Monday, March 2, 2009

The Story of Me: Tips on Memoir Writing

All people believe they have a story to tell, and most of the time, the story they have to tell is their own. Many people write their life’s story as a cathartic act, solely for self while others wish to publish their life story for the masses to read.

Today, memoirs are a big business; it seems everybody believes that his/her life story is worth telling and worth reading.

For those that are interested in writing a memoir, here are some general things to remember:

1) Writing your story may be a cathartic act, but remember, you’re writing for an audience – not yourself. This is very important. When writing our experiences for only our eyes [for that cathartic act], we tend to leave important things out (because we know the story), we write sloppily, we don’t write to entertain or inspire, we write to feel and hopefully, to move on. When you’re writing your story for readers, you have to look at your life almost through an omniscient third-person lens. You want to see any and everything so that you can pick the “right” parts for the memoir you plan to write, the parts that will draw a reader to you and your story. Readers may be looking to feel and to move on through problems, too, and it could be your words that enable them to do just that; how can you fashion your life in a way (not make it up – but organize and develop it) so that others can find catharsis, too?

2) Pick a point to develop. Though the definitions are murky in distinguishing between autobiographies and memoirs, I tend to define the two as such: autobiographies examine a person’s entire life; whereas, memoirs tend to examine a facet of a person’s life: how they found their faith, how they overcame poverty, the fabulous moments of their lives, etc. What is the purpose behind your memoir? You need to ask yourself this and be able to fully answer it. The answer will work as your purpose/point, and it will help you dictate what goes in your memoir and most importantly, what does not go in your memoir.

3) Stick to the point. If you have an angle to develop your memoir (#2), make sure that all stories written adhere to that point. It’s like I tell my English composition students: “All paragraphs must connect back to your thesis, or your essay is not cohesive.” Failure to connect the wonderful stories, people, places, etc. you develop to your memoir’s purpose will deflect from the book’s cohesion and the power to entertain and inspire readers.

4) Develop people, places, things, smells, songs, visual cues. Though the memoir is considered non-fiction, it does use most, if not all, the storytelling elements – plot, character, setting, dialogue, etc. When readers read fiction, they want to feel as if they are experiencing the characters’ issues. This is heightened even more in memoir because the characters are real. Don’t just tell us the name of your street – paint a picture of the neighborhood. Don’t just tell us that your tenth grade teacher inspired you to rise in your station in life – show us how the teacher actually did this. Your life is lived through events, moments, occasions, incidents – in essence, SCENES. Develop the scenes of your life to engage your reader.

5) Make sure YOUR character and personality shine through. If a writer is solely stating facts, no one will connect with the memoir or the writer. There still needs to be style, flair, your personality in the words you choose and how you choose to develop the stories you tell. The story has to be written in a way so that readers will think, “I know this person, and no one else could write this story but that person.”

Everybody’s life is important and deserves to be examined by the person living the life; however, not every life needs to be read by the world.

If you decide that your story is worth being read by the masses, think about the angles you can choose so that your story is unique, is fresh, is engaging, and can be appreciated and learned from.

Here are links to excellent books on the craft of memoir writing:





Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at The World According to ChickLitGurrl.

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  1. Very nice post, Shon. Always wondered about the difference between memoir and autobiography.

  2. Shon, do you belong to the "lifewriting" group, The Story Circle Network? Check it out at

    They have online chapters as well as guides for creating local live chapters. I'm in the yahoogroup and we're currently discussing Barbara Kingsolver's memoirish, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - there's an example of how memoir can move beyond the Self to inspire change in other lives.

    That said, even if we don't publish, our lifewriting is important!

    Nice post.


  3. You know, Dani, I heard of the group, but never checked them out; thanks for the url. I ADORE memoir and like talking to memoirists about what propels them to not only write but also to PUBLISH their stories.

    Thanks for the comments, ladies, :-)

  4. thanks very much for this. I've been struggling with these very issues and defending the need for a larger purpose than blurting the personal on She Writes. I feel like a cat with a long tail in a room full of rocking chairs. I blog at and have posted a fair bit of memoir there. Feel free to visit,but not obligated at all. all best --0 j

  5. I have been visiting various blogs for my Term Papers Writing research. I have found your blog to be quite useful. Keep updating your blog with valuable information... Regards


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.