10 Tips for Starting a Memoir
From the first lines through the end of the first chapter, a memoir should deliver an opening that is powerful, engaging, and real. If you’re just beginning as a memoirist, follow these writing tips for how to start your memoir:
- Engage the reader from the first word. A great memoir draws the reader in from the start. Elizabeth Gilbert opens her bestseller Eat, Pray, Love with an intimate moment: She’s sitting across from a much younger Italian man, wishing he would kiss her. The book documents her life after a devastating divorce and heartbreak, but she leaves the backstory and bad things for later and kicks off her globetrotting tale of self discovery with a moment that grabs the reader’s attention.
- Build trust with the reader. A memoir is a deeply personal non-fiction book that you’ll be sharing with strangers. From the beginning, tell your story as if you’re sharing a secret with the reader that you have never told anyone else. This approach makes the reader a confidante and builds trust from the start.
- Bring emotions out of the reader. A memoir should also approach a story with the human element in mind and evoke emotion in the reader. Write your first pages from the heart. Use language that will resonate with people on an emotional level.
- Lead with a laugh. Reading a David Sedaris memoir is impossible to do without belly laughing, even when he relives some of the unhappiest moments in his childhood. Even if your memoir focuses on a darker story, try leading with humor. The reader will respond to a range of emotions and likely won’t want to feel down throughout an entire book.
- Open with a dramatic moment. Choose a dramatic moment to start your memoir. You can revisit the event in more detail later, but sharing an exciting glimpse of what’s to come can keep the reader engaged. Think of a pivotal turning point later in the story you can tease with a powerful opening. Remember to heighten the drama through the “show, don’t tell” writing mantra. Describe that opening scene with vivid sensory details.
- Think like a fiction writer. A memoir is a true story of your life, but it should also incorporate the structural elements that make fiction compelling. In your exposition, make sure to set the stage for the rest of the book, establishing yourself as the main character, building out the setting, planting the source of conflict, and teasing out the central theme. Create a story structure with a strong opening, middle, and end to string out a story the reader knows how to follow.
- Keep it relevant. When you tell someone else a story face to face, it’s centered around one event. Take the same approach with your personal memoir from the start. An autobiography captures your whole life story. Memoirs have a more narrow scope, centered around a time period or theme from the writer’s life. There are a million little details and life experiences that might be interesting on their own, but if they do not support your story, you should exclude them. The reader does not need to know what you wore to your high school prom unless the event is relevant to your book.
- Write for the reader as well as yourself. Writing your own memoir is therapeutic. As you share personal stories, though, remember that you have an audience. Don’t exclusively look inward when you write. Always keep the reader in mind. Make sure your personal narrative is a compelling story. For a great example, read Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes, which recounts his impoverished upbringing in New York and Ireland. His recollections—of an alcoholic father and a mother desperate to keep her family together—never feel self-serving, and instead they invite the reader into the trauma of his youth.
- Be honest. In writing a memoir, you are promising the reader that what you’re telling them is an honest account of your own life from your perspective. Censoring yourself is easy if you’re retelling stories that involve other people and family members who may remember things differently. Stay true to your narrative while respecting their right to privacy; for instance, maybe you change their names or use initials. Only you can decide what stays and what goes, but remember to deliver an honest story.
- Write the opening last. When you sit down to write, the perfect opening might be elusive. If writer’s block is standing in the way of your first chapter, remember you don’t need to write in chronological order. Start writing the part of the story that most inspires you, then come back to your beginning after you finish your first draft. In the course of your writing you’ll discover the perfect opening.
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