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.

How to Find Your Writer’s Voice

Writer's voice woman with microphone

Sound like yourself but only like the writer inside you.

“When did you start writing for that company?”

The question caught me off-guard. Like my colleague who was asking it, I’ve focused much of my career writing in and about the professional beauty salon industry. She was referring to an article I’d written for a beauty product distributor, but I knew that the piece had no byline.

“How did you know I wrote that?” I asked her.

She laughed. “Of course that was you,” she said, taking for granted that I knew I had an identifiable writing style. But until then I did not know that my “writer’s voice” was recognizable. And I wasn’t entirely pleased, because I didn’t want everything I wrote for different clients to sound the same.

It did explain why writing had become so much more effortless as I grew more experienced. I just wrote the way I wrote, evolving over time but always sounding like the writer inside myself. By this time, my writer’s voice had become indistinguishable from my brand.

Start with Confidence and Be Yourself

Every time you receive positive feedback when someone reads what you’ve written, you gain confidence. It’s that confidence that leads you to writing in an authentic way that inherently communicates your perspective on, well, everything. Being yourself when you write is the key to finding your writer’s voice.

Think about the essential you and how you would describe yourself not as a writer but as a person. Place yourself at a point on a continuum between opposites like formal/casual, dramatic/low-key, extravert/introvert, teacher/learner, proper/disrupting, obeying/rebelling, cautious/adventurous, traditional/unconventional—I’m sure you can come up with more. As you get to know yourself in this manner, you’ll let your writing reflect your personality.

There’s No Shortcut—You Must Write a Lot

The more you write, the smoother the process becomes. I think that’s what happened to me. Because writing is my career, I’m always writing. I never consciously developed a writer’s voice, but as my work has taken me into different genres, I’ve brought along the thread of me, so even though each project is different, there’s something about it that sounds consistent.

So write! Even if you’re in the middle of a writing project such as a memoir, take a break and write something else. Catch a friend up on what you’ve been doing by sending a long email. Write some flash fiction or poetry. Write an op-ed or letter to the editor—you don’t have to send it anywhere. Or give yourself an assignment such as writing about the funniest thing that’s happened to you this week.

Of Course, Read

Always have something you’re reading. Whether it’s a memoir, a biography, a book of fiction or just a magazine feature article, every piece of writing gives you access to the author’s voice. Maybe you love a particular mystery writer or author of historical fiction. What do you like about the writing?

Try two exercises. First, write a few paragraphs in a style as close as you can to an author you enjoy. Second, take those same paragraphs and “make them your own.” Examine what you’re doing that changes the work to transform it, and that may be your “signature style,” your voice.

Your Voice May be Quiet in the First Draft

My first draft gets the story out, and in that draft specifically I do not consciously write in any voice. Only when I edit and polish and rework the writing do I begin to at least notice some of my own classic writing habits.

For example, I really try not to repeat random words not essential to the topic, or at least not use them close together. So when I read that I wrote, “I stared at him for the longest time,” and three sentences later I say, “She couldn’t stop staring,” you can be sure I will change one or the other. Maybe I glared or she couldn’t stop gazing. The funny thing is that when I do this, I often end up replacing the original word—“stared/staring” in this example—in both instances. I find two preferable words and use those.

So which is my writer’s voice? The first draft when I write to get my ideas down or the more polished version when I’ve put on my editor hat? You may believe that the free-flowing first draft is more representative of my true voice, but I would say it’s the edited second—or tenth—draft. As I read what I’ve written, I hear the cadence and can tell when it’s off. I think about the precision of the words and know when something is not up to my standards. So it’s subsequent drafts that contain the identifying markers of my writer’s voice.

Finally, Don’t Overthink It

Your writer’s voice is already in you. It may not be on paper/screen, but it’s in you. Write frequently and stay aware of signs that you’re developing a recognizable style, but don’t force it. If you keep writing, keep reading and know the essence of who you are, the voice will emerge. As I found out, it may take someone like a friend or colleague to point it out.

2,024 Reasons to Write Your Memoir This Year

2024 reasons to write your memoir

Numerology Offers a Lot of Motivation to Say: New Year, New Book.

