Many people have lives that would make incredible stories, yet it can be difficult to figure out how to unpick that life and set it on the page. How do you write a memoir? And is memoir the only option?
In this article I will be walking you through different ways to write your life story and offering tips to help you get started and narrow your focus.
What Is A Memoir?
A memoir is a first-person account of someone’s nonfictional life story that uses the techniques and crafts of fiction to make it a page-turning read. The word comes from the French word for “memory” or “reminiscence.”
The promise to the reader is that whatever is inside is as true as the author can make it. Of course, writing your exact memories is challenging as very few of us have photographic memories. Readers will forgive small fictions, like writing out a conversation verbatim when you only remember the jist of what was said, but not larger ones.
There are plenty of examples of authors who made up memoirs. The best known one in recent years was James Frey in A Million Little Pieces. Readers felt betrayed and angry because the author had broken the pact and the promise. However, if you still want to use a kernel of the truth but not be beholden to it, read on to learn more about autofiction and other options.
Do Memoirs Sell?
Memoirs are incredibly popular, especially in the age of COVID. Some recent examples are the Obamas’ memoirs: A Promised Land was 2020’s bestselling book (2.4 million copies in one year alone) and Becoming was also an extraordinary bestseller (came out in 2018 and has sold 3.4 million as of the end of 2020). Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime (2016) provides an interesting and heart-breaking account of race in South Africa as he recounts his life with his signature humour.
I don’t know about you, but I am unlikely to ever become President of the United States and have people desperate to know my story. Luckily, people are also hungry for stories from people who haven’t brushed fame or become public figures. This is evidenced by memoirs such as Educated (2018) by Tara Westover. Her memoir’s about growing up as a fundamentalist Mormon and her quest for education—her first day of school was university at Brigham Young when she was a teenager. Maid (2019) by Stephanie Land is about an impoverished white woman cleaning the houses of the ultra-rich. The Glass Castle (2005) by Jeannette Walls, is about her eccentric, nomadic upbringing and her troubled father’s dream of a better life. Roxane Gay’s Hunger (2017) focuses on her relationship with food and her body, as informed by trauma. Many of these have also been adapted into TV shows or films, showcasing memoirs have massive crossover appeal.
Memoir Vs Autobiography (And Other Options)
Memoir is part of a spectrum from narrative nonfiction to fiction inspired by fact. You might realise, once you start working on your story, that there are gaps in knowledge that have been lost to time. Or perhaps you’d like to weave several generations together, which of course moves it away from your own lived, first-person experience.
Many people ask, ‘are memoirs nonfiction?’ The answer is yes…and no. Let’s take a look at how flexible written memories, and this genre, can be.
As we said, memoir aims to be true with small liberties. It rarely starts with your birth and tells the story in a straight As we said, memoir aims to be true with small liberties. It rarely starts with your birth and you telling the story in a straight line, ending with however old you are when you finish writing it. For example, Mary Karr has written three memoirs: The Liar’s Club (1995), which focuses mostly on her childhood, Cherry (2000), which focused more on her late adolescence and blooming sexuality, and Lit (2009), which focuses on her journey of faith and her divorce. Trying to focus on all three of those in one book would have been too much and they wouldn’t have had the space to be as hard-hitting. There is also nearly 15 years’ difference from the first memoir she wrote and the last—the memoir is a snapshot of the writer as much as the contents of the book, as the tone is affected by the author’s age and experience.
Autobiography, by contrast, does tend to be more linear. The author here functions more as a historian. It tends to be less intimate, more expansive. There’s less room to zoom in on certain moments and it can feel more of a summary of a life. This is useful if you want to know what, say, Benjamin Franklin, Malcom X, Nelson Mandela, or Agatha Christie thought about their own lives, but autobiographies are less common for people who aren’t public figures.
If you realise that there’s no way to tell the story in a compelling way while remaining fully married to truth, or the truth is unknowable, you may consider autofiction.
There has been a lot of discussion of the ethics of writing fiction based on truth, particularly if the subject has not been made aware (just fall down the rabbit hole of “Cat People” or “Kidneygate / The Bad Art Friend” to see discussions on this). Autofiction still focuses on yourself but gives the story the opportunity to come alive in a different way. You can even write it in third person, if you wish. You can change timelines more dramatically or add characters or subplots who are amalgamations or completely fictive. Because you haven’t promised it’s a straight memoir, readers are fine with this.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019) by Ocean Vuong is a great example of autofiction — the main character, Little Dog, is a Vietnamese refugee living in America, writing a letter to his illiterate mother he knows she will never read. Vuong is also a gay Vietnamese refugee, and his mother does not read English or Vietnamese. The story delves into his grandmother and mother’s stories in third person, as well as his own, yet crucially it’s sold as fiction and he doesn’t give us a detailed post-mortem of what is or isn’t true.
