Writing a Memoir: Know Your Story


When writing a memoir you must know your storyWhen writing a memoir, it is different from writing an autobiography. Where an autobiography traditionally covers the author’s entire life, a memoir zeros in on a specific period of time. 

If your book is too general, it won’t make for a good read.

A good friend, and fellow ghostwriter, attends many writer’s conferences teeming with agents and publishers. He once gave me some excellent advice. He said, “If a writer goes into a pitch with: ‘Hey, my book is about my life in the field of education,’ the agent is going to glaze over and start thinking about the conference lunch buffet. The best way to sell a book is to state the book’s focus upfront.”

I’d add that you should know the purpose of your story. When you understand why you’re writing the book, you’ll be able to begin to write your memoir.

Know your story

Each author will have a different reason for writing their book. In the example above, perhaps you are a high-school teacher in the inner city and you’re writing a memoir to encourage parents to be more active with their child’s education. Well, if that’s your purpose, tell that story. Make sure all the scenes of the book align with that message. In addition, the characters you add should fit into the story.

If your own educational path helps to illustrate your book’s purpose, by all means, share it. You can do so with flashbacks or by starting the book at that period if there is enough material to carry the story forward. However, if your past doesn’t really relate to your memoir’s purpose, skip it. For example, if you had supportive parents and went to expensive prep schools and Harvard, it just might not fit into this book, which is about working with inner-city kids.

Know your options

you have options when you are writing a memoir

It might make more sense to open your memoir with a particular high school class and finish with their graduation. Follow those students. Include various gnarly parent-teacher conference meetings that show what you wish to share with your readers and conclude with a result, one way or another.

Or your book might span two decades, showing your breadth of experience and many examples of neglect with final resolutions that all exemplify the problem.

Another option could be to focus on one family. Perhaps that one child made it out of the ghetto and into the sunlight. In that case, your story might just span one year, showing how that mom and dad took a strong interest in the boy’s education, while other parents failed to do so.

Note: We just discussed three versions of one life story. You can see how these three books would be very different. It’s the same life, told through different lenses. Each story would be shared with your voice but would make the reader feel and experience very different things.

Whatever you decide you must pick a lane and stick to it.

Know your readership

It’s important to define your readership before you begin writing a memoir, so you can communicate effectively to that group of people.

In the above memoir example, your reader would probably be parents of high school students because you wish to influence them to be more part of their children’s education. 

However, your reader could potentially be written to other teachers and school administrators. If that is the case, your book would have a very different feel. Is this a David vs Goliath story, concluding with your victorious battle to make improvements within the school system? If so, you could potentially help others forge an improvement in a system that can seem impossible to penetrate.

Whatever you do, you must select your readership and write to them.

When writing a memoir, remember that you get to tell the story you wish to tell. Include what you want and toss the rest. Most likely you’ll find that you have a few books within you. Select one and start writing!

If you’d like to read more articles about memoirs, please check these out:

Memoir or Autobiography

How to Write Your Memoir

What are Good Memoir Themes?

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