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Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Keys to writing an effective memoir

My bookshelf and my Kindle are full of memoirs. Whether they allow me into the heart of someone who is recovering from a terrible loss or give me a ringside seat as someone follows their dreams, I love them. And if the number of authors asking for sample edits on memoirs is any indication, people love to write them, too. But while you have all the material you need to write a memoir right there in your head, that doesn’t mean it will be easy. A memoir requires you to organize that tangle of memories in a way that will be meaningful to readers, and that is quite a task. As you sit down to write your memoir, keep these three tips in mind to help you pull it all together so readers get the most from your experiences.

Memoirs should have a theme. A memoir isn’t just a recap of everything that happened to you during a certain time. The particular stories you share should revolve around a particular idea or ideas. For instance, the memoir Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which follows the author as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail following the death of her mother and the end of her marriage, explores the themes of self-discovery and grief, among others. The book Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor, which tracks the author’s recovery from a brain aneurysm, tackles the ideas of perseverance and nourishment (both literal and figurative). Your memoir might be about love or guilt or betrayal or friendship. Whichever theme you choose, make sure that every story you share supports that theme. You may really want to include a touching story about how your sister rushed to your side when she found out you were sick, but if it doesn’t relate to your theme, it doesn’t belong in your book, no matter how much you love it. Picking a theme for your memoir will help you to focus your book and make it easier to decide which stories to include. It will also guide you to the insights you want to leave your readers with, which I will discuss next.

A memoir should provide insight for readers. Writing a memoir might help you recover from a difficult event. If might give you closure. It might help you see the humor in the crazy events of your life. And if so, that’s a great bonus. But it can’t be the reason you write it. While a memoir is about you, if it’s going to attract an audience, it needs to provide something of value to readers. They need to get something from the pages that they can apply to their own lives. Which means that, in between telling readers what happened to you, you need to explain what those events mean. You need to find the universal truth in the specifics of your life and share that with your readers. A lack of a takeaway for readers is the biggest problem I find in the memoirs I edit.

A memoir doesn’t have to be strictly chronological. Memoir writers often default to a chronological structure because it is easiest and seems to make sense. Things happen in a certain order, so why not relate them that way? And sometimes it is the best structure. But don’t just assume that is the case for your memoir. Consider whether your book would be better served if you structure it around themes, pulling stories from different time periods to illustrate a particular idea. Or if a partial chronological structure would be best, where you follow along chronologically in the present time, but interject with flashbacks that give insight into what’s happening now. Or maybe your story would be best told so that each chapter relates a particular person’s influence on you. There are so many ways you could organize your memoir, so don’t feel like you have to start at point A and travel to point B in a straight line. You may decide that is the most effective way to tell your story, but make that decision purposefully.

Memoirs are very popular right now but also very hard to get published. Yours will really need to stand out to catch the eye of an agent or publisher. If you choose the structure best suited for your particular story and make sure to provide readers with valuable insight into the human condition, you’ll be far ahead of the majority of memoir writers competing for attention.

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