31 Questions Answered: How To Start A Memoir
As a memoir coach, I get lots of questions (and I LOVE them!). My goal is to empower writers, so here are the most common questions I get — as well as my honest responses.
As a memoir coach, clients regularly ask me questions like, “How do I even get started?” and “How do I work through the overwhelm of so much material?” and “How do I manage all the various bits of writing I’ve amassed through the years?” and “How do I string everything together in a way that makes sense to readers?” and “How does the publishing world even work?”
When writing memoir, the overwhelm is REAL. I’ve worked with more than 100 memoir clients and, after writing two books of my own, I’m currently writing my own memoir (and fwiw, I’m working with a coach). Believe me, I totally know the struggle.
If you’ve ever considered writing your life story but don’t know where to begin, worry not. I see you, and I’ll try to address all your pressing queries.
I’ve grouped the questions into 5 sections:
How Do I Get Started Writing A Memoir?
What Are The Craft Essentials of Memoir?
Are There “Rules” & “Best Practices” for Memoir?
What Happens After I Complete the First Draft of My Memoir? and
What Do I Need To Know About the World of Publishing?
Believe me, the following answers are BRIEF, but they give you a one-stop, GENERAL sense of the memoir landscape.
And, if you have questions that weren’t addressed here, feel free to post them in the comments. I’ll do my best to answer them asap.
How Do I Get Started Writing A Memoir?
I want to write a memoir. How do I start?
There’s honestly no “one right way” to start, so you can’t screw this part up. Hooray!
Ideally, though, you’ll feel drawn to put your story out there — it’s like a pull that tugs at your conscience. Maybe someone encouraged you to write your life story. Maybe you’ve felt it in your gut. If you find yourself thinking about possible scenes and storylines and experiences that seem worthy of sharing, then you’re on the right track. And, to manage the initial overwhelm of all your thoughts, feelings, and material, I suggest doing the following at the outset:
a. Decide on an overall theme and/or timeframe for your memoir (you can definitely have more than one theme, but try to identify the main one).
b. Create a working timeline of the major events/scenes you’re considering including.
c. Draft a loose and fluid book proposal that includes a synopsis, target audience, and chapter summaries. This may change several times, but a book proposal helps SO MUCH to distill your ideas and organize your thoughts.
What if I don’t have a solid idea about the “final” or “concluding” message I want to share with readers?
That’s okay. Seriously. We often write to figure things out, so buckle up, Buttercup, and enjoy the ride.
And, fun fact: You may not even “figure things” out by the end of your manuscript, and that’s okay, too. For many of us, writing is all about processing life. You may *think* you know the message you plan to conclude with…only to discover that your perspective changes while writing. The key is to do the writing and trust that the process may very well help you figure things out as you go.
Should I handwrite or type my manuscript?
There’s a ton of research that says drafting by hand does wonders for the finished product. I love handwriting first, then typing my notes into a word processing program. I find that I’m much more candid, creative, approachable, and HONEST when I scribble things down and jot my ideas. I don’t worry about full sentences or grammar. My thoughts tend to be far more fluid when I’m writing by hand versus typing. Do what works for you, but if you can, give handwriting a try.
For what it’s worth, one of the BEST tools I’ve ever purchased is a Remarkable 2. Imagine an iPad and a Kindle hooking up and giving birth to a perfect little device designed for writers. I could write forever about this piece of equipment. It was definitely an investment I made in my writing (all in, it was about $600 with taxes and delivery, which I saved up for) and it’s transformed my career as a writer and a small business owner. It helps me focus on my projects (because I can’t access the Internet), allows me to handwrite, helps me easily organize my thoughts and notes and RANDOM SCRIBBLING, converts my handwriting to text (WHAAAAAT?), and it’s gorgeous. If Remarkable is looking for a president for their fan club, I’ll be first in line. By the way, I don’t get any kickbacks from Remarkable. I’m just a HUGE fan.
I’m really scattered. I’ve been jotting notes everywhere for years. I have scenes (and ideas for scenes) on notepads and on my laptop and even in the notes app on my phone. It’s a mess. How do I organize everything?
