How to Write a Memoir

July 26, 2016
July 26, 2016 Theo Brainin

How to Write a Memoir

First-things-first, let’s establish precisely what a memoir actually is. It is not an autobiography. An autobiography is an account of someones life written by that person. So what exactly is a memoir? Well, memoirs are personal accounts of specific memories or stories from your life; it is not a record of your entire existence. One: that would be pretty much impossible to write down, and two: that would probably be a rather boring read. Learn more about the difference between a memoir and an autobiography (What’s the Difference Between a Memoir and an Autobiography?

Memoirs, like autobiographies and biographies, are not reserved solely for the famous. No, anyone can write a memoir or series of memoirs; after all, celebs are not the only people with stories to tell. Many of the best stories come from the everyday; John Green’s The Fault in our Stars, Peter Benchley’s Jaws and even Robert Bloch’s Psycho are all based on real-life events. Now if those stories aren’t worth writing down, then I don’t know what are.

So, what is it that can convince you of the importance of transferring your memories to paper? Well, simply put, because people want to know. Family, friends, complete strangers. Somebody, somewhere will want to hear your story, so why deprive them of that? As storyteller-meets-businessman, Michael Margolis, says: “The stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the world, you need to change your story.”

Well, now you’ve been convinced of the importance of recording your stories. You’ll need to know just how exactly to begin writing a memoir, so here are a few steps to help you on your way.

Where to start writing your memoir

Before starting your memoir, it is important to remember that it is not necessarily your whole life story. So you do not have to begin with: “From the age of five…” It is your memoir so it can begin wherever you like. Provided you give some small amount of context, e.g. how old you were and where you were living etc., you can begin anywhere. Remember, it’s a memoir not an autobiography, so each memory should be a mini story unto itself. Gone off on a tangent? Start a new memoir; create a series.

The story

Now, this is the section that I’m probably the least helpful. No one can tell you what to write about, it’s all down to subjective significance. Personally, I would think about one of the most significant times in your life or a particularly significant event that occurred and focus on that.

There may be really obvious events, like marriages or the birth of your first child for example, that you may feel pressured or obliged to write about. However, remember, this is a personal account of something you feel is worth writing about, no one is going to judge you if you don’t think the birth of your child is significant… No, but really, it does need to be something you want to write about. Remember if you’re getting bored writing it, chances are we’ll get bored reading it. (So save the births for your autobiography).

Write it all down

Next, although you don’t have to be a bestselling author, a bit of artistic license never goes amiss. Just because you are writing about true events does not mean the narrative needs to be dry and dull. Description is key, you need to convey everything that you experience when you recount the memory in your mind, so this means more than just listing events. Include all the senses: what could you hear? Smell? What did you feel?

Another important aspect of writing a good memoir is researching around the context of your story. For example, if your story begins at the age of 18 in your old family home, perhaps consider:

– who might have lived there before you?

– why did your parents move there?

– what were the expectations like for a typical 18 year old at the time?

These are all things that will help the reader better understand the context in which your story took place as well as possibly providing explanations for aspects within the events.

You are the only person who experienced the memory you are writing about. So do it justice and give as much detail as possible. Make the reader feel as if it could even be one of their own memories. That is the key to a powerful memoir.

The tone of your memoir

Whilst writing any kind of narrative, it is often easy to switch between tones as you progress, which can effect the consistency of a piece. Therefore, it is important to choose a writing style and tense and stick to it. For example: if you begin writing in third-person then suddenly start referring to yourself as ‘I’, it can get a little confusing and makes for a muddled piece. Equally if you begin using lengthy, detailed complex sentences then suddenly switch to short, choppy statements with no explanation that will effect the readability of the memoir.

This being said, it can actually aid the overall feel and depth of the piece by altering the tone, in some cases. Only if done clearly and appropriately though. One of the most effective occasions to implement the changing of tense, for example, is at the very beginning and end of the memoir. Reflection, can serve as both an artistic device as well as a practical device that allows the reader to understand more about you and your feelings towards the story both at the time and in hindsight. It also simultaneously serves to break up the narrative into clear sections and provides a good structure to your memoir.


Now, for the nuts and bolts behind creating your memoir. Any good storyteller will know that the key to writing a good, succinct tale is planning. You need to be aware that there is no strict, definitive template to writing out a plan, but even a quick list of bullet-points will help get your thoughts in order.

When working on a memoir specifically, the most useful type of plan would be some form of timeline. A dated list of events, outlining what happened at what time and what occurred in relation to other events. Remember, you do not need to relay your entire life story by going through a day-by-day account of everything that’s ever happened to you. Just provide a bit of context and stick to the good bits.

Once you’ve devised your list of events, it may be worth identifying if there are any significant distinctions between them. For example, if a year goes past between one event and the next, that would be a good time to start a new section or chapter of the memoir. As readability is also an important factor to consider when writing a memoir, breaking up the text and tilting the chapters will not only make for a better structure, but could also aid your recalling of events that you may have overlooked when writing the broader, initial plan.

The Framework:

Infographic by Story Terrace on how to write a memoir. Step-by-step guide on the process of memoir writing with useful tips and pointers for those wanting a How To style guide to writing your own memoirs.

So, to recap, here is the framework overview to starting your memoir:

  • Select a story you wish to tell
  • Devise a quick timeline of events you want to cover
  • Divide events in subsections and/or chapters
  • Add mini lists of events and details to each section
  • Conduct some contextual research
  • Think about how and at what point in time you want to begin your memoir
  • Choose a writing style (and stick to it)

Now, it’s over to you. We’ve provided the steps now it’s your turn; put pen to paper and start writing!

For more information on life stories and how they can also be used in creative writing, check out Kayla Dean’s: How to Enrich your Writing with your Experiences

Written by Amber Hicks