How do you write a story about your life that’s un-put-downable? How do you write a memoir that isn’t just okay, but has the potential to become a massive bestseller at the level of Eat, Pray, Love or Wild?
That’s the question I set out to answer when I started writing my own memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris. This is what I learned.
The Pitfalls of Memoir Writing
Honestly, I used to think writing a memoir was easy. You sit down and you write about all your experiences. How hard could it be? After all, I’d already written a novel and over ten non-fiction books. Compared to those projects, writing a memoir would be easy.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Penning a good book about my life has been the hardest challenge of my writing life. In fact, the book I thought I would finish in a few months ended up taking me over five years to write and get published.
Why are memoirs so hard to write? To be clear, writing a book about your life isn’t so difficult. No, the hard part is writing a good book about your life.
Here are just a few things that made writing a memoir hard for me:
- Everything feels important. After all, it’s your life! And so when the time comes to cut scenes or chapters to make the story work, you’re too close to the book to know what to cut.
- You can’t change your life events to make them more interesting or fit the plot or theme.
- There’s nothing like looking closely at your own life story to trigger all your latent self-doubt and fears of vulnerability.
It took me five years, thousands of hours, and gallons of sweat and tears to learn how to take my so-so memoir and turn it into an objectively good book.
So how did I do it?
7 Steps to Write a Memoir That’s Actually Good
Here’s the process I followed to turn my mediocre memoir into a great story.
Step #1: Start with a Single-Sentence Premise
The first lesson to writing a memoir that’s actually good is to realize you can’t write about everything.
The best memoirs keep it focused, and the best exercise I’ve ever found for writing a focused memoir is to write a one-sentence premise before you start writing your book (or as soon as possible, if you’ve already started).
How do you simplify your entire life to a single-sentence premise? To give you an example, here’s the premise from my memoir Crowdsourcing Paris:
- To raise $600 for his dream Paris trip, a cautious writer accomplishes 12 uncomfortable adventures given by his Internet followers, and through it all learns that the best stories come when you get out of your comfort zone.
Here are the three things every memoir premise must have:
1. A character.
YOU are the main character in your story. So describe yourself in two words (e.g. "cautious writer").
2. A situation.
You can’t write about everything. What is the core situation that will center your story?
3. A lesson.
Good memoirs pass along an important life lesson to your readers. What lesson did you learn through the situation you experienced?
Now that you have your one-sentence premise, let’s use it to get to the heart of your book.
Step #2: Figure Out What Kind of Book You’re Trying to Write
What is your story actually about? What values are at stake?
One of the most important things I learned about writing a great memoir was from Shawn Coyne, a New York editor who created an objective, systematic approach to story called Story Grid. I had been stuck and confused about what my story was really about. But then I talked to Shawn.
“You’re writing an adventure story,” he told me. “That means your story is about life vs. death, and your very first scene needs to be about one of the biggest life and death moments of your book.”
If you want to use the same method to figure out what your memoir is really about, here’s a thorough guide to Story Grid’s genre system that will get you started.
Step #3: Write Your “Shitty First Draft”
When you’re writing a book, whether a memoir, a novel, or a non-fiction book, it’s easy to get stuck in perfectionism. You want your book to measure up to the books you’ve read and loved before.
However, no book starts out good. Writing is an iterative process. Your second draft is better than your first, and your third draft is better than your second. But to get there, you first have to write what Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft.”
So write. Don’t worry if it’s terrible. Set a deadline. Create a consequence that will happen if you don’t meet that deadline. And finish your first draft.
Step #4: Revisit Your Premise to Get to the Heart of Your Story
The next step is to rewrite your one-sentence premise based on what you’ve learned from your first draft.
Here’s how to do it: Once you finish your first draft, set it aside for a week or two. Then go back and reread it. Take everything you’ve written and summarize it into a new, one-sentence premise. It should still contain those three elements we discussed above: a character, a situation, and a lesson.
Step #5: Cut Everything that Doesn’t Fit Your Premise. (Put Everything Else in the Next Book!)
You’ll have heard this bit of advice (variously attributed to Ernst Hemingway, Agatha Christie, and Stephen King) before: “Kill your darlings.”
Cut every scene that doesn’t fit your main premise. Anything that doesn’t build the character, fit the situation, or point to the life lesson in your premise should be cut.
This was the hardest part of finishing my memoir. I couldn’t help but try to pack more and more into my story, but when I tried to explain to people what my book was about, I found myself talking for five minutes before I ever got to the point.
You can’t do everything in one book. Instead, realize that this won’t be your last book. You can write another great memoir, even one about parallel events. Take everything that doesn’t fit this book and put it into the next one.
Step #6: Rewrite Each Scene Around an Important Decision
Now that you have only the most important scenes, you need to make them good!
To make sure every scene is driving the story forward, center each scene on a decision, a moment when you have to make a hard choice between two very good or two very bad things.
Not sure how to do this (or even what I’m talking about)? Here’s a guide on literary crisis that will help.
Step #7: Polish the Story with an Eye for Drama
Second drafts are for the structuring work we’re talking about in steps 4–6. Third (and sometimes fourth) drafts are for polish.
But when you polish, don’t just fix commas and typos. Also look for ways to enhance the drama of each scene, each paragraph, each sentence.
One of the most important changes I made to my memoir in the final draft was reorganizing the first paragraph to begin, “I was going to die there.” I had that phrase toward the end of the paragraph, but by bringing it to the beginning, it made the first impression so much stronger.
When you rewrite, look for the drama in your story and bring it to the front!
You CAN Write a Powerful Memoir
Writing an entertaining, instructive, emotionally powerful memoir is hard. I think it’s the hardest form, harder than a novel, non-fiction book, or short story.
But if you can avoid the temptation to tell everything, if you can focus instead on telling a really good story with the events in your life, you can write something that will inspire the world.
Don’t forget to to enjoy the process.
What is your favorite memoir? How did it move you? What did you learn from it? Let me know in the comments.