A Guide on How to Write a Memoir Essay

A memoir is not an elaborate way of saying ‘autobiography’. It is important to note that early on, considering how many people regularly consider the two to be interchangeable.

That is not to say that your memoir will not be autobiographical, but it will not be the complete story of your life.

That statement might be confusing to some. Let’s explain the difference between the two.

An autobiography is, in most cases, a complete account of the events that occurred in one’s life, from birth to present day – or rather the days leading up to publication. It typically places major emphasis on important events or accomplishments, but speaks only of the raw and authentic truth.

A memoir definition, on the other hand, makes reference to specific narratives from the author (or the subject’s) life. Typically, these narratives support a pre-determined theme and establish some sort of objective. For example, your objective might be to convey how you overcame a major life obstacle to where you are now. In this case, you would select specific scenes or examples from your life to support that objective.

Perhaps you come from:

  • The seedier side of town
  • A broken family home
  • A tumultuous or abusive relationship
  • Addiction or substance abuse
  • The social service system

And now you are:

  • Wealthy
  • In a position of power
  • Happy
  • Fit or healthy
  • Open to faith

You might choose to start your story with your recollection of how bad life was for you. From there, you would depict pivotal experiences or your defining moments, introduce important people who have played an integral role in your transformation, outline what you’ve learned, and discuss how you had applied your newly found principles or mindset to recognize this monumental change in your life.

Not surprisingly, the more gritty or real your stories are, the better the memoir is likely to be. All told, a great story isn’t really the point of a memoir.  There are a number of things that publishers look out for when determining whether or not they will pick up a memoir.

What Are Publishers Looking For In A Memoir

Don’t think for a minute that you need to be famous or extremely wealthy in order to sell a memoir. Yes, if your last name is Kardashian or you happen to own the largest and most popular social media networking site that the world has ever seen, people will be naturally more curious about you, and that would certainly be an advantage.

But memoirs written by people that no one has ever heard of succeed every day – and for one very specific reason: Their message resonated with their audience because their audience identifies with the truth. Truth, regardless of how raw, painful or gritty it happens to be, is extremely transferable.

Memoirs that are filled with relatable stories engage with readers, and readers are what publishers are really looking for. An experienced literary agent or a knowledgeable editor will be able to predict whether or not an audience will be able to relate with a memoir, and from there, they will determine whether or not to take a chance in publishing a memoir written by someone that is seemingly unknown.

Literary agents live for discovering these hidden gems.

One thing to keep in mind as you write your memoir is that you may be the subject – but it isn’t really about you. It is about what anyone reading your story stands to gain from it. What they will take away.

It might seem counterproductive to consider the reader first, particularly when you are writing about yourself, but if your memoir doesn’t grab the attention of the audience in some way, they aren’t likely to read it – and they certainly aren’t recommending it to anyone else.

Tips How to Write a Memoir Essay – Step by step

Writing a memoir seems simply enough, but, without proper planning it is easier than you think to veer off course.

Here are four steps to writing a memoir that other people actually want to read.

  • Understand your theme, and stick to it:Remember that no one cares that you’ve ‘made something of yourself’, except for your mom and maybe a handful of other close friends and relatives who already know and love you.

In order for your theme to be exciting and engaging it has to tell your readers that they are not alone and that what happened to you could also happen to them.

That is what readers really want to see. Granted, they might finish reading your memoir and be impressed by you, but it will have little to do with how wonderful you are. Whether or not we choose to admit it, what we really care about is our own lives.

Imagine for a minute that someone picks up your memoir and asks themselves, “What will I get out of this?” The more that you are able to offer them, the greater the chances of your book being successful are. The key is to focus on transferable principles in well told story.

  • Find a Common Ground

People everywhere, regardless of their age, location, social status or ethnic background share common needs for shelter, food, and love. They all fear being abandoned, being lonely, and the death of those they love the most. Regardless of what your theme is, if you are able to touch upon any of those desires or fears, anyone reading it will be able to identify.

You can read the story of someone who is different from you in gender, race, religion or some other way, but if they tell a story of something that you’re a passionate about, you will relate to them.

  • Pick your Anecdotes Carefully

The greatest memoirs are those that enable readers to envision themselves in their stories. They want to identify with everything you’ve experienced and desire the ability to take what they’ve learned from you and apply it to their own lives.

If you are apprehensive about expressing your pain loudly enough to share the entire truth, you might not be ready to pen your memoir.

Choose anecdotes that support your theme, regardless of how painful recalling these memories might be. The more raw and vulnerable you are, the more effective and successful your writing will be.

