A memoir is a powerful way to share the story of your life.
It tells your family, children, grandchildren, and all the generations to come who you are—and it gives them a way to connect with you as they find their own place in the world.
A memoir can also help other people who are living through the same pain you experienced. It lets them know they’re not alone, and it gives them a roadmap for getting through that pain that you went through.
But that doesn’t mean your real-life story is an easy thing to write.
Writing any book takes a lot of work, and the emotional work of writing a great memoir makes that process even harder.
So if you want a tested system that can help you start—and finish—your memoir, this post lays out the step-by-step process we use to help our Authors turn their life story into a compelling book.
Start with an Outline and a Writing Plan
Creating your outline
Before you start writing your memoir, make sure you have an outline and a writing plan.
You need an outline to give your memoir a meaningful story structure. Otherwise, your book will just ramble from one story to the next without any real direction.
An outline forces you to stop and think about which stories you want to tell. Depending on what you want to accomplish, your memoir might:
- tell your entire life story
- explore your relationship with certain family members
- chronicle a time period, like high school or the years you lived in New York
- share the benefit of a particular life experience
These kinds of choices provide direction for your memoir, both in the stories you decide to tell and the order in which you decide to tell them.
Organizing your memoir also makes your book a lot easier to tackle. It breaks it up into a series of short stories that you can write one at a time.
If you want to know more about outlining your memoir, read my complete guide on memoir outlines.
Creating your writing plan
The point of a writing plan is to help you stay focused so you can make it all the way through the long process of writing a book.
It lays out:
- where you’ll write
- when you’ll write
- how many words a day you’ll write (at a minimum)
- a plan for handling the difficulties you’re going to encounter along the way
Writing your own memoir isn’t easy. At some point in the process, you’re going to want to quit. Every Author goes through that.
That’s why we’ve put a lot of behavioral psychology (and the experience of hundreds of Authors) into the way we recommend building your writing plan.
It works. And it can help you make sure you finish your book.
So even if you have an outline ready and you really want to start writing, take the time to make that writing plan first.
How to Write a Powerful Memoir in 3 Steps
Once you have your outline and your plan and you’re ready to write your memoir, here’s how to write a compelling story in the easiest, most efficient way possible.
This memoir-writing process has worked for thousands of people in all kinds of situations.
1. What happened (that mattered to you)?
Pick one of the stories in your outline to start with.
As you sit down to work on that story, ask yourself this question:
What happened (that mattered to you)?
Focus on the actual memory.
What were the things that happened that still bring you back into the emotion you felt at that time? What sensory details do you remember that connect to the emotion of the story?
Maybe there was a certain smell in the air. Or you might remember how some small detail looked. Maybe there was something on the floor that seemed out of place. Or someone was calling your name.
You might remember the taste of a hot dog at the first baseball game you ever went to or how the dashboard of the family station wagon felt when you ran your hand over it.
Every great memoir does this, focusing on specific moments and details. If you’re having trouble getting into the exercise, pick up any memoir you loved, and read a few passages to see what the Author does to draw you in.
That said, don’t try to sound like a professional memoir writer. I mean it. Don’t change your voice, and don’t edit yourself at all.
If you start editing, you’ll skip this crucial sensory step, and your memoir will suffer for it.
So just focus on your own experiences and tell your own story as directly and honestly as you can. Don’t pay any attention to how your writing comes out.
Remember what you were feeling during the time you’re writing about and list all the sensory details you can remember. If one of those details sparks a few lines, go ahead and write them down.
As you write, more details will come back to you. Write those down too. Later, in the self-editing step, you can choose the ones that work best in telling the story. For now, try to capture them all.
2. What did you feel about it then (and now)?
Those sensory details will start to trigger your emotional memories. As they do, write down whatever comes to you.
What were you scared about, or hoping for, or worrying about? Stay in the emotion of the moment, and let the reader experience it the way you did at the time.
Don’t detach from that emotion, even if it’s hard.
When a memoirist gets into an uncomfortable memory, it’s common to retreat to the present, writing how you feel about that event NOW instead of how it felt at the time.
It’s also common to separate from the emotion by explaining backstory, veering off into a flashback, or jumping forward to some later point in your life.
If you find yourself doing any of those things, stop.
Write from the perspective of who you were then, in that moment, because that’s what your reader will connect with. That’s how you’ll draw them into the story.
That said, it’s also the hardest part of writing a personal memoir. The process of writing forces you to relive those memories, and they won’t all be great.
