I have 500 words to tell you everything I know about writing a good memoir. Here goes—these are my Cliff’s Notes learned the hard way over the course of writing eight memoirs (one for me and seven with other people).
1. A good memoir requires GREAT writing. There is no shortcut. Study up, learn from the best, and have wise and experienced people critique your work. Try, soak in the responses, revise and try again.
2. Read a bunch of other books similar to the kind of memoir you want to write. You know your own story inside and out, but you might not know how other memoirists tell great stories. Look inside their bag of tricks—where do they speed up and leave things out? Where do they slow down and evoke intricate detail? Do they turn hard stuff into humor? How do they let you cry a bit before whisking you away again in a flurry of action? How do they handle family situations, perhaps hiding or changing identities of family members or friends to preserve privacy? (Hint: writers will often mention this somewhere in the book, or in an interview. Mary Karr talks about this issue in several interviews and podcasts.)
3. Build in twists, turns and surprises. A memoir resembles a novel more than any other form of nonfiction. It might not be a bad idea to take some classes and workshops on writing fiction. Read great novels and pick apart the plots. You will need one for your memoir.
4. Create a cast of characters. Your memoir is not just about one person, because no one lives in a vacuum. Who are the main person’s people? Let’s see them interacting. (And when your memoir gets optioned as a movie, you need a strong group of characters to rope in lots of great actors.)
5. Speaking of characters, make them complex. The people in your memoir, including yourself, are complex and have good and bad sides. Especially the villains! Every villain and every hero has reasons for why they do what they do, and those reasons make perfect sense … to them.
6. Beginnings and endings are the hardest. It’s likely you will try out, and discard, several ideas for these very important parts of your memoir. When you get a beginning and an ending you like, try them out on real readers (not your mom or best friend or even other writers).
7. Experience as many of the story elements as you can in real time again (or for the first time). Go out and climb a mountain, volunteer in a Haitian orphanage, or visit the crystal clear spring-fed river where your grandmother grew up. You need sights and sounds and scents and feels to make your story come alive. Don’t cheat—invest time, energy, and money into primary experiences and sources. If you can’t get there, interview people who were.
8. Develop two climaxes. Most readers like some sort of three-act structure, with the story building to a climax where the stakes are high. I’ve learned to craft two climactic moments in a story. The first is a plot climax, which seems like the high point. Then I surprise them with the real climax, the emotional one. It’s an epiphany, or an aha moment.
9. Don’t talk down to your reader. Tell the story without repeating, explaining, or drawing obvious conclusions. Don’t preach or go back with your adult voice and explain what you were thinking as a kid. This destroys the imaginative world you are inviting your reader into. Readers are smart.
10. Air your dirty laundry, but know when to stop. No one wants to read a personal story that is dry and boring. You must be painfully honest, so get personal. However, no one likes a revenge memoir (readers can sniff this a mile away), and no one (who is healthy and well-balanced) likes to read in detail about gross bodily functions or torture of people or animals. Listen to beta readers on this. You don’t want anyone throwing your book across the room in disgust. Don’t abuse your reader’s trust. After all, you’re inside their head and heart, sharing your story. It’s a privileged place to be, a true secret garden that only few have access to.
My Top 5 Favorite Memoirs
- Girl Meets God, by Lauren Winner. A very, very smart Orthodox Jewish woman is pursued by Jesus.
- Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt. Funny and sad and very, very memorable. Read it, then listen to the author tell the story in his Irish brogue in the audiobook.
- A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel. Written in a very distinctive voice. There is a chapter in this book that still makes me laugh out loud every time I think of it.
- Soul Survivor, by Philip Yancey. A coming-of-age story about returning to the faith of his childhood, told through the lens of Yancey’s 13 heroes of the faith. I used this book as a template for my own memoir, So Long Status Quo. I wrote Yancey and told him. He wrote me back!
- Lit, by Mary Karr. Intricate details and stark honesty make this story both funny and heartbreaking and very alive. Mary’s both a brilliant poet and a small town rough-and-tumble Texan; her memoirs reflect this tension and reflect a complicated, and fascinating story about love, faith and alcohol.
Want more tips on Writing Memoir?
Check out the podcast where Kathi and Michele interview Susy to get all the best tips of how to write a memoir and what not to do! Click here to hear that episode.
Susy Flory is the New York Times bestselling author or co-author of eleven books. Her newest book, out in 2017, is an astronaut memoir with the only man ever to fly in space and climb Mount Everest. Susy directs the West Coast Christian Writers Conference, scheduled for Feb 17-18, 2017, in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find out more about Susy at www.susyflory.com.