Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

Including Travel in Your Memoir

Two pictures of travel in Rome

Without making it a “travel memoir.”

To be fully transparent, I’ll mention that I selected today’s topic of including travel in your memoir as a way to relive my own recent visit to Italy—I even rapped about it. Perhaps you feel the same about trips you’ve taken—that as long as you’re writing about yourself, you might as well cover your travels. But unless you’re planning a memoir along the lines of Eat, Pray, Love, try to be careful not to satisfy your wanderlust by overwriting about your trips.

How Travel Can Be a Natural Part of Your Storytelling

Your memoir is a collection of stories, and traveling certainly can be one of those stories. Think of your experience in one of two ways:

  1. Plot driver. Does your travel story drive the plot of your life? This is easy to identify. Did you meet someone during your trip who turned out to be pivotal in your life? Or did something else happen that influenced your direction in life?
  2. Character developer. Maybe nothing unusual happened during your trip, but the experience still changed you. Leaving your comfort zone, facing your fears, having the “lightbulb moment” of realizing that the world is a big place with lots of opportunities, connecting with art, gaining confidence through navigating on your own—it could be any number of things that you carried with you long after you returned home. All of that is valid to write about.

Ways to Contrive the Importance of Your Travel

You can indulge yourself only so much. Like every other story in your memoir, your travel tales must have a point and move the narrative to the next rung. To some extent, you can contrive that point. Maybe you were out of town when something important happened back at home. So it’s not the trip that was important in your life; it’s your absence.

Instead of saying you were out of town when this or that went on, you can emphasize the significance of your absence by going into some detail about where you were and what you were doing. The contrast of what was happening at home while you were on vacation, relaxing on a beach or touring a foreign city, can be effective.

The summer before my senior year in college, I traveled with my college’s French department on a six-week summer-study program in Nice, France. In the big picture, this trip didn’t have a monumental effect on my life. But pretty much everything you do at age 21 can be considered significant enough to include in a memoir.

Many of you probably assume I have penned a memoir, but even though I have written various autobiographical accounts, I haven’t devoted an entire book to myself. I may someday. And if I do, I think I’d find a reason to include that trip to France, which extended to spending some time in northern Italy as well. It was my first time abroad, which is enough right there to include in a memoir. My college arranged for us to meet with the late author James Baldwin in his garden in the south of France, and I can’t imagine writing a memoir without mentioning that magical hour or two, even though I don’t remember anything that took place.

Here’s an idea. To contrive a reason to include your travel, you could introduce it as “the last time I remember…” and go from there to describe your travel experiences. I’m thinking of something such as:

  • The last time I remember having any discretionary income, I spent it on an African safari.
  • The last time I remember having a candid discussion with my mother, I had just arrived home from a trip to Japan, and she wanted to know all about it.
  • The last time I remember being as frightened as I was then, I was in an alley in Rio de Janeiro, walking alone, when a man slid out of the shadows and approached me.

How to Know Where the Line Is

After all of the contriving, you may find that it just doesn’t work. It may veer too far off your central theme, and you’ll be better off to keep what you’ve written as the basis for your next fictional short story. The editing you’ll do after your first draft will force you to make a lot of hard decisions. Editing is usually painful!

If the story holds up as pertinent enough, you still may have to delete some of the details. When you reread what you’ve written, pay attention to the “travelogue” voice. If your description sounds even a little bit like advice on where to go and what to see, you’ve probably crossed the line between memoir and travel memoir. And even if that lasts only one chapter, it’s likely to feel out of place.

As I always tell you, this is your memoir, and you’re the best judge about what’s important in your own life story. But we authors also want to keep the reader engaged, and that requires sometimes making sure we don’t indulge in sharing our favorite memories just in order to relive them ourselves.

Editing Your Memoir for Word Choice: Part II

Editing for word choice photo of glasses, pen and book

Give your memoir a professional touch by avoiding too much word repetition.

My last post focused on editing your memoir to fix any incorrect word usage and also to take the effort to find the most precise word to convey your thought. What else goes into editing your memoir for word choice? Repetition is a big concern.

Word Choice Using a Thesaurus or Digital Equivalent

It’s not a terrible error to unnecessarily use the same word twice in one paragraph or to use one expression frequently throughout your memoir, but it makes your memoir a little less interesting. Don’t permit laziness to keep your memoir from being the best piece of writing you’ve ever done. There are countless ways to say nearly everything, so give each sentence some thought.

As I advised in Part 1 on this topic, don’t be too proud to rely on searching Google for synonyms. Or if you still have some thesaurus you once received as a gift from a grandparent, this might be the time to dust it off and keep it on your desk at easy reach.

The funny thing about checking for word repetition is that you’re looking for opposite problems—super-common words and extremely distinctive words.

