A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Your Personal Memoirs
Let me read you this article instead
If you go to a bookstore, you’ll see book after book that contains someone’s life story. These life stories were written by well-known people, including Barack and Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Anthony Bourdain, Stephen King, and others. It’s easy to understand why people want to read their life stories, but what about your account? Does your life story have value?
It absolutely does, and you can share it by writing a memoir.
It’s true that your memories might not end up gracing the shelves of Barnes and Noble, but you don’t have to be a famous person with a publishing contract to write about yourself. Your book might not be a critically acclaimed bestseller, but your loved ones will treasure it. Even if you don’t pass it along to family, you will benefit from going over your thoughts and feelings.
You don’t have to make a huge time commitment to writing your memoir. In fact, if you can dedicate one hour a day for 21 days, you can complete your memoir. That’s all it takes to create an heirloom that others will treasure.
Learn more about the memoir writing process and find out how you can complete yours in as little as three weeks. First, though, find out how a memoir differs from an autobiography.
Memoir versus Autobiography - What's the difference?
If you’re like most people, you use the words “memoir” and “autobiography” interchangeably. It’s true that you can use either to tell your life story, but the two are quite different. Yes, both provide first-person accounts of the author’s life, but they do so in different ways.
To understand the difference, imagine a beaded necklace. This necklace has dozens of beads on it. Imagine that each bead represents something in your life. It could be a new job, a child, your first car, and so on.
If you were to write an autobiography, you would write about every bead on that necklace. You’d include each detail so people could understand everything that’s happened to you up to the current point in your life.
On the other hand, you’ll only write about some of the beads when writing a memoir. Instead of writing about your entire life, you’ll use your memoir to write about a stage or theme in your life. The stage might only take up two years of your life, or it could consist of a seven or 10-year stretch.
Because memoirs only focus on a stage of life, they are much easier to write. You don’t have to spend months researching and writing. You can write about a life stage in three weeks or less.
“Memoir is a difficult literary form to pull off when dealing with discrete and poignant moments in a life, even harder when seeking to narrate over 80 years of existence.”
— Uzodinma Iweala
Benefits of Writing a Memoir
Before you learn how to write a memoir, it’s vital to understand why it’s essential. Writing a memoir comes with numerous benefits. Let’s go over some of the most powerful reasons people choose to write their memoirs. Once you read the benefits, you’ll be ready to join others who have written their memoirs.
Process Events and Emotions
Writing a memoir can be cathartic. It gives you a chance to explore the emotions connected to an event and process them in a healthy way. Many people find that once they write about an event, it loses power. They no longer feel the stress, anxiety, depression, or fear associated with the event. Instead, they have a sense of clarity and control. Then they can move past the event. If past events have led to anxiety, depression, or other issues, writing your memoir could be the key to living a happier life.
View Situations Differently
Writing your memoir will allow you to view situations differently. For instance, losing your job might have caused you to go into a depression. It might even still be a sore topic for you. However, when you explore that in your memoir, you might view things differently. Maybe losing your job allowed you to stay home with your children and see things that many other parents miss. It might have helped you get closer to your spouse or make a career change that led to more money. When you write about events in your memoir, you can find the silver lining you might have missed.
Allow Your Story to Live On
When you write your memoir, you are allowing your story to live on well after you’re gone. Your loved ones will have a piece of you that they can keep with them forever. Then they can pass the story down to their loved ones, and so on. As long as your memories are alive, you’ll still be part of the world.
Your memoir can serve as an inspiration to others. People can see how you’ve overcome adversity or worked through an issue in your life. They will then realize they have the power to do the same. This can be more powerful than telling your story verbally. There’s something about seeing it in writing that makes it even more compelling.
Find Meaning in Life
As you grow older, you can’t help but search for meaning in life. Many people find that meaning by writing their memoirs. They realize they can impact people for generations to come through their memories. That gives their lives meaning and helps them deal with aging.
Choosing a Theme
Now that you know the benefits of writing a memoir, it’s time to think about what you want to focus on when writing. Every memoir should have a theme. Go back to that beaded necklace that represents your life. Which of those beads do you want to be the topic of your memoir?