Like a lot of people, memoir authors look for signs. Should I write my life story? I’ve started my memoir, but should I finish it? Will my memoir be any good if I write it? Give me a sign. Please!

According to numerologists, the coming year is full of signs that point to: Yes, write your memoir already. Wait no longer.

The First Two-Thousand Reasons

This is a lot to bite off, so let’s swallow the first 2,000 reasons in two big chunks and then take our time chewing on the last 24 reasons. The first 1,000 reasons boil down to the simple fact that you wanna do it. You want to chronicle your entire life or a segment or more of your life. You probably have even more than 1,000 reasons for wanting to write your book. In general, you should do what you want to do as long as it’s legal. So do it.

We can group the second 1,000 reasons as well, which come down to a sort of obligation to live authentically and leave a legacy or some type of inspiration. Your life, every life, is fascinating in its uniqueness. Your life, every life, is worthy of documenting. Your life, every life, provides lessons that you can pass along to others. There are at least 1,000 reasons for someone to want to read about your life and derive inspiration from it.

The Rest of the Reasons for Writing Your Memoir in 2024

Now let’s go more slowly as we tackle the remaining 24 reasons for you to write your memoir this year. I can come up with 24 generic reasons for you to start or complete this project—it makes a perfect New Year’s resolution, writing about your life is cathartic, writing a book is a very satisfying project, you’re not getting any younger, etc. Or you can customize 24 reasons that apply to you in particular. Maybe you have a high-number birthday coming up this year, or your children asked you to write up your life, or the part of your life you want to document has just ended and it’s fresh in your mind. Go ahead and write out those 24 reasons—can’t hurt!

But the 24 reasons I’m supplying here have their foundation in numerology. Even though I don’t believe at all in the non-science of numerology, I’m finding it interesting that the characteristics numerologists are assigning to the year 2024 align extremely well with the goal of writing a memoir. And maybe you do have some belief in this. Those of us who are skeptical still can have some fun and accept whatever motivation the universe seems to be sending us.

I’ll explain them first and then list them 1 through 24 in summary.

The Numerological Process of Evaluating the Year

Numerologists combine three approaches when predicting a year’s mood. First, they take each of the numbers individually. This coming year, then, since I don’t think zero counts, we’ll look at the numbers 2 and 4. Second, they add up the digits—2+0+2+4=8. They use the sum, which is 8 in this case, as the most significant number to analyze. Third, they drop the two-thousand and consider only 24, add those digits, and come up with the number 6.

To me, this means they cover a lot of bases. If 8 doesn’t work that well, they still have 6 and 2 and 4. But I’ll try to keep my snarky comments out of this and get back to taking the leap of faith.

A Close Look at the Numbers 2, 4, 6, and 8

According to The Times of India, the number 2 refers to the moon, and the moon is a sign that indicates money, work, jobs, abundance and emotions. Since there are two incidences of the number 2 in the year 2024, we can expect an abundance of abundance.

The number 4, according to the same source, is associated with Rahu, which is connected to new technology, ideas, opportunities and gains. Rahu is an imaginary shadow planet, so take that signage for what it’s worth.

When we drill into the sum of 2+4, which is 6, we connect to the planet Venus. This softens the year with a focus on love and affection, but it’s accompanied by challenges and growth. Numerologists encourage us to be true to our emotions involving love and affection.

The number 8 is associated with a lot of positivity. You know how a figure 8 loops around with no end? When you think about it, that’s a sideways infinity symbol. So 8 represents eternity and the totality of the universe. Picture it as “what goes around comes around,” and you’ll see why 8 is considered a sign of karma.

The Significance of 2024 Numerology for Memoir

According to horoscope-focused refinery29.com, the Egyptians saw 8 as bringing balance and cosmic order, while in tarot it’s a card of magic and inspired action. That website provides the perfect message for this year’s hopeful memoir authors: “Whenever this tarot card shows up in a reading, the message is: ‘You have everything you need to make stuff happen — so, go for it!’”

That same energy comes up in other descriptions of 2024 numerology. Well and Good quotes numerologist Novalee Wilder, who predicts that 2024 will be a year of “radical honesty and transparency.” That sounds like a candid memoir to me!