Vary the “Verys”—Common Verbs and Adjectives

On your first draft, when you’re just trying to get your story into some sort of narrative form, you might have a paragraph like this:

“I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I was mostly very interested in having him stay away from me. I knew that if I stayed home, I’d have the fear that he’d have the nerve to come back. If I went out, I knew I’d have all sorts of worries that he’d follow me. I would have been interested in going to Mom’s house, where I knew he wouldn’t dare show up, if I hadn’t had to deal with all of her questions. I thought about having a bite of food to eat, but I had no hunger and the thought of food had me feeling very sick.”

That’s an extreme example, but it’s not that much of an exaggeration in a first draft. Verbs like “have/had,” “do/did,” “go/went,” “feel/felt,” “know/knew” and all of the “be” verbs—is, are, were, have been, etc.—can roll off your fingers and onto your keyboard with no effort at all. An adjective like “interested” can sneak in there almost without your consent! And even one or two mentions of “very” is probably too many. A good edit cleans it all up.

This problem isn’t about finding synonyms. You can’t just replace “have” with “own” or “possess,” as in, “I’d possess the fear” instead of “I’d have the fear.” Sometimes you can swap out “interested” for “intrigued,” but more often you just need a different construction and will probably rewrite many sentences. A full edit takes time, but it’s still not as hard as getting your thoughts written down to begin with.

A rewrite of that paragraph could turn out like this:

“I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I focused on keeping him away from me. If I stayed home, I’d shake in fear that he’d have the nerve to come back, but if I went out, I’d worry that he’d follow me. I could have driven over to Mom’s house, where he wouldn’t dare show up, but she’d throw a barrage of questions at me. I thought about making soup, but just the thought of food turned my stomach.”

I wouldn’t call that rewrite a masterpiece, but I hope it gives you an idea of ways you can rework the presentation of your thoughts while retaining the message.

Use Distinctive Words Exactly Once

Whereas those common words are bound to be repeated throughout your memoir, unusual words merit mention only once. You may not realize how much you like a certain adjective or how little anyone else uses some word that you use a lot.

Maybe you’ve always referred to your son as “cantankerous,” so the adjective makes it into your memoir as you describe your little boy. But then three chapters later, you tell readers about your “cantankerous” boss. No. Find a different word. Your boss was crusty or argumentative or ill-tempered, or just tell a couple of stories about your boss and let readers fill in their own adjectival impressions.

This guideline is good for phrases, too. If early in your memoir you describe the meatloaf in your school cafeteria as “hard as a rock,” don’t repeat that description for the tumor you find in your neck later in your book. Or if you prefer it for the tumor, then go back and try a new idea for the meatloaf. You could say, “I practically broke a tooth when I bit into the meatloaf.” Again, language is so rich. You don’t have to find a synonym for “hard,” a different word for “rock,” or another phrase that means the same thing. You can restructure the sentence altogether.

Avoid Repetition of Names

The people you introduce in your memoir typically come with a relationship identifier, such as “mother,” “boss,” “friend” or “teacher.” That gives you two different ways to refer to each of them, so right there you’re breaking up the procession of using the same name or word over and over. With “my mother” and “my father,” you also have “Mom” and “Dad,” and here or there you also can refer to them with their given names, such as: “But James Turner was not one to back down from a challenge”—that sort of thing.

What else can you do? As an example, let’s say you’re writing about your sister Sara, and it goes on for a few paragraphs. You toggle between saying “Sara” and “my sister,” supported by “she” when you feel you don’t have to remind the reader who “she” is. That’s all fine, but with a little attention you can do better. Look at this paragraph:

“With her wholesome good looks and radiant smile, Sara was the quintessential ‘girl next door,’ so it only made sense for her to date the boy next door throughout high school. As the younger sister, I played the important role of covering for them when they’d sneak out of their respective houses to spend time together. I can’t count the number of times I told one parent or the other that the scamp had gone to the store after running out of tampons or notebook paper or her favorite gum. When Ronnie signed up with the US Army, he asked his girlfriend to follow the tradition of waiting for him, but the diminutive blonde cheerleader would have none of that. She’d already applied to work for a cruise line to see Caribbean ports in whatever capacity the employer chose for her. As it turned out, my mother’s first-born had inherited all of Mom’s charm and within a year went from making beds in the cabins to managing the food service. It was enough to spin my head around when we all took a cruise on her ship and saw the former boss of me bossing around everyone else.

I used “Sara” only once. The other mentions were “she” and “her,” “the scamp,” “his girlfriend,” “the little blonde cheerleader,” “my mother’s first-born,” and “the former boss of me.” I didn’t even use “my sister.” In addition to keeping the reader engaged, varying your terms like that provides the opportunity to supply more information. I needed no separate sentence to reveal that my sister was small, blonde, a cheerleader, or the oldest in the family.

More Next Time

We’ve still covered only a piece of the editing you can do concerning word choice. In my next post, I’ll talk about other ways to prevent your memoir from lulling readers to sleep with the same words over and over. And over and over.

