Writing a memoir or book about your life may sound daunting, but guess what?
You can totally do it. 💪🏼
You just need a few tips, and I can help.
(BTW, a lot of this advice works for personal essays, micro narratives, or any kind of creative nonfiction writing based on your personal life or real life events.)
I gather together the dreams, fantasies, experiences that preoccupied me as a girl, that stay with me and appear and reappear in different shapes and forms in all my work. Without telling everything that happened, they document all that remains most vivid.bell hooks
Writing Resources Are EVERYWHERE. Overwhelmed Much? 🤯
“The best writing shares universal experiences others can relate to. When writing a memoir, you bring a lens of understanding to your story when you reflect on it—that perspective is what readers relate to.”Darien Gee
There are a lot of resources out there on how to write and publish your memoir. A lot of the advice is the same: brainstorm, review old journals and letters, talk to family members and friends, flip through photo albums and yearbooks, then get to work.
They might recommend drafting a timeline, something in chronological order or grouped by themes or subject matter. You might get prompts and suggestions for where to begin, or maybe you already know the story you want to tell. The next step is to sit down and write, be it by hand ✍🏼 or on the computer 💻 (points if you’re tackling it with a manual typewriter ).
They tell you to choose your writing space: your desk at home, a coffee shop, the library, in the car while waiting for your kids to finish soccer practice, or all of the above. Then they say, Write, write, write, write, write! (I always picture Steve Martin in Dirty Rich Scoundrels banging on a pot, yelling “Oklahoma Oklahoma Oklahoma!” except he’s telling me to write, and I’m like the overwhelmed heiress thinking she is WAY in over her head).
So now you’re writing, or trying to write, and maybe the words are flowing or maybe you have writer’s block 😫 (yes, that’s a real thing and I apologize for saying years ago that I didn’t believe in it. Semantics, but anyway). You’re writing draft after draft, or maybe you’re revising the first half of your book and ignoring the back half because it’s a mess. Maybe you’re bogged down in the editing process and can’t figure out which way is up. Maybe you hire a professional editor or ghost writer to help you clean everything up, except they make it worse or have a completely different writing style (and now you’re a little more broke, too).
Maybe you have a perfect first draft of the whole book and are realizing that while writing it was hard, getting it published (if that’s your goal) may be harder. Some would argue it’s the hardest part of the process, especially if you’re planning to go the traditional publishing route. Oh, and someone in your writing group (ah, those stalwart fellow writers!) mentioned that it would be a good idea if you figure out your “platform” (don’t get me started on platform!) and start posting on social media and writing blog posts and build a following if you have any chance of becoming a best seller…
Whoa, let’s slow it down. 🧘🏻♀️
Here’s the bottom line: I confess to having told many of my writing clients and workshop participants some variation of the above. But guess what? You can do it differently.
I’m not going to lie. You do have to write.
“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”Stephen King
I hope I didn’t lead you to believe you’d get the book done without actually writing it (and, no judgment here, you can totally outsource the writing to a professional writer if you have the financial means and the patience). You will be writing, but you won’t be like Steve Martin racing around the room, banging on a pot.
As a bestselling author who has published in multiple genres, I’ve noticed that the biggest misconceptions memoir writers make is treating the book about their life like a novel instead of a nonfiction book. Yes, most memoirs read like a novel, but the creative process is a little different, at least based on my own experience and in terms of what agents, publishers, and readers want these days. They’re open to different and innovative literary forms, and while you need to discover your storytelling voice, it’s really up to you how it shows up on the page.
What to Write About
The most important thing about writing life stories is deciding which life stories to write about. 🤔 You’ll need to decide on key events and figure out what time period you’re dealing with. At the same time, you’ll want to leave room for exploration and surprises. Sometimes (often) you don’t know what you’re really writing about until you start writing.
#1 First Things First. Beware the Saboteur. 🤺
“I sabotage myself for fear of what my bigness could do.”Alanis Morissette
Remember those stalwart fellow writers above? They might be shape-shifting saboteurs, writers who want you to succeed, but not really. The same can go for a close friend or best friend who knows you well, maybe too well, and may try to “help” by helping you keep your ambitions in check. And spouses/partners/family members? Yup, all possible saboteurs.