The same website notes that another numerologist, Sarah Faith Gottesdiener, urges people to confront “the ways in which you’ve been lying to yourself or holding yourself back from living the way you truly want.” She says it’s a time for finding and nurturing your inner spark and following your heart’s true path. To me, that means that 2024 is the year to stop holding back from being the memoir author your heart wants you to be.

That article paraphrases Gottesdiener’s advice: “Another aligned way to uncover your desires and identify your bigger-picture goals is to self-reflect through journaling. Just being able to put those goals on paper might just point you toward the first step you’ll want to take in 2024 to bring them to life.” Instead of your goals, put your whole memoir down on paper!

Angel Number

Over on astrology.com, they talk about “angel numbers.” You guessed it—2024 is an angel number. This website notes: “Number 2024 is a spiritual awakening number, as it symbolizes the beginning of a spiritual journey, developing your inner wisdom, and trusting your intuition.”

Again, is there any better description of the journey of writing a memoir? To add to that, astrology.com also mentions 2024 as “a positive sign for your career and financial prospects.” If you’re hoping to sell your memoir, better get it out in 2024!

If you haven’t yet put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, make this the year you write that first sentence. If you’re well on your way, decide to finish a first draft by the end of the year. If your first draft has been sitting in a drawer, get past your fear or whatever roadblocks are keeping you from polishing the draft, finding an editor, querying publishers or self-publishing. Get your book finished!

If you’re not feeling the numerology for 2024, I’ll offer some final inspiration by sharing what I learned in my numerology research about the last day of the current year. That will be 12/31/23. Dropping the slashes turns it into 123123. Consider that your count to get started. 123… 123… go!

Here’s the listing 1 through 24:

The number 2 is for the moon, which promises conditions perfect for writing and publishing a memoir:
1. Money
2. Work
3. Abundance
4. Emotions

The number 4 indicates:
5. Ideas
6. Opportunities
7. Gains

Add 2+4 to get the number 6, which offers the full experience of reviewing your life’s important points:
8. Love
9. Affection
10. Challenges
11. Growth

Add 2+0+2+4 to get the number 8, which is associated with words you could pair with what your memoir creates in the world:
12. Eternity
13. Balance and order
14. Inspired action and magic

Based on the full number 2024, numerologists give advice that easily applies to goals of memoir:
15. Stop holding yourself back
16. Live your true desires
17. Find your inner spark
18. Reach levels of radical honesty and transparency
19. Write it all down

2024 is an “angel number” that means:
20. The beginning of a spiritual journey
21. Developing your inner wisdom
22. Trusting your intuition
23. Career advancements and financial increases

The last day of 2023 tells you to get started:
24. 12/31/23 = 123 123 go!

Getting Feedback on Your Memoir Manuscript

Two little girls sharing a book, giving feedback on a memoir

Figure out how many people you will ask to read your book and what information you will want them to provide.

Are you thinking about asking someone to read your memoir manuscript? How many readers? How will you select them? How far into writing the manuscript will you wait before you start asking for feedback on your memoir?

This Story Will Not Go in My Memoir

Back in college, I had to make an oral presentation that would count for most of my grade in my “Myth Into Literature” class. Departing from the Greek, Roman and random other literary myths we were studying, me being me, I decided to focus on American figures—either totally mythical like Paul Bunyan or based in truth with mythical trimmings like Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crockett. It was very fun to research and write this, and I was happy to have settled on a topic that held my interest. I don’t know why I didn’t include a woman, but back then we didn’t put diversity into the equation, and that’s a whole other discussion.

I knew how to write a paper, but I was less confident that I could speak my way through a compelling presentation, so I was more concerned with the delivery than the content. I wanted to practice out loud to minimize my anxiety and avoid a shaky voice, and that would help most if I had a live audience. The night before my presentation, a friend agreed to watch me deliver it, and when I finished he proceeded to list all the problems with every aspect of the presentation. He addressed both the content and the delivery, and I don’t think he had a single positive comment about either one.