How to Include Life Lessons in Your Memoir

Without turning your memoir into a self-help book

 

Like many memoir authors, you may be aiming to include life lessons in your memoir. You’ve overcome addiction, escaped domestic violence, triumphed over an illness or condition, healed from an injury or grown in some other way, and one major goal in writing your memoir is to help readers replicate your success. It’s partly a self-help book.

Still, you don’t want to cross genres. Even though you want to be pretty explicit in stating the lessons, you envision your book listed in the memoir category, not as another self-help manual. Can you incorporate a bit of how-to in your memoir? Sure. As I always say, it’s your memoir, so write the book you want to write. I have some ideas for ways you can offer suggestions while staying in the memoir space.

Make Lessons Part of Your Writer’s Voice

Your book’s theme—or maybe just one chapter’s theme—is succeeding despite a setback or life circumstance. By definition, you’ll be writing about the initiatives that changed your life. The reader will pick up on this, but you still can give it an extra boost.

If you wanted to revolve life lessons on a knee replacement, for example—which I realize is unlikely but it will demonstrate my points—it might look something like this:

It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do. I knew all too well. The doctor had laid it all out, I was googling “knee replacement” night and day and, of course, Robbie was constantly giving me the blow-by-blow on his own surgery and recovery. I’d already stocked my kitchen with inflammation-fighting foods, popping blueberries like gumdrops and vowing to find recipes that made kale taste less like a rubber glove. I made sure my freezer’s icemaker was churning out cubes.

There was more. I completely dropped out of my golf group so that I wouldn’t be tempted to tee up before my knee was ready to accommodate my distinctively twisty swing. I borrowed a footstool from my neighbor Debra, who also insisted on lending me four perfectly sized pillows to pile on the stool in order to create the required elevation when I sat on my couch. I lipsticked the word “REST” on mirrors in both my bedroom and my bathroom. One day I even let myself into a church, quickly whispered, “Dear God, please don’t let me die on the table,” and slipped out before any official saw me.

Here’s another idea for introducing these lessons using your voice within the text of the memoir. This would come later in the story:

I got to thinking about how I’d gotten this far while other people were struggling even though they’d had surgery at about the same time that I had and, for the most part, were quite a bit younger than I was. I decided that, along with some luck plus proximity to an excellent hospital and medical staff, my simple determination played a big role. Since I’d always been a good student, it was natural for me to be a good patient. I dutifully followed doctors’ orders while also doing some of my own online research. I stocked my kitchen….. And then go into the steps but in first person and past tense.

Use a Device Such as Dialogue or Written/Watched Instructions

Sticking with your knee replacement memoir—again, an unlikely topic I’m using only for its applicability to neutral examples—you can put the advice into the mouth of your mom, friend, doctor, clergy or whomever. In that case, it changes to something like this:

It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do. I knew all too well. The doctor had laid it all out, I was googling “knee replacement” night and day and, of course, Robbie was constantly giving me the blow-by-blow on his own surgery and recovery. Other than the repetition, “Robbie’s Rules” as I came to call them were actually pretty helpful:

  • Stock your kitchen with inflammation-fighting foods like berries and greens. Robbie assured me that I’d get used to the taste of kale, but I figured I’d find recipes to disguise it instead.
  • Keep plenty of ice on hand.
  • Drop out of leagues. Golf, tennis, running clubs—officially drop out, even if only temporarily, so you won’t be tempted to tee up, serve a ball or lace up your running shoes before your knee is ready to accommodate the sport.
  • Place a footstool in front of your couch, and pile three to four pillows on it to create the required elevation.
  • Make signs with the word “REST” that you can tack up everywhere. Then you have no excuse that you forgot to be patient.
  • Don’t be afraid to use whatever shred of spirituality you have left. Praying might just work.

Memoir authors tend to be concerned about the truth. If no one gave you advice, you don’t have to invent the story. Instead, you can have a lead-in as vague as “I remember reading somewhere that…,” or something like this:

It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do. I knew all too well. The doctor had laid it all out, I was googling “knee replacement” night and day, and when I mentioned my upcoming surgery in passing conversation, absolutely everyone had a piece of advice to share. I don’t remember where or from whom I learned what, but I decided to be patient and follow some common-sense guidelines.

Set Aside a Chapter for Your Acquired Wisdom

You can devote a chapter or two to come off as a more obviously specific advice column. This can be your epilogue or last chapter, or it can be somewhere in the middle if it feels more suitable at that point. This can serve as a handy guide for the reader, especially if the suggestions you’re passing along are very different from those found elsewhere or if they concern a very unusual condition.

In this chapter, you can write as if you’re speaking with someone who has asked you to share what you’ve learned from your experience. It’s okay if it sounds a little drier than the rest of the book, but don’t abandon your writer’s voice completely. Keep in mind it’s still part of your memoir, part of your story, and not an op-ed or essay.

