March 29th, 2021

Using Novel Writing Techniques in Your Memoir

by Ericka McIntyre

I’ve spent much of our Covid year learning about, editing, and writing my own memoir. Memoir is a form I think every writer should try to tackle at least once. Everyone has a story to tell. The exercise of writing a memoir can sharpen our memories and force us to write outside our comfort zones—always good practice for a writer at any level. If you want to craft a memoir that is truly a page-turner, you can and should use many of your fiction writing tricks.

First Things First: What a Memoir Is and Is Not

It is important to know what a memoir is and is not. A memoir is not your autobiography. A memoir is a slice of your life at a particular time, in a particular place. It is literally your memories put to paper. Some memoirs cover a year in a person’s life. Some memoirs cover several years. Think in terms of a season of your life, rather than a finite block of days on the calendar.

Many new memoirists hamstring themselves by feeling they need to tell their entire life stories, nose to tail, David Copperfield-style. You do not. A memoir focuses on a theme, on a particular red thread that has wound through your life thus far. It is not a full accounting of all your sins and wins!

A memoir is not a journal entry, even though it is your story. You must write it so that a reader can benefit from it. There must be a compelling reason to keep them turning the pages, such as a lesson they can learn or inspiration for them to find. Memoir can feel navel-gazey in the writing process, but it should never feel navel-gazey on the page. (Yes, I know this is daunting! But persevere.)

What holds a memoir together is a story—your story.

Remember as you write each page that you are telling that story, not making a police report. You can change names to protect people’s privacy. And since you are working from memory, the story will have your slant—don’t feel you have to get every single angle on it. If you ask your family about the picnic you had that one day in 1972, you will get a different story from each member about that day, told from their perspective. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth.

Discover what your truth is and use your memoir to tell it.

An Inciting Incident: You Need One

Telling us about the time you went to the market after work and ran into a friend you hadn’t seen since high school and you exchanged pleasantries with them is not  a gripping inciting incident. Telling us about the time you went to the market after work, ran into a friend you hadn’t seen since high school, and found out they needed a kidney is a start. Deciding to see if you were a match to help them because of that one time in school when they saved you from being assaulted by a teacher? That is a gripping inciting incident.

Don’t invent something that isn’t true, but when you sit down to comb through the sand of your life, you are searching for the pearl that you will hand to your readers. Think of the unusual things. If you don’t think there are any of those pearls, think again. Everyone has as story.

Once I sat in a hotel bar on a business trip and met seven different travelers, from seven different age groups, seven different places, seven different walks of life. Each and every one of them had a compelling story. You do, too. And if you write it well, people will want to read it.

Build Characters

Many new memoirists neglect to see that what they are crafting are characters (who just happen to be real people). You are the “main character” of your memoir.

This is tough for many writers. Do we ever really see ourselves completely objectively? Probably not. But we must do our best. Use the same techniques to craft interesting characters in your memoir that you do in your fiction writing. Make a list of who will appear on the stage of your memoir, and sketch them out, just as you would the players in your novel.

Some prompts:

  • Did your fifth-grade teacher always smell of hard-boiled eggs?
  • What type of sweaters did your mother wear?
  • How did your first husband’s patterns of speech differ from those of the man you left him for? (Yes, we can be the villains in our memoirs.)
  • What is your college roommate’s backstory?
  • What seemed to make your stepfather abusive/wonderful/hilarious/boring?

Use significant details to build distinctive characters that your readers will cheer and jeer at in your pages. Each person will be painted as you saw them, of course, but make sure they’re unique individuals, and not just slices of your own id on parade.

Paint Scenes

Here’s where the old saw, “show, don’t tell” rears its exasperating head yet again. It applies to memoir just as much as it does to novels. Memoirists can take license to paint scenes for their readers, and they absolutely should. The day you meet the person who changed your life forever? I want to see, smell, hear, taste, and feel everything about it.

Don’t say, “I went to audition for a play and I met the director who later became my best friend.” Craft an entire scene, from the moment you got ready to go, to the way you got there, everyone who was there with you, to what immediately struck you about the director. Did you stumble through the audition or did it go off without a hitch? What was your first conversation with this person?

Show us all of it, with action, with sensory detail, and with your “characters’” speech. These scenes need to have the same kind of active pacing you’d place in your fiction. You can use foreshadowing in them, just as you would in your novel, too. And you can tell the truth while you’re doing all of this.

Craft Dialogue

A lot of first-time memoirists feel that since they’re telling a true story, they can’t use dialogue because they don’t recall everything that was said to a T. Not true! You’re writing your memories of events, to the best of your recollection, not testifying under oath in a court of law.

You remember how the people in your life spoke. You remember their verbal tics. You remember their accents. Stay true to those things and the events as you recall them, and use them to rebuild conversations that you and they had. Your mother may have said “but” instead of “however,” but you’re not going to be called to account for that. You won’t get billed five bucks for every adjective or preposition you don’t get exactly right, so loosen up!

It’s important to note too, that dialogue becomes easier to write the better you know and have crafted your “characters.” When you have drawn who a person is, how they sound, what motivates them, it is easy to imagine what they would have said. Take the layer from your memory and fill in the surface losses, adhering as closely to the truth as you can.

Summing Up

If this all sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. But writing a memoir can be some of the most rewarding work a writer can do. Even if you never publish that manuscript, you can use it as practice to hone your writing style, find your voice, and sharpen your skills. That is always worthwhile. You never know what may come tumbling forth from your mind when you try to remember your own life—I have been astonished at my story many times in the process—the themes that have revealed themselves, the synchronicities I never was aware of before. I have even gotten several novel and short essay ideas from the work of writing my memoir. Anything that gets a writer’s mind turning in new ways can be beneficial.