This is often the issue that stresses people out the most — to the point they feel paralyzed and/or even give up. So how DO writers manage ALL THE MATERIAL??
What helps is to realize that we CAN’T include everything. If you need to write yourself a permission slip to drive that notion home, do it now so we can move on. I mean seriously: If you’ve lived any sort of human existence, you know deep in your soul that it’s literally impossible to include everything you’ve done/seen/thought/heard/experienced. There’ll be lots of stuff that has to be left out — and that’s okay! Perhaps this will be your first of many memoirs!
But, for the purposes of THIS memoir, try to think about your central theme and/or the time period you’ll be writing about. Once you’ve done that, identify the scenes that best support your overall theme and/or fit into the time period you’re covering. There will, of course, be opportunities for flashbacks and lots of reflection, but when it comes to deciding on what goes in and what gets left out, it helps to set some boundaries (ie., a theme and/or timeframe).
What if I don’t have a great memory of certain conversations or details?
Do what you can with what you have and be transparent about what you don’t. I’ve been working with a 92-year-old client for the past year, and he amazes me with his ability to recall conversations, details, names, and settings. To be sure, many of his memories are fuzzy, and when faced with those moments, he accounts for them with the truth. When he can’t recall exactly what was said — he acknowledges this, then follows up with what he thinks might have been discussed. When he can’t conjure up the specific details of particular event, he outright owns his incomplete memory. In doing so, he endears himself to his readers and establishes trust by essentially saying, Hey, I’m human, I’m trying, and I can’t remember everything…
I’m unsure if I want to include certain details (or people) in my book. How do I decide what and who to keep in (or leave out)?
When you’re drafting your manuscript, put things down the way they happened, and decide later whether you want to keep things (or people) in or out of your book. In order to tell your most authentic story, it’s best to capture things as they occurred — and THEN go through the text with a discerning eye and decide what stays and what goes. Give yourself the freedom to write your story as it happened. You don’t have to show your draft to anyone. YOU get to make the call when it’s too personal or painful or private to publish, but that decision-making process happens after you’ve laid out your story and can look at it once its outside of you.
What Are The Craft Essentials of Memoir?
What if I’m not good at dialogue (or settings…or descriptive writing…or outlining…or…or…or…or…)
The fact is, no one writer is good at EVERYTHING, so quit trying to be perfect, okay? I work with so many writers and I can assure you that not one of us has a “lock” on every aspect of writing.
The sooner you realize that we ALL benefit from feedback and support and direction, the sooner you’ll quit beating yourself up for being human. Write what you can (and in the VOICE that comes naturally to you). If you’re not a super descriptive writer, that’s cool. If you’re an overwriter, so be it. If you’re naturally a minimalist when it comes to description, go with that. If you enjoy going on and on, page-after-page with description, then let those words fly. As soon as you try to be like someone else, you won’t be writing in your authentic voice. Keep in mind that the more you practice, the more you’ll find your groove and expand your writing muscles. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s worth the effort when you keep dipping your literary toe into areas that you aren’t completely comfortable with (YET). Also, see #5 above.
What’s the best way to start a memoir?
Just start. Seriously. Start writing (or scribbling or jotting or outlining or even brainstorming) any way that works for you. And, see #1 above.
Keep in mind that everyone approaches this process differently. There’s no “one way” to do it.
Something I’ve personally loved doing (and I’ve done when writing my fiction AND non-fiction manuscripts) is to grab a few markers and use those huge, poster-sized, 3M Post-Its. I put a few up on the wall and start brainstorming. There’s something about putting those pages up on the wall and feeling free to scribble and draw big arrows and make connections that I might not do on a small sheet of paper. It’s like having a big whiteboard on which to play.
What are some common misperceptions about memoir?
Many people assume that, to write a memoir, you must be of a certain (advanced) age and/or have lived a WILDLY FASCINATING and UNCONVENTIONAL life (think octogenarians or celebrities or politicians). The truth is, everyone has a story in them that’s unique and worth sharing; the secret is in the reflection about that story and how the writer presents their story to the reader.