Break Up Your Advice to Create a Pattern

In his 2024 memoir, Hits, Flops and Other Illusions: My Fortysomething Years in Hollywood, director Ed Zwick tacks a “postscript” addendum, in the form of a list, onto the end of every chapter. They’re rosters of filmmaking tips, Hollywood secrets or observations—literally life lessons in some cases.

While I’d say this works well enough for Zwick in a memoir about a long career, I’ll also say that I can picture Zwick teaching a college course in filmmaking. If you can picture yourself teaching a course in the topic of your memoir, then this approach could be for you, with lists that could just as easily go up on a blackboard during a class session. Otherwise, I think it’s a stretch on an ordinary memoir.

Save It for Another Book or Other Project

After you include your life lessons, when you edit your book you may admit to yourself that they’re out of place and just don’t fit. In that case, keep what you’ve written and consider writing a second book that truly would fall into the self-help category. Or it can be the starting point for a workbook, a podcast or a chapter in a later book with life lessons from all aspects of your life. Maybe you have advice on marriage, parenthood, politics, living long, travel—the piece you’ve already written would be one of those chapters.

If you never use that portion at all, you still took the opportunity to write it all out. The process of memoir writing is part of the magic. Never feel that you wasted time on paragraphs just because they end up on the cutting room floor.

Are You a Memoir Author Looking for a Theme?

Memoir author looking for a theme depicted as a little girl with binoculars

Sometimes the hardest part of writing a memoir is identifying what it’s really about.

Most memoir authors fall into one of two groups. They either write their memoir to share a compelling episode in their life that comes with lessons for interested readers, or they want to chronicle their entire life for their children and grandchildren.

In both cases, there’s usually a theme. The theme is obvious in the case of authors rolling out a pivotal period of their life, but even with the older person writing a full autobiography, at least one theme tends to emerge—often the simple, relatable theme of starting out in humble surroundings and pushing through to forge a successful, happy life.

The Third Group of Memoir Authors

The third, probably smallest, category of memoir authors comprises people who are primarily writers by either profession or hobby. They enjoy sharing their thoughts and the process of writing. Driven to write, these authors at some point land upon the idea of writing a memoir. They believe, as we do at Write My Memoirs, that every life has interesting stories worth exploring and publishing. But they believe it just a little less than we do!

Some writers in this third group seek best-seller status or hope the book will inspire a screenplay. So while memoir authors in the second group, seeking only to document their lives, don’t really care whether a cohesive theme becomes apparent, this third group needs that theme for their work to be marketable.

Your “Ordinary” Life

If you identify with the third group, you may find your life’s theme to be an elusive target. Especially if you’re young, you may feel that there’s “no there there” yet to write about. I assure you, there is. But you don’t want to contrive some theme just to write a relevant book.

As with any memoir, the key is to be authentic. Maybe you grew up as the child of a single parent, but you had a large extended family that filled in and you never felt it was a hardship. Perhaps when you were a teenager you recovered from a terrible car accident, but you did recover fully and there wasn’t much drama around the collision—the other driver simply misjudged and crashed into you. Let’s say you’re an immigrant and moved to your current homeland ten years ago, but everything went pretty smoothly.

In all of those examples, you may think nothing unusual happened to you beyond the one pivotal event. So many people grow up in single-parent households, and yours was just one of them. Just about everyone has a car accident story; yours would not add to the literature. And you certainly wouldn’t be the first immigrant to share your tale.

Look Closer with a Little Positive Thinking

I just took you through a lot of negative thinking. So let’s flip that to the positive side.

No other person in the world is having exactly the day you’re having right now. Not your next-door neighbor, not your sibling, not your best friend. If your day is not identical to anyone else’s, how could your entire memoir duplicate another memoir?

Think of the experiences you have in common with other people as a strength of your memoir. This is what will get people to relate to your life. Then layer that with the singular you who faced those experiences. Your circumstances were different from other people’s situations even in a similar event, your personality is yours alone, and everything from your resources and support network to the sights/sounds, news headlines of the moment and your own reaction combines to shape any experience you’ve had into a unique narrative.

Now let’s say that you don’t even have that much—no tricky childhood, illness/accident nor major relocation. All you are is an everyday person with everyday experiences. I’d say look deeper. There’s something about your life that isn’t so “everyday.”

Lean Into Your Message

It’s pretty common for memoir authors in this third group to sit down and start writing with no real theme in mind. Then it happens, sometimes well after they’ve started, that they discover a thread running through the work. Maybe it’s very broad, such as the encounters of a person who makes friends easily, or the perspective on life from someone who has always had vivid nighttime dreams. Or maybe it’s just the opposite—an incident so seemingly minor that you don’t even remember it until you find yourself writing about how that one teacher or supervisor, or a comment by a stranger on the bus, set you on a life path that you never thought you’d be following.

See how that happens? Now you’re no longer a memoir author looking for a theme. You have one.

From that thread, you can drill down and identify a message. Really look inside yourself. What are you trying relate? What wisdom do you hope readers will take from your memoir? Complete this sentence: “I hope you read my memoir because you’ll learn _____.”

