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Writing

6 Tips for Writing a Memoir

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

Everyone is the main character in their own story, and since the advent of writing, people have had the urge to write about their own life experience. Today, we call these first-personal accounts “memoirs.”

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What Is a Memoir?

A memoir is a non-fictional, first personal written account of events and memories from the author’s real life. Memoirs (French for “memory” or “reminisce”) focus on personal experience, intimacy, and emotional truth—memoir writers often play with their memories and with real life in order to tell a good story. For this reason, memoirs are not bound to formal expectations around chronology or factual accuracy.

A few well-known memoir examples include A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers and The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr.

6 Tips for Writing a Memoir

Here are some writing tips to help you start writing your memoir.

  1. Avoid writing your entire autobiography. All memoir writers share snippets from their own life in their work, but trying to tell your entire life story in one sitting can be daunting and intimidating. After all, it’s impossible to cram a million different moments from your entire life into one book-length account. When writing memoirs, focus on specific moments in your life, such as a vivid emotional memory or turning points that affected the course of your life.
  2. Create a sensory experience. One of the hardest parts of memoir writing is translating your own experiences into something that the reader can engage with and inhabit themselves. The best way to ensure that your first draft isn’t dull is to pack your own memoir with vivid details, using all of your senses to tell your story and transport the reader back to that specific moment of time.
  3. Don’t start at the beginning. If you’re writing a memoir for the first time, it can be tempting to start at the very beginning of your life and then go from there. However, the best memoirs don’t tell their stories chronologically. A lot of time, memoirists will begin with an immediately compelling story or moment from their life. Then, they’ll work their way back and fill in the blanks. This technique will help pique the reader’s interest from the very beginning.
  4. Use fiction-writing techniques. A good memoir should be just as compelling as a fiction bestseller. Even though you’re drawing from your own life experience, you should still feel encouraged to use techniques found in novels and short stories. Re-create scenes with dialogue to build suspense. “Show, don’t tell” by describing action rather than overloading with exposition. These techniques will give color and life to your piece of writing.
  5. Collapse your characters and events. When writing your personal memoirs, it will be tempting to include all of your friends, family, and loved ones. However, focus only on the people and events that are essential to your own story’s themes. Just because you had a great high school English teacher or an inspiring boss doesn’t mean that their inclusion will help you explain the specific ideas you’re trying to explore in your memoir.
  6. Write every day. This may sound obvious, but if you plan to start writing your memoir, the best thing you can do is to write every day. Try to develop a routine. Choose a place and a time of day to write consistently write each day. Establish a minimum daily word count goal. Make sure you’re on pace to meet your deadline (and if you’re self-publishing, set your own deadline and stick to it). If you’re struggling with writers’ block, doing daily creative writing or freewriting exercises can help strengthen your writing muscle and unlock sections of the memoir that you’re struggling with.
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