Updated: Mar 30, 2022
You’d like to write a memoir. You’ve been thinking about it for a year or more. You’ve been journaling for years or just writing down family stories as you remember them. You’ve been through trauma or pain and come out on the other side. And now you desire to turn these memories and experiences into a memoir.
Great! Let's do this! But when the memoir writing process begins, it often comes as a surprise that this creative nonfiction genre is more akin to fiction than nonfiction. Think about it. There’s a main character—you. And supporting characters—friends, family, co-workers, doctors, ministers. There’s a plot—something you’ve learned after something you’ve been through. And suddenly, turning your personal journey into an engaging book seems a little trickier.
Four mistakes that often throw first-time memoir writers for a loop:
1. Trying to cover too much
2. Struggling with tense
3. Faking your voice
4. Striking the wrong tone
1. Trying to cover too much
Without question, this is the most common mistake first-time memoir writers make. Notice I did not say “writing too much.” This problem is not too many words or too many pages. I said “trying to cover too much.” The remedy is not to “write less.” What is?
To combat this mistake, I first want to remind you that a memoir is not an autobiography. An autobiography is intended to cover the whole of the author’s life from birth up to the time of the writing, with the primary purpose to tell you everything about the author.
A memoir serves a different purpose. Odd as it might sound, a memoir isn’t about the author. A memoir is about something and the author is its illustration—an episode or series of related episodes in the author’s life that results in personal growth, self-revelation, knowledge, or wisdom.
How does a memoir writer end up writing too much? Face it, some writers are just plain verbose. Why say in two words what you could say in twenty? But, truthfully, that’s not the most common reason, this is: not having a clear, focused theme for their memoir.
What is the theme of a memoir? To put it as simply as possible, it is the answer to the question, “What is it about?” I know what you’re thinking—that sounds like the plot or storyline. No, that’s why this is tricky. Here’s an example of a storyline:
Growing up in a home with an overworked, single mom and as the sister of four, rambunctious, older brothers, who all led lives of crime and did time in prison.
That’s the story. So, what’s the theme?
How watching each of my four brothers make bad choices with their lives emboldened me to become a social worker and help others avoid that path.
Can you see the distinction? If you don’t have a clearly defined theme, which serves as signposts on your memoir journey, you can find yourself wandering aimlessly throughout the entirety of your life. With a clearly defined theme—the lesson you learned from the experiences of your life—your writing stays on track and will impart your life lessons to your readers.
2. Struggling With Tense
An issue that new memoir writers often ask about is tense. The three basic tenses are past, present, and future—I wrote, I write, I will write—and I’ll leave it at that so this doesn’t become a grammar lesson.
Remember, a memoir is not an autobiography. The most boring memoirs are those that are 100% chronological. Moving elegantly backward and forward through time is the hallmark of an interesting memoir, but it’s also where newbie memoir writers get tripped up. Here is a rule: there must always be a now. Your now tells your readers where and when you are in your life, the place and time of your life from which you are writing the memoir. No matter how you time travel, you must always return to your now.
When you write about what has already happened in your life, use the past tense. Writing about the past in the past tense makes obvious sense and is the way people would naturally talk when sharing a memory. And you can share a memory within a memory. You can share a related story from 1973 as a memory within a story from 1994.
Use the present tense to comment on the past. Come back to your now to reflect, analyze, ponder, and discuss the feelings you have now about these memories. This, too, is how people would talk in every-day conversation.
One more word of advice: Don’t interject present-tense comments into the recollection of an event; it breaks the flow of the storytelling. Finish your reminiscence then return to the now and reflect.
3. Faking Your Voice
Voice and tone are intrinsically connected in memoir. They are different but they must work in unison for your writing to resonate with your readers. Let’s discuss voice first.
Voice is like your fingerprint. Each of us has a voice when we speak aloud. It is our style of speaking—our own unique vocabulary, our own way of ordering our words, and our unique inflections (the rhythm of our speech).
Where most first-time memoirists fail is in their choice of voice. This is due, in large part, to the idea that our writing must sound somehow more academic or flowery or complex than our every-day speech. Nothing could be further from the truth with most forms of writing but especially with memoir. Authenticity, truthfulness, and honesty should reign supreme in the telling of a life’s story. Use your own unique voice. Be present as yourself in your memoir!
The voice of your memoir must correspond with the tone.
4. Striking the Wrong Tone
The tone of a piece of writing is the mood the writing creates—lighthearted, somber, triumphant, grateful, aggrieved, and so on. The tone is the pervasive feeling your audience will have while reading your memoir. Your story might be one of painful, dark, or frightening experiences. But that does not mean your tone must be dark nor your voice heavy.
Tone can change within a memoir; fearful and uncertain in memories, brave and resolute in the now.
As you think about your voice, consider your audience. If you have been through adversity, pain, or trauma—and who hasn’t—is darkness the tone you wish to present throughout? If you have matured, become wiser, gained self-knowledge and self-confidence through your experiences, adopt a tone of triumph and empowerment when you return to the now. Present yourself, the author of this memoir, to your audience from the point of view of the person who have become, not the person you were.
Be Genuine, Be Kind
Readers know when they’re being deceived. Don’t adopt a tone of self-congratulation or self-aggrandizement. Don’t rant and rave, and never, ever, seek revenge through a memoir. Step forth as mature, empathetic, and wiser. These are the elements of an enjoyable memoir.