How to Write a Memoir

We’ve had a lot of interest in our workshops recently in memoir writing.  Because of the well known memoir-related scandals in years past (think James Frey, Margaret Jones, Greg Mortenson), some publishers either have shied away from such works, or demand a lot of documentary evidence that the episodes described actually happened.  Still, there’s a market for the unique and fascinating memoir, and it can be among the most natural first works for new authors to tackle.  One pitfall many writers run into, however, is in deciding which life events to describe, and which ones to leave out.  Some writers don’t leave anything out — and that’s a problem, because what’s fascinating to the memoirist may not be all that interesting to a third-party reader.  Moreover, too much information can lead to a meandering narrative and diminish the punch that the writer aims to deliver at the end of each respective chapter.  A memoir, in structure, ought to somewhat resemble a novel — there needs to be a narrative arc, characterization must be developed, the reader should get hooked early in the story, tension and suspense must not be dissipated, and you’ve got to communicate a sense of emotional depth.  Not everything that happened to the memoirist will contribute to a successful memoir, from a literary point of view.  Therefore, it’s important to recognize what to include, what to reduce, and how to arrange all the pieces of your experience to share with readers what we all want from a good book — universal truths to which we all can relate.