Jobe’s Monster-Long Ethically-Sourced Compilation on How To Write a Memoir

What is a memoir? A memoir is a narrative about your personal experience.

Write memoir, not autobiography
Autobiography is the story of an entire life, but a memoir is just one story from that life. You can only ever write one autobiography, but you can write countless memoirs.

A memoir can be about:

  • A specific event that happened to you.
  • A specific aspect of your life (your relationship with your father, your travel through Asia, your struggle to overcome a phobia).
  • A particular time period of your life.
  • The impact on your own life of an outside event (for example, a war, an economic crisis, your parents’ divorce.)

A memoir can be about:

  • Your childhood years
  • Your years living in a certain city
  • Your time pursuing a certain goal and its attainment
  • Time spent with a spouse or other loved one
  • Your spiritual journey
  • An overseas adventure

A memoir can be about:

  • Your childhood
  • Places you’ve visited
  • A crime or injustice you encountered

Important Rules:

  • It Must Be Interesting
  • It Must Be Thematic
  • It Must Be Personal

Important Rules:

  • Be yourself
  • Speak freely
  • Think small

Important Rules:

  • Make Your Memoir about More than Just You
  • Don’t Whine
  • Do Your Research
  • Be Respectful
  • Be Generous
  • Build a Narrative with Tension and Shape
  • Play with Time

Reader Expectations for a Memoir:

  • Sympathetic main character
  • Vividly depicted scenes
  • Emotional tension
  • Increasing sense of drama/conflict
  • A satisfying ending

Process Idea #1:

Draw a Timeline
Once you have chosen a time period, determine the major events that took place on a timeline. Draw out a long horizontal line, mark tabs. Label year, month, or day.

Mark Major Life Events
Mark your timeline with the major events that happened during that period, ie:

  • Met Fred
  • Got Married
  • Tiffany born
  • Fred went to war
  • Hank born
  • Fred killed

Major life events can be: birth, graduation, first job, arriving in a city, falling in love, meeting a nemesis, getting married, starting a business, meeting a mentor, losing a job, having children, arriving in a new country, getting divorced, having an illness, meeting a spiritual teacher, winning an award, getting remarried.

Find the Emotional Turning Points

  • Fell in love
  • Committed to love
  • Experienced unconditional love
  • Fear about future
  • Uncertainty
  • Grief
  • Determination to Create Good Life for Kids

Find a Theme
What is your story about? What is the main theme? What is the main lesson you have learned from your experiences? Your theme may be:

  • Love never dies
  • Never give up
  • Keep going for your dreams
  • You can heal your life
  • Small things are beautiful

You do not have to know the theme to begin writing your memoir. Often, it will emerge in the writing itself. But at some point, you will want to choose the main theme of your memoir and organize the details of the story around this theme.

A theme transforms your memoir from a collection of events to a compelling story that others will want to keep reading.

Process Idea #2:

  • Outline
  • Connect scenes with reflection, weave narration and reflection.
  • The narrator guides the reader through the book, through thoughts and reflections.
  • Your memoir is made up of scenes andreflection. Don’t just copy your journal.
  • Write your first draft in your voice using real names. Don’t share it. Just get through it. Then decide what to do.
  • Find your important moments of meaning — the true North of your memoir — by listing turning points or moments that are important to you.
  • Make a list, keep it up for a while, and then you’ll have the spine of your memoir.
  • Choose to write your scene from this list, and you can write in any order.
  • Making an outline is helpful too, because at some point, you’ll want to put those scenes in some kind of order.
  • When in doubt about what to write, select a scene, a significant scene, and write it.
  • Find a scene you feel connected to and write it. That scene, that moment.

Process Idea #3:

Diagram your life
Rainer, author of Your Life as Story, recommends diagramming your life:

  • get into a retrospective mood, maybe enlist the help of a friend or spouse
  • plot your life’s six most significant moments. Is there a pivotal event that stands out?
  • Try dividing your life into: critical choices, influential people, conflicts, beliefs, lessons, mistakes.

Use all your senses
When you write, make sure to capture:

  • Sight: color, proximity, size
  • Sound: music, noise, sound effects, quiet
  • Smell: good and bad, natural or chemical
  • Touch: textures, temperatures, consistency
  • Taste: spicy, sour, bland, salty, sweet, tart

Write Every Day

Sets of Tips #1:

  • Be Kind to Yourself have compassion for yourself
  • Memory is Unpredictable trust that the right memories will emerge
  • Bad Guys present understanding and even compassion for your “bad guys“
  • Just Write keep the pen moving across the paper… at some point, words will start to flow
  • One Day at a Time every day
  • Turn Off the Inner Critic you will have ample time to turn on the critic later — when you’re editing
  • You Can Change Everything Later don’t worry about naming people, offending them, or being sued… You can run it by a lawyer, literary agent or publisher later
  • Emotional Truth is More Important than Factual Truth maybe you can’t recall all the details, but you can write what you felt

Set of Tips #2:

  • Most people lead “boring” lives. But each person is trying to make sense out of his or her existence, to find meaning in the world.
  • Honestly share what you think, feel, and have gone through.
  • I write to find out what I think. — Stephen King

Set of Tips #3:

Advice for beginning memoirists from Heather Sellers

  • Writing is what makes the memories come back.
  • If you are just starting to write memoir, and you are worried about gaps… Don’t think. You can’t “try” to remember. You remember (a phone number, the author’s name) when you stop trying. The goal isn’t to force memory. You need to have a daily writing practice, and method for getting into a trance state that allows your visual memory to roam back over the events of your life. It’s something that improves with practice.
  • Go fearlessly write everything down. Stop thinking about it. Stop talking about it. Trust that what is important will come to the surface.

Set of Tips #4:

  • Sit some place quiet with your notebook or computer. You may be surprised that the memories come flooding back: Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, author of Girls of Tender Age said, “You think that you’ll never remember the details of what happened so long ago, but all you have to do is find a quiet, comfortable place and write one line. That’s when you’ll start to see the whole scene right in front of you. It’s incredible.”
  • “When you’re truly honest and revealing about yourself, it creates a sigh in other people,” says Lorna Kelly. “They realize they’re not alone, they’re not a freak: Someone else has felt the exact same way or lived their dream. If you’re going to skimp on the truth, then you’re doing a disservice. Honesty is not only a gift to other people—it’s a gift to yourself.”
  • Remember to describe how you felt then but also how you feel now. Part of memoir writing that’s different from just telling the story is the perspective you’ve gained through time.


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