Have confidence that your story is different enough. The key is how you tell it.

It’s the Writing

I often use Educated by Tara Westover as an example for memoir authors who do not have a famous name. Raised in a religious cult-type environment, Tara has a compelling story to tell but not a unique one. Plenty of children grow up under the thumb of restrictive and even abusive parents, and many, like Tara, go out on their own and grow away from that limited world.

What made Westover’s book a best-seller for months and months was the writing. The summary on the book jacket may spark enough interest in the story to get someone to pick up the book, but excellent writing is what gets that book passed around and recommended over and over, generating sales. While staying on theme also is important, compelling writing will keep the reader invested even if, at times, you meander away from your theme.

So, really, the theme is not your biggest challenge. Writing isn’t that hard, but writing a tight narrative that keeps the reader turning pages takes some practice. If you’re in that third group, while you may have no obvious theme, you have what many author hopefuls lack—a love of writing. You don’t have to force yourself to sit down and bang out page after page. So keep at it. Write, edit and rewrite. Ask friends to read and give you input. Go back to your desk and write more. Your life has something to say.

Start Journaling Just In Case You Decide to Write a Memoir

One hand on a keyboard and the other holding a pen over paper

Your memory is probably not as good as you believe it is

If you think you may want to write a memoir someday and you’re not journaling, start now! Reflect on your day. Write about your views of the world right now. Describe where you live and how you feel about living there. Share your thoughts about the important people in your life. Next, start finding your memories. Relate how you feel now to previous events in your life. On your mother’s birthday, write about growing up with her as your mom. When you travel, write about the last time you visited that site or how it reminds you of previous trips you’ve made. Include names, dates and locations. All of this will be invaluable if you ever sit down to write your memoir.

Let’s say you’re in your 40s, and 20 years from now you decide to write your entire autobiography or a memoir focused on a particular time period of your life. A lot of people wouldn’t know where to start. When you have a journal, you know where to start—by rereading your own writings about your life.

Don’t Trust Your Memory

Everything that you say you’ll never forget? You will forget much of it. You will confuse the details of different events. You may even remember vivid dreams as reality. Later in your life when you compare notes with friends and siblings, you’ll be surprised how much your version of what happened differs from theirs.

Another way to keep your stories accurate is to tell them verbally. Talk to your children about your own childhood and reminisce with friends about old times. The more you tell your own stories, the more you’ll keep the facts straight. Then when you go to write them down, you won’t have to dig into your brain too far!

But journaling still works better than verbal storytelling. In addition to getting the facts down, journaling helps you understand your own emotions. That’s why therapists frequently suggest journaling. Whether you’re trying to manage stress, face a past traumatic event, work through relationship issues or jumpstart a creative project, writing can be a valuable tool to use toward your goal.

Your Story is More Than Just Facts

You can do a lot of research and fact-checking online, but not everything from decades ago is as available as you might expect. Local newspaper articles may be gone or accessible only with special permission. Records from your old job, school, camp or military unit may be hard to come by. So while you may have a difficult time collecting information from your life history, at least you can document everything happening from now on.

The “color” in a memoir comes from descriptions of everything surrounding the simple facts. All of that is important to note in your journal. Maybe you were involved in a crime or other event that made the newspapers, and you have all of the clippings from that time. But what were you wearing? What could you see from where you were? Trees or sand or houses? Indoor walls, furniture, staircases? What smells were you picking up? What sounds were you hearing—conversation or a dripping faucet or the eerie silence of falling snow? Your memoir will benefit from this level of detail.

A Journal Keeper is a Writer

The other big benefit that comes from journaling regularly is that it gets you into the habit of writing. When you do sit down to write your memoir, you won’t have to adjust your mindset. You’ll know where you sit to write, how much quiet you need, what objects or snacks you like having handy, and what time of day works best for you.

Also, you’ll have your technology figured out. When you think of journaling, you may picture a beautiful, leather-bound book just waiting for your handwritten entries and additional scrapbooking touches. But a keyboard works as well as a pen, and a computer keeps your work from getting burned or spilled on or misplaced. Email your work to yourself, save it to the cloud or copy it on a jump drive so that you won’t have the worry of losing it.

When you journal regularly, you’ll have confidence that you won’t fall to pieces when you see that first blank screen or page. You’ll already be a writer.

What Matthew Perry Taught Us About the Addiction Memoir Category

Matthew Perry's memoir

As fans continue to struggle with the death of Friends star Matthew Perry, much attention has centered on Perry’s memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, published just about exactly one year ago. The book earned generally favorable reviews, and Perry supported it with a series of televised interviews including, most notably, an hour-long conversation with Diane Sawyer on ABC.

Perry’s memoir could be called an “addiction memoir,” a “redemption memoir” or both. Many of you may be writing or hoping to write a similar type of book that chronicles your journey as you overcame an addiction or triumphed over a different life challenge. You may not be asked to do a lot of TV interviews after your memoir is published, but you can follow some of Perry’s writing concepts to make your book a good read.