But the saboteur you need to most be aware of is YOU.
Your Own Worst Enemy
New authors may not be familiar with the twisty creative process that can uplift and undo you in one swift move, but if you’ve been writing for a while, you know what I mean. You don’t actually need to do anything about the saboteur, you just need to know that she/he/they are there, waiting for an opportunity to make you feel like crap about your writing or your dream of being a writer.
I’ve tried to “make room” for the saboteur in the past. You know, embracing the whole self and all, and recognizing that the saboteur may have had noble intentions at one point (to protect you from getting hurt or disappointed, for example). “Making room” means scooting over on the bench so it can sit next to you, but you don’t necessarily have to talk to it. Here’s my thought on that…
Ignore the Saboteur
Don’t waste your time. Your best bet is to ignore the saboteur rather than try to and make room for it on your bench. 🙉 Like the seasoned teachers in a rowdy high school classroom, you don’t respond to the troublemakers, and anything standing between you and the written word is not going to get any air time. 👩🏻🏫
If your saboteur isn’t you but someone in your circle, don’t get mad at them. You don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing, but clearly it’s not in step with what you’re trying to accomplish. Pivot and love them for what matters most, and keep your writing to yourself a little while longer. Some might come around later … and some might not. It doesn’t matter, because writing is YOUR thing, not theirs.
I mention the saboteur first thing because writing is the ultimate mental game (hello, writer’s block). The saboteur pulls in our emotions, past failures, fears of failure, and fears of success. Many famous writers have written with these saboteurs creating havoc in their personal and professional lives (spoiler: some of those stories didn’t end well), but that is a difficult and lousy way to write.
If you’re going to write, find the smoothest, easiest path. I won’t say fun, but I’ll say fun-ish. You’re going to be spending a lot of time on this book — you may as well enjoy it as best you can.Writing is the ultimate mental game. Click To Tweet
Bottom line: Banish saboteurs from the writing room. 🙅🏻♀️
#2 The Prepared Writing Environment 👩🏻💻
“Creativity is always a leap of faith. You’re faced with a blank page, blank easel, or an empty stage.”Julia Cameron
One of the best ways to set yourself up for success is to have a prepared writing environment.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I was a part-time teacher at a Montessori school in California. One of the cornerstones to Maria Montessori’s teaching philosophies is the prepared writing environment, where everything has a purpose and a place, and is designed specifically for the ease and success of the child. Everything is within reach and set out with intention.
For writers, this means having the proper tools to help you write, and identifying the most ideal place for you to write. I wish we could all afford a fancy writing studio overlooking a lake, as well as full-time childcare, a live-in chef and housekeeper, not to mention someone who will pay the bills and deal with annoying phone calls, but you can write almost anywhere, you just have to decide where.
The Proper Tools to Help You Write
- Notebook or notepad, if writing by hand
- Pencils, pens, highlighters — I prefer these to all be erasable, so I use the Frixion series
- Laptop or computer
- Three-ring binder (learn about my binder system)
- Several sets of page dividers (3-6 sets to start)
- Post-It flags and notes
- Earbuds or headphones, if in a loud or crowded space
- Manual kitchen timer (I love this owl, or go cool retro, yet old-school tech) — use phone if absolutely desperate
- Plenty of water (or coffee or tea. But water’s the best choice, hands down.)
- Any additional resources to help you mine your memories, but don’t go overboard. You can fact check later.
The Ideal Place For You To Write
- Room to spread out your notes and printed pages
- Low noise level
- Minimal interruptions
- Power source
- Bathroom (don’t laugh — I’ve interrupted terrific writing streaks because a bathroom wasn’t easily accessible)
- Privacy (if you can’t get any privacy, use aforementioned earbuds or headphones)
Bottom line: Invest the time to establish a writing environment that supports you. 👩🏻💻
#3 Establish a Writing Practice 🖋
“A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.”Annie Dillard
We’re real people living in the real world, which means life doesn’t always cooperate with our creative desires. There are plenty of people who advise treating writing like a job with set hours, a lunch break, no personal distractions, etc., but that has never worked for me.
