5 Tips on How to Write Your Memoir

5 Tips on How to Write Your Memoir

Memoirs are some of the most important books on the shelves. They draw aside the political curtain and give us insight into the lives of presidents and other important people. They allow us to step into shoes of people from other cultures and time periods. From Olympic athletes to the everyday Good Samaritan, they share success stories.

It makes sense, then, that when people sit down to write, they most often start with what they know—themselves. After all, the old saying is “write what you know.” While some writers choose to describe every detail of their lives, some people use only simple anecdotes from their lives. Augusten Burroughs, author of Running With Scissors, wrote entire books featuring small scenes from his life, including everything from finding a mouse in the bathtub to nights of binge drinking. But it is his sharp whit and his quirky overall view of life that carries the interest of the reader.

Memoirs, above all, need to have a quality to them that makes them stand out from the rest, even if the author doesn’t have a gold medal to show for their stories. With that in mind, here are five tips to writing good non-fiction:

1. Give it a story.

The reason most people write non-fiction is simple: they have an extraordinary story to tell or concept to share. In essence, they have some experience that they need to share with the rest of the world. So, when writing from reality, it’s occasionally easy to forget that you aren’t only telling anecdotes; you’re building a non-fiction novel. And that novel, just like its fiction sister, needs the same, basic elements to keep the readers interested. It needs an interesting main character (you), a solid plot (theme), and a rise and fall of tension (problem and resolution, compatible with the likes of a three-act structure).

2. Trim the fat.

In the age of social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, it’s easy to get lost in the minor details. This is where the rambling starts. We have all experienced ramblers. They’re the people who have to tell you exactly what they had for breakfast just to break the news about their new baby. Unless the omelet was spicy enough to induce labor, leave it out of the story. Just because you’re writing non-fiction does not make every detail count. Find the essence of the plot and stick with it. Trim out anything that doesn’t belong.

3. Lose Aunt Sally.

As soon as you tell your friends and family that you’re writing a memoir, you will be asked the same question. “Am I in it?” Everyone will want to be part of the experience of your novel. However, this is a memoir with a purpose, not an Oscar Award speech. You can thank them in the dedication, but you should not feel obligated to put people where they don’t belong simply to satisfy their egos.

There is, of course, the flip side to this. Memoirs are about raw honesty. If you’re not prepared to talk about the people close to you in an honest manner (your family and friends), you might not be ready to publish. Memoirs are not about appeasing those around you, they are about telling your story, which, sometimes, means that you have to paint certain people in less-than-flattering lights. One way to counter this is to change names to at least give a little anonymity to the offended parties. Still, memoirs should not be a place to air dirty laundry, and you should only cast a dark shadow if it pertains to the story itself.

Worst case scenario, some people you write about may even threaten to sue you for libel, but the truth is always a defense against libel. In other words, if what you said is the truth, it cannot be libelous, or defamatory. That said, include only facts and keep your personal opinions out of it. Let readers judge for themselves based on the scenarios you describe.

4. When it gets too real…

Let’s face it: our day-to-day lives aren’t always the most exciting. Occasionally, you will have to spruce up your memoir by giving it a little extra drama. This is where memoirs dance the fine line between fiction and non-fiction. You cannot outright lie in your memoir—a lesson author of A Million Little Pieces, James Frey, learned the hard way when he was interrogated on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” concerning the less-than-factual details in his book. However, you can color the truth. Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood, was the master of what is now “creative non-fiction,” or non-fiction with a slight fictional flair.

What does this mean? You can’t say you had a sister that never existed. You can, however, recreate a fight between you and your boyfriend for the purpose of increasing the tension. Emotional truth is just as important as physical truth, and it should be treated as such.

5. Make sure your story has a purpose.

You don’t have to be a famous movie star or the president of the United States to write a memoir. However, you have to have an interesting story with emotional value that everyone can find some truth in or somehow relate to. It has to be more than just a good story. On its own, winning the Olympics means nothing, though it is an impressive feat. However, winning the Olympics while living in a trailer park means everything because it is a story that everyone can relate to—an underdog story, a story of overcoming societal obstacles.

Ultimately, this is the most important thing to remember while penning your own stories. The account should not only change the life of the author but the reader as well. The success story does not need to stop at the last page, but it should have the power to continue on and inspire everyone who reads it.

Learn more about how to craft your story from one of our professional editors or writing coaches. Contact us at editor@e-allwrite.com or call 678-691-9005.

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