoir a cohesive whole.
12) How will you know what to include?
Stay on theme, eliminate redundancies, and leave out irrelevant stories (no matter how interesting you might think they are). Your memoir does not need to cover everything that happened from “Time A” to “Time B.” It should be telling a story, so stay in that lane.
Everything I wrote for my memoir was in some way connected to its subtitle, My Journey with ALS. There were a number of themes that came off of that, and I provided some background on myself and the people around me, but (I hope) there was nothing superfluous in my book.
This goes back to the overarching theme of your memoir. Make sure the scenes you include are tied into that theme.
13) Can you embellish a little in your memoir?
I tried to write in a matter-of-fact style when recounting memories in my memoir. If I’d exaggerated details, I’d have lost the most important aspect of my memoir: authenticity.
Though you may be proud of a particular story or detail, try to stay earnest in the telling. It may feel like a fine line, but boastful writing is just as sure to turn off the reader as it would induce eye rolls in person.
14) How authentic should you be?
Don’t force your writing to fit into a particular box or follow a particular pattern that feels forced. Regardless of all of the how-to articles and writing advice columns you may read, your memoir needs to be you. It should feel and sound like you from beginning to end. When your friends and family read it, they should have no doubt that it’s yours. What’s the point of writing a memoir if you neglect to pour your entire heart and soul into it?
I told my story the way that I wanted. I took in some craft and writing advice, of course, but I’ve said proudly (though, technically, incorrectly), that every word is my own. I wrote for myself, and held nothing back; I couldn’t do it any other way.
I hope you found these memoir writing tips helpful! If you would like to get a copy of my new memoir and debut book, check out my official website.
Nate Methot has a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration – Finance from the University of Vermont. He worked for five years at a securities broker/dealer before an ALS diagnosis forced him to give up full-time employment. Two years into his new, wholly foreign and unusual life, he began to record thoughts, stories, and frustrations on a blog called, appropriately, Whatever I Want to Say. In the summer of 2020, about ten years after his symptoms began, he started writing down his experiences in earnest. His resulting memoir, A Life Derailed: My Journey with ALS, was published in June, 2022. Visit his official website at natemethot.com.