Tips for Writing a Meaningful Memoir

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I’m a firm believer that we each have at least one meaningful memoir–vivid stories about our lives, our loves, our losses, our dreams and our realities–in us.

In fact, I’ve written and published two memoirs: From Fertile Ground in 2016 and Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator in 2017. (This photo of my Johnson family members about to board the S.S. Admiral in St. Louis in the summer of 1954 appears in my second book with the up-and-down stories of my Missouri childhood.)

In the summer of 2018, I will complete and release my third memoir, An Unobstructed View. As I’ve written my stories, I’ve learned what it takes to create a compelling memoir. If you’re like me and have a deep desire to share your story with the world, I’ve assembled these ten tips to help you along the way.

  1. Find your flow. Begin by carving out a little time each day to journal. Jot down whatever comes to mind. Write about a person, place or memory that has special meaning in your life. Over time, your writing will become a habit that gains momentum.
  2. Scour your memorabilia. Go through old photos, letters and newspaper clippings you’ve kept. Set aside the most relevant ones that align with your passion. Refer to these to fuel your writing.
  3. Set the stage. Establish your point of view. Describe what your story is about and why it’s important to you. Take the time to paint a picture of the location/setting of your memoir and describe the arc of your story.
  4. Write what you feel. Go beyond reporting what you know. The details are important, but not as much as how you were affected by the occurrences that appear in your story. Tell your reader how you feel. Describe your experience—how the positive, negative and unusual happenings in your story touched your life.
  5. Tell your story. Talk about your truths. Share anecdotes and relevant details that support what you have to say. Be authentic. If you do, your reader will want to follow you on your journey.
  6. Follow the story. As you write your story, the process may take you to new places (literally and figuratively). Do your best to remain open to possibilities that may unfold (i.e., traveling back to a familiar place to retrace your steps) so that your writing captures the essence of a life’s journey filled with both expected outcomes and some surprises.
  7. Pace yourself. Memoirs are personal stories. As a result, you are likely to encounter strong emotions on your writing journey. Give yourself the time you need. When it feels like too much, take a break for a day or two. When you do, you will come back to your work refreshed.
  8. Share your work sparingly. As you write your story, you may be tempted to share it with well-intentioned family members and friends. Be careful. This is your story. While you are in the drafting stage, hold tight to your writing convictions with little outside influence.
  9. Decide how it ends. There is no prescribed conclusion or resolution to your story. You get to decide where and how it ends. A good rule of thumb is to find a event, place or moment that moves the reader with insights into what you’ve learned along the way.
  10. Find a good editor. Once you have completed the draft of your memoir, you may decide you want to try to publish your work. If you do, you will want to find a reliable editor. There are lots of good resources to help you. For instance, Writer’s Market is a thorough reference that lists editors and literary agents who are more inclined to consider memoir submissions. If you prefer, you also have the option of self-publishing your work. In either case, a skilled editor is essential to help you develop and polish your manuscript.

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