How Should Your Memoir End?

When you (finally!) write the last chapter of your memoir, you have two decisions to make: at what point to stop writing, and what type of sentence will supply a fitting end to your story. I think the first decision is easier than the second.

If your memoir is more of a full autobiography, you’ll probably end it at the present time. If the story concerns one period of your life or just one episode of your life, you can either end it naturally when the time period or episode is complete, or you can jump ahead to present day and end with a sort of epitaph that lets the reader know how you feel about it now or how things turned out in the long run.

On her website Live Write Thrive, C.S. Lakin, author of The Memoir Workbook, writes, “You should end your story at the place where the lessons have hit home—when you’ve taken those epiphanies you’ve gleaned from your experiences and now use them to light the way forward.”

It’s tougher to settle on the one exact sentence to end your memoir that will feel satisfying to readers and, even better, stick with them a while. Last year, Buzzfeed asked people to submit great ending sentences from literature. Here are some from famous fictional works that strike me as instructive for a memoir:

After all…tomorrow is another day.—Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

“Darling,” replied Valentine, “has not the count just told us that all human wisdom is summed up in two words? — Wait and hope.”—The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Now I understand that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.—My Ántonia by Willa Cather

But now I know that our world is no more permanent than a wave rising on the ocean. Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.—Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

But I don’t think us feel old at all. And us so happy. Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt. Amen.—The Color Purple by Alice Walker

These aren’t just sentences; they’re poetry. They’re poignant and thoughtful. You should craft every sentence in your book with care, but the final sentence is even more special. Take time to come up with something that caps off your story just right.

Naming Your Memoir: Not So Easy for Us Non-Celebrities

Michelle Obama gave her heralded memoir the unremarkable title of Becoming. Snarky comic George Carlin tried only semi-successfully working his famous “7 dirty words” stand-up routine into his autobiography by calling it the generic Last Words. Creative Desi Arnaz came up with the less-than-creative A Book, dramatically gifted Katharine Hepburn wrote the undramatically named memoir Me, the autobiography of trailblazing actor Sidney Poitier carries the trite title of The Measure of a Man, original Johnny Cash chose the unoriginal Cash, Dolly Parton and Ozzy Osbourne had similar thoughts with, respectively, Dolly and I Am Ozzy and genius inventor Ben Franklin devised The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. So maybe you don’t have to hurt your brain and struggle to figure out what to call your memoir, right?

Wrong! You are not a former first lady, disruptive comedian, Oscar-winning actor, iconic singer or founding father. You cannot rely on name recognition to attract readership, so you need a title that actually says something.

For guidance, let’s continue down the celebrity list. The late Carrie Fisher had a best-seller with Wishful Drinking. A pun is not an original idea, because puns are so popular for memoir titles and a bit of a copout since they’re clever by definition. But Fisher’s title—comedic, dramatic and tragic all at once—has so many implications that I like it a lot. Michael J. Fox named his autobiography Lucky Man: A Memoir. This simple title gives the reader immediate knowledge of the author’s outlook on life, even without the ironic twist implying that someone living with Parkinson’s Disease might be considered quite unlucky. Carly Simon’s Boys in the Trees sparks curiosity about which boys, which trees and what any of that has to do with the author.

Duplication is another thing to consider. With all of the books out there, duplicating a title is a strong possibility. Using your own name in the title is the most obvious way to avoid that, but it’s not the only idea. Tina Fey’s famous Bossypants has a memorable name that pretty much ensures uniqueness. Crafting a very long title increases the chances that yours will be the only one to have it. Consider Billy Crystal’s memoir, called Still Foolin’ ’Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? A funny title is great for an upbeat memoir, but even comedians run the gamut on this dynamic. Both Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea by Chelsea Chandler and Yes Please by Amy Poehler earned rave reviews, but I think we know which one gets the catchy title award.

If there’s an ultimate title to emulate, I’d choose Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. A title doesn’t get better than that—revealing that the author’s life has provided insight into the feeling of being caged while inviting the reader to look inside to find out where the joy or optimism—the “singing”— comes in. But Angelou is a poet; we shouldn’t hold ourselves to that standard. We ordinary, non-poet, non-celebs should put some thought into it, test out a few of our title finalists on friends and family and then give it our best shot. And if all else fails, yes, there’s a Buzzfeed quiz that will create a memoir title for you.