April 14th, 2021

Memoir Writing 101 – Getting Started

By Linda Ruggeri

This post could also be called: What I Wish I Knew Before I Started Writing My Memoir. This is Part 1 in a three-part series.

As a nonfiction editor and writing coach, I often work with first-time memoir writers who have a story to tell and need help shaping it. These writer-editor relationships may last from six months to three years until what really needs to be said makes its way to the surface of a page.

Memoir writing is more than jotting down thoughts the way we do in a diary. In memoir, ideas need to be organized. Characters and themes developed. Context and sensory details added. Words, sentences, and paragraphs grammatically scrubbed and primed. Chapters need to work independently but also as a whole.

After our work together, it's rewarding see how these clients have grown stronger as writers, how they’re now able to identify inciting incidents (yes, we use those in memoir too!), what matters, what doesn’t, and perhaps more importantly—from a business perspective—what the reader is interested in reading about versus what they think the reader is interested in.

In the end, I get to see my client’s beautiful character arc of their own writing journey.

Universal Writing Truth

If there is one thing we know as writers, is that our cultural upbringing, age, gender, environment, all affect the way we approach our projects and how we work. None of my clients ever have the same experience when they set out to write their memoirs.

Recently, I interviewed some past clients (now published authors) and asked them to share their insights on what their memoir-writing experience was like. This is part one of our conversation, printed here with their permission.

My Question: Can you tell me three things you wish you’d had known before you started writing your memoir?

Christina: (inspirational memoir)

The first book I ever attempted to write was a memoir. I assumed that it would be the easiest of all the writing styles because it was about “me.” I thought it would be super simple to pick out a few memories and write a book based off of them. It ended up being extremely challenging and time-consuming because I wanted everything to be perfect on the first draft.

Every word, sentence, and paragraph needed to be perfect. I would write ten pages in a day only to come back the next day and erase or restart six of them because I thought it wasn't good enough. I was trying to be Michelle Obama or Oprah Winfrey.

Who was I kidding? I had to get out of my own way and shift my mindset. 

Then, I started noticing that for most of my writing process I held a lot back because I only wanted to show the pretty parts of my life. Because what if the pastors or people from church read it and disapproved? Or what if the mean girls from middle school saw it and made fun of me again now that we were adults?

It wasn't until I said screw it! and wrote about all the dark parts of my past did my book finally come together. Don't get me wrong...there were happy parts as well, but you cannot have the good without the bad. Otherwise, that's a fairytale and not a memoir.

Takeaways:

It's a memoir, not a fairytale.

Readers want to see the struggle, the mistakes, and the redemption.

When you’re truthful, the reader will support you the whole way.


Carolyn (memoir author about a 40-year friendship): 

I’ve learned that the telling and writing of each story has a value of its own. That writing in the voice of innocence is a necessary part of the process to practice before developing more insight as well as hindsight.

Instead of looking at each piece as crap, see more clearly how the crap is necessary and important for the flowers to bloom with the most color.

I learned that some sequences need to proceed from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4. This showed me that I was rarely clever in presenting things in a different order because it would become confusing to the reader when they came across events in a different sequence than they were expecting.

My Note: (Carolyn had a nonlinear way of telling a story or writing about events different from most writers I’ve worked with. Many times, she felt the story was clear, complete, and didn’t need additional information.

However, this was because the experience was strong in her memory, but the details hadn’t been put yet on the page. For me, as a reader and her editor, I often asked her for more, for more clarifications, descriptions, and context.)

Takeaway:

Writing is rewriting. And rewriting is learning.


Ed: (historical memoir)

I wish I had known how difficult it was going to be to get started. Where should my memoir begin? How much detail should I include? How revealing do I need to be to be able to tell the story well and yet feel comfortable at the same time? The feedback I received during the developmental editing stage really helped me focus on what I needed to do and include.

Also, when you told me “you know, you don't have to write your memoir," that removed the stress of thinking I had to do it (even if it was something I had chosen to do).

After accepting the notion that I didn't have to write my memoir it became a more enjoyable project because I realized it was something I wanted to do even if I never finished it. But after three long years, I did, and I love how it turned out.

Takeaway:

You don’t have to write your memoir. You’re choosing to write it instead.


Shelli: (inspirational memoir)

I wish had understood the writing process better. And that I would have taken the time to learn how to set up the basics of page formatting right from the start. I shouldn’t have worried so much about the technical aspect of my writing at the beginning (i.e. grammar, spelling, punctuation) and instead focused more on just getting all my thoughts down.

I would have also stayed away from setting deadlines for myself in the first draft since I didn't know how long things take to get done, and learning how to do things adds to that time (i.e. getting permissions to use quotes, fact-checking, reader feedback).

Other people's ideas of setting deadlines were not helpful at that first draft stage. Setting goals, yes, but deadlines, no.

Takeaway:

Set achievable goals, not deadlines.


5 Mindsets of a Successful Memoir

Knowing we want to write a memoir is never enough. We need a lot more than intention. It pays to research memoir types, structures, and what the writing process might be like for you. Our chances of writing a successful memoir, and most of all, our chances of enjoying the process of writing our memoirs, seem to increase when:

  1. We recognize writing our memoir is a choice, not an obligation.
  2. We set reasonable writing goals for ourselves.
  3. We are willing to write about our successes just as much as about our failures.
  4. We know a first draft is exactly that: A first draft (getting our word onto the page.)
  5. We recognize we will be revising, rewriting, and rewriting again to fine-tune our story.