Take, for example, my own memoir-in-progress. I’m a 54-year-old mother of 3 from Chicago with a degree in advertising. I’m hardly famous, and I’m not a member of AARP (yet!). At its core, my memoir is about losing a sibling — an experience that’s unfortunately common for many.
My unique take on the story, however, is in its time period (spanning the 4 years between losing my younger sister and discovering the older sister we never knew existed) as well as the theme (sisterhood unexpectedly lost then found). You don’t have to wait until you’re in your 80s or have lived with the rich and famous to write a memoir. What you need is to focus on the unique experiences in your life and reflect on how those events shaped you. Readers want to peek behind the curtains and understand how you navigated your circumstances.
Some may think that memoir is merely an ego trip for a writer (and believe me, there are many!), the best memoir offers unique insight and life lessons for readers. Memoir shows how the writer has changed through their life experience and offers readers insight that they might never have gained without the book.
While writing a memoir for your own healing is often a wise decision, you MUST keep your readers (and their takeaways) in mind.
Think about this. Perhaps you went through a traumatic event like a divorce or a death in the family or a job loss or a mental health crisis or a house fire. You’ve got a lot to say about what you went through, and it will be a MASSIVE accomplishment to document your reflections about the experience(s). AND, when a reader plunks down $30 to read your take on things, they’ll be that much more invested if they can see something about their own experience in yours. While they may not have gone through your exact circumstances, it’s important that they can identify on some level with you and what you went through.
So, seek opportunities to identify with your readers. For example, not everyone has gone through the trauma of a house fire, but most human beings know what it’s like to have something unexpected happen…or to lose meaningful possessions…or to feel exposed to the elements…or to have to rely on the kindness of others… In other words, find some common ground and share your feelings about it. By doing so, you’ll not only connect with your readers but also open their eyes to a new perspective.
Is it better to outline or just write as the thoughts come to me?
This is entirely up to you. I take a hybrid approach, myself. It helps me to create a loose outline, then to write scenes that generally follow that structure. Inevitably, more scenes come up and the outline morphs (sometimes drastically), but at least I have some *bumpers* to guide me when I find myself heading down rabbit holes of memories. And, there are always times when inspiration strikes and I just start jotting things down to capture my thoughts. Remember: This is a creative process and YOU get to make the rules.
Is it better to edit as I go, or should I just write my first draft and then edit?
Whatever you do, DO NOT EDIT AS YOU WRITE! OMG OMG OMG OMG. Write as if the house is on fire and you’ve got to get everything down NOW. As goddess writer Anne Lamott says, you’ll have a shitty first draft, AND THAT’S MORE THAN OKAY.
It’s hard not to edit as you go, though, and I totally get it.
Think about it. When we’re growing up, we’re conditioned to self-edit our book reports and research papers. We’re learning the rules of writing WHILE learning about the subjects we’re writing ABOUT. And, those days are over.
We’re grownups now, and the paradox is, we get to play in the sandbox of our first drafts, letting the words flow without reservation and editing ourselves later. Just as we’re free to eat dessert before dinner, we’re also free to write our first drafts without checking our work or fine-tuning our sentence structure and grammar or finding the perfect words.
In my earliest days as a writer, one of the biggest mistakes I made was trying to “nail the opening” of a manuscript before letting myself move forward. I’d endlessly re-read and frett and rewrite, thinking it had to feel solid before I moved on. I worried that if my opening wasn’t right, I’d set myself up for failure for the rest of the book.
Someone finally set me straight and told me that my opening — and the rest of my manuscript — would likely change during the editing process. My initial thought was, Thanks for the helpful advice, but since I want my book published sooner than later, it makes sense to edit as I go along. I saw this as an “investment” in the future of my book by spending this extra time editing *now* to save time *later*.
What I didn’t yet realize was how the editing process actually works, and here is, perhaps, my biggest “Ah Ha!” moment as a writer:
The ideal editing process does not feel punitive.
Book editing is NOTHING like the schoolteacher’s red-penned evidence of everything you did wrong on your report. Book editing is like adding an extra layer of compassion and depth to the project you’ve just created. But it’s hard to shift your mindset, and I completely understand why.