I was not going to stay up all night recreating it, and at that point I couldn’t take the emotional risk of trying again with a different friend, so I told myself all sorts of things to neutralize the bad review. My friend was a very smart guy who didn’t do college well; he was into at least year five of a four-year program and nowhere near graduating. I decided that this had to mean he didn’t intuitively understand what professors wanted. I, on the other hand, had good grades and especially did well on papers rather than tests. Or maybe he was lashing out for some reason—trying to undermine my success. He could have been tired, hungry, not feeling well, resentful at having to spend his evening on academics, whatever.

Be Confident in Yourself

Eventually I recovered enough to stop replaying his reaction in my mind. I read over my presentation one more time, and to me it sounded perfectly fine. Planning to trust in my own abilities, I just had to keep my nerves in check and deliver it, and the following day that’s what I did. I’m not sure what my grade was, but something like A minus rings a bell.

Now, it’s been a long time since college. Since I can barely remember what I did last week, this episode in college must have created a significant impact since it has stuck with me. My conclusion at the time: So much for second-guessing yourself after a trusted friend criticizes your work. I didn’t run my stuff by anyone after that. If I liked it, my own evaluation was good enough.

But Verify

Do not learn that lesson from me. In time, I switched my conclusion to just the opposite—I had needed more feedback, not less. If I’d asked another five people to listen, I’m guessing that I would have received enough positive reaction to consider the first reviewer just an outlier.

I don’t know if that small episode in my life influenced the way I advise memoir authors today, but I do lean toward asking a lot of people to read through the book—especially the beginning of the book. By definition, people are the public, and the public is probably where you’ll be marketing your memoir if you’re not writing only for your family and friends. People have all different strengths and interests, and even if you discount some of the comments that come your way, I think a range of opinions will benefit you.

The people you’ll ask will not, or at least not necessarily, be formal editors. You’ve probably heard them referred to as “beta readers.” The major question you want them to answer is very simple: Does each page make you want to turn to the next? Does each chapter leave you with curiosity about what will happen?

People to Choose

Let’s say you decide against crowdsourcing strangers online, which is probably a good decision because you don’t know where your book’s words could end up. So instead, you look around your own circle. Who will make a good reader to give you feedback?

  • People named in your memoir. I’m not talking about someone you document as doing great harm to you. Most authors hope that person will never see the book at all, much less ahead of publication. But people you mention just as playing a role in your life—parents, siblings, friends, colleagues—might describe an episode that will augment or differ from your memories. You’re better off knowing that before you publish your book. It could be a simple fact that you remembered wrong about the person or maybe details about an event that would add color to your narrative. If you interviewed someone for your book, I think that person should get a preview of how you wrote up the information, especially if you don’t want your book to harm your relationship with the person.
  • People who love you—or at least like you! It’s risky to ask someone to read your book, because criticism is hard to hear. Readers who care about you will lovingly use a velvet hammer in sharing any negative opinions.
  • Avid readers. People who read a lot can discern the difference between an amateurish book and one that sounds as if it were professionally written. They can identify holes in the narrative and spots that are repetitive. They can alert you to passages that sound forced or just unnatural. And they certainly can address the question about whether the read was compelling enough to make them want to finish the book.
  • People with a writing, editing or English literature background. You’re not asking anyone to edit your work. But someone who has formal training in writing or book development can identify why a section doesn’t work that well. Maybe there’s a run-on sentence, a dangling modifier or too much passive voice.

If you hear the same problem from several readers, take it seriously. If one person you trust a lot mentions something, give it a lot of thought as well even if no one else brings that up. Then, ultimately, just as I learned with my oral presentation in college, you have to trust your gut. It’s your story, and you get to tell it however you like.

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.

Lessons for Athletes Who Want to Write Memoirs—And Vice Versa

Far view of a track meet
This week in July 2023, the National Senior Games are taking place in Pittsburgh, and I’m competing in track and field. If you’re over 50 and enjoy athletic competition in any sport, check out Senior Games. It’s fun. But that’s another topic for another time, or here’s a link to read a piece I wrote about a previous Nationals event. But what you all want to do is write memoirs.