Popular themes include:
- Life changes, such as a new career
- Overcoming addiction
- Coping with the loss of a loved one
- Embarking on an adventure
- Forming friendships
These are just some examples of possible themes. Regardless of the theme you choose, you’ll need to create anchor points for your memoir. This will make it much easier to build your timeline.
Creating Anchor Points for Your Memoir
No matter how well you think you know the details of your life, memory is a funny thing. You can be adamant that something happened at a specific stage in your life, only to discover evidence that proves you wrong. Fortunately, you can conduct some research before writing your memoir. This research will create anchor points you can use when writing. This will be especially helpful if your memoir is going to cover different events in chronological order. Your anchor points will help you map out the timeline so you can begin writing.
Let’s look at some ways you can create anchor points.
Map Out Your Life
Start the process by mapping out your life based on your current and former addresses. Write down your current address first, and then go back until you have written down the address for each place you’ve lived. If you can’t remember or find an address, write a description of the property.
Then go back to your current address and write down all the major players in your life. Who do you spend your time with, and where do you work? Who are your coworkers? What do you do for fun? What problems do you normally face? How many people live in your house?
Then write down all the important events that have occurred. Did you welcome a child into the world while living at your current house? Write it down. Maybe you got a promotion. Again, write it down. Also, write down any local, national, or worldwide events that were important when living at that address. Include as many details as possible.
Repeat the process for each address. It might get a bit more challenging as you move deeper and deeper into the past. However, once you start writing down some memories, more will follow. It won’t take long before the dam breaks, and you have a full stream of memories.
Once you finish, look over your handiwork. Don’t be surprised if your memories become much more evident when you do this. You might make connections where you didn’t have connections before. For example, your first address might include notes about your grandmother passing away. You also wrote about your father going through a depression. You didn’t put the two together before, but now, you realize that the two are connected. It’s easy to make those connections when you map everything out. This puts things in perspective and makes it easier to understand your loved ones.
This process will help you build touchstones that can be even more powerful than photographs. The memories will become vivid and assist you as you work toward writing your memoir.
Even though mapping out your addresses is more powerful than photographs, that doesn’t mean you should forget about pictures. Looking through photos can elicit strong memories. Go through old photographs related to the time that you want to write about, paying particular attention to the memories that come up. Don’t be surprised if looking through pictures causes you to think about other things related to that time.
For example, you might see a picture of your family on vacation. Viewing that picture will make you think of things that occurred off-camera during the vacation. If the memories start flowing, write them down so you can use the notes when you write your memoirs.
Address Books and Phone Logs
Do you have old address books and phone logs? If so, access them before writing your memoir. You’ll discover that both are full of information that will bring back memories. You might see an old address that belonged to a friend you haven’t thought of in years. Even though that friend isn’t part of your life any longer, he or she might have made an enormous impact that can become the focal point of your memoir. You also might notice an old phone number that sparks a memory. The memory could be related to your theme, giving you additional insight into the topic.
You don’t have to stop with your address books and phone logs. If your parents or other family members have some to share, use them as well. The more information you can access, the easier it will be to add details to your memoir.
Blueprints of Previous Home
If you have any old blueprints of previous homes, you can also use them to bring your memories to life. You might be surprised that your memories don’t necessarily match up with reality. For instance, you might have forgotten about a bonus room that you had in your childhood home or that your parents converted the attic into a bedroom for your older sibling. You might even have memories of growing up in a large house, only to discover that it was only 1,500 square feet. No matter how well you think you remember, it’s always a good idea to jog your memory in any way you can, so get a hold of old blueprints if possible. If you can’t find blueprints, look for photographs that provide as much detail as possible. Then you can go room to room, awakening memories in the process.
Day Planners and Calendars
It’s hard to beat day planners and calendars when it comes to gathering research for your memoir. If you flip through them, you’ll likely see notes that will bring back memories. For instance, you might notice a note that says, “Work meeting” from several years ago. Then, all of a sudden, your mind takes you back to that meeting. You remember that you were promoted at that same meeting, making it memorable. The notes might look like meaningless scribbles to someone else, but to you, they are the key to remembering your life.
Do you write people letters over Christmas? These letters let people catch up on your life and contain the year’s highlights. Pull out the Christmas letters before you write your memoir. Go through them to see if there is any information you can use. The letters might remind you about an event you want to include or could help you determine when something happened.
