Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

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.

5 New Year’s Resolutions That Fulfill Your Dream of Writing a Memoir

A paper with "New Year Resolutions" written on it, and a pen

If you want 2023 to finally be the year that you write your memoir, you can, of course, just list “write my memoir” as one of your New Year’s Resolutions or even your only New Year’s Resolution. But you also can use writing your memoir to fill the slot of any of five different resolutions.

1. Leave my family and friends a record of my life. This is a great resolution to make. How many times do we hear people say they just wish they could ask a parent or grandparent some questions? Your memoir will paint a vivid picture of what it was like to grow up at the time and place of your childhood with your parents and extended family. It’s such a personal, appreciated gift to give the people who love you, especially those who share some of the same family members.

2. Get my perspective down in writing. Sharing your opinions and viewpoints is another great goal to have for the coming year, and memoir is the perfect format. Everyone talks, but who listens? With a compelling memoir, you’ll have a captive audience of readers.

3. Work through difficult or traumatic life episodes. Journaling is becoming more and more recognized as an effective tool for facing a past that may frighten, sadden or anger you. It may even still be hidden from you. Begin your writing as a journal, and then turn it into a memoir. Whether you share it with anyone is your decision, but this can be the year you defeat your demons through memoir writing.

4. Publish my first book. If you want to be an author, what do they say? Write what you know. Your own life is a good place to start as an author. Remember that a memoir typically focuses on a narrower slice of your life than your entire autobiography, so this first book could lead to more books about fascinating you—or once you’ve gotten into the writing habit you can go on to fiction or another nonfiction topic that interests you.

5. Help others. Many memoir authors write about a life challenge that resonates with readers. These authors hope that chronicling how they triumphed over difficulties will give the next person confidence that things can improve. If you fit this description as an author, the sooner you can get your story out there, the better.

With the dawn of 2023 just around the corner, your goals take on a new shine. They’re ready to go, and you have 12 months to fulfill those resolutions. Write your memoir in 2023!

Memoir Authors Should Study “Finding Me” by Viola Davis

Screen capture of Goodreads review

Every successful memoir offers lessons for memoir authors. Celebrities who want to write a memoir have an easy time getting an advance from a publishing company, but having that advance, or even being a celebrity, does not guarantee that the memoir will be a best-seller. To appeal to readers, it has to be well-written and tell a compelling story, just like most other best-selling books. So when a celebrity memoir does sell briskly, it’s worth taking a look for those lessons.

Lessons for Your Memoir Writing

Viola Davis’s Finding Me is a good place to start. Any rise to fame is at least marginally interesting if described well, but Davis has more than that to work with. She had a childhood framed in extreme poverty, bullying and parental fighting, and she experienced rejection after rejection because casting directors didn’t find her pretty enough, or light-skinned enough, for leading roles.

Davis tells her story in ordinary, yet eloquent, language while quoting dialogue in the voices of people speaking casually, people less educated than she eventually was. She draws in the reader with every sentence and makes that look easy.

From the Write My Memoirs review on Goodreads, here are a few other tips this book offers memoir writers:

“Like many memoirs, Finding Me begins with a pivotal moment in the author’s life. In a lot of celebrity memoirs, that moment recalls a time along the journey of fame—after its launch but not too far in. Instead, Davis starts her memoir with an episode from her childhood. That’s because the little girl, Viola, influences the entire story. Davis always goes back to who that girl was, the hard life she endured, and who she remains in memory, legacy and perpetuity.

“From that episode, Davis jumps way ahead to a related anecdote from her time as the star of the TV show How to Get Away with Murder and then to another pertinent episode soon after, at her therapist’s office when she was 53, shortly before she wrote this book. Bridging little Viola with both famous, multi-award-winning Ms. Davis and private Viola Davis sets the tone for the book: they’re all the same person. The actor we applaud is still the child inside.”

Specific Devices in Memoir Writing

Memoir authors often reach for segues to soften the lines between topics. Davis uses a kind of basic technique that shows even sophisticated memoirs can rely on common writing devices. To tell readers about her mother’s background, she starts with how she always studies her mom’s face whenever they’re together. She can see the lines and wear and tear from a rough life. Then she goes into that life. When she’s finished, it’s easy to transition to her father’s life.

Your story may have many of the same elements of Davis’s memoir—rising above a tough childhood, for example. Read Finding Me to inspire you to tell your story in a way that keeps the pages turning.

Writing a Memoir about a Traumatic Experience

Bulletin board posted with types of trauma

Documenting trauma is a common motivation for writing a memoir. But to write this type of memoir, authors have to go through the event emotionally all over again. That’s a big hurdle. At Write My Memoirs, we want to help you conquer that challenge.

Roxane Gay, whose own memoir documents trauma, advises writers to be raw, honest and pretty explicit. She believes your depiction of your horrifying experience should fall short of traumatizing your reader but still provide enough graphic detail so that the reader may have to put down your book for an hour or even a day before finishing that part.

Be Gentle With Yourself When Writing About Trauma

Going over what happened to you is something you can’t force. Chances are that by the time you’re considering writing this memoir, months or years have already passed since the traumatic event occurred. You didn’t just sit down at your computer the next day. But maybe the time still isn’t right.

Ask yourself whether you’re ready to more or less relive the event. If you feel that you cannot handle it, there’s no harm in waiting longer, letting more time pass between the you that faced trauma and the you that is writing the book. It’s difficult to write about it.

More Tips on Trauma Documentation

One way to find out whether you’re up to the task is to start out by writing just 15 or 20 minutes a day. Keep that up for a week, and you’ll know whether telling your story is providing a sense of relief or compounding your anxiety.

Writing for Writer’s Digest, author Kelly Clink shares tips from her own experience writing about her brother’s death by suicide. She advises writers not to keep this writing goal to yourself. As you’re writing about a traumatic event, she says, it will help to alert your therapist, family members and friends that you’re in the process of sorting out this terrible event by writing about it.

Making Your Story Relatable

Clink and other experts make the distinction between a memoir you write as therapy and a memoir you write to sell. The former is for you, the latter for everyone else. If your goal is to get closure or work out your feelings of trauma, then include the content you need for your own wellbeing. If your goal is to help others, that’s a whole different book. In that case, you’re writing for them, not for you, and you should be more selective in your content as well as less indulgent in your writing voice. Of course, you can do both. Write the book for yourself, and use that as the foundation for crafting a different, more marketable memoir.

The way to write for others is to make your personal story relatable to a lot of people. Think about what they will want to take from your experience. That doesn’t mean you should make it a how-to guide on recovering from trauma. Tell the story as a dramatic, compelling, page-turning saga. Then it can be both a valuable book for your readers and a statement of your own triumph over, or acceptance of, your traumatic ordeal.

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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!