I have a family, a bunch of side gigs, my own errands (groceries, doctor appointments, chauffeuring kids, meal prep, laundry), and a saboteur who sometimes gets her/his/their way. Flexibility with a hint of desperation (“I have to write!”) is the way I roll, but I always get more done (and feel better about myself and my writing) when I establish a writing practice.
A writing practice has some bend in it by its very nature — it’s a practice, not a job, not a requirement, not set in stone. We practice by showing up, we practice by putting pen to paper or fingers on a keyboard. We practice writing, revision, reading like a writer, revising like an editor. A writing practice will be different for everyone — there is no one or best way.
Show Up Everyday
We are kind to ourselves when it doesn’t go as planned, and we show up the next day to start again. We don’t judge ourselves or our writing. A writing practice is a starting point, a place to begin and begin again.
What I do know is that these elements help:
- A set time to write, and on a regular (ideally daily) schedule
- A goal for each session: time, word count, scene or chapter (learn about my container methodology)
- Use a paper or printed calendar with your writing time blocked out and placed somewhere visible (there’s a printable for that)
- Writing practice is about actual writing, so find another time to do research
- Have a pre-writing and post-writing ritual
- Keep track of your progress (there’s a printable for that)
- A written intention or vision board placed somewhere visible
All this set-up might seem like a waste of time when you just want to dive in, but writing an entire book from start to finish is a long game. It’s no easy task to write 50,000 to 100,000 words, not to mention multiple revisions, and a good story takes time to get right. It can be a daunting task, but when you’ve set up your writing environment, established a writing practice, and have the proper tools to help you get the job done, you’ll be ready to do what you came here to do: write the story of your life.
Bottom line: Set up a writing practice that works with your life. 🖋
#4 Figure Out Your Road Map 🗺
“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”Graham Greene
A writer’s road map does two things: one, it helps you see where you want to go (your destination), and shows the different ways that you can get there (scenic route with detours or follow the highway with pricey tollbooths).
I talk and write about this a lot, because sometimes your destination may be to publish a powerful memoir about your entire life, or it may be publish a small collection of memories and recipes to pass down to future generations. When you understand where you want to go, you can then figure how to get from A to B. 💡
Stops Along the Way
Using the first example (to publish a powerful memoir about your entire life), you need to not only write your memoir, but most likely find a literary agent or research ways to self-publish your title. You’ll need to understand the publishing industry to decide which route is best for you — in addition to the Big Five (Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan), there are many excellent smaller publishing houses, for example.
You may need to gather blurbs or reviews/praise from well-known writers. These are all the stops you need to make in order to get to your destination of publishing a powerful memoir about your entire life. 📍You may have to spend some money as well (hence the pricey tollbooths), be it on editorial support, writing conferences to meet and greet publishers and agents, or to help with publicity outreach once your book is in the world.
If you choose a different destination, say our second example (publish a small collection of memories and recipes to pass down to future generations), your road map will be different. Yes, you’ll still need to write the book then research and decide on what publishing route you want to take, but your path and process may be quieter. You may take a writing workshop or submit individual pieces for publication in literary journals before the book comes out.
These examples are for specific books or projects, but your writer’s map can be about your career, your real big picture (look for that post next).
Bottom line: Know where you want to go, then figure out how you’re going to get there. 🗺
#5 Write ✍🏼
“A memoir forces me to stop and remember carefully. It is an exercise in truth. In a memoir, I look at myself, my life, and the people I love the most in the mirror of the blank screen. In a memoir, feelings are more important than facts.”Isabel Allende
In Writing the Hawai’i Memoir: Advice and Exercises to Help You Tell Your Story (Watermark Publishing), I talk about why your story matters. Here are two bits I’d like to share:
“No one can write the book that you are going to write. It’s as simple as that … what you ultimately end up writing about, and how you end up writing about it, is your decision. You’ll arrive at this decision — and many others — based on your beliefs, perceptions, experiences and personal desires. You get to claim your life, your experiences, your story. What you put down on the page is up to you. You are the only one who can put the words down in that way.
