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How to Write a Short Memoir: Tips for Writing an Essay-Length Memoir

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

Memoirs are intimate, first-person narratives that explore a theme in an author’s life. While many memoirs are book-length works of nonfiction, writers also craft short memoirs—essays that are focused on a very specific event or period of time in their lives.



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What Is a Short Memoir?

A short memoir is a type of creative nonfiction. It is a personal essay that reflects on a theme or an event in a writer’s life. A memoir focuses on a sliver of life experiences as opposed to an autobiography, which is an author’s retrospective of their entire life until the present. Book-length memoirs are more popular, but short memoirs, which are about the length of a short story, are another way writers share pieces of their life stories.

2 Examples of Short Memoirs

Many writers, both well-known and unknown, have published full-length memoirs. Some of the more famous memoir examples include the bestselling books Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. There are other writers who are known for their memoir essays and shorter, more thematically-focused pieces. Here are two examples of memoirs by other famous authors written as short narratives:

  1. “Me Talk Pretty One Day” by David Sedaris: This essay is included in a compilation book by the same name. Written by humorist David Sedaris, the short memoir documents him learning to speak French after a move to France.
  2. “After Life” by Joan Didion: This short memoir by American essayist Joan Didion was originally published as a stand-alone essay in The New York Times. “After Life” reflects on the theme of grief, recounting the story of Didion coping with her husband’s death.
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How to Write a Short Memoir in 6 Steps

Memoir writing is turning your own experiences into a compelling story. From deciding on a theme to structuring your story, these writing tips can guide you as you write a short memoir:

  1. Find your theme. Memoirists draw on real-life personal stories to explore a theme, as Joan Didion does with grief in “After Life.” A great memoir will establish a theme that a reader can relate to. A theme can also lead to a lesson or moral that leaves your readers with a lasting impression. Find your theme and build your essay upon that foundation.
  2. Start in the action. Great memoir writers begin their story by dropping their readers into the middle of a scene. Your goal is to start strong. The best memoirs do this by starting with a scene that has emotional intensity or action.
  3. Use relevant anecdotes. Before you start writing, figure out the focus of your story. A short memoir is only 2,000 to 5,000 words long, so the story needs to be concise. A good memoir uses anecdotes that are both riveting and also support the central storyline. The hardest part can be selecting which ones to keep and which to cut out. For example, if you’re writing a coming-of-age story, you’ll most likely use specific moments from your childhood or high school years.
  4. Apply fiction-writing strategies. Think of the story structure you’d create if you were writing a book that was a work of fiction. Apply the same elements to a short memoir. Shape your true stories to make sure you establish a narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end, with points of tension throughout. Create a character arc for yourself. How do you evolve over the course of the story you’re retelling? In your first-person memoir, you may even incorporate flashbacks to give it depth. Include secondary characters who played pivotal roles in your story.
  5. Be honest with your audience. When you’re writing memoirs, you must employ the same tactic as when you write in a personal diary or morning pages: Write with complete honesty. People read memoirs in part to find comfort in a mutual experience or feeling of connection to other peoples’ life stories. Make sure to be open and authentic with your readers, even if it makes you vulnerable. The one place you can take liberties is with secondary characters who do not wish to be named. If you reference family members, friends, or someone else that was involved in your story, make sure they are okay with being a featured character. Otherwise, you may want to change their name to protect their privacy.
  6. Edit your work. Even a short personal memoir will undergo revisions before it’s in print. When you finish your first draft, take a break and put it away for a few days. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and review your story for content, clarity, spelling, and grammar. While self-editing is a good start, you may hand your second draft over to professional editors to do a pass or two before your story is published.

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