  • Write your Memoir like You Would Write a Novel

This is important. Write your memoir in the same way that you would write a novel, your objective should be to show your story – not just tell it.

Use dialogue, descriptions, tensions, conflicts and other literary devices to breathe life into your story. Don’t focus so heavily into chronology, it isn’t an autobiography so you don’t need to be so tied to the timelines. State which ever anecdote fits each chapter the best. Just make sure that you don’t confuse the reader by jumping around without explanation.

Following the same principles as writing a novel, you should also pay attention to your character arc. In this case, you are the protagonist. Your memoir should clearly explain how you’ve grown into the person you are at present time, and what lessons you’ve learned along the way.

  • Share your story, but don’t steamroll people

You’ve shown tremendous bravery by exposing your own weaknesses, failures and embarrassments – but, what about those of the other people you’ve mentioned in your writing; your friends, family, teachers, loved ones, etc.

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In telling the truth, are you given carte blanche to air their dirty laundry?

In certain situations, yes.

But should you do this?

Absolutely not.

What if they’ve given you permission? Is there an advantage?

Typically someone who has been painted in a bad light, even if the information is entirely truthful, will not sign any sort of release granting you permission to expose them.

But had they, would it be ethical or kind for you to do so?

That is an extremely personal decision, but be cautious.

So what do you do?

We know that the best memoirs are the ones that a raw, gritty and real. How can you achieve this without exposing the events that transpired in your life?

There is a solution. And, it isn’t simply changing the names to protect the innocent or to prevent fall out.

Change the time, the place, the date, the gender. Change anything that could result in the individual being easily identified by someone who knows them.

For example, if the verbal abuse you suffered as a result of your mother telling you how overweight you were as a pre-teen made you develop an eating disorder, attribute it to a gym teacher or another individual elsewhere.

Is this lying? Not if you remember to include a disclaimer that cautions that names and details have been changed to protect identities.

What is the difference between a Memoir vs. Autobiography

The words memoir and autobiography are often mistakenly used interchangeably, but the two ideas are not the same.

Similar to an autobiography, a memoir is a first person narrative that shares the life changing experiences of the author. However, that is where the similarities end.

By definition, an autobiography is a chronological depiction of the things that the author has experienced throughout their entire lifetime, whereas the definition of a memoir makes reference to a more specific time or event and has a much more intimate relationship with the memoires, feelings and emotions of the author.

A memoir is:

  • less formal
  • less inclusive
  • focused more on emotional truth and how it has shaped the current life of the writer
  • less strict to factual events

An autobiography is

  • Written by the subject, or with a collaborating writer
  • A chronological account of the entire life of the subject
  • Extremely fact based

Tips for Writing a Well-Written Memoir

When writing your memoir, your goal should be to tell a story that your readers can relate to one, one that makes them realize that what you’ve gone through, or what you’ve experienced could possibly happen (or has happened) to them. You want to leave them with something of value, a lesson that they can apply to their own situation.

A good writing advice includes a list of a few common writing mistakes to avoid when you are writing your memoir.

  • Don’t make it too much like an autobiography. Stick to your theme.
  • Don’t include minutiae. (Small, insignificant details that no one cares about)
  • Try not to gloat or brag.
  • Don’t gloss over the truth. Yes, you can change identifying details so that you don’t expose the people you are writing about, but don’t outright lie.
  • Try not to sound to ‘preachy’ or like you are far superior to those around you.

You want to engage with your reader, hook them into your story – so start in media res – right in the middle of the action.

If you start your memoir too slowly, readers will lose interest quickly. Don’t start at the climax, leave some room for rising action, but also start somewhere interesting and build upon that.

Some Remarkable Memoir Examples

The best piece of advice that can be given to anyone wanting to write their memoir is to immerse themselves into this genre before writing their own. Pay attention to how these writer structure their work, the way they encourage relatability, and how they tell their stories, and pick up some good memoir ideas.

This means reading as many memoirs as possible, and not just those written about famous people.

Consider the things that you find interesting or relatable about each memoir, does the author use certain language to speak on the level of those who might be reading their story, how do they use imagery, what really resonates with you?

Here are five examples of great memoir books to get you started:

  1. Mao’s Last Dancerby Li Cunxin
  2. Traffickedby Sophie Hayes
  3. On Writingby Stephen King
  4. Dancing to the Beat of the Drumby Pamela Nomvete
  5. The Girl from Foreign by Sadia Shepard