“Sharing our lives opens us up. It connects us. It helps us (as the writer) to make sense of things, to celebrate moments that might otherwise be lost, to remember what matters most. It helps us (as the reader) to see that we’re not alone, that our lives are both personal and universal, that the human spirit is deeper and more profound than we may remember when we’re trying to pay the bills or care for a sick child or parent. We get to be a part of another person’s experience.”
Every writer is different in terms of how they approach the page. You can use prompts, you can start from the beginning, you can focus on a specific moment or theme. It does require a plan, and (usually) a writing schedule, and most importantly, you actually writing. The key is to keep moving forward — abide by the adage, progress, not perfection.
A Completed First Draft
The ultimate goal is to have a completed first draft, even if it’s a train wreck, so long as most everything you want to cover is somewhere in there. I’ve met so many hopeful writers who have beautifully written and well-polished first chapters … and nothing else.
Get to the end. There are options once you have a first draft — as I tell my students, “Now the ball is in play.” ⚾️
We can go places with a draft (see #6 and #7 below), but it’s infinitely harder, if not impossible, with a manuscript that’s incomplete. The reason this matters is simple: sometimes you don’t know what you have until you get to the end, and in some cases it may change or alter your original intentions.
Bottom line: Get that ball in play, friends. WRITE. ✍🏼
#6 Revise and Question the Form 🤔
“A memoir should have some uplifting quality, inspiring or illuminating, and that’s what separates a life story that can influence other people.”Mitch Albom
The great news about writing your memoir now, versus five or ten or twenty years ago, if that you can write it however you’d like — it just has to work. 😉
In the past, most memoirs read like a novel, the only difference being that a novel was fiction whereas a memoir was someone’s life story, a recounting of real-life experiences. But it had the same character development and plot arc, the same number of words (70,000 words to 90,000 words), as most novels on the shelves.
If you tried to get an agent or publisher to look at a memoir that had an alternative structure, they’d be reluctant to take it on because they weren’t sure how it would do in the marketplace. They were worried that readers weren’t ready for something innovative or different.
Different Memoir Forms
Publishers and readers are ready now … we’re seeing collections and vignettes, the use of recipes and photographs, short personal stories, hybrid forms that include poetry, memoirs that are 20,000 words and memoirs that are 120,000 words — in other words, you can be creative in how you tell your story. But like I said: it has to work.
By saying your memoir has to work, I mean that it has to be compelling, readable, and give us a trajectory of some kind from beginning to end. This is where revision comes in. Revision is when you not only fix details and issues at the line level, but look at how everything coheres as a whole. Is there another way you can tell this story? Is something clunky or hard to follow?
You can play with voice (you as the narrator vs you as the main character in your story) and tense (past tense, present tense, future tense). You can even play with point of view (first person is most common, but some memoirists and essayists have used the second person, the “you,” to tell their story). Discovering the structure of your book can be fun, too.
The point is this: you may need to experiment to figure out what works. Good revision isn’t just moving words around and fixing typographical errors, but really asking yourself some deep questions:
- How can I make this better?
- What’s working, what’s not?
- Why am I telling this particular story/detail/event? Does it move my memoir forward?
- Is there something I’m holding onto that I should let go of?
- Is there something I need to find a way to include, even though I’d hoped to avoid it?
Reading other memoirs, especially those that are recently published and well-received by readers, will give you an idea of the many different ways you can tell your story. I recommend you always read a memoir once as a reader, then again as a writer. When doing the latter, you’re almost deconstructing the work, studying the table of contents, looking at narrative decisions the writer made. How did you feel in the beginning? How did you feel in the end? How did they do that?!
Remember that revision is the work you do to make your manuscript go from a good memoir to a great one.
Bottom line: Stay open to where the revision process takes you. 🔄
#7 Publish Excerpts 📑
“I think many people need, even require, a narrative version of their life. I seem to be one of them. Writing memoir is, in some ways, a work of wholeness.”Sue Monk Kidd
When possible, I highly recommend submitting excerpts or shorter elements to literary journals or prose contests. These should be pieces that work as their own little unit, independent of the rest of the book, so that the reader feels a sense of completion or understanding by the end of it.