We All Have Our Gifts

In regular life, I’m a writer, editor and memoir coach. I’m good at all three. My writing comes naturally, so that part’s a gift. I learned to edit by going to graduate school in journalism, so that’s my training. When I kind of accidentally became owner of Write My Memoirs, I taught myself little by little how to coach memoir authors, so that expertise comes from trial and error, consulting with colleagues and other types of experience.
In athletic competition, I run, jump and throw. I’m bad at all three. I was never an athlete of any sort. I can swim and I played tennis as a teen, but I was never good enough to compete in any sport. Track and field is way out of my wheelhouse. Despite that, in middle age I started running for exercise—just two miles most days. So when my husband began competing in Senior Games, I got tired of being a spectator and decided I’d enter some of the running races. Eventually I added javelin and two jump events.
The best I can say for myself is that I don’t always come in last. Sometimes I do. In this group of exceptional senior athletes, I am simply not very good. I don’t have a gift the way I do with writing, but I don’t mind. I can train and practice and teach myself.
If you’re feeling that, as a writer, you’re simply not very good, I can relate because of what I do that I feel inadequate about. But you know what we say in Senior Games? Even when you land in last place, you beat all the people sitting at home on the couch. Try thinking in those terms when you write your memoir. You’re doing something a lot of people want to do but never get past page one.
Here are a few ways I can align your desire to write with my desire to compete in track and field.

Lessons from Comparing Athletic Competition to Writing a Memoir

  1. Like my triple jump, your writing is something you can improve. I watched videos and read information to figure out the steps for the triple jump. I knew that it wasn’t a popular event, which is how I came in seventh place in my age category in this year’s Nationals! Okay, that also was last place, but I got a ribbon. I know it seems as if everyone is writing a memoir, but in terms of percentage of the population, you are a rare bird if you take your memoir the whole way to publication. Even if you don’t write the best memoir ever published, you still get a ribbon! You’ll be an author. You’ll have a book to hand out to friends and family. It’s huge.
  2. Just as I don’t enjoy running, you don’t have to enjoy writing in order to write a memoir. I run as part of my general fitness program, not because I attain a “runner’s high” or whatever dedicated runners seem to feel. You can look at your memoir as something you’re doing for yourself—not the part of yourself that wants to spend time doing something enjoyable, but the part of yourself that wants a targeted result. You want to produce your memoir. To realize that goal, you have to sit down and write it, or at least hire someone to take your information and write it for you.
  3. In competition, experts tell us all to just compete against yourself. Go at your own pace. Don’t burn out. So I run as much as I can as long as I can get myself to do it. That comes to two miles at least three times a week. If it rains or something unexpected comes up in my schedule, I wait until the next day. Writing is not that different. You don’t have to finish your memoir within one year or commit to a writing regimen of at least 30 minutes a day or set up an ideal writing environment. You know when you’re slacking, so at that point pick up the pace. Just don’t let it go completely. As with running, you keep putting one foot in front of the next, and sooner or later you get to the finish line.
  4. I’m the only “me” there is. Each of us is unique. There are so many aspects to being a person, and we differ in all of them, from the way our bodies are built to the way we think to the way our lives have progressed. My challenges in competing are different from other athletes’ challenges. Some have it easier, but many have it harder. I’m lucky to be able to run at all. Because you’re unique, your memoir will be special. If your story were already out there, you wouldn’t have to write it. Value the way you approach a project like memoir writing in your own way. Appreciate that your unique life will make an interesting narrative.

Your Memoir is Important

This isn’t a zero-sum game. I can compete alongside athletes much better than I am, with no delusion that I might win, and still be valuable as a participant in Senior Games. And you can offer a memoir that will add to the literature of what it’s like to live a particular life.

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.

 

A Memoir Boosts Your Personal Brand—Even When You’re Already Famous

Molly Shannon's memoir

So many of the famous people who have published well-written memoirs in the past five or ten years have gotten a boost not only in their bank accounts but in their “personal brand.” They become respected in a new way. One great example is actor Jennette McCurdy, who was only marginally well-known before her memoir, I’m Glad My Mom Died, blew up the best-seller charts.

