How to Write a Memoir

A close up on the hands of an elderly woman writing with a white pen in a journal

So, what’s your story?

Everyone has one, and telling yours is a powerful way to share the lessons of your life. Writing a memoir is your chance to leave a legacy for your loved ones and future generations who might otherwise never get the chance to meet you. Imagine if you could read the stories of your great-great-grandparents in their own words.

It’s never too late to start. As a senior, your stories come from a wide range of experiences, giving you a more informed understanding of yourself than a younger writer. That puts you in a great position. Did you know that Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House” series of books, didn’t write her first book until the age of 65?

What is a memoir?

The main defining characteristics of a memoir are that it’s nonfiction and autobiographical. Which raises the question — what’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir?

An autobiography is the story of an entire life, but a memoir is just one story from that life. You can only ever write one autobiography, but you can write countless memoirs.

If you want to detail your life from the beginning, you may want to write an autobiography. A memoir is more focused, allowing for greater detail and intimacy as you take the reader through a crucial time in your life. A memoir draws on selected anecdotes from your life to support a theme and make a point.

Deciding on a theme

Memoirs are built around defining moments. Your theme can be anything: The only requirement is that it changed you. It doesn’t matter if your story is one of loss, love, redemption or joy. Make sure your theme starts with a version of yourself that is meaningfully different from who you are today; readers want to watch you grow into the person you became. Take people on a journey. Once you’ve got your theme, it’s time to start writing.

How to write a memoir

Keep these memoir writing tips in mind:

Show, don’t tell.
It’s the major rule of writing engaging stories. One mistake first-time memoirists (that’s you!) make is to focus almost exclusively on describing their own subjective experience. You have to balance simply recalling events with reworking them so that you put the reader in the scene. It’s better to let the reader discover the point you’re trying to make rather than explain it to them. In other words, don’t tell them how something felt; make them feel it.

The reader is the protagonist.
You may be the subject, but it’s not just about you — it’s about what readers can gain from your story. While the story is ultimately about your personal experiences, it should be possible for the reader to relate to what you’re going through and put themselves in your position.

The beginning isn’t the beginning.
Telling your story chronologically is just too predictable. Even if this means launching in the middle of the story, start with an incident that is uncommon in its dramatic or humorous content. A good beginning is a tease. It gives readers just enough action to hook them without revealing the outcome. You can then flash back to the real chronological beginning and fill in the background.

Keep it simple.
Use as few words as you can. It’s fine to use a bit of stylistic prose here and there, but as you finish each chapter, go back and cut the unnecessary fluff. Even great writers struggle with this, but when a story is honed to its essential elements, it’s easier and more enjoyable to read.

The sincerest form of flattery.
Don’t be afraid to draw inspiration from a memoir that interests you. Watch how the author invites the reader into their world and the details, events, actions and emotions they choose to focus on. No matter how many tips you read about writing, you’ll never get better advice than from the work of a successful memoirist.

Stick with it.
Resist the temptation to put your memoir aside for a break when the writing gets difficult. Once you’ve shelved the project, picking it back up can be as difficult as beginning in the first place. Don’t worry about making what you write perfect; there will be plenty of time for polishing later. Focus on getting the story out. If you chip away at it, you’ll get there.

Start writing.
You’ve already done the research. You’re intimately familiar with all the characters. It’s time to tell your story.

At Meadow Ridge, we have a Memoir Writing class to assist residents in crafting their memoirs. It’s just one of the many creative pursuits we encourage at Meadow Ridge. You’ll find language classes, art lectures, wine and painting classes, and so much more. Reach out to our marketing team to learn how you could fit in today.