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.