How to Write a Memoir in 10 Steps

How to Write a Memoir in 10 Steps

To be perfectly clear, I know this isn’t the most orthodox way to teach someone how to write a memoir in 10 Steps, but I submit that if you’re hung up on the literal how-to’s of writing a memoir, you aren’t really ready.

I don’t feel like diagramming sentences today.

That, and rudimentary how-to articles are largely about giving you the confidence to do a thing anyway. You can absolutely do this thing, but you should prepare first. Because if the surprising stuff turns out not to be a surprise, you’re basically unstoppable.

How to Write a Memoir

1. Get Thick Skin

2. Relive Your Trauma

3. Give People Fake Names

4. Find Enablers

5. Hold a Grudge Loudly

6. Be Discouraged

7. Read Other Memoirs

8. Feel Small

9. Write for Spite

10. Dig Up Your Past

The 10 Steps

1. Get Thick Skin

Forget what others have said about you (well don’t literally forget, you might need the fodder) and be prepared to look at your past self objectively. Lassoing that objectivity is even harder than it sounds, but it’s possible.

There are some faults you’re going to want to absolve yourself of in your writing—for me, naivety and cluelessness topped the list—don’t do it. You have to be willing to let readers see the warts. If your story is going to be relatable—if you’re serious about memoir writing—you must be authentic.

Absolution may still come to you, but not by glossing over the bits you don’t like. Be ready to criticize yourself. A lot.

2. Relive Your Trauma

I wasn’t prepared for the buried trauma that writing a memoir would resurface. I thought I was, but I was kidding myself. I literally had to take breaks and ultimately end my memoir to stop the constant onslaught of PTSD triggers.

3. Give People Fake Names

This is probably obvious, but there’s a certain kind of person you’ll need to write about who still Googles herself 15 years later. To avoid the headaches, just change her name.

Because even your best attempts at keeping ties severed may be thwarted.

My ex-husband actually joined my Patreon even though I did my best to rename people and switch up identifying characteristics. That’s a real thing that happened.

There are legal considerations too, but I am not a lawyer. If you have qualms, hire an attorney, please.

4. Find Enablers

Aside from needing money to pay bills after having brain surgery, there were a couple of motivating factors that kept me writing:

A former employer (who I name-drop in the preface of Who You Gonna Believe) and a couple of online friends behaved in such a way that I believed I could write. 

All of them read my blog at some point and encouraged me to write a memoir. I channeled them when I doubted I could succeed.

5. Hold a Grudge Loudly

There’s a great quote that I have seen floating around the internet attributed to Anne Lamott. (I see it a lot without attribution too, so who knows?) It goes something like: You own everything that’s ever happened to you. If people wanted you to write nicely about them, they should have behaved better.

You might feel like it’s in your best interest to withhold certain facts, but you don’t owe anyone your silence. You hear me?

6. Be Discouraged

Some people will say that memoir writers just want revenge. I, for example, fit the divorcee and undiagnosed cliches, since so much of the story is about my lousy ex-husband and my subsequent long slog to a medical diagnosis.

The naysayers discouraged me, not gonna lie. But then a funny thing happened: I realized they weren’t my readers and weren’t ever going to be my audience. Caring about their opinions was like asking the guy who sells gym memberships if my dress made me look fat.

7. Read Other Memoirs

You might just learn stuff you didn’t know would help you write. My favorite reads while I wrote Who You Gonna Believe were by John Lewis, Jenny Lawson, Leah Remini, and Mary Karr.

By the way, I highly recommend The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.

Shop Recommended Memoirs

8. Feel Small

The odd thing about memoir writing is that it makes you self-aware. You see that other people have profoundly different stories to tell and feel like maybe your life isn’t that big of a deal. I say that’s a good thing.

Not only did a sense of smallness help me see my trauma as a mouse and not a monster, it helped me relate to my audience in a new way and craft a better story for them.

9. Write for Spite

So maybe spite isn’t what fuels you, but it was a big motivating factor for me—knowing that the awful people who denied so much of my truth couldn’t stop me now. That was empowering.

Yeah, I can be petty. I wrote to spite them, but also to spite the person they imagined me to be. The person I knew I wasn’t.

10. Dig Up Your Past

As a practical matter, memoir writing can be hard because our memories are faulty. I found I could settle the timeline of events if I dug through old blog posts. 

You might also find helpful details by talking to friends and family, reading a journal you kept, or poring over pictures. 

Social media timelines and archived chats are also useful if you have them available.

So that’s it. How to write a memoir in 10 steps. Easy, right?

if you’re looking for memoir publishing services, try a company like Modern Memoirs.

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