Cookbooks might not seem like the place to research for your memoir, but they can be full of information. Look through your cookbooks to see if you’ve left any notes in the margins. If you have, you might unlock some memories that you can use when writing your memoir in 21 days.
Diaries and Journals
Diaries and journals are full of the information you can use when writing your memoir. If you have your own, go through them, plucking out details you can use when crafting the memoir. You can also ask family members if they’d be willing to share diaries and journals from the period you’re focusing on with your writing. They might not be ready to hand over complete notebooks, but it’s possible they will give you access to entries about particular events.
Do the events in your memoir coincide with any newsworthy events? If so, look through the newspaper archives. The archives can be helpful, even if you don’t include information about the newsworthy event. When you read through the archives, you’ll go back in time. The news will bring you back to that frame of mind and help you unlock more memories.
If your family history plays a role in your memoir, you can also use genealogy research to create anchor points. Don’t worry if you haven’t conducted any investigation. Someone in your family likely has and will be willing to share. You can comb through the research to find important events and dates.
Don’t be afraid to talk to others who were there before writing your memoir. They can provide insight into situations and events. For instance, if you’re writing about a career change, talk about everyone who was impacted. What did your coworkers think? What about your family? Do your friends have any thoughts on the change? When you interview people, you can get a new perspective on an event.
If possible, you can also visit locations that will play a role in your memoir. Are you going to write about an event that occurred at a playground when you were growing up? Stop by the playground if it’s nearby and let the memories flow. Maybe you’re writing about something that happened at your home when you were growing up. Do your parents still live there? If so, you can pay them a visit.
If you can’t visit the locations included in your memory, don’t stress out about it. You can still write a compelling memoir. However, if you can see at least one of the locations, it can add more context to your story and help you build additional anchor points.
Writing Exercises to Help You Write Your Memoir
After you conduct your research, you’ll almost be ready to write your memoir. First, though, you should challenge yourself with some writing exercises. You can do these exercises in an online journaling program so you can access your writing anywhere. These exercises will help you prepare for writing a powerful memoir.
Write About a Defining Moment
Memoirs often focus on a defining moment. This is a moment that changed a person’s life. It could be the birth of a child, switching careers, or something else. Spend some time thinking about a defining moment in your life.
Then write about it, using as much detail as possible. Give yourself a full hour to explore this defining moment. Save the journal entry so you can access it when you write your memoir. The entry can provide guidance when you explore your theme.
Write About a Pivotal Person
Memoirs often include a pivotal person as well. The crucial person isn’t always a major player in the individual’s life. He or she might have only shown up for a short period, but that person forever changed the writer’s life. Think about a pivotal person in your life and then write about him or her. Perhaps a Football Coach from High School, or your Favorite Teacher who taught you more about life than just the subject matter at hand. Explain how that person impacted your life. Again, give yourself a full hour to explore the topic, and save your writing. You can refer to it when you begin writing your memoir.
Write About the Time You Took the Path Less Traveled
One of the biggest regrets people have is a failure to take the path less traveled. People are constantly presented with decisions to make, and far too often, they take the path of least resistance. Then they are left wondering what might have been. How would their lives have been different if they had chosen differently?
Because this is a common problem people face, it’s also a common memoir theme. Think about a time when you took the path less traveled. What did it feel like? What did you experience? What did you learn? Write about it, making sure you include all the details you can remember. Don’t be surprised if you feel a sense of pride when you finish writing. You might even feel a boost of self-confidence when you reread your journal entry.
Write About Loss
No matter your age, you’ve likely experienced some sort of loss. It might have been the loss of a parent, grandparent, friend, or even a child. Because loss impacts people profoundly, many people use it as a theme when writing memoirs. Think about a loss you’ve experienced. Put yourself back in that situation and write about it. Face it head-on, even if it makes you feel sad. You might feel sad at first, but writing about it will help you organize your thoughts and handle your emotions. Then you will get to the point where you can think of the person you lost fondly, without tearing up. At that point, it will be much easier to include your loved one in your memoir if you wish.
