18 Tips for Memoir Authors

memoirI’ve been writing a series over on my ‘other’ writing blog about genres. So far I have:

Today, let’s talk about memoirs. What is a ‘memoir’. According to Google, a memoir is:

…a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge or special sources. An essay on a learned subject.

A lot of people confuse ‘memoir’ with ‘autobiography’. Sure, they’re similar, but with big differences. According to Linton Weeks (“It’s the ‘Me’ that Makes a Memoir an Incomplete Tale”):

“A real autobiography traffics in facts: a memoir relies on memory.”

That’s the core of it: If you write an autobiography, you must be accurate. You can’t claim you took the plane to NYC when no such plane existed. Autobiographers must fact check. A ‘memoir’–that’s based on your memory. You rely on that imperfect nine pounds north of your shoulders for data. Everyone understands the story may or may not be accurate, but it’s as you remember it. ‘Facts’ are as you remember them, which may be at odds with reality. There is no apology for that and much value in it.

Another form of writing that memoirs are NOT is journaling. According to those who journal (which doesn’t include me), these chronicle a life where memoirs often focus on one event of note in that life.

Some famous memoirs–

  • Elie Wiesel’s Night (true stories of fellow concentration camp sufferers during the Holocaust)
  • Irene Spencer’s Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamists’s Wife

Do you get the trend here? As a reader, we are less concerned about historic accuracy than how the person starring in the memoir handled events. What is it like to live in a concentration camp? How could anyone agree to wed a polygamist?

If you decide to take up this writing genre, here are some tips to help you excel:

  1. Make sure the topic of your memoir is interesting. Most people’s lives aren’t. True, the writer’s skill can make it so, but what will inspire readers to pick up the tome? You need a hook–maybe you’re Octo Mom. Maybe you raised George Will. The theme must generate enough interest to make people turn the first page.
  2. Write in first person, from the author’s POV
  3. The unique voice of the person telling the story should be human, approachable, and not sound like a ‘writer’.
  4. Write narrative non-fiction, but in story form. This is similar to creative non-fiction which uses the characteristics of fiction to make nonfiction more interesting.
  5. NPR’s William Zinsser says memoir authors should “think small” (you don’t have to provide all the details) and make a series of “reducing decisions” (same idea). And–‘be yourself’, ‘think freely’.
  6. Memoirs can be written at any time in your life, about any corner of your world. It need not sum up your existence, just that event.
  7. According to literary agent Barbara Doyen, a memoir questions “what happened and come(s) to some kind of new understanding or lesson learned by it. The author shows us how he or she was affected by this experience, how it has profoundly changed the way (s/)he sees the world. And by extension, reading the book will change the way the reader sees the world.”
  8. Sometimes memories are difficult to uncover. Heather Sellers, author of You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, suggests you just start writing. It’ll come.
  9. Don’t worry about gaps in the history. That doesn’t matter in a memoir. Just get to the next part that deals with your theme.
  10. Understand that when you write a memoir, you will hurt people. It can’t be avoided. They’ll disagree with your memory and that’ll upset them. Be prepared.
  11. Can you get sued for writing your memories? Maybe you’re writing about abuse and the perpetrator’s identity will surprise readers. Yes, there are topics and reasons that could generate a law suit. Consider what you’re writing, your purpose, before publishing. Consider consequences and if you’re willing to face them. Consider whether you’d prefer to hide real names and focus on the event.
  12. In memoirs, ’emotional truth’ is more important than ‘factual truth’. Understand the difference.
  13. For many people, the one book they have inside of them is a memoir.
  14. Readers don’t connect with whining. Be substantive.
  15. You are the protagonist in your memoir, what William Zinnser calls the ‘tour guide’.
  16. Be honest. Don’t sugar coat, don’t tweak. Represent your memories honestly, in the raw. See what comes out.
  17. Know how to tell a story. Don’t include the boring stuff readers will skip. Only include the meat.
  18. Pearlsong Press’s Linda Wisniewski suggests using props to jog your memories.

What do you suggest? What works best for you when writing a memoir?

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blog, IMS tech expert, and a monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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18 thoughts on “18 Tips for Memoir Authors

  1. Interesting list. I’ve been jotting down thoughts and memories for a memoir I plan to right, and was spending too much time trying to remember “factual” details from my childhood. I need to remember that a memoir is how I remember it, and perhaps not exactly the way it was.

    • Oh, my word….**write – not right.

    • I didn’t know that until I started researching for this article. That is interesting, innit. Too bad my life is really quite boring and not suited to memoir!

      • My life has been…different. 😉 The memoir will be titled “Life on the Funny Farm” or something of that nature. My stepmom has a 32 bed residential home for mentally ill and developmentally disbled people. From the time I was five, we lived upstairs, and shared common spaces with the residents. My stepmom is also quite a character and added to the crazy.

        • That is fascinating. That’s the ideas of memoirs–your take on amazing events. I’d love to read that. I love exploring the brain. I have a theory that many people aren’t ‘developmentally disabled’, rather unique in their approach to the world. I bet your stories would bear that out.

  2. Thanks for the clarification I know now I would be writing a memoir instead of an autobiography. 🙂

  3. Very helpful article, thanks. As I share my own writing process for my first book with my family, I keep pointing them to phrases like “the best I can remember” and “as I recall.”

    I think engaging dialogue is also a very important element of memoirs, especially here in the South, the breeding ground for my memoirs.

  4. Jacqui, you are such a busy bee, making all these helpful lists. I tend to bookmark a lot and am surprised and pleased at the number of lists I’ve accumulated. Thank YOU. 🙂

    • Aren’t you nice? I got intrigued by the differences in genres–writing for them. My writer’s group kept disagreeing with my comments–“that’s not how we do it in yadda genre”–so I decided to research.

      And here I am!

      Like you, I love lists.

  5. Well, now… I think my unauthorized autobiography would turn out much better as an unauthorized memoir. Thanks for getting me thinking about it in this way!

  6. Excellent article, Jacqui. I hope it bears sweet fruit for those who are writing memoir or autobiography. Authorized or un!

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