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I Want to Write a Memoir: What Should I Write and How Do I Write It?
The Basics of Memoir Writing

A memoir is a piece of autobiographical writing in which the author tries to capture a particularly meaningful event or period of time in his or her past, as well as articulate the meaning of that event for the author and the world around her or him at the time of writing the memoir. Not only are we telling a story of our past, we are reflecting on it, searching for its current meaning.

The word "memoir" comes from the Latin word "memoria," meaning memory. An autobiography is a story written by yourself about your life so far, but a memoir tends to focus on a specific period or theme in your life. While an autobiography is meant to be a factual history of the author's life, a memoir is more of a remembrance of the author's life, or to be precise, a particular slice of the author's life. Gore Vidal, in his own memoir Palimpsest, gave a personal definition: "A memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked." Instead of documenting every fact of your life, the memoir is designed to be a more emotional storytelling, as it captures your life-changing scenes and events .

Who Should Write a Memoir? And Why?

The answer to that is quite simple: You should. Why? Because all of us have a story to tell. If that is not a good enough answer for you, though, consider the following.

The more you write, the better a writer you become. If you are not already a writer, writing your memoir will certainly make you one. Developing daily writing habits will prove invaluable in both your public and private life. The more we learn how to craft our stories, the better we get at communicating.

By creating a written narrative of our memories, we are better able to understand the past and, in turn, are presented with a clearer vision of who we are today. That knowledge and wisdom will rub off on your readers. As you share your ideas and life lessons, your reader will grow along with you.

A memoir is a great way to connect to those who read your writing. Perhaps you are struggling through a divorce or illness and want your children to one day understand what happened. Or maybe you want your grandchildren to know more about who you were. A memoir is also a way for you to communicate to your descendants long after you are gone.

A memoir is also a great source of therapy. Writing is a way to deal with loss, betrayal, regret, and guilt that ties us down to our pasts. As we write about our hardships, not only do we free ourselves, but we help our readers do the same. At the same time, a memoir should not be used as a therapy session. Rather then venting, you are sharing true pain and joy and reflecting on it. That is why memoirs are so powerful. Our rags to riches stories, our triumphs or defeats regarding illness, careers, and relationships are invaluable guides and inspirations for others.

Finally, even if your memoir is not published and dreams of selling millions of books are dashed, you nevertheless have provided a family heirloom for future generations to cherish.

Characteristics of a Memoir

The first characteristic of a memoir is that it generally focuses on a brief period of time or series of related events. Author Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, is an account of the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. Or George Brummell's memoir, Shades of Darkness, is the author's experience as a black soldier in the Vietnam War.

The second characteristic of a memoir is that the narrative structure more closely resembles that of a novel than an autobiography. Memoir writing should include many of the usual elements of storytelling, such as setting, plot development, imagery, conflict, characterization, foreshadowing, flashback, irony, and symbolism. Two great recent examples of memoirs that adhered to this type of storytelling are Homer Hickam, Jr.'s, Rocket Boys, also known as October Sky, and Chris Gardner's, The Pursuit of Happyness. Hickam's memoir tells the story of the author growing up in a mining town and his pursuit of amateur rocketry in a pure company mining town during the Space Race between the United States and Soviet Union. In The Pursuit of Happyness, Chris Gardner details his journey from homeless single father to self-made millionaire. It is the gripping story of his refusal to give up on his quest for the American dream and his duties to his toddler son as the despair that surrounds him threatens to devour him.

The third characteristic of a memoir deals with the author's current interpretation of the meaning of the events he or she is writing about. Looking back, the author can articulate why a particular event or period of his or her life was meaningful in either a negative or positive way. Alice Sebold's memoir, Lucky, is a great example of articulating the meaning of a past event; in her case, a brutal rape. When journalist Sebold was a college freshman at Syracuse University, she was attacked and raped on the last night of school, forced onto the ground in a tunnel "among the dead leaves and broken beer bottles." A policeman later told her that a young woman had been murdered there and, by comparison, she should consider herself lucky. That "luck" is the focus of her memoir about how a profoundly violent incident can change the course of one's life.

The fourth characteristic of a memoir is to maintain a fictional quality even though the story is true. The memoir shares many characteristics of fiction, such as moving both backward and forward in time, as well as shifting between scene and summary, controlling the pace of the story, and writing believable dialogue. While taking liberties with the truth can be taken to the extreme, as we have seen recently with author James Frey's "memoir," A Million Little Pieces, we must remember that a memoir is our life how we remember it. Writer David Sedaris' memoir, Me Talk Pretty One Day, is a hilarious remembrance of a miserable childhood. Although Sedaris often exaggerates his past for the sake of humor, the reader is aware of this from the beginning.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online class in Journaling and Memoir Writing?

