Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Memoirs - Reading Them and Writing Them

When I first got interested in writing a memoir, I started reading a lot of them, and in doing so I discovered that there’s a lot of similarities between a memoir and a novel of real life. In both, the writer is relating incidents and experiences that shaped a life, and each has to be written in a way that totally immerses the reader in the story.

I came to that realization when I read The GlassCastle by Jeannette Walls, followed by Half Broke Horses, which is a book about her grandmother’s life. One is a memoir, the other is a novel of real life. It actually has the subtitle of A True-Life Novel.

They both are compelling stories, and I loved reading them some years ago when I was just starting to write Evelyn Evolving, the story of my mother’s life. When I finished Half Broke Horses, I realized that I could follow the author’s example and write the story of my mother's life as a true life novel and then later write my memoir.

As I mentioned here last month, writing my mother’s story was relatively easy compared to my attempts to write my memoir, which is still a work in disarray. I’d say progress, WIP, but at times it hardly feels that way. And I must say that the writing of Evelyn Evolving was aided in great part by working with Kathryn Craft, a developmental editor and former member of the BRP team. With her guidance and objective POV, I was able to move from biography to novel.

After reading those books by Jeannette Walls I've gone on to read a number of other memoirs in my attempt to figure out what style and form mine might take. When moving into uncharted waters it’s always good to find a few maps to consult. Writing in a new genre is much the same.

If you’re considering writing your memoir, I highly recommend that you also read as many as you can to get a sense of how they’re written. The most important element of a compelling memoir, besides having a theme that is relatable, is how enjoyable the story is. The best memoirs that I've read are so much like fiction that the line blurs between real person and made-up character.

The most recent example of that is a book I just finished reading, Omaha to Ogallala by Terry Korth Fischer. I was only a few chapters in when I forgot I was reading a memoir and not a novel with pretend people making that trip across Nebraska. (I recently posted a review ofthe book on my personal blog.)

While you’re reading memoirs, I suggest that, in addition to considering style, you look for the theme of each book. Theme is very important in a good memoir, and recognizing it in other works will help you define yours. What is the reader going to take away from the story? What is the message? Where is the lesson, the inspiration?

Cherry by Mary Karr is a memoir of self-discovery with a rather bawdy look at sexuality in the 70s. Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey is also a book about self-discovery, with lessons learned about being a man from his father.

In The Glass Castle, Walls addresses the theme of siblings taking care of each other when parents have failed them. It is a story of resilience. In Omaha to Ogallala Terry Korth Fisher has a theme of one sister’s attempt to bring more closeness to her family by way of a week-long vacation together.

In fiction, one writes toward the conclusion of the story. For a romance, that will be the happy-ever-after. For a mystery, it’s the crime solved and the culprit paying the price. In fantasy, the hero, or heroine, successfully defends the kingdom against the threats of evil people or creatures. Every plot element, and scene, has to somehow move the story toward that end.

For memoirs, one writes toward theme. Every scene has to address that theme or it is unnecessary. After I figured that out, I realized that one of my favorite stories about myself, how broccoli saved my life, may not fit in the finished version of my memoir. Too bad, I loved that chapter.

Which is one more truth I’ve learned about memoir writing. Nobody cares if you love it. Will the reader love it?

Have you read a good memoir you'd like to recommend? After reading some of the posts this month here, are you considering writing one? Do let us know in the comments.

Award-winning author Maryann Miller has numerous credits as a columnist, novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. She also has an extensive background in editing. You can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Page read her Blog, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter


  1. They made The Glass Castle into a movie, with Woody Harrelson as the father. By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed and reviewed Evelyn Evolving. Good job. A memoir isn't in my future, but I admire anyone who can put it all together to write one.

    1. I'll have to check out the movie. I wasn't aware that the book had been made into a film. And thanks for the terrific review of my book. I treasure the kind words.

  2. There are many flavors of memoir. Most beginning writers need to know the difference between autobiography and memoir.

    1. So true about the differences. When you switch to any new genre, there can sometimes be a learning curve to get comfortable in the new genre.

  3. Although I've never read a memoir or felt a desire to write one, I found this post both interesting and informative. While it won't likely inspire me to pen one, it definitely inspires me to read some. Several of the ones you listed intrigue me and have found their way to my to-read list. Thank you for sharing, Maryann.

    1. Glad you found the post helpful, Linda. I think you'll enjoy reading memoirs, especially the good ones that read so effortlessly like a good novel.


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