Martin Cavannagh is a writer for Reedsy, a marketplace with tools that allows authors and publishers to find top editorial, design and marketing talent. Over 3,000 books have been published using Reedsy’s services.
“You should write a book,” someone might tell you, over a cup of coffee. And in the back of your mind, you’ve thought the same thing before. The trouble is, you don’t know where to start.
In most cases, the people who feel most compelled to write a memoir are those to whom something remarkable has happened. And very often, this occurrence is wrapped up in some sort of trauma — and digging into this past can be a painful experience. Without some semblance of a plan, you could be dredging up emotions, only to be left where you started: with no idea of how to turn them into a coherent book.
I recently interviewed a number of best selling ghostwriters and asked them for their single best piece of advice for memoir writers. Here’s are just a few of my favorite tips.
Determine who your audience is
When most authors write a book (like a novel), their goal is simple: reach as many readers as possible. That’s not always the case with a memoir. Some writers set out to write what’s called a legacy memoir: a book that captures their experiences for posterity. It’s something they can share with friends and family, and leave behind for their grandkids. The authors of these legacy memoirs want to leave behind their hard-earned wisdom and are not necessarily focused on making their book a bestseller.
But if your goal is to share your experiences with strangers all over the world, you need to make sure that your memoir is centred on universal themes and emotions.
When a ghostwriter starts a project, they sit down with the author and they interview them for days. When you’re looking to write your own story, this is not a step you’ll want to miss either. You’re looking to ask yourself questions that will allow you to dig deeper into your own story. As ghostwriter Sharon Barrett says, “it’s an exercise in courage to go back through the years and take a hard look at the ups and downs, but it’s the only way to tell the true story.”
I’ve had commenters suggest that memoirs, by their very name, are based on memories and that the fallibility of memory is part and parcel of the form. That, in my opinion, is not a helpful stance to take.
“What you remember about past events may be empirically false, but they can still be emotionally true,” I was told by ghostwriter Heather Ebert. “That doesn’t mean all of your memories are wrong, but go into the writing questioning every memory and assumption you have.”
What this means, on a practical level, is that you need to research every fact you have about your past, insofar as it applies to your story. Anything that you can look up on the internet or check in an almanac should be confirmed. In the end, you don’t want any part of your story to be disproved by a basic Google search.
On another level, this kind of research can open up the floodgates of your memory as you do your research. Once you set one fact straight in your mind, you may be reminded of things you had previously forgotten.
Make a list of your high-emotion moments
If your memoir covers a particularly traumatic part of your life, this may not be such a challenge. But still, a useful first step in planning your memoir is to make a list of moments where your emotions ran high: when were you most afraid? Confused? Joyful? It’s these moments that reveal what a person is really made of.
With your list of high-emotion moments to hand, you can then start to see how they might form the spine of your story. Which brings us to our last point…
Hone your message and plot
Writing a memoir is somewhat different from an autobiography, in that it doesn’t have to cover the span of your life. In fact, some memoirs will chronicle just a few days in the author’s life. What a memoir does need, however, is a plot: a story in which you are the protagonist.
In many ways, it’s often useful to think of your memoir as a novel that just so happens to be true. And like any good novel, the plot strands should reinforce a message or a theme. If at any point you’re stuck for what to write, you should be able to ask yourself, “what am I trying to say?” and use that as your guiding compass.
For more tips on turning your life experiences into a compelling memoir, you can check out the full article right here.
(c) Martin Cavanagh