When you commit to writing a memoir, total honesty basically comes with the territory — whether you’re sharing a transformative experience, making a bold confession, or simply filling in some gaps for later generations within your family, your readers will expect the truth. Thanks to the reality that human memory isn’t only faulty, but also transformed with introspection, however, the best a memoir writer can offer is their own perspective.
That is exactly why penning a memoir is such a great creative writing exercise. You get a solid framework to start off with when you decide to try your hand at memoir writing — the experiences you’re writing about have already happened, after all, and can therefore not be changed. At the same time, you have almost complete creative freedom in deciding how to share your story.
Are you excited about writing your memoir, but also a little scared? Here are some tips to get you started with your very own memoir.
Experiment with your narrative structure
Unlike autobiographies, memoirs absolutely don’t have to follow a chronological order — and in fact, by making that choice, you could risk boring your readers.
You might decide to start your story off smack-dab in the middle of the timeline you are are covering (“in media res”), during a particularly suspenseful event, or right at the end. Once you’ve magnetized the audience, you can then reset the clock to a much earlier time period to paint a picture of how you ended up there. You can choose to switch between past and present tenses as you share how you’ve grown your their experiences. People, events, places, or even feelings could be the backbone of your chapters.
Only you can tell your story, so it’s only fair that you get all the power, too. What are you truly aching to get off your chest? That might just be your best place to start your memoir.
Make a sensory mind map
“Show, don’t tell” is the motto of creative writers everywhere — but we all know that can be easier said than done! Once you know what period of life you are going to cover in your memoir, it can be helpful to take make a mind map of all the crucial experiences you’re including, and then to jot down any sensory details that emerge as you time-travel in your mind. Was it raining? What did that smell like? What did the creases on your mother’s forehead look like? How did your t-shirt feel? Was it loose or tight, and scratchy or soft? How did you feel about the faded wallpaper? What movie was playing in the background?
You might take these small details for granted, but they can truly make your world come to life for your readers. Not sure how to get started? Playing music from the time period you are now reliving, or looking at old pictures of yourself, might trigger some memories.
Find your unique voice
Creative writers often feel pressured to “beautify” their writing by making it as flowering and complex as possible. In memoir writing more than anywhere else, that’s a bad idea — your memoir is yours, and your readers should be able to feel that throughout. Try to write as you would have spoken during the years in which your memoir is set, or as you do now. If you’re not sure whether you are on the right track, read back over your work and see if you can recognize yourself in your writing.
Imagine your ideal audience
People write memoirs for all sorts of reasons — some intend to publish from the get-go, some only want to share their story with their immediate family, or even one specific person, and others embark on memoir writing only to hone their creative writing skills. No matter which category you fall into, imagine your perfect reader. If you’re writing for your granddaughter or even your younger self, your story will probably sound different than if you’re writing for millions of strangers on Amazon. The more intimate your writing is, the easier it will be to draw your readers in and make them feel as if they were almost there. And remember, if you’re struggling, you can always sign up for a free (or paid, if you’re up for it) creative writing class.