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Writing a Memoir

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April 2010
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Like many people, I have experienced several significant events that have had important meaning in my life, such as the loss of a job, illness, end of a marriage, and death of significant people. And I have a desire to share my experiences and what I have learned from them. I thought about writing a memoir, but I didn’t know much about it. So, I decided to read a few books on writing a memoir. In my research, I quickly discovered that there is no shortage of information or advice. In fact, there are many fantastic resources to teach you how to write a memoir.

In my research, I raised the following questions:

  • What is a memoir?
  • Why write a memoir?
  • Why would someone want to read about your personal life?
  • What are a few good books to read?
  • Where can I find resources on how to write a memoir?

In this article, I will answer these questions.

Definition of a Memoir

What is a memoir? The word “memoir” is derived from the Latin word “memoria”, which means memory or reminiscence. A memoir is not an autobiography, which is a story about your entire life written by you. A memoir is not a biography, a story about entire life and written by someone else. A memoir is a true story about a specific event, experience, time or period in your life that had significant meaning, and it is written by you.

What to include? Anything and everything can be included in a memoir, but it should be relevant. It is the writer’s decision to choose what to include. Writing your memoir is more than listing your life events. It is about personal discovery—about uncovering truths that make your life unique and fascinating. It is a chronicle about a time or period in your life. It is also about what you have learned from that time or experience.

You write a memoir using the first person point of view (“I”). You always include your feelings, thoughts, recollections, beliefs, values, and opinions.

Much of your memoir is based on memory, your recollections of the past. These memories are subjective, in the sense that they are based on your own feelings and experience.

Much of your memoir will also be based on emotional truth. In other words, you can write about how you feel about an experience.  This does not mean that you fabricate the events. But it does mean that you can write about the truth of your feelings. Often each person has a different feeling about an experience.

What Can You Write About

Memoirs have been written on a myriad of topics. Start by selecting an important event, experience, milestone, or turning point in your life. Some popular topics include death, divorce, life changing events, illness, abuse, addiction. Next, plot your life’s important experiences and events. What events stand out? What experiences change you?

For each event or incident that you intend to write about, ask yourself: What is the meaning of the events or personal experience? As well, write down all of your thoughts and feelings and impressions of the experience.

As well, ask yourself these questions: What is the universal truth that I can share with others? What have I learned that can be helpful to others? What might others find fascinating about me? What is the significance? What is the meaning? What is the lesson learned?

Answer the question: So what? Why would someone else want to read my memoir? What could they learn from your experience that they can use in their own lives?

Another way of determining what to write about is to answer the question: What is my legacy? What do I want to leave behind for others to learn from my experience?

Why Write a Memoir?

Do you want to leave a legacy? Do you have something important to share? There are many reasons to write a memoir. Each writer has different motives. Here are the most common reasons why a person writes a memoir:

  • To remember or unlock memories
  • To validate who you are
  • To release emotional pain and suffering. (Catharsis, can be a form of therapy; to heal yourself)
  • To share your success or something important or something significant that you have learned.
  • To Share what you have learned from adversity, struggle
  • To Tell future generations
  • You feel that you have something to tell others
  • To honour your life
  • To leave a legacy
  • To get published. A memoir is easier to publish than fiction

Reading List

Before you begin writing a memoir, you should read memoirs by others. Here are a few good memoirs you can read:

  1. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
  2. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  3. Night by Elie Wiesel
  4. Wild Swan’s by Jung Chang
  5. Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson, David Oliver Relin
  6. The Last Lecture ( )
  7. The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin

Resources to Help You Write

There are many good books that can teach you how to write a memoir. Here are the books that I consider to be the best:

  1. Your life Story” by Tristine Rainer
  2. How to Write a Memoir by William Zinsser
  3. Writing a Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington
  4. Inventing Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir by William Zinsser
  5. Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature by Bill Roorbach
  6. Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
  7. Modern American Memoirs by Annie Dillard
  8. Old Friends Far and Wide: The Practice of Writing a Memoir by Natalie Goldberg
  9. On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  10. Elements of Style by Strunk and White

If you have any questions or comments, please post them to this blog.

Next I will discuss the types of memoirs you can write.



  1. Wow, thanks so very much for this blog! It’s right up my alley and I would have never known about it had I not just written a reflection, myself, on deciding to write a memoir. Check it out here on my wordpress blog a “helpful books” review.


    Jennifer Manlowe, PhD

  2. Matt says:

    what if nothing changed you and you have no idea what you could write about cause their has been no event in your life to express who you really are?

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