Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

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.

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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!