Other well-known autofiction authors include James Baldwin, Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk, Tao Lin, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and more. This is sometimes also called the autobiographical novel, with ‘novel’ signalling that it’s leaning heavily into the fictional side.
And to make things slightly more confusing, there’s also the term autobiografiction, which combines autobiography, fiction, and essay. Stephen Reynolds coined the term in 1906 and describes it as a “record of real spiritual experiences strung on a credible but more or less fictitious autobiographical narrative.” It’s often published anonymously or under a pseudonym, and many queer people used this form to express themselves in times of oppression. It’s not as common a term and tends to be lumped with autofiction: indeed, you could make an argument that Vuong’s book falls more into this category in some respects as there are essays within it.
So, now – the nitty gritty. How do you get started on your project based on truth?
Tips For Writing A Memoir (Or Autofiction)
Start Researching Now – And Beware The Skeletons
Even if you don’t think you’ll start writing your memoir for a while, start gathering information as soon as you can. Depending on the project: sign up for a trial of ancestry.com, interview your family members, start journaling about your memories, look up articles in newspapers.com, flip through photo albums or belongings, request court or other official documents.
It’s so easy for these things to become lost, or for us to tragically lose those close to us, taking their memories with them. You might also have to prepare yourself for more secrets potentially coming to light. You might need to have a discussion with how family members might feel about sharing the truth. Yvette Gentile and Rasha Pecoraro discovered this when they started properly digging into everything for their podcast Root of Evil: The True Story of the Hodel Family and the Black Dahlia (2019). The TV adaption I Am the Night (2019), starring Chris Pine, added an entirely fictive noir subplot to make it more dramatic on the screen.
What’s Your Promise To The Reader?
How fictional do you plan to be? You don’t necessarily need to know immediately but notice if you start to shift further away from the facts.
This happened with my current project: it focuses on three generations, so I knew it would always have an element of fiction since my grandmother died before I was born, so I can’t exactly ask her how she felt about any of the facts we know. My mother also wrote her sections and I edited over them, and we made-up certain details or massaged timelines so the scene was more evocative. Each draft has had it depart more from the truth and become its own entity. I felt conflicted about this before I realised that my goal is to use the truth as a jumping off point. I don’t actually owe the reader the truth; I owe them a good story. For me, it was more freeing, and I also knew I’d feel less exposed if the project is ever published.
This brings me to:
Check In With Your Mental Health
I barrelled right into my project, thinking I was ready. From a craft standpoint, I was – but not from a mental standpoint.
If you are still processing your trauma, you might consider some therapy first, so you are better protected if you have to delve into some painful memories. Remember: it’s all right to take a break and come back, and it also might still be challenging once you return.
As Mary Karr says in her 2015 how-to The Art of Memoir (highly recommended!): “I’ve said it’s hard. Here’s how hard: everybody I know who wades deep enough into memory’s waters drowns a little.”
Focus On Experiences And Emotions
Whether memoir or autofiction, your reader wants to experience what it was like to be you or this version of you. You might find you’re tempted to relay the information quite factually, but it may read cold. This is fine for the first draft as you focus on story, but when you edit, focus on making it come alive.
Don’t Attempt To Cover Your Whole Life
As mentioned, there won’t be room. Think of those touchstones, the main themes you wish to draw out and examine. Again, it might take you a while to hone in on this. That’s all right, as long as you’re willing to set aside writing that doesn’t serve your overall purpose. Save it for another book, potentially!
Engage The Reader From The Beginning
One thing I found in my previous draft was the opening was too slow and needed a clearer hook. Read the openings of some memoirs and notice how they draw the reader in. And of course…
Read A Lot Of Memoirs And Autofiction & Examine Form
I’ve recommended a large selection of creative memoir novels I’ve enjoyed in this article, but there are so many more incredible ones out there. The bestseller charts on Amazon are a good place to start (though do consider ordering from an independent bookstore!). Some are even written in innovative and experimental styles, such as In the Dream House (2019) by Carmen Maria Machado. Reading a lot of memoirs or autofiction might give you some ideas on how you can lay out your story.
Think About Tone
For some projects, humour might work very well (Trevor Noah, Mary Karr, Caitlin Moran). For others, it might be horribly jarring, and you should consider a more sombre tone. Experiment with this until you find the right voice and approach.
Remember Your Reader
You, of course, have no idea who is reading your work once it’s out there. But memoirs have a common theme: they all seem to focus on making sense of the past to inform our present. With a lot focus on healing and letting go, these can be cathartic for both the writer and the reader. That’s the magic of memoir: your book may save your readers without them knowing they had a void that needed filling.
I hope this article has helped you consider how you might start thinking about writing your memoir, or whether taking a more autofictional approach works better.