Writing a Memoir: Lesson One – Content

memoir-content-lesson-oneYou have experienced decades worth of memories, stories, and events of your life to this point. The first step towards completing this almost impossible editing task can be accomplished during the pre-writing phase instead, you can save yourself work in the long run. There are five necessary elements that will help you to narrow the focus of your memoir and subsequently improve the quality of your memoir content and the project overall. If you find that you struggle with certain steps of the process, don’t be afraid to reach out to other writers (myself included!) for help. There is also a plethora of memoir samples available online, in addition to the formally published memoirs which I will be suggesting later in this series.

  1. Determine Your Audience
    Decide first and foremost who would you like to write for. There is an element of self satisfaction in completing a memoir, as with any writing project, but unless you are writing the memoir as an edited diary or journal piece, then you need to consider who you would like to read your memoir. Determining who you believe your readers will be helps you because it allows you to improve your overall memoir quality. How? It makes deciding on the next few items on this list a little easier. It’s important to get as many details about your readers, even if your readers are currently hypothetical. Are they friends and family exclusively? Are they people in your college creative writing course? Are they twenty-somethings that can learn something from your experiences? Determining your audience will pull your memoir in the directions it needs to go to be successful.
  2. Decide On The Purpose Of Your Memoir & Then Find Your Voice
    This is a two parter, but these items go hand in hand and are essential after you have decided who it is that you’re writing for. The second most important question for any writing project is “Why am I writing?” What does your memoir add? Sure, no one will have your life experiences, but why do the people you’re writing for care? There are literally hundreds of thousands of memoirs out there, so you need to decide why it is that readers will choose yours over others. Is your goal to produce a purely entertaining work? Do you want others to learn from your mistakes? Are you trying to share your experiences purely to exorcise your own demons? Answering these questions and more will help you determine how best to write and what stories to share. Think of deciding on the purpose of your memoir as choosing a goal for the memoir. What do you want it to achieve when it is complete and sent out into the real world? What will your readers get out of reading your memoir?findyourpurposeBy “find your voice” I mean that you must decide how you should best communicate with your reader. For instance, if you’re writing memoirs for personal or cathartic reasons it is unlikely that taking a formal, detached tone will be appropriate. When writing a memoir it’s often more appropriate to share your story as if you were having a conversation, so think about how you might speak to the people you are writing for when sharing your experiences. It is especially important to keep in mind who you might be writing for when you decide whether or not to include real names of persons or locations when revealing stories from your past.
  3. Come Up With A Killer Introduction and/or Book Description – You’ll Need it
    This may be something that you can’t fully accomplish until you have made some progress into your memoir, but keep it in the back of your mind throughout the writing process. You’ve no doubt heard of an “elevator speech” – a 20-30second speech that you could share with someone if you were taking an elevator ride and they struck up a conversation about what you do for a living or what you’re up to currently. This step, though difficult, is VITAL to the success of your memoir. Again, we go back to the idea that people need to care about what you’re doing. You need to make sure that your memoir is prepared to draw people in immediately, and that the purpose is totally clear. Avoid telling phrases or statements such as “My memoir will be” or “My memoir is about” – they are generic and fail to engage the reader as powerfully as you need to.I would suggest taking Lori L. Schafer’s memoir “On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness” as a prime example of how to perfect an “elevator pitch” that successfully sets the scene for a memoir:
    It was the spring of 1989. I was sixteen years old, a junior in high school and an honors student. I had what every teenager wants: a stable family, a nice home in the suburbs, a great group of friends, big plans for my future, and no reason to believe that any of that would ever change.Then came my mother’s psychosis.I experienced firsthand the terror of watching someone I loved transform into a monster, the terror of discovering that I was to be her primary victim. For years I’ve lived with the sadness of knowing that she, too, was a helpless victim – a victim of a terrible disease that consumed and destroyed the strong and caring woman I had once called Mom.My mother’s illness took everything. My family, my home, my friends, my future. A year and a half later I would be living alone on the street on the other side of the country, wondering whether I could even survive on my own.

    But I did. That was how my mother – my real mother – raised me. To survive.

    She, too, was a survivor. It wasn’t until last year that I learned that she had died – in 2007. No one will ever know her side of the story now. But perhaps, at last, it’s time for me to tell mine.

    I will be writing more extensively about this and other memoirs later in the series, breaking down exactly why their methods are successful. Tim David has written an excellent piece for the Harvard Business Review which describes not only why an elevator pitch is important (though he addresses it from a business, rather than writing perspective) and breaks down several steps for what you need in order to make your elevator pitch and subsequent book descriptions effective.

  4. Choose Stories Which Align With Your Purpose
    Once you know who exactly it is that you’re writing for, it’s easier to decide what ideas to include. You have decades worth of events, stories, experiences, and moments to share with the world – now it’s time to decide what is most relevant to your purpose and your readers! A later post in my memoir writing series will feature ways to make your recollections of events more clear. Remember that you can always cut something out if you realize later it isn’t necessary, and you can always tack something on if you realize that you’re missing something. The power is completely in your hands, at least until you come into contact with an editor, so make the most of it! As you are planning, make notes of any memories or events that come to mind when you think about your purpose and how you can accomplish your (previously decided on) goal for your readers.rememberyourpurpose
  5. Do An Outline – Yes, Seriously. (Here’s why!)
    When I tell other writers how much I take notes, outline, and organize before embarking on a detailed writing project – often times they give me strange looks. If you aren’t a fan of pre-writing, I do understand your point of view. Writing is often arduous in and of itself, and who wants to take the time to do more work before it’s possible to even begin working? No one in their right mind, surely. (Except for me!) When I outline for memoir projects, I make sure that I include each point that I wish to cover and feature a sentence for each paragraph. This way when I begin to write, the narrative can flow naturally and doesn’t require me to pause and think about structure in the middle of a good story.There are several ways to effectively pre-write and outline to ensure that the flow of your memoir is solid and that it accomplishes all that you mean for it to. Although you can structure your memoir so that events flow in the order of occurrence, it isn’t necessary. You can place explanations and expositions in between events to ensure that your readers understand fully what you would like to express, or what may not be immediately clear to them since they were not present. Ideally, you want the reader in your head when you write, but that isn’t always possible.My next post in this series will feature details on pre-writing, organization, and how to make sure your memoir is a winner!

If you thought this post was helpful, please sound off in the comments or on twitter & facebook. Share this post with your friends, and invite them to check out the series. I am planning on releasing this series in ebook form complete with worksheets once the post series is finished, so if there is something that you’d like to see or get help with, let me know!

Additional Posts in this Series:

Introduction :: Lesson 1 – Content :: Lesson 2 – Purpose :: Lesson 3 – Audience :: Lesson 4 – Blurbs :: Lesson 5 – Recalling Memories

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