Why write a memoir? Discover why you should write a memoir in this article and how it differs from an autobiography.
In 2020, I wrote a memoir about my experiences becoming a dad unexpectedly in my early twenties. I used old journal entries, interviews, research, photographs, family videos and notes to research and write my memoir, and I aimed the result at new Dads.
I discovered memoir is a fun type of writing that any writer can try. However, many new writers interchange the terms’ memoir and autobiography. Through my research, I learnt memoir differs from autobiography in several ways. It’s key to understand these differences before embarking on this genre.
Memoir Versus Autobiography
An autobiography focuses on the history of the individual. It tells the whole story and requires an extraordinary or lengthy life. Memoir, on the other hand, tells part of the story. It aims to reveal some universal truth rather than recount a chronology of someone’s life. It focuses on a topic rather than on the individual. The purpose of a good memoir is to inform, inspire or entertain your readers rather than provide a chronology or complete narrative.
New writers sometimes think a writer must be in their sixties or seventies or have led a crazy life to write a memoir, but anyone can write one at any time. The best piece of advice I came across about writing a memoir comes from memoir writing coach Marion Roach Smith. She offers this framework that aspiring memoirists can use. It’s about X, as illustrated by Y, to be told in a Z.
What Is a Good Example Of a Memoir?
Some famous examples of memoirs include Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp, My Left Foot by Christy Brown and Lit by Mary Carr. All these books focus on a theme rather than the authors’ lives or chronologies. Knapp and Carr’s books are about alcoholism, while Brown’s book is about growing up in working-class Dublin with a disability. Other famous examples include I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.
For more examples, check out our guide to the best memoir writers.
Applying Marion’s framework, Caroline Knapp’s book is about alcoholism as illustrated by the author’s 20-year battle with the disease in the 1980s and 1990s, as told in a story-driven book. I also used this framework for my memoir and came up with the following: It’s about becoming a father for the first time, as illustrated by my experiences in my early twenties, to be told in the story-driven parenting book. With that said, here are seven different reasons why you should consider writing a memoir.
1. To Practice Writing
If you enjoy writing practice or follow a regular journaling habit, you already have some great source material you can use for a memoir. You can read through and mine old journal entries for recurring topics or themes. Then, you could pick one of these recurring topics or themes and expand on it for a memoir. You could, for example, write a memoir about your love affair with gardening, cats, or even a holiday home in France.
In a way, you’re combining personal experiences with research and insights into the topic in question. The result is less about you than a universal experience that readers can relate to or enjoy reading about. Plus, you get to spend time writing about something you love, so it’s fun too.
2. To Make Sense of Life
Therapy is expensive. On the other hand, when you write a memoir, you can review past experiences and your thoughts on ideas about a topic and figure out what makes sense to you. Memoir can become a type of healing. And it’s free unless you can count your time.
Memoir as a means of making sense of life partly explains why books about painful topics like alcoholism, depression, and grief are so popular. These are universal experiences many people can relate to. The author can unpack a difficult part of their life, and readers can learn from their journey.
3. To Tell A Personal Story
Telling stories is the key job of any writer. Writers love telling stories, often make-believe ones about characters they’ve come up with or worlds that live in their heads. It’s sometimes easier to tell stories about something that happened to you or an experience you can immediately relate to before writing fictional stories and tales.
However, by writing a memoir, you can tell a story about your family, friends, colleagues and real-life characters. You can turn regular life experiences into something memorable for readers. That’s an approach David Sedaris takes for his colorful essays.
4. To Capture Memories
Memory is an unreliable narrator. It’s one thing to understand the facts and figures of an event like Germany losing World War II, Lee Harvey Oswald shooting John F. Kennedy, or you were bullied in school. But it’s quite another to describe these experiences.
Your memory of an event may differ from someone else’s due to age, point of view, and bias. Our understanding of an experience can change over time, too. By writing a memoir, you’re capturing a snapshot of that experiences from a moment in time.
5. To Understand An Event, Idea or Topic
Often we possess a vague understanding of a topic or a concept, but writing requires clarifying precisely what happened to whom and when. It prompts a writer to engage deeply with a concept or topic and to figure out their opinions and beliefs. It encourages them to articulate their ideas true to the written word.
You may have an idea of what it means to be depressed or like to spend a year living in France, but those ideas may change once you record these ideas on the blank page. Writing a memoir can be a type of mental error exploration in that you can probe, unpick and learn more about an idea while writing about it. You may discover that the initial idea doesn’t reflect what you believe or what happened.
6. To Become An Author
Many people say they have a book inside of them, but few take the time to turn this book into reality. It’s often difficult to turn ideas for characters, stories, scenes, and locations into chapters and then a finished book.
New writers often don’t have consistent writing habits, producing a set number of words daily. It is, however, much easier to write about non-fiction events that happened to you and that you’re intimately familiar with.
You can write about these events to a friend, and you often don’t have to spend as much time researching, outlining or planning versus fiction. If you are a new writer, writing a memoir could be a good way of developing a writing habit. Even if the memoir doesn’t sell many copies, you can draw on this habit to write something else faster next time. For more, check out our list of tips for becoming an author.
7. To Sell Books
If you want to write a book that sells, writing a memoir could be an excellent way to tick becoming an author off your list and earn some money.
Personal essays have become more popular over the past few decades. That’s partly thanks to writers like David Sedaris, Nora Ephron and Joan Didion. Non-fiction books are selling more than ever too. According to Reporterlink, the global non-fiction book market grew by over a billion in 2022 to $14.02 billion versus $13.27 billion in 2021.
Similarly, fiction authors use writing memoirs as a break from their usual genre. Chances are, readers who enjoy your fiction will buy the nonfiction book too. Stephen King is a high-profile example. His memoir On Writing is almost as famous as his best-selling thriller and horror books. Read our guide to the best-selling Stephen King books.
FAQs About Writing a Memoir
Is writing a memoir worth it?
Writing a memoir is an enjoyable and rewarding experience for most writers. Anyone can try it. It will help writers improve their craft and also connect with readers. It’s a great experience if you want to explore non-fiction, have a compelling story to tell or simply want a break from writing fiction. All it takes is a willingness to go deep into a topic and write about it honestly.
After writing my memoir, I sold copies of the Kindle and paperback. I used book royalties to hire a studio and record an audiobook of my memoir. But the project wasn’t about money for me. It was a fun, creative writing project. If you like this article, check out our guide to the best memoir writing apps.
How many pages are in a memoir?
A good memoir is over sixty-thousand words plus long. It ranges between two hundred and fifty to four hundred pages. That said, you can write shorter or longer memoirs.
What style of writing is a memoir?
A memoir is typically non-fiction. The author writes a memoir about a topic, concept or experience. It’s not meant to be a chronological narrative or a complete biography. They use personal stories and experiences and sometimes draw on research and interviews. Some memoirists will even interview people from their personal lives.
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