I still remember getting essays and papers back from my middle-school and high school teachers, dreading the moments I’d have to read through their comments, skimming over ANY positive stuff and, instead, lasering my gaze on every missed comma, every suggestion for a different “WC” (word choice), every circle around a misspelled/redundant/missing word, every repositioned quotation mark, and every question asking for “more detail” or “more character development” or “less telling and more showing”. I’d often cry when I read these comments, kicking myself for NOT having caught all those obvious issues before turning in my final draft.
“FINAL DRAFT”? What a load of bullcrap.
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I mean, what a confusing term, am I right? Why FINAL DRAFT? Why not the LATEST DRAFT? Why not TODAY’S DRAFT? Why not WORK-IN-PROGRESS or WIP 11/22/22 Why did it have to be the FINAL draft?
Particularly in high school, the term “final draft” signaled finality…irreversibility…permanence…perfection…and an inability to make changes. I can still remember — and even feel — the pressure and dread, my God.
That’s because I knew that once I turned in my final draft, my role in the project was OVER, my skills would be evaluated and judged against others, and I’d be required to accept and MAKE all those suggested corrections before turning in my FINAL PROJECT.
In other words, turning in a FINAL DRAFT meant relinquishing my voice moving forward.
To be sure, I’m grateful I was pushed to learn grammar, spelling, yada yada.
While coaching writing, I frequently help clients “unlearn” the editing process as they once knew it. I remind them how fascinating editing can be, how remarkably celebratory and revelatory and clarifying and cathartic. Editing no longer has to trigger dread. It no longer has to feel like drudgery. Writers are now freed of the pressure to perfect, allowing more room to focus on those thoughts and connections and literary diamonds-in-the-rough all vying to make it into the narrative.
What’s the difference between memoir and autobiography?
Since biography is generally a chronological, factual account of someone’s life, an autobiography is generally a chronological, factual account of your own life.
Memoir is a reflection about your own life, usually framed within a time period or a theme (or set of themes). Memoir doesn’t have to be chronological, but it HAS to include your reflections about the life experiences you discuss.
How does a writing coach help — and is it even worth the money?
As a writing coach, it’s easy for me to tell you why you need someone like me to keep you accountable and on track, to cheer you on, to push back, and point out opportunities where you can reflect more. I’m not a sales-y type, though. All of my clients have found me through their own Google searches or word of mouth.
But as a writer who also works full time, I, too, am working with my own writing coach (on my memoir), and I can’t begin to imagine doing this without the support.
Is a writing coach worth the money? For me, the answer is “Absolutely.” Between the motivation, the regular check-ins, the deadlines, the feedback, and the sense that I’m not floundering out here on my own, it’s worth it to have someone in my corner. Is it a privilege? Once again, “Absolutely.” And…I’ve saved up to pay for my writing coach because I’m committed to completing the best first draft I can before I turn 55.
Would I use a writing coach if I didn’t have a goal or if I didn’t have a full-time job or if I didn’t have a ton of questions about how to approach an incredibly sensitive subject? Perhaps not. However, I know myself, and I need a partner as I move through this process.
When I work with my own clients, I charge an hourly fee for everyone. Other coaches charge by the project, but that’s just not for me. Considering how many clients I have and their disparate levels of writing experience, I find that charging by the hour keeps it fair for everyone, including me. Clients decide how much or little they want to use me, and I try to empower them with resources to get as much done on their own as possible.
I try to coach the way I want to be coached — which is to say that I want someone in my corner who’s dependable, believes in my story, lifts me when I grow weary, and commits for the long haul. Just like a good therapist, a good writing coach sincerely wants to work themselves out of a job and see you achieve your dreams. Find those qualities in a writing coach and you’ll never regret the investment.
What do people mean when they say “Show Don’t Tell”?
Telling looks like this:
“I felt awful.”
Showing looks like this:
“As I hunched over the toilet, heaving only but bile, I imagined (hallucinated?) Mom and asked myself how I’d ever gotten here.”
Readers don’t want us to tell them how we feel. They want to inhabit our beings and experience what we go through. As writers, it’s our responsibility to paint scenes that help readers leave their lives and temporarily inhabit ours.