In Part II of Memoir Writing 101, we will discuss positive things and surprises that came out of their projects, so keep reading Writers in the Storm Blog for more information.

Now it’s your turn... Have you written a memoir (or wished to)? If so, what do you wish you’d known when you started writing?

* * * * * *

About Linda

Linda Ruggeri is a full-service editor and project manager based out of Los Angeles. She co-authored the historical memoir Stepping Into Rural Wisconsin: Grandpa Charly’s Life Vignettes from Prussia to the Midwest and can be found online at The Insightful Editor and on Instagram. Her new book Networking for Editors will be released this summer.

16 responses to “Memoir Writing 101 – Getting Started”

  1. Oh my goodness, Linda, where do I begin??? I wish I knew what Carolyn said: "writing in the voice of innocence is a necessary part of the process to practice before developing more insight as well as hindsight." I wish I knew that what you think is your truth may not be. And that the only way to find your truth is to revise, revise, revise, until your soul says yes. And that it would take me twenty years to finish!

    • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

      Karen, yes, so true! Writing memoir is so much about self discovery (that might have been done earlier, but also, during the writing process). It's so important to allow ourselves as much time as is needed to really "get to the story."

    • For memoir, it IS hard for writers to get out of their own way. Hearing that will help a lot of people. Thanks!

      • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

        Thank you Christine! Yes, it's an emotional learning process to let go of our own beliefs about our writing, but it's so helpful too. There is a great book called Living Revision: A Writer's Craft as Spiritual Practice by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew that goes into great detail about good and healthy ways to approach the revision/re-writing process (needless to say it's on my reference shelf!)

  2. Jenny Hansen says:

    This, Karen. A thousand times THIS --> "I wish I knew that what you think is your truth may not be. And that the only way to find your truth is to revise, revise, revise, until your soul says yes."

    When I started my memoir, I thought it was about high-risk pregnancy, but it's really about the fallacy of having control during long-term illness, and a bunch of other things I'm still digging out on the re-write. 🙂

    • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

      Indeed! And sometimes it's someone else's soul that says it first to us! And our soul then relaxes and agrees... E.J. Andrew says "Revision is a form of love, and of revising also ourselves."

  3. dholcomb1 says:

    I haven't written a memoir.

    denise

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I'd never written one until the last few years. I just had a story that wouldn't leave me alone - the one story that when I shared it with people, it left them breathless. When that kept happening, I knew I had to write it.

    • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

      It's an interesting experience Denise. More challenging that some people think. However, the rewards can be amazing. The good thing about memoir these days is that it doesn't have to be your whole life story. It can be an incident, something that happened over a weekend or a few years, or about a period of your life. I think picking a "this is what I learned" moment and working that story of how you got there is a good way to practice. I encourage you to try it!

  4. judygruen says:

    So many valuable insights here! I had been writing personal essays for more than 30 years when I began my first memoir and was shocked at how difficult it was. I needed to access the person I had been when much younger, to speak from that voice at that time. I also needed to give myself permission to use the voice that my fan base responded to best and not a new "memoir" voice that I mistakenly was shooting for at the beginning.

    I also agree how important it is not to pressure yourself that you are "writing a memoir." I'm now doing a long blog series that I hope will one day become a worthy memoir, but with pressure off I'm enjoying the process so much more.

    And yes, Linda, I wholeheartedly agree that a memoir not only does not need to be about your whole life but should not be. Memoir, ideally, is about a time of your life, how certain experiences formed and shaped you. That focus helps the writer and the reader.

    Thank you for this. I look forward to the next posts in the series.

    • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

      Hi Judy! Many people turn their personal blog posts into a memoir when there is a common theme throughout them, and I'm positive you will be able to do the same. What we love about memoir is it's "relatability," how we have either experienced the same thing, or something close to it. But if we haven't, then, we are drawn in because the writer is able to place us right there in their experience, so we feel, hear, smell, touch, and fear the same things (this happened to me with Tara Westover's "Educated".

  5. goldy4348 says:

    By having the subject of Memoir Writing visited more than once in the past month is somehow giving me a personally vital message - that I can rewrite and revise until I feel ready for the Editor to step in. That I mustn't lose heart and be overwhelmed because of the reams of essays that I have done over the years. And that this is the best time to write my Memoir! Thanks from a slow learner but a grateful one also!

    • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

      We are all slow learners! And if you're a writer at heart, the process of writing your memoir, and revising it, can be quite beautiful. My biggest advice regarding revision, is to make sure it's clear to you what each chapter is looking to accomplish (reinstate the theme? move my story forward? show my character growth? Give closure to a topic?) then set some attainable yet comfortable deadlines you'd like to have (i.e. Ch 3 needs to be done in 1 month) and just work on that chapter for that month specifically.

      When the month is up, let it go. And move on to the next one.

      I also encourage the memoir writers I work with to create a beautiful writing space, even it's just the kitchen table. You want to feel good by being there (flowers, a rock, a book, a cup of coffee/tea, a photograph, a piece of clothing—anything that makes you feel present and appreciated).

  6. […] few months ago, I posted my Memoir Writing 101 Series: Getting Started Part 1. Today I’m sharing Part 2, where we discuss with the same authors I wrote about, the positive […]

  7. […] Earlier this month, I posted my Memoir Writing 101 Series: Getting Started Part 2. for Writers In The Storm. Today’s Part 3: different ways we can revise our memoir once we’ve finished writing it. (In case you missed it, here’s Part 1.) […]

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