But a good memoir doesn’t shy away from the tough stories. It tells them—not as though they happened to someone else, but how it really felt to live through them.
As you write those feelings, other feelings and thoughts that you had at the time will start to come back to you. Write those down too.
Once you’re done, ask yourself how you feel about it now and write down those feelings too—but ONLY after you’ve written down everything you felt and thought at the time.
Looking backward can be an important part of the story, but you have to start with the actual experience first.
Remember that what happened isn’t nearly as interesting or important in a memoir as how you felt. Memoirs connect us to each other through emotion.
That’s the part that matters, and it’s the one thing that really defines a great memoir. So be honest about what you felt, even in the hardest moments.
3. Rinse and repeat
Repeat these 2 questions, going back and forth until you’ve fully explored your first story. What you felt might remind you of another sensory detail, which might lead to another emotion.
Keep asking each question until you feel like you’ve gotten out everything that’s relevant to that experience.
Then do the same thing for the next story, and the next, until you have the whole book drafted.
Sometimes a later story might remind you about something new from a story you already wrote. That’s fine, but don’t go back. Just write it down here and keep moving.
Remember, do NOT edit yourself right now. That comes later.
4 Writing Tips to Keep in Mind When Starting Your Memoir
1. Do NOT edit yourself while drafting
I know I’m stressing it a lot, but the drive to self-edit will kill your book if you give in to it.
Do NOT give in to it.
It’s a completely natural feeling to want to read over what you’ve written. But you have to ignore the impulse.
Reading it will make you want to edit it. If you start editing as you write, it’s far too easy to get stuck on that one story, then doubt yourself as you lose your momentum, and then quit.
That’s true for any book, but it’s especially true for a memoir because editing yourself will trigger your logical brain and disconnect you from the emotion you’re writing about.
Just keep moving forward. Get all the sensory details and feelings down. You’ll turn it all into a finished book later.
For more tips on blasting through your first draft without getting tripped up, check out the proven Scribe method we use with all our Authors.
2. Don’t worry about other people while drafting
While you’re writing down the sensory details and feelings of your stories, do it with the mindset that no one else will ever read these notes.
In fact, I highly recommend making a deal with yourself that you will be the ONLY person who will EVER see this version of the draft.
Memoirs are extremely personal, and the emotions can be very hard to write about. Go into it with the understanding that no one else will ever see this.
Just write everything down and self-edit it later.
Memoirs are nonfiction books. They’re about real people. So a lot of memoir Authors worry about how those people would feel if they knew what they were writing.
If that happens to you, remember that they’ll never see this version. No one will. Not your loved ones, not even your editor.
You can decide MUCH later in the writing and self-publishing process what you do or don’t want to include.
3. The only thoughts that matter are the ones that connect to emotion
You don’t want your memoir to come from your head. You want it to come from the raw, honest emotions you lived through.
So you need to draw a line between emotional thoughts and analytical ones.
It’s okay to include the thoughts you had at the time—especially if those thoughts came from or express the emotion of the moment.
- I thought I was going to die.
- I wanted to punch that kid in the face.
- All I wanted was to get out of that room.
Thoughts like these are emotion-centered. They help the reader share your experience, and they won’t pull you out of that emotion while you’re writing.
But be careful not to fall into analytical thinking.
If you start writing down thoughts that try to make sense of things, or justify things, or paint things in a different light, that’s what you DON’T want to do.
So be sure to draw that distinction. If you feel the emotions retreating as you’re writing, you’re in your head. Stop, and get back into the emotion.
4. Don’t feel pressured to include lessons
We all learn from our experiences.
Sometimes we learn things that help us, and sometimes we learn things we have to get over later. Whether or not you write about what you learned is up to you.
Remember, readers connect to the emotion of the story. That’s what matters.
So you CAN include the lessons you took from your experiences if you want to, but you don’t have to. And you should never feel pressured to find a takeaway in every story or to add a lesson you didn’t learn.
Just be honest. Readers connect to raw, honest emotion and vulnerability.
If you decide to include any lessons, stick to that same vulnerability. Talk about what YOU took from the experience and how it changed you. Talk about how YOU carried it with you.
Do NOT try to tell other people what they should take from it. Readers have to take what they want from your story. You can’t control that, and you shouldn’t try to.
The best memoirs share true stories, whatever the Author honestly felt and learned—right or wrong, good or bad. So, above all else, be honest.