4 Things I Learned About Writing Memoirs

Part 1 |

Write By The Rails’s Back on Tracks – Writer’s Workshop – Fall 2018

Now that I’ve recovered from the back-to-back weekends of workshop and writing convention, I can start sharing the notes I took! Today, I’m starting with the notes from the Write By The Rail‘s break out session on memoirs.

I’ve never been tempted to write a memoir, but Nancy Kyme, the author of Memory Lake, shared with us her experience and made me realize it’s not as intimidating as it sounds.

First off, we need to define what is a memoir and what makes it different from a biography (or autobiography). A memoir is the intersection between memory and story and typically focuses on one major event or process.

Next thing to note, you don’t need to have an outrageous life. To write a memoir, you just need to be prepared for these four things.

1 – Reminiscing can be immersive.

Be prepared for negative emotions to resurface as strongly as they did at the time. As you go through the story, you’re going to have to make it real for the readers, which means delving into the emotions and thought processes you were having at the time the events actually took place.

2 – Deciding on a voice.

Is this told by the you-of-today? By younger-you? Or do you want a dual-timeline, perhaps comparing recent events to ones that happened years before?

You get to decide what works best for your story.

3 – Discovering the theme.

A memoir isn’t just a recitation of events and stories. It needs a theme. You don’t need to know the theme when you start, but as you edit and polish your work, often you can find the theme that ties the events together.

Themes are varied, but there are some universal themes. Self-growth or discovery. Coming into one’s own. The way truths–or lies impact everyone. Or the impact of a single person on the trajectory of your life.

4 – Resist holding back.

Share your memories the way you remember them. Don’t hold back because you might show someone in a negative light. It’s surprisingly hard to sue someone for defamation in a memoir – they’re supposed to be based on true events – not 100% fact. Memory is faulty and it’s hard to prove your version isn’t the true version – as long as you don’t start making outrageous claims.

Don’t hold back or save the major event for the end as a surprise. It’s hard to build up to something so major without it feeling almost anti-climatic. Have that critical event be the starting point, or make references to it and make the reader anticipate with current-you, getting to that event.


And that’s how to build your memoir — or help someone else build theirs. Welcome the memories, pick a voice, recognize the theme, and don’t hold back. What are you waiting for?


Have you written a memoir? Tell me what experience you shared.
Have you thought about writing one? What would you like to share with readers?

(Thanks to Write By The Rails’s president, Jan Rayl for organizing the workshop and a special thanks to Nancy Kyme for sharing her experiences with us.)

5 thoughts on “4 Things I Learned About Writing Memoirs

  1. So: I wrote a memoir and self-published it in 2017. It’s about the decade (90s) I spent as a script coordinator in the film biz here in Canada, and is called Surviving Hollywood North: Crew Confessions from an Insider – and is here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0969595735/.

    I mainly just followed my gut; I had read quite a few memoirs and knew that it’s best to focus on one period in one’s life, or one aspect. Now just because I followed my gut, doesn’t mean I didn’t organize and outline. I organized and outlined like crazy, with the help of some handy-dandy markers. (https://crossedeyesanddottedtees.wordpress.com/2018/08/22/writing-in-colour/)

    By the way, your number 1 point above is SO true – I basically had to RELIVE the entire decade, warts and all, the highs and the lows! …But it turned out pretty well. I’m very satisfied with it!

    Liked by 1 person

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