Unlock Your Senses in a Writing Exercise
Details are the most critical aspect of writing a memoir. Details allow people to picture what you’re writing about instead of just reading it. When you add enough points, people will experience what you’re writing. You can learn to write with details by engaging your senses when writing.
Go back to your childhood home. Don’t just think about it. Put yourself there. Imagine walking up to the door. What do you see? What smells do you experience? What sounds do you hear? What does the path feel like under your feet?
Then open the door and think about your senses again. Who do you see? What do they say? What smells are in your home? What do you feel against your skin?
Next, write about the experience, using your senses to inform the writing. Then read what you’ve written. Does it make you go back to that place? If so, you have used the right number of details. You’ve managed to turn words into an experience, which is the key to writing a memoir.
What to Avoid When Writing a Memoir
You are getting so close to writing your memoir, but you need to know what to avoid before you get started. There are quite a few things that can derail you when writing your memoir. Avoid these issues so you can complete your memoir in 21 days.
Treating It Like an Autobiography
First, don’t make the mistake of covering too much in your memoir. Instead of writing about your entire life from birth until the point you’re at now, focus on a stage of your life. Think of your memoir as a slice of your life instead of your life as a whole. It is only meant to represent part of your life. If you try to cover everything, you’re going to get so bogged down in the details that you’ll have a hard time finishing. Even worse, people might not want to read something that starts with the moment you’re born and takes them through your entire life. Instead, they would rather focus on a few of the beads on the necklace. Remember, you can always write more than one memoir, so you don’t need to cram too much information into your first one.
Failing to Identify a Theme
The best memoirs are written around a theme. You can choose any theme you want, but you need to stick to it throughout your memoir. Far too many people fail to identify a theme, so their memoirs are all over the place. Don’t start writing until you have a clearly defined theme. Then your memoir will be focused and to the point.
Refusing to be Honest
You have a chance to write your story with a memoir. However, it’s not an opportunity to rewrite history. Writing a memoir can be painful at times, but that’s part of the process. Instead of trying to make yourself a hero on every page, be honest. That’s the only way to get the therapeutic benefit of writing a memoir. It’s also the only way for your memory to live on through your memoir.
Worrying About Publishing
If you have a major story to tell, you might get a publishing deal. However, that should not be the focus when writing your memoir. If you focus on publishing, you’ll end up editing yourself and failing to get your story out.
Failing to Write About Others Authentically
You aren’t just bringing your story to life with your memoir. You’re also bringing others to life through your words. Do them justice by representing them on the pages. Include details when writing about your friends and family members. That can include information about how they look, speak, act, and more. Use compelling language and details, so they jump off the page and are as real to the readers as they are to you.
Steps to Take When Writing Your Memoir
Now you’re ready to start writing your memoir. Let’s go over the steps you need to take during the writing process. These steps will help you stay on track so you can complete your memoir in 21 days.
Choose a Theme
Remember, failing to choose a theme is a huge mistake that people make. Start the process by choosing your theme. If you want to pass the memoir down to your family members, select a theme that contains something you want to share.
What if you have lots of different themes you want to include? Stick to a single theme for your memoir, but don’t discard the other themes. You can tackle another theme for your next memoir, and so on. That’s what’s so great about writing a memoir in 21 days. You’ll have ample time to write more if you wish.
Consider Anecdotes and Events to Add
After you come up with your theme, you need to decide what you want to include. If you have some anecdotes, make a note of them so you can include them in your writing. You also need to include events. Even though you have a singular theme, you can include multiple events. The events can be minor or major. Add as many details as possible, so the events and anecdotes jump off the page.
Create an Outline
It’s a good idea to create an outline before you start writing your memoir. You can always change the outline, but it will give you a foundation so you can start writing. The outline should include the anecdotes and events you want to include, as well as the message you want to convey. Use the outline to create a timeline and major plot points. Then you can follow it to write your memoir.
Show, Don’t Tell
You’re going to tell the truth when you write your memoir, but still, approach it like writing fiction. In fiction, authors show instead of telling. Showing means adding details, descriptions, and actions that place the reader firmly inside of the story. They actually experience it when they read it. This is much different from telling, where you simply explain what happened.
To accomplish this, you need to add as many details as possible. Don’t worry about getting too detailed. You can always edit details out later if you put in too many. You would much rather have too many details that need to be edited than a flat, boring memoir that needs to be rewritten.
