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Cheat Sheet

Memoir Writing For Dummies

From Memoir Writing For Dummies by Ryan Van Cleave

Writing a memoir means you’re author and subject, researcher and storyteller, narrator and audience. That’s a lot to ask of any writer, though a good way to begin the challenge of writing a memoir is to start a list of the most memorable events of your life. Don’t start on the actual book manuscript until you have at least a page filled with things that seem worthy of sharing — moments from your past that have universal significance, emotional resonance, or high drama. Add another half page of small moments you treasure. Those can speak surprisingly well to those larger themes, too.

Knowing the Difference between an Autobiography and a Memoir

Many people interchangeably use the terms “autobiography” and “memoir.” Although Amazon and many brick-and-mortar bookstores put them in the same category, they are quite different. Here’s how they are different.

An autobiography

  • Focuses on the trajectory of an entire life

  • Starts at the beginning and progresses chronologically to the end

  • Feels more like a historical document; tons of fact-checking and very specific dates/information

  • Strives for factual, historical truths

  • Typically is written by famous people

A memoir

  • Focuses on a key aspect, theme, event, or choice in a life

  • Starts anywhere and can deftly move around in time and place

  • Feels more personal; less intense fact-checking

  • Strives for emotional truths

  • Can be written by anyone

Both are based in truth. Both are highly marketable in the publishing world. And both require a good deal of research, which can range from phone interviews and trips to places you once lived, to sitting back into a comfy chair and doing some deep, focused remembering. Yet as you can see, there are significant and crucial differences between an autobiography and memoir.

Reader Expectations for a Memoir

You’re writing a memoir to share your story, which means you obviously want people to read it. To write a memoir designed to satisfy and engage readers, strive to meet the following expectations:

  • A sympathetic main character: A reader’s sympathy and interest doesn’t come for free. You have to earn it. Make this a priority for your main character to come across as sympathetic, and readers will appreciate it.

  • Vividly depicted scenes: A vividly depicted scene has strong imagery that creates a movie in the mind of readers. Strong scenes like these are memorable and lasting.

  • Emotional tension: An emotionally involved reader will keep reading. Find a way to create and heighten the emotional impact of your story. Every story has emotional tension. Make sure you have the distance or outside guidance to find it and fully explore it.

  • Increasing sense of drama/conflict: A story that builds increasingly toward the climax comes across as purposeful. How do you build? Ratchet up the conflict. Show how the stakes are raised. Make readers know what might be lost.

  • A satisfying ending: Note that this is a satisfying ending versus a good or bad ending. No matter how the main story of your memoir ends, it should wrap up the main story tensions and bring a sense of closure.

Ways to Find Writing Guidance and Support in Memoir Writing

Writing is a solitary act, so finding ways to combat the sense of loneliness is a good idea. Here are a few ways to create and develop a community to help support you in writing your memoir. Few people can appreciate the struggles a writer faces like another writer can.

  • Take a writing course at a university, community college, or community center. The structure these groups — having a certain number of pages due at firm dates — is very helpful for some writers. Just remember that it’s less about the grade than it is the skills you master and the feedback you receive. Another thing to remember is that there are plenty of great teachers without huge bestselling books to their credit. Pay attention to what former students say about teachers. That’s a great way to find the right class for you.

  • Join an online writers’ group. They’re cheap, easy to find, and come in an endless variety of options in terms of meeting frequency, experience level of participants, and general level of seriousness. Members are often eager to share information about submitting a manuscript for publication, sending work to literary agents, and, of course, doing the writing itself. Try out a few so you can fully see what your options are before completely committing to a group.

  • Join a book club. Although having thoughtful discussions on any book can be helpful, you want to seek out clubs that specialize in memoirs and biographies. Really take notes on the type of things the other readers admire in the books as well as what they don’t like. This information can prove invaluable to you when writing your own memoir.

  • Write a short letter to a writer you admire and ask for one specific piece of advice to help you with your memoir. Doing this the old pen-and-paper way versus email is recommended — writers appreciate the extra effort.

  • Attend book festivals and local literary readings. Be a part of the world of books and writing at the grassroots level. Listen to poets read work at local coffeehouses where the ink is still fresh on the page. Talk to authors who are selling their own titles off card tables they rent in conference rooms. Take note of what you plan to do when your memoir is out, and also take note of what you absolutely don’t want to do. In any case, you can develop new friendships, learn new lessons, and appreciate books. This is the world you will one day be a part of.

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