Is it better to have a longer manuscript or a shorter one?
Length doesn’t matter. Quality does. Write accordingly.
Are There “Rules” & “Best Practices” for Memoir?
How long is a typical memoir?
A memoir need only be as long as it takes to share your story and your deeply considered and authentic reflections about it.
Some people say the average memoir length is 60-70,000 words. If you need a rule of thumb to follow, then let that range be your guide, but DO NOT freak out if your draft falls under (or blows past) that range. Think your memoir is too long or too short? Try A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers, 375 pages) or My Struggle (Karl Ove Knausggard, 6 volumes) or The Story of My Life (Giacomo Casanova, 12 volumes) — then Google “micromemoir”.
Bottom line: Word count doesn’t mean a thing.
The writing does.
I’m a private person, so is it a bad idea to write a memoir?
Not necessarily. The key is to write it all down and then worry about the rest. A LOT can change during the writing of a book. And, it’s completely up to you to be public or not with your published work.
What kind of life experience do I need before I commit to writing a memoir?
You need YOUR life experience, and you need the ability and willingness to reflect honestly on it.
Do I need a big social media following to write a memoir?
No. While it absolutely helps, it isn’t a prerequisite.
Do I need to be an expert of sorts to write a memoir?
No. You need to be a human being willing to connect dots between your experiences and those of others.
How long does it even take to write a memoir?
That’s like asking, “How long does it even take to build a house?” You *could* have someone do it for you. You *could* rush it and/or skimp on quality. You *could* take shortcuts and get across the finish line that much faster.
Or, you could accept that it’ll take as long as it takes to produce a quality manuscript. If there’s a significant amount of research involved, it’ll take longer, If you’re working a full-time job, it’ll take longer. If you’re learning the craft while writing, it’ll take longer. If you’re avoiding certain scenes because they’re too difficult or emotionally taxing, it’ll take longer. If you’re editing as you write or overthinking your scenes, it’ll take longer. If you’re writing without goals and deadlines and telling yourself, “I’ll write when I can,” it’ll take longer.
What Happens After I Complete The First Draft of My Memoir?
What do I do after the first draft is done?
Step 1: Celebrate!
Step 2: Put the manuscript aside and get some distance from it before editing. In the meantime, write down your goals for the book and the questions you’d hope readers would discuss during a book group.
Step 3: Go back to the manuscript with fresh eyes and revisit the goals and questions you wrote down earlier. Does everything sync up and/or get answered? If not, add those issues to your editing to-do list.
What’s a book proposal, and do I really need to write one?
Some writers think they won’t need a proposal if they self-publish. “What’s the point?” they ask. “Since I’m not selling my manuscript to anyone, I don’t need to ‘propose’ it!” But I tell my clients to think about a proposal more for themselves than for potential agents and editors.
A proposal is essentially a summary of what the book’s about and its potential in the wild. So, why would someone who might self-publish put a proposal together?
First, remember what a proposal includes:
1. A Synopsis
2. A marketing and promotional plan
3. Sample chapters
4. Chapter summaries
As I tell my clients, “You’ll thank yourself for collecting all this content in one place, especially if you have any sort of life or obligations outside of this book.”
I also encourage clients to (gasp!) take a stab at the proposal BEFORE finishing the book. WHAAAAAAAAAT? Yes. Fer realz. Here’s why. When you’re in the thick of your manuscript, it’s so tempting to abandon the project. You’re in. the weeds. It’s tedious stuff. It’s exhausting and often unrewarding. And, you’re so close to the story that you can’t see it for what it truly is. Enter the proposal! You get some distance and give yourself the gift of perspective. You’re forced to distill the story down and capture its essence.
The best part is, you’ll eventually need this content once the book is published. You’ll have opportunities to share content for things like interviews, podcasts, articles, and newsletter posts. A proposal leaves you with your whole book at your fingertips, and that’s invaluable.
Of course, if you decide to query agents and/or submit your manuscript to publishers, you’ll (almost surely) be asked to share the proposal with the full manuscript. And so, be ready.
When do I start sharing my work to get feedback (and with whom)?
This is entirely up to you.