Memoirs Create Closeness

It’s not just that these celebrities are adding an impressive credential—book author—to their résumés. When a celebrity’s book is compelling and sells well, it’s typically because the content is raw, honest, and revealing. The writing tends to be courageous, showing the author’s vulnerability and sharing failures and other low points. This all helps the person’s star rise, because readers/fans feel closer to them.

You wouldn’t think someone as globally famous as Bruce Springsteen would gain much from writing a memoir, but his critically acclaimed book opened him up in a way that even his most personal lyrics never did. An artist down a rung or two on the fame ladder like Dave Grohl, whose memoir has also received high praise, expands people’s perceptions of him.

The latest memoir author to fall into that mid-level of celebrity is Molly Shannon, whose very recent memoir, Hello Molly!,  tells of Shannon’s lifelong effects of trauma from losing her mother, sister and cousin in a car accident when she was a little girl. She also chronicles her rise to fame and dishes about lots of “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) cast members, but it’s that early episode that draws you in and makes you feel that you really know her. Book sales may very well have helped her to snag a hosting spot on this past weekend’s SNL, which in turn got her a visit to “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” One of the things Fallon pointed out was that Shannon’s book had just been made available in paperback.

You’ll Shine Up Your Personal Brand

Remember all of this as you write your own memoir. You’ll be a published author, so that’s an accomplishment in itself. But you’ll also establish a type of intimacy with every reader in a way that you cannot otherwise achieve—even in person. There’s just something about a candid, forthcoming memoir that goes deep into the heart. Write your memoir, and your personal brand will shine.

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.

Memoir or Biography, Sometimes Extensive Research Is Necessary

Book "The Suitcase"

Often memoir authors look back at their lives only to find a lot of missing pieces. Memory takes us only so far, especially in a long life. Write My Memoirs advises everyone to keep a diary—you never know when you might decide to write your life story, and a diary makes the process not only much easier but also more accurate.

With no diary to rely upon, you may end up doing research. It’s common for memoir authors to visit cities where they once lived, request public records involving themselves and their family, and pore over newspaper clippings offering facts and figures pertinent to the story.

Biography Writing

When you author a biography, which Write My Memoirs is also happy to help you craft and publish, you don’t even have your own memories to source. Maybe the person about whom you’re writing is alive and, even if that’s not the case, you may find people who knew the person and are willing to speak with you. Or you could be writing about someone whose life span is too long ago for that. In either case, you’ll probably need to pursue independent research and original reporting in order to write a biography.

A friend of Write My Memoirs told us about her cousin, Debbie Taussig-Boehner, who found out firsthand how much research it takes to flesh out a story. In her case, it was more of a mystery, even though it was about her own father, Vladimir George Taussig. It started with a simple suitcase Taussig-Boehner and her sister took possession of when Taussig died. For decades that followed, neither of the sisters opened the suitcase. Finally, looking for something to do in her early retirement, Taussig-Boehner decided to crack open the suitcase and have a look inside. From that moment on, her retirement would not be boring.

Fleshing Out a Mystery

Emptying the deteriorating suitcase, Taussig-Boehner discovered letters, pictures and artifacts. There were matchbooks from restaurants and government reports. Soon a story emerged. Her father had grown up in what was then Czechoslovakia and spent time in England and China before settling in the United States. He led an exciting life filled with adventures and political intrigue, plus he was a bit of a playboy.

For Taussig-Boehner, it became an irresistible call to flesh out the entire saga. Following the breadcrumbs led her to New York, Montreal, Prague and Shanghai. She met people who could fill in some blanks and identify people in photos. After two years of research, Taussig-Boehner brought in a young writer, Lauren Housman, to help her put together the narrative. By then she had the information organized and knew she had a lively tale. The co-authors then published their book, The Suitcase: The Life and Times of Captain X.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by how much information you still have to gather, know that you’re not alone. Many authors spend months or years ferreting out the facts. Everyone says the writing is the hard part, but it’s only one of the components. Good research produces true-life, compelling stories. Every life may not be as fascinating as Taussig’s, but to family and friends it will be just as interesting when it’s accurate and rich in detail.

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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!