Publishing part of the work in advance with a reputable literary journal is helpful for two reasons (there are more, but these are two good ones): 1) now that you and your writing have been “vetted” by a reliable third party (the literary journal), publishers and agents may be more prone to give you a closer look, and 2) you can start building a readership so that when your memoir does come out, you’ll have people who will want to read it because they already know they like your voice and writing style.
Bottom line: Start getting your writing out there! 📑
#8 Find Readers 👩🏻🏫
“Memoirs are the backstairs of history.”George Meredith
Once you’ve revised your memoir to the absolute best of your ability (which, I’m sorry to say, is not that same as you being burned out or sick and tired of it — in the case, tuck the manuscript some place safe and give yourself some breathing room, say 2 weeks to 2 months, and focus on something different before returning to it), it’s time to share it in part or as a whole with some trusted readers.
Finding Helpful Readers and What to Ask
By “readers,” I mean people who actually read memoirs, ideally memoirs on the same themes that you have written, and can give you more specific feedback on your manuscript. By “readers,” I do not mean family members or friends, unless they also happen to fit the other criteria, in which case I would say to make sure they are kind and gentle readers and, most importantly, know how to give feedback. 💁🏻♀️💁🏽♀️💁🏼♀️💁🏾♀️
One thing to keep in mind is to ask specific questions, ideally no more than 3-5, and give them a deadline to respond to you by. You can also share the first couple of chapters, or first 50 pages, and use that as a starting conversation rather than asking them to read a whole manuscript.
You Get to Choose What to Revise
You don’t have to take the advice everyone gives you — in fact, I’d rather you didn’t. What I recommend is listening very carefully to whatever your readers are saying (or not saying), take notes, and then decide for yourself how to address it.
Maybe they made a suggestion you don’t agree with, but that doesn’t mean that section doesn’t have an issue. Is there anything else there you should consider? Is there another way you can resolve this issue?
Sometimes it helps to go back after a couple of weeks and ask them, what would it take for the book to go up a notch for you? What would you like to see more or less of, what needs to change? I’ve found that some readers speak more freely after the first meeting, and after some time has passed. You aren’t as nervous or triggered either, so therefore more receptive to what they have to say. Whatever they say, you’ll run it through your filter again, seeing what rings true and what rings false, and figuring out what final touches you can make.
Bottom line: Listen to what trusted readers have to say, but decide for yourself. 👩🏻🏫
#9 Share and/or Publish Your Book 🤗
“Writing, regardless of the end result—whether good or bad, published or not, well reviewed or slammed—means celebrating beauty in an often ugly world.”Mary Karr
Truth-telling time: not every book, even very very good books, will get published. There are a number of reasons for this, quality and timing being two big ones in my experience, and much of this is out of your hands.
If you choose to go the traditional publisher route, you’ll find it can be a very long journey, sometimes 1-4 years from the time you finalize your manuscript before your book hits the shelves. The reason for this is multi-fold: it takes time to find a literary agent, it takes time for the literary agent to find a publisher, the editor at the publishing house will usually request changes, it has to go through production and all the necessary back-and-forth, the sales team needs an 18-month lead time, and so on and so on.
Small publishers do move faster, as do hybrid publishers, and self-publishing is generally the fastest route. But faster is not always better, and you’ll need to commit some time to understanding the difference.
But maybe publication isn’t your goal. Maybe your goal is to write the best story of your life that you can, and share it with others. Maybe your aspirations are more modest: to write these stories and put them aside for your children and grandchildren. In all the years I’ve been teaching memoir, I’ve seen people write — and publish — for many different reasons, and all of them are wonderful and good and fun and important.
“Find a way to get it printed … unlike a manuscript that gets tucked away in a drawer somewhere, a printed book sits on a shelf and waits for the family members to come along who are interested. And they will come along.”Leslie Lang
Bottom line: Publication isn’t the most important step in this journey. 🤗
#10 Build Your Platform 👷🏻♀️
Just kidding. 😉
Bottom line: In some cases platform is important, but not this white hot moment. Go write — and finish — your memoir! ✍🏼
- Check out my post, 10 Must-Read Books That Teach You How to Write a Memoir.
- Need a little writing push? Try these memoir writing prompts.