The fifth characteristic of a memoir is to raise the emotional level of the story. Your goal as a writer is to make the reader emotional. Whether that means making your readers happy, sad, or angry, you must do everything possible to avoid making them feel ambivalence. One of the greatest memoirs of our time is Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. In it, the author remembers his miserable Irish Catholic childhood with such raw emotion that readers continue to keep it a best seller 10 years after it was published.

The sixth characteristic of a memoir is to adhere to a more personal reconstruction of the events and their impact. For instance, two memoirs that we have already mentioned do this very well. The first, Shades of Darkness, is on many accounts a book about the Vietnam War. What makes it stand out, though, is the personal reconstruction of the events. In other words, it is about the Vietnam War seen through the eyes of an African American soldier. Another example of this is Rocket Boys, a story about the Space Race between the United States and Soviet Union seen through the eyes of a teenage boy. The impact of the Space Race inspired him to break free of his coal miner destiny and become a rocket scientist.

The seventh and final characteristic of a memoir is that the story be a therapeutic experience for the author, especially when the memoir is about crisis or survival. Dr. Jerry Nielson's memoir, Ice Bound, is a gripping account of the author's battle with breast cancer while trapped at the South Pole. On one level, we follow Dr. Nielsen's story of self-administered chemotherapy while waiting for a flight out during the Antarctic winter. However, on another level, the story is really a life-and-death struggle of Nielsen's search for self-discovery.

Types of Memoirs

While it is not necessary for your memoir to be confined to one particular category, it is helpful for you to understand the various types of memoirs that are being written.

Family Legacy

Perhaps the most common reason a person decides to write a memoir is because he or she wants to leave behind a family legacy. While some writers may have family stories that elicit more commercial and widespread appeal, your family legacy memoir will have a built-in audience for generations to come.

Childhood and Coming of Age

After Frank McCourt's heart-wrenching memoir, Angela's Ashes, took the publishing world by storm, a glut of "my horrible childhood" memoirs quickly followed. Dave Pelzer's child abuse survival story, A Child Called "It": One Child's Courage to Survive, and Katlyn Stewart's, Nightmares Echo are two worthy examples of this. However, a childhood does not have to be tragic in order to be compelling. J.R. Moehringerr'sThe Tender Bar was an endearing coming-of-age memoir and New York Times best seller. Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors, on the other hand, takes the make-them-laugh approach as he shares his awkward and embarrassing childhood.

Personal Struggle

One of today's most popular memoir subjects is our experience with personal struggles, such as addiction, abuse, and illness. Writing about such tragedies is often therapeutic for both author and reader. Augusten Burroughs chronicles his battle with alcoholism in his memoir, Dry. Joan Didion writes about the year following her husband's death in her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. Antwone Fisher's Finding Fish recalls his abusive childhood growing up in foster care.

Witness and Relationship

Many successful memoirs are about the author's experience with historical or popular events and people. Through the author's eyes we get a personal account of history. Perhaps it is the author's story growing up during the Cold War or the Depression. Or maybe the writer was a juror on a historic or celebrity trial. This category includes our relationships with others and how they shape us, such as Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie.


War is such a universal event, but it affects us all so differently. Memoirs about people who go to war, or have war come to them, not only share their profound experiences with the reader but inform us of our history, as well as provide insight into why we fight and how to recover from the trauma of war.


A haunting past is not the only way to gain your reader's attention. Nostalgia memoirs are popular because many of us want to remember a "better" past. Whether it was about your summer in Brooklyn watching the Dodgers or your summer of love, nostalgia memoirs prove that many memories are fun to remember.

Public or Celebrity Life

While most of us are not public figures or celebrities, these memoirs tend to be best sellers because of the built-in audience. The public loves a look into the life of a celebrity.

Charity or Public Service

Writing about your service to other people provides a bridge between your life and the life of those who need your help. If you devoted a period of your life to serving others, you have a story to tell about the human condition and how it affected you.

Tales of Survival

Like memoirs dealing with personal struggles, survival tales provide lessons of hope and perseverance. How you survived the tsunami and its aftermath or a car accident or a brutal attack informs us of the human spirit to survive, as well as the world we live in.


Writing about your travels allows your readers to experience the sights, sounds, and lessons of the world. A travel memoir is often a very visual account of a foreign place and allows the author to present the world through his or her filter. Visiting a new place often changes us and our perception of the world. An author can do the same for readers by drawing them into that world.


Whether you are a successful businessperson or professional golfer, you most likely have a unique talent that others would love to read about. Your personal "How I found peace or spirituality" story or "How I succeeded in business: rags to riches" story will attract readers who would like to do the same.

The Second Coming of Age

While the transition from childhood to adulthood is the subject of many memoirs, there is something called the second coming of age that may be equally as popular. The second coming of age is that time in our lives when we start anew and become a different version of ourselves. Perhaps it is about becoming a parent, or getting divorced, or going to war. Whatever the circumstance, our rebirth is often a universal experience that helps both author and reader accept and embrace it.

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