What can we learn from Matthew Perry’s memoir? Quite a bit:

  1. Overcoming a huge obstacle makes you want to write a memoir. Beating addiction is necessary in order to live a long and fulfilling life, so you have a lot to celebrate if you’re able to conquer addiction. The natural motivation for many people to chronicle their journey is to help the next addict. In a quote and video clip that’s gone viral since Perry’s death, he tells an interviewer: “The best thing about me, bar none, is if someone comes up to me and says, ‘I can’t stop drinking, can you help me?’ I can say, ‘yes,’ and follow up and do it.” He established a clinic for addicted men, but his memoir also was part of that effort to help people.
  2. Perhaps even more than most memoir topics, this one requires utter candor. If you don’t want to feel vulnerable, you probably can’t write an addiction memoir. Perry is brutally honest, not concerned with whether he’s giving “Chandler” a bad name or anything like that. For readers to relate to your saga, you have to come across as baring all and hiding nothing.
  3. Don’t put off writing your memoir. No matter what the topic of your memoir, as soon as the arc of your story is resolved, start writing. You may live much longer than Matthew Perry, who was only 54 when he died. But life goes quickly, and lots of things can get in the way of finding enough time to write a book. While you’re still able to create and the story is fresh in your mind, start writing it. You don’t want to regret letting your life story go untold.
  4. You don’t have to wait for a final ending. No matter what your redemption story involves, you never really know whether you’ve ultimately succeeded in defeating your demons. If you came out of an abusive situation, you don’t know for sure that you won’t find yourself inadvertently stuck in another abusive relationship. If you’ve recovered from a serious illness such as cancer, you can’t be certain that you won’t have to battle it again someday. And if you’ve overcome addiction, there’s no guarantee that you won’t experience a relapse. Matthew Perry continued to have medical problems related to his previous drug and alcohol use. If you have a redemption story to tell, what you do know is that you landed on the other side of something frightening.
  5. When you talk about other people, keep the negativity confined to the facts. One big concern for many memoir authors is how much they can divulge about someone else’s bad behavior. As long as you stick to the truth as you remember it, you can write about someone else. Matthew Perry wrote about his childhood marked by his parents’ divorce. It didn’t make his parents look great, but that’s part of the creative freedom an author gets. However, he also made an unfunny, unnecessary and hurtful joke about Keanu Reeves that had nothing to do with the story he was telling. He received so much blowback from this throwaway line that he removed it from the book in subsequent printings. You don’t have to reveal every opinion you have about everyone you mention. You’re better off complimenting people if you choose, rolling out the facts, and letting your description of the action speak for itself rather than specifically trashing the people who make it into your memoir.
  6. Readers, including friends and family, may be more supportive than you think. Today, addiction doesn’t have the stigma it used to carry. If you feel compelled to tell your story, don’t be afraid to admit what you went through. Don’t feel embarrassed that you stayed with an abusive partner or gave into the temptation of alcohol or drugs. Remember that much of your audience is looking to you for guidance; they’re not out to criticize you. Complete honesty wins over a lot of people.

For many memoir authors, the catharsis gained from writing their story serves as some of the best therapy for getting on with their lives. You want people to know how you faced that challenge and what worked for you to reclaim your own life. Having that book as a reaffirmation that you didn’t back down, didn’t give up, is a reassuring reminder of how strong you are.

When Chronology Gets in the Way of Your Memoir Narrative

Sign has arrows pointing to "Future" and Past"

How to take readers down rabbit holes they’ll follow and enjoy

Memoir authors are often concerned with how much to prioritize chronology. Should you roll out the events of your life in the order that they happened—chronologically? Is that too amateur a structure?

No, you can do it and sound professional, but telling your story strictly in order is probably not your best strategy. Even if you generally hold to the chronology, sometimes it feels natural to explain a little more about a topic that comes up. You find yourself going into the past to give the reader some background or jumping ahead to reveal how the situation was resolved. And then you may worry that it will be confusing for the reader.

No Rules, Full Freedom

There’s no one answer. A memoir is successful when it’s tightly written and keeps the reader turning pages. That’s obvious but still not easy to accomplish, and there’s just no rule book you can follow to make sure your memoir is a compelling read. Try to look at that in a positive way: it gives you the freedom to make your own rules for telling your life story.

Currently the trend is to begin your book at a pivotal point in your story. Create drama right away to get the reader invested in what will happen to you. After that, most authors cover ground that came before that pivotal incident, going back as far as childhood, but some write theme-based memoirs that draw from the entire time line as they cover each major point.

No matter what the structure, as you fold out your story you’ll likely find many times when you want to take a side road to focus on a particular topic or person. Stopping to follow the entire arc for that topic will save you from having to bring closure to that segment later on, when the topic itself is not as pertinent. Let’s look at a few examples.

