Memoirs are more than just stories about a period of time in a person’s life. They’re tales of perseverance, showing readers that you can overcome adversity with strength and will. They’re tales of self-awareness, of breaking toxic patterns and learning from your own mistakes to become a better person. They’re tales of affection, often serving as love letters to the people in our lives that make us happier and better people. They’re even tales of a better future, allowing readers to learn from your story and make more informed and healthier decisions in their own lives. There are many layers to a reader’s relationship with a good memoir. How do you make sure you’re giving the memoir audience all of the inspiration, perseverance, and emotion they could want from your book?
Believe it or not, painting yourself as the unabashed hero of your own story will make you very unlikeable to readers. They know you’re the author, so they’ll be going into reading your book with the thought that perhaps your story could be a little biased. You’ll want to cut off that thought as quickly as possible if you want your story to feel believable to your readers. In addition, people have a much easier time empathizing with people who can admit their mistakes and learn from them. As much as you may be tempted to do otherwise, do not embellish or alter the facts to try to make yourself appear more likable. You’ll be robbing your readers of the chance to learn from you and, trust us, they won’t thank you for it.
2) Include more than just your story
Although a memoir focuses on a specific portion of your life that affected or changed you in a way readers could learn from- it’s not all about you. If your memoir feels like a bad first date where the person can’t shut up about themselves, your readers are going to fake an emergency to escape your ego. Instead of solely focusing on how you were feeling from moment to moment during this time of your life, make sure you’re also including the motivations of the people around you. If those people are still part of your life (once you’ve got your Outline done), interview them about the specific scenes in which they’re included. Perhaps they remember things differently than you, this may either help jog your memory or allow you to include a present voice that would give your memoir an interesting layer.
Make sure you remember that, ultimately, your readers want to learn from your experience- that’s why they’re reading your book. So instead of focusing on yourself, focus on what lessons you can impart to your readers.
3) Write In-Scene
As we’ve stated previously, you’ll need to employ the techniques of fiction writers to tell your story effectively. If people wanted a distant third-person narrative of your life, they would be looking for your autobiography (which you’d likely only write if you were a celebrity or for a family legacy). Memoir readers want a scene-by-scene close account of your story. They want specific dialogue, flashbacks, character arcs, emotion, etc. If this isn’t your strong suit, it may be prudent to take some Fiction Workshop classes to brush up on your scene writing or to work with a Writing Coach. Fiction writing may hold no interest for you, but brushing up on basic scene-writing technique is crucial for writing a memoir that will hold your reader’s interest.
4) Clear Character Motivation
Going along with our second point, make sure you understand every character’s motivation clearly when you go into writing the story. You don’t have to include the motivation of each character in every scene, but having that awareness will allow you to write them as real well-rounded characters rather than simply secondary characters in your story. The more real everyone feels, the more believable your story is and the more your readers will engage and learn from it. If you no longer speak to some of the people that appear during the period of your life in which your story takes place, try to imagine what their motivation may have been. If you paint some of the characters as simply “being a jerk”, not only is that not motivation but that character (and you by extension) will feel less real to your readers.
5) Did your ending happen yet?
Before you go into writing your memoir, consider whether you’re ready to write it yet. How does your story end? What did you learn from this period of your life? Does it feel well-rounded and complete when you outline it? Readers can smell a revenge book from a mile away and, trust us, they have absolutely no interest in reading one. If you’re still in the thick of healing or overcoming from the period of your life in which you’re focusing, perhaps your story isn’t finished yet. And, if you go into writing it when it’s not finished, your voice will feel biased and memoir readers won’t be as engaged with your work.