Updated: Sep 19, 2020
My husband and I wrote a memoir about a year ago, and it was a terrifying, liberating, enlightening process. There is no sense of vulnerability quite like baring your deepest secrets for the world to read, but there is also such a sense of fulfillment in receiving messages from readers declaring, “Me too,” and “I thought I was the only one!” In our case, my husband and I chose to share the story of how our loveless, dismal marriage transformed into something beautiful, and it has been an immense joy to share with others in unhappy marriages this simple message: You are not alone.
Are you thinking about writing a memoir? (If not, it might be worth considering!) While we were writing, my husband and received several well-meant warnings from acquaintances who were unsettled by our plan to reveal intimate details of our marriage, and at times I feared that exposing our failings in such a public way might bring judgment from others. However, our actual experience with writing and publishing a memoir has been overwhelmingly positive. We have received so many messages from people whom our memoir touched in some way, or who have newfound hope in seeing a success story come out of a despairing situation very similar to their own. Since our whole reason for writing the memoir was to glorify God by sharing what He did for us and in the process hopefully help others, we consider this a resounding success.
Though I am by no means a memoir expert, here are some things I learned from this experience:
1. Be authentic.
A story without conflict and challenges loses all its impact, so what do you when maybe those challenges don’t paint you in such a great light? A memoir is all about telling your story, your true story, and all stories include both good and bad. You can choose which sections of your experiences to focus on, but be authentic. Don’t hide important details just to paint yourself only in a positive light. If you are honest about your darkest moments, your readers will feel the triumph with you whenever you rise to your best. If you are truly concerned about some darker details, particularly if they involve or expose others, you can always choose to talk about them anonymously or generically, or to mention them only briefly. There is a good chance that your readers can relate to your struggles or mistakes, and your memoir will have far more opportunity to connect deeply with them if you share authentically about your true experiences.
2. Write from the heart.
When you first start recounting past experiences, it can be a difficult process. But if you lean into that process, eventually there will come a moment when you inhabit your memories vividly and the words begin to flow out full of raw emotion. When this happens, my advice is to go with it. Like the creative flow of fiction writers, this is a tide you want to get swept up in, as some of your greatest writing can come from it. Set aside any concerns for format, grammar, etc., and your thoughts flow out on the paper. Yes, it might be rough, but if you can capture the rush of thoughts, you can save this draft and worry about editing it another time. Trying to come up with the perfect phrase or polished wording in this initial draft can break the flow of your memories and disrupt the focus of your story. Write from the heart, and come back and edit it with the brain later.
3. Re-read and look for patterns.
All stories work best when they possess coherence, a sense that all the elements of a story connect into one unit. Coherence can make a story very satisfying for the reader; however, a memoir is a re-telling of memories, and memories don’t always come forth sequentially or even logically. With a careful re-read, you can identify gaps in your narrative or places that you might need to expand, as well as parts that might not be relevant to the primary focus of your story. Most importantly, re-reading gives you the chance to figure out what your story is really about, which, surprisingly, is not always clear before you actually write it. This is your story’s theme. In our case, reading through our narrative made it abundantly clear that our story was really about hope. Statements of hope and messages of hope were woven throughout our entire story, even though we told it from two different points of view. Once we realized that this was our story’s theme, it was far easier to decide which elements of the story had the potential to support that theme if we just included more detail, and which elements might go off on a tangent and would be better saved for a sequel. In this way, we were able to make our story the best version of itself by drawing out the already-present connections in our narratives. When you re-read your story, look for messages that repeat or details or events that all seem to connect back to a similar idea or feeling. This message, idea, or feeling is your theme. Think of it as a rope that connects all the important pieces of your story. While some sections of your story may be close up to the rope and others may be dangling farther from it, they should all be connected to it in some way. Anything that is floating with no connection to this rope might be a good candidate for deletion, and anything that feels like it should connect but doesn’t is a sign that your story is missing some connecting pieces, perhaps events or internal thought-processes that you didn’t remember right away. While you don’t have to cut everything not directly related to your theme, if your reader can see how your story’s narrative communicates an overall idea, you will have a solid spine supporting your memoir.
4. Use beta readers.
Beta readers are people who have volunteered to be the first group of eyes on your completed story and provide feedback. These readers are extremely valuable to the writing process, as they are your first chance to find out how your story comes across to others. For the memoir, I suggest choosing a mixed group of readers, some who know the details of your story and some who don’t yet, so that you can get a balanced perspective on whether your story rings true to those who witnessed parts of it and whether it makes sense to people learning it for the first time. Family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and social media contacts are all good potential readers. The primary criteria I use in selecting my beta readers are that I trust them not to share the story before it’s published, I respect them and value their feedback, and – most importantly – they are willing to actually read it and get back to me. If they’re able to do so quickly, all the better!
5. Get a good editor.
Since memoirs are so personal, there’s a good chance of the writer being too close to the story to objectively see how it reads. It can be easy to get caught up in the emotion of a memory, the rhythm of a certain phrase, or details that impacted you heavily, but not all of those memories, phrases, or details necessarily communicate the same emotions to the reader. In fact, some might even detract from your story or lead the reader off into confusion. A good editor will catch anything your beta readers may have missed, and will also polish up the language and grammar, etc., so that nothing distracts from the true value of your memoir, which is the impact of an individual human experience – and what we can all learn from it – as related through your unique story.
Memoir-writing is not for the faint of heart, but it can be immensely rewarding, both as a cathartic exercise and in its potential to connect with others. If you have come through a trying experience, undergone unusual circumstances, or even if your experiences have been decidedly “normal” but you have learned something valuable from them, writing a memoir might be a great endeavor for you… and hopefully these 5 tips will help you in the writing process.