Some writers wouldn’t dream of sharing their work-in-progress with anyone (except perhaps a coach or a critique group), and that’s cool.
Other writers prefer to get feedback on their scenes or chapters before moving forward. That’s cool, too.
Either way, just remember that feedback is subjective, and that even you open yourself to it, you ultimately get to decide what to do with it.
And now, scroll back up to #11.
Why do people say, “I put my manuscript in a drawer and it’s still there…”?
It’s because you need some distance from your work before you can see it with perspective and a critical eye. By the time you finish a draft, you might loathe it or feel SO SICK OF IT that you’re more than happy to toss it in a drawer and never think of it again. And guess what? Listen to that instinct and fill your hours with other endeavors and experiences. Soon, they’ll crowd out the negative thinking, and you’ll eventually have a fresh and far more compassionate approach to the editing process.
What Do I Need To Know About The World of Publishing?
How does the publishing industry even work?
How long you got? lol
Trying to describe this ever-changing system in a few paragraphs is impossible, so I’ll leave it at this:
You can either
1) self-publish or
2) use a hybrid publisher/independent press or
3) go with a traditional publisher.
Each option has its pros and cons, and I regularly discuss publishing options and recommendations with clients, either during my free 20-minute consult or my discounted hourlong initial discussion or while working with them on their drafts. If you’d like to talk about the publishing landscape, please reach out! Here’s my contact link.
What kinds of memoirs are industry professionals looking for?
Something that breaks the mold, stands out, connects with readers in ways that no one’s ever seen, tells a story that hasn’t been heard before. Tall order, but with enough consideration and commitment, you can do this.
Why do writers use agents and how do I find one?
If you’re completely new to the publishing world, let me offer an analogy.
Imagine you’re preparing to sell your condo. You can either work with an agent or do it by yourself. An agent brings industry knowledge and connections. An agent acts as your partner and guide during a complicated process, acting as a sort of cheerleader (“Despite the diminutive size of this room, I LOVE this room’s natural light!”). And, a real estate agent typically earns money ONLY if they help you land a deal on your house.
Using that example, your manuscript is that condo. Your literary agent helps you “sell” your manuscript to an editor at a publishing company.
Landing a decent literary agent is like winning the lottery. They’re the careerwise equivalent of a trusted doctor or beloved therapist or best friend. If you love your literary agent, you don’t take them for granted, you value their input, you trust their perspective, you feel seen and heard, and you feel more confident having them in your corner.
So how do you find an awesome literary agent? Hard work, perseverance, and lots and lots of luck. Where do you find these magical agents? In the acknowledgments sections of your favorite books, at writers’ conferences, in published guides like this, on sites like PublishersMarketplace.com, and through writing coaches like me who regularly network with literary agents.
Should I self-publish, work with a hybrid/small/independent press, or submit my manuscript to a traditional publisher?
How much can I realistically make from my book?
Time for bad news and good news.
The bad news is, you’re unlikely to make enough to support yourself from publishing a book.
The good (GREAT) news, though, is that having a published book helps to establish you as a thought leader. Your credibility and expertise may then be sought out, and doors may open for income streams like speaking engagements, requests for reprints, guest essays and interviews on video and podcasts, etc.
What are the tangible benefits of putting my memoir out into the world?
#1 Readers learn about the world through someone else’s eyes and (ideally) apply learning that enhances their lives.
#2 You reflect on your experiences and better understand how they’ve shaped you.
#3 You leave enduring evidence of your existence.
#4 You connect with people you may not have otherwise met.
#5 You open yourself to new experiences you may have never known.
Now it’s YOUR turn. What other questions do YOU have about writing and publishing your memoir? Chances are, if you’re wondering, someone else is, too, so PLEASE ASK AWAY!
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National Association of Memoir Writers
Association of Journalists and Authors
Writers’ Digest — Memoir Writing
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Sounds like you’re doing all the right things (especially the self-compassion part!) and letting this process flow as it will. So glad you’re on this journey! I look forward to following your writing :)
Hi Cali. Thank you for reading. Hope you find a nugget or two of helpful info in there. I always find inspiration in YOUR newsletter.