Add Photos and Video
You don’t have to stick to the written word when creating your memoir. You can also include videos and photos to make your memoir more compelling. This is much easier to do when you use an online platform. You can simply upload the videos and photos and arrange them throughout your memoir. Then your readers will have a fully immersive experience. This will add to your storytelling and help people relate to your story.
Getting Your Memoir Ready
Once you write your memoir, you’ll need to take the next steps to prepare it for other people to read. This is where many people get overwhelmed, but it’s actually quite a bit easier than you might expect.
Edit the Memoir
You shouldn’t edit your memoir when writing it. That will slow you down and hold you back. However, you do need to edit it before you share it with others.
First, read through your memoir and see if there is anything that you don’t want other people to read. If so, you can save it for yourself but not include it in your memoir.
Then you need to edit your memoir. Editing your work isn’t easy. You’re likely to miss mistakes because the words are already imprinted on your brain. You can find an affordable editor to edit it for you. This is much easier, and it will ensure that your memoir is free of mistakes. Then you can give it to your loved ones with pride, knowing there aren’t any embarrassing grammatical mistakes or typos in it.
Distribute the Memoir
You also need to distribute the memoir if you want others to read it. You can print the memoir out, create a cover, and send it, or you can share it with others online. In today’s fast-paced world, many people prefer a digital copy. It’s easier for readers to get through a digital copy, and they can play the videos and see high-quality photos.
Also, choosing to share it digitally will save you money. You won’t have to pay a company to print your memoir, and you won’t have to spend money on shipping.
Additional Tips for Writing Your Memoir
You now have the tools you need to write your memoir. Still, you can make the process even easier by following some additional tips. Keep these tips in mind as you move forward with your memoir.
Use Writing Prompts
You can make the process much easier when you use writing prompts for your memoir. When you do this, you can create your memoir by answering questions. This takes much less planning and helps you stay on track with your writing. You don’t even have to come up with your own writing prompts. You can use a memoir writing tool such as Journal Owl to come up with writing prompts for you. Then you can cycle through the prompts and choose the ones that are part of your theme.
If you are going to write your memoir in 21 days, you need to commit to writing daily. You should spend at least an hour a day on your memoir. If you do that, you’ll be able to reach your goal of finishing in three weeks. Then you’ll be ready to edit and send your memoir to others.
Don’t Include Everyone and Everything
When you write about an event, you might feel the need to include everyone who was a part of your life at the time. However, it’s a good idea to omit the people, places, and events that don’t contribute to the theme. If they weren’t major players in the theme you’re writing about, don’t include them. It doesn’t mean they aren’t an important part of your life. It just means they don’t fit into that particular theme. You might end up including them in a memoir you write at a later date so that they can get their time in the sun as well.
Think About Your Audience
Generally, you don’t want to put too much thought into your audience when writing. It can stifle your creativity. However, your audience does play an important role when writing a memoir. If you are writing it for family and friends, you can include inside jokes that they’ll know. However, if you are writing it for a larger audience, those jokes won’t land. Knowing the audience makes it easier to connect with the readers. It also makes the process more enjoyable. There’s something exciting about speaking directly to the reader. It breaks down the walls and lets the reader into the story.
Only Share What You Want
You don’t have to write your memoirs for someone else. You can write a memoir for your eyes only if you wish. That’s what’s so great about this process. You are free to do what you wish with your memoir. It can be as public or private as you want, so have fun with it. Pick the theme of your choosing and write about it.
Get Started on Your Memoir Today
Don’t put off writing your memoir any longer. With JournalOwl, you can use our writing prompts as a guide so you can fly through your memoir and then share it with the people you love. Once you’re done, one of JournalOwl’s editors can edit it for you if you wish. Then you can download it or share it directly from the website.
Writing your memoir has never been this easy, so get started today. Then you will have a keepsake to share with the people you love, and you’ll enjoy other benefits as well.
JournalOwl is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, medication, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptoms or conditions. JournalOwl is not authorized to make recommendations about medication or serve as a substitute for professional advice. You should never disregard professional psychological or medical advice, or delay in seeking treatment, based on anything you read on JournalOwl’s website or platform.