Jumping Ahead

Maybe you’re writing about high school. You talk about a teacher who was helpful to you during a traumatic event or who was just an adult who influenced you in some significant way. Twenty years later, you run into that teacher and, in catching up, you learn that the teacher kept up on your progress by asking various people how you were doing. That encounter isn’t important enough for you to mention it when your narrative reaches that time in your life twenty years later.

But during the high school chapter, when you introduce readers to this teacher, it’s worth taking them down a quick “rabbit hole” to say something like: “After graduation I lost touch with Mrs. Jones and didn’t see her again until I was nearly 40, when I ran into her as I was doing errands in town. She knew all about me. She was candid about telling me she would periodically mention my name to people and ask them if they knew how I was doing. I took that to mean she still cared.”

Another reason to pause the chronology is to give the reader factual information that has little to do with you. Let’s say you talk about moving to a historic section of a city. As the years go on, you visit some of the landmarks and take visitors to the high spots, and each time the historic surroundings give you insight into your personal history. It can be cumbersome to say that as it happens chronologically. Instead, when you tell readers about your move to this new residence, you can go over some of the history, perhaps giving the city’s founding date, population and top tourist attractions. Within that context, you can inform readers of the illuminating effect living there had on your life. You may address a topic like this by both leaping ahead in your life and looking back in history.

Remembering the Past

At some points you’ll probably find the need to explain things about your past. A common topic is heritage. What were your parents like? When you begin your book from the beginning of your life, you can start off with your parents, how they met and some facts about their background. But if you start off at some later point in your life, you still might want readers to have information about your parents and general heritage.

This is when you’ll sharpen your segue skills. An easy way is to just devote a chapter, something like “My Parents,” and then you don’t need much of a segue—but you still need a reason to have that chapter appear. There are a lot of ways to create a segue. Consider:

  • I wanted so badly to break down and cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. In that way, I guess I’m a lot like my mother. While Mom could be emotional in shifting to anger on a dime, I never saw her get the least bit weepy. I know she felt sadness, but her stoic upbringing taught her that crying indicated weakness. While she didn’t talk about her parents, I found out later that…..
  • I wanted so badly to break down and cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. In that way, I was nothing like my father. No one else had a dad who cried in front of them. One time I found him sobbing…..
  • One look at that car brought me back to the day I turned 16. My dad had brought home the same type of old clunker, thinking I’d be excited to learn to drive on a car that would be all mine. I thought Dad was so clueless, but my father loved us in his own way. He grew up as an only child in……

It takes some practice to go back and forth in time as you write what probably will be a mostly chronological memoir. You already know that the first draft of your memoir is just the beginning of a work in progress. It won’t take forever to finish your memoir, but it probably will take some rewriting and editing before you get it the way you want it. The chronology is an important piece, so be patient with yourself as you get the hang of flitting here and there in writing about your life.

Melissa Etheridge Explains How Memoir Writing Supports Healing After Tragedy

Memoir by Melissa Etheridge

Singer Melissa Etheridge has just written a memoir, Talking to My Angels, that includes revealing her grieving process after losing her son in 2020 to an opioid overdose. In a recent appearance on “Good Morning America,” Etheridge said her son’s death was one of the reasons she wanted to write the memoir.

Writing the memoir helped her with her grief, Etheridege said, in several ways:

  • Memoir is a vehicle for responding to people’s curiosity about you. Because Etheridge is a celebrity, she knew there would be questions about the circumstances surrounding her son’s death. “I knew as time went on that I would need to answer the questions, and I wanted to,” she said. “I’ve never really run away from truth, or life, as it’s happened, and I knew that I would need to explain this. So I thought that this might be a good time to do a book, so I can explain to people how I handled an addiction in the family, a death from the addiction in the family, and how we all got through it.”
  • For people going through something similar, memoir is a way to let them know they’re not alone. Etheridge explained, “I have seen, and know about, many parents who take on such a huge guilt and shame when one of their children becomes addicted, and has this problem, and dies from—this was fentanyl—and more and more this is happening. It can happen in any family. But the guilt and shame that so many take on…can really stop your own life.” She added that the person you lost doesn’t want you to stop your own life.
  • The process of writing is healing. Writing is “such a great healer,” she said. “To get it out…to then move on from it, not to just tell it over and over but to move on and say, ‘Yes, this happened.’”
  • Memoir teaches authors about themselves. “I have learned so much,” Etheridge said. “I learned how much I loved. Learning that can be so exhilarating. Wow, I loved that much that I hurt that much. And I love being human.”

Some of our Write My Memoirs members are finding a kind of solace just as Melissa Etheridge did—by writing out the facts of something unpleasant or tragic that happened to them and connecting with readers through their feelings about that time in their life. They’re discovering how powerful memoir is as a healing agent.

