How to Start Your Memoir
Brené Brown, known for her groundbreaking research on vulnerability, shame, courage, and authenticity, says that our happiness depends on our willingness to make ourselves vulnerable. By this definition, memoir writers must be very happy people.
Of course, getting vulnerable on the page can be a scary endeavor for most people and getting started is perhaps the scariest part of all, even for successful writers like Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild.
“When it comes to getting to work, my trick is to conjure my inner-nun-with-a-ruler-in-hand and simply force myself to begin,” Cheryl said in an interview. “Beginning is about three-quarters of the battle for me. Once I’m into the work, it’s so much more interesting than anything happening on Facebook.”
Know Your Genre
Memoir is a collection of your personal knowledge or a story from a section of your life. It’s not an autobiography spanning your entire life and it’s not a biography, which is a story about your life written by someone else.
A memoir takes a look at a particular time, place, person, or topic that has influenced your life. It's written in your voice and from your point of view.
Some famous memoirs include Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, where she writes about her life after the death of her husband; Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, detailing his life as an expat writer in Paris in the 1920s with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald; and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, about her life as a young woman dealing with racism.
Before you start writing, take the time to savor a few great memoirs and notice what you like most about them. Let other writers’ stories inspire you.
Notice that these published works rarely start at the beginning and follow a chronological order. They tend to take the best stories and weave them together to take the reader on a journey.
Writers call this technique "developing your hook." You want to immediately grab your readers’ attention by making a promise, asking a question, or revealing a truth. Find a way to say something that will get the reader curious.
Kurt Vonnegut described the process of writing as learning to “be a good date for the reader,” but you can also call this developing a relationship with your audience.
One way you can start to find your hook is by answering the basic questions of storytelling. Write down the answers to these questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
Memoir writing is a very personal kind of endeavor, so give yourself some time to figure out what part of your story you’d like to share and what makes it most interesting to you. Then, think about how you would tell that story to your best friend.
Start a Writing Practice
Once you’ve explored your topic and idea, it’s time to start writing. Try to find a rhythm or routine for your writing. Maybe you get up and write first thing in the morning for 30 minutes each day. Maybe you sneak writing time in during your lunch break or late at night.
Different writers have different methods for their writing practice. Some write every day while others develop a routine with writing days and writing days off.
As you give yourself time and space to write, you will learn more about your topic, the things you want to say, and what routine works best for you.
“When I sit down to write—not an easy place to get to—I feel all my energies and abilities come into one focus, one laser point—I feel like a bird, pausing in midair, then plummeting down into the waves, intent on that one fish that will save it,” writes Marta Szabo, codirector of Authentic Writing, on her blog. “I write, then come up for air, then look at what I have unearthed.”
If you find yourself sitting down to write with nothing to say, start with a prompt. Pretend you are writing in your journal and start with a question or an idea, such as, “My mother or father used to always say,” or, “What's the most important moment of my life?”
While you are in the writing phase, allow your thoughts and ideas to flow freely. You can always edit later.
“When writing, I don’t think about anyone, such as my parents, reading it, because I need to write freely and allow the thoughts, feelings, and images to emerge,” author Frances Lefkowitz writes on her blog. “Censorship in any form—including self-censorship that comes from a fear of hurting someone—hampers the creative process.”
Remember to be gentle with yourself throughout the process. The best way to improve your writing is through practice.