Have you written a memoir? Does the thought excite or terrify you? A little of both? Tell us in the comments.

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About Ericka

Ericka McIntyre is a freelance writer and editor. She has over twenty years of experience working in media and publishing, for a wide array of employers and clients. She is also currently Editor-at-Large of Writer’s Digest, a 100-year-old brand serving the writing community. In her current work, she focuses on writing for a handful of regular clients, with a heavy emphasis on editing and book coaching for independent authors. She works on fiction and nonfiction, across multiple genres. She development edits, copyedits, and proofreads. Learn more about her and her work at www.erickamcintyre.com.

20 responses to “Using Novel Writing Techniques in Your Memoir”

  1. Yes, Ericka, I have written a memoir, and it was and is daunting. I'd never written anything else, so I learned from scratch all the lessons you shared. Like you said, you may never know what may come tumbling forth. Many times, I wrote what I thought was my truth, but when I returned to it later, it realized it wasn't, and I had to dig deeper than I thought possible to find the pearl. Memoir is a teacher of life's lessons like no other!

    • Ericka McIntyre says:

      Yes! I have had to do plenty of that deeper digging too; turns out people I had spent a lot of time canonizing and demonizing are not entirely that good or bad upon reflection; the "truth" can shift when we take a closer look. Valuable lessons there!

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful post, Ericka. Memoir is my favorite genre to read and write. I've written two memoirs, one of them is forthcoming in September. This post definitely resonates with me. I'm glad that you point out the difference between memoir and autobiography. I also appreciate you mentioning that a memoir needs to have a theme. That's the greatest lesson I learned in my memoir writing process. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

    • Ericka McIntyre says:

      That's so great you have a memoir coming out! Congratulations. I thought I knew what my themes were when I set out to write, but I am learning that they may not be what I thought--new ones are surfacing as I go...right now I'm in such early drafting phases that I am not putting pressure on myself for it to be perfect--that will come later with rewrites & edits!

      • Thank you so much, Ericka! I agree with you 100 percent about new themes surfacing during the (re)writing process. I like that you don't put pressure on yourself for the rough draft to be perfect. I've learned to do that too. I print out pre-signed permission slips for myself to write a bad first draft and to practice the art of self-care, as needed. It makes the creative process so much more enjoyable. I show up at my desk happy. Best of luck writing your memoir! I can't wait to read it when you're ready to release it to the world.

        • Ericka McIntyre says:

          That's genius! I love that. We all need permission to write poor first drafts and take care of ourselves!

  3. Jenny Hansen says:

    I'm sure most of the comments of those of us who've written (or are in process with) a memoir will circle back to the issue of theme. Without it, you end up stopped cold in that murky middle because theme is the thread you must unravel and write to in a memoir.

    The "digging deeper" that Karen mentions can't really happen on that first pass. Until I thought of my memoir as a story, I couldn't write it well. Until I understood the true theme, I couldn't take it from episodic "stuff that happened" to a true story. And until I saw that protagonist as a character, rather than "me," I couldn't objectively look at motivation.

    I truly believe that memoirs must be written in stages, because everything I mentioned above was a draft and a stage of development. And every single one of those stages was HARD...because that protagonist is you.

    • Ericka McIntyre says:

      Oh for sure! You're 100% correct on all counts, Jenny. I have been stuck for a few weeks now on mine; I told myself it was because I was too busy with my (paid) work, but part of me thinks I've meandered off track a bit and need to get back on. I'm working with a writing partner and my goal for April is to right the ship! (Stop me before I make a write/right pun or a Suez canal joke, please!)

  4. dholcomb1 says:

    I haven't written a memoir. I can't think of anything intriguing enough in my life warranting a memoir.

    denise

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      LOL, Denise. I'm sure you have plenty. 🙂

      • dholcomb1 says:

        I did write one funny post on Instagram and Facebook last year about the time I might have been an unpaid extra in an 80s Nora Ephron movie set in NYC. I even had a lesser-known producer like my IG post.

        But, that's not a book. lol

    • Ericka McIntyre says:

      I sat in a workshop last fall with some folks who felt the same way...we all came out with solid first chapters! Everyone has a story; sometimes you just need to actually remember it--I couldn't believe what came rushing back to me when I did a few exercises. Forgetting the things that happen to us is a defense mechanism, an evolutionary gift that helps us carry on; a big part of memoir is actually the remembering, going against that instinct to forget. It' a good writing exercise, even if you never finish a whole manuscript or publish.

  5. goldy4348 says:

    Thanks for giving me permission to complete one, if not more Memoirs that I have been incubating for years - and now will continue to edit thousands of words that have been pouring onto pages for many a year, as now it's as though I have been waiting for a green light to complete the stories that are only mine to tell! WITS has been a comfort in stormy weather. What a gift it would be to have you as my Editor. This is truly empowering, Ericka. From far away Melbourne Australia.

    • Ericka McIntyre says:

      I live to encourage writers, so if I have done that for you in writing this blog, then huzzah! My mission is accomplished! Keep writing!

  6. Victoria Marie Lees says:

    Hi, Ericka! Thank you for this clear explanation of memoir. I'm writing about my ten-year college journey while raising five children, the oldest being special needs and the impetus for my beginning college when I did. I began school at a community college and garnered awards and won a part-time scholarship to an Ivy League university. Truly appreciate your insight in this post. All best to you!

  7. Interesting article Ericka! I could connect with it as I am at present working on my memoir. I loved that thought of considering ourselves as a villain in our story. Thanks for sharing this!

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