First Line of Your Memoir is the First Hook for the Reader

Woman reading with inset image of hook

We’ve talked a lot about where in your life you should start your memoir to really hook the reader. Successful memoirs start anywhere and everywhere, but today I’d say they most typically begin with a compelling, pivotal incident that took place in, say, the first third of the person’s life or the period of time the memoir addresses. I think that’s a great way to get readers invested from the beginning—they will want to see what comes next as well as what came before to lead up to that episode.

One Rule: Be Compelling

But some memoir authors start right at the beginning. Richard Nixon’s memoir launches his life with the sentence: “I was born in a house my father built.” Janis Ian’s 2009 memoir, Society’s Child: My Autobiography, begins, “I was born into the crack that split America.”

The idea is that even if you want to follow the simplest format—start with your first appearance in the world and proceed chronologically—you still should begin your book with something more interesting than the simple time and place of your birth. Add a fact, offer a surprise, be sarcastic—keep in mind that the reader can always put the book down and never pick it up again, so with each sentence, give readers a reason to keep reading.

Salvador Dali starts not with action but with thought. He opens his memoir by revealing how confident he was even as a child: “At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.” So you see there are no rules. I would have said this type of passive beginning would not work as well as a moment of high action, but it does work. It sets the mood for how the book will roll out.

Writing Order: Again, No Rules

Just because the reader will read your first line before anything else doesn’t mean you have to write the first line before anything else. You don’t even have to write the first chapter first.

Many authors find the way they can most easily start writing is to write about an episode they know very well but one that does not require a lot of emotion for them to tell. Then little by little, you’ll get accustomed to writing about yourself and it won’t be so difficult. When you’re ready, you can write a great first sentence, first paragraph and first chapter even if you’ve already finished much of the rest of the text.

 

Yes, It’s Still a Memoir When It Includes Extensive Info About Other People in Your Life

Sam Neill memoir

Part of the buzz around actor Sam Neill’s new memoir, Did I Ever Tell You This?, comes from the information Neill shares about his friend Robin Williams. While Sam Neill is a pretty well-known celebrity, he enjoys nowhere near the devotion and popularity that Williams continues to have nearly a decade after his death.

Drop Names to Sell Books

Name-dropping is a good way to get your memoir noticed. Celebrities hang out together and are expected to share details they glean from their personal relationships with people who may be even more famous than they are. In Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Rob Lowe divulges liberally about his co-stars, including Tom Cruise, from the movie “The Outsiders,” as well as everyone else he knows. It’s just a normal part of an actor’s memoir to dish about fellow celebrities.

You may not know any celebrities, but you may finding yourself focusing whole chapters of your memoir on other people. Perhaps you want to use your memoir to pay tribute to—or expose the misdeeds of—your parents. Or if you were abused by a spouse, you might write so much about the spouse that it’s practically a separate biography within your autobiography.

Still Your Memoir

Does this change the nature of what you’re writing? Are you still the author of a memoir, or is it some more general type of nonfiction book?

When you’re telling your story from your point of view, it’s a memoir. Even if you devote quite a bit of ink to someone else’s story, unless that person is truly the focus of the book, it’s still your memoir. One of the most famous books about two people is Just Kids by Patti Smith. You could argue that Just Kids is as much about the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe as it is about Patti Smith, but the book still is considered to be Smith’s memoir.

So go ahead and write all you want about other people who’ve had an impact on your life. That won’t change the way the book is perceived or marketed if you want to sell it. This will be your memoir, about you and the people who played a role in your life.

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Then just set up a chapter and start writing your memoir. Don’t worry about rules. There are no rules to writing your memoir; there are only trends. These trends are based on techniques and features identified in current top-selling memoirs. At best, they’re the flavor of the month. If you’re capturing your life in print for your family, for your own gratification or to inspire readers, rather than aiming to set off Hollywood screenplay bidding wars, these trends don’t even apply to you. You’ll write the memoir that suits you best, and it will be timeless, not trend-driven.There are no rules, but there are four steps:

1. Theme/framework
2. Writing
3. Editing/polishing
4. Self-publishing

You’ve researched this, too, and you’ve been shocked at the price for getting help with any one of those steps, much less all four. That’s because most memoir sites promise to commercialize your work. They’ll follow a formula based on current memoir trends, because they want to convince you that they can turn your memoir into a best-seller. These sites overwhelm you with unnecessary information not to help you, the memoir author, but to address Search Engine Optimization (SEO) algorithms so they can sell more.

That’s not what we do at Write My Memoirs. Our small community of coaches, writers and editors are every bit as skilled as any you’ll find, and we charge appropriately for their expertise and the time they’ll spend helping you craft a compelling, enjoyable read. But you won’t pay an upcharge for other websites’ commercialization, the marketing that follows, and the pages of intimidating “advice.” You can sell your book if you like—we have ISBNs available for you—but our organic process of capturing your story takes a noncommercial path.

If you want help with any or all of the four steps above, choose from our services or save money by selecting one of our packages. If you’d like to talk about what’s right for you, schedule a call. One year from now, you can be holding your published memoir in your hand. And at that point, it will be a big deal!