Writing a memoir is a creatively challenging experience, even for the most experienced of writers. It is creative nonfiction at its finest—a story carved from out of lived experience and shaped to tell an engaging, important story. It’s often a story drawn out of a situation, like Kimberly Rae Miller’s Coming Clean, about growing up with two extreme hoarders, or James McBride’s Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.
A good memoir has universality while being truthfully original. A good memoir is novelistic, with an unfolding story line, or plot, and scenes intermixed with narrative. The people in a memoir are referred to as characters, and characters are developed like in a novel, through narrative (description) and scenes (action and dialog set in location).
Different from fiction, memoir is a true story, it is your story, not the story of someone you know or characters you have created for the page. Memoir asks for your reflections, your insights, even your opinions can have a place. Your point of view is accepted and implied in the genre, there’s no need to take the role of a detached narrator reporting on events. Readers want the intimacy memoir offers. They read memoir for that up-close insider’s view.
And readers learn from memoirs. The universality readers can find in a memoir speaks to what they can relate to and learn from. An example: I’m not a mother, I didn’t go to an Ivy League college, I wasn’t raised Mormon. Yet I was riveted by Martha Beck’s memoir Expecting Adam. Her humor had me laughing, her insights and tendernesses made me tearful, the suspense she set in motion kept me on edge. The book is about the author’s experience carrying a Down syndrome baby and what that was like for her as a graduate student at Harvard raised to be a perfectionist. I picked up the book for that reason. I’m interested in how people manage when they’re faced with unexpected and unsettling challenges. I learn from that. And if I can laugh and cry and have a good time along the way it’s even better.
Memoir is not journaling. Memoir is not a feelings dump. Memoir is not a place to vent anger, air wounds, ask for pity, get revenge. Memoir is a journey story, a story from out of a life, a story with an identifiable shape from beginning to end. Memoir is often a growth journey—the protagonist (you, the author) is different in some way at the end than she was at the start. That journey is called the narrative arc, or the growth arc. It’s not always about a happy ending, but it’s always about an evolution, a new and often desired point has been reached by the end of the story.
But what about a coming of age story, you might ask. In a coming of age memoir, the author’s evolution is natural, the growth comes with the territory. The protagonist has gone from child to adult in the passage of time. In a good coming of age memoir, however, there is a question or concern presented early on, one that will be addressed in the story and answered or resolved by the end of the book.
Some memoirs focus on a discreet time period: three months, like in Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, or a year in Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Inside of that fixed time period—the “real time of the story”—the author’s personal transformation happens along both that linear continuum, from Point A to Point B, and by moving forward and back through time with the use of flashback and memory and future and conditional tenses. This style of memoir is called a “framed” memoir. There are other styles of memoir. The “braided” style is also popular, with past and present alternating in chapters and even sometimes within chapters. But something all styles of memoir have in common is the growth journey they tell.
In Wild, did Cheryl Strayed simply get to the end of her planned hike on the Pacific Crest Trail after three months (Point A to Point B)? No. She made peace with important relationships in her life on that solo journey she made with a backpack and hiking boots. She forgave herself for what she’d done in her marriage and after it, she faced her sorrow over her mother’s death and integrated it instead of running from it. (I’m reminded of a saying here, The only way out of the desert is through it.) And she walked, at last in her own shoes. Those shoes had become threadbare after all those miles walked and she tossed them, torn and ragged, over a mountainside before her trip ended. She walked barefoot for a time after that, in pain but triumphant.
Now, I’ll never take a three-month solo hike anywhere, but I enjoyed—and benefitted from—every minute of Cheryl’s brave journey.
Find the story in your experience and start from there. Look for the central story in it. Identify the theme or themes running through it. Ask yourself what readers could learn from your story, what the takeaway could be. And when you can see you have a story—not just a situation—it’s time to get started on the journey of writing a memoir.
Suzanne Sherman is a writer, book coach, consultant, memoir instructor, and editor. She has specialized in memoir for twenty-five years. Her book Girlhood in America – Personal Stories 1910 – 2010 is a collection of first-person stories of young girlhood across 100 years (www.100yearsinthelife.com). Here are poignant, entertaining rare views from the days before electricity to the times girls led anti-bullying campaigns at school. Racism shows up in surprising and expected ways across the century and is interesting to track. Developments in culture and highlights from pop culture open the chapters, tracing an influential century. (www.suzannesherman.com)
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