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Writing a memoir? Elements you need to master

What do you want to write about? Well my life of course (writers say). And I nod because of course that is right. But it has to be about something more and bigger than just your life.

The hard thing about writing about yourself / life / job / expertise/ trauma / journey is that you have to step away from writing to please or express yourself. You have to shift into writing for a reader.


Writing for yourself is journaling.

To elevate your story about this and allow it to be considered for publication demands more of you as a writer. It asks you to find the story behind the story and then give it a clear and engaging direction.

The writers that can see this bigger story are often the ones who write better books.

A lazy writer says – I was in a coma for a month and I want to tell everyone about that. Or I walked the Great Wall of China and I want to share that.

A professional writer says – I was in a coma for a month and I discovered a few universal truths. I am going to calls these the Seven Spiritual Laws and use my experience to illustrate and illuminate them.

What is different in these two approaches? The former is written with a need to share your story. The latter is written with a need to share a good story in a way that people who don’t know you (and never will) still want to read it.

Anita Moorjani’s incredible memoir Dying to be Me starts with the day she died. It presents to the reader the argument that finding her inherent worth saved her life. Her message is to live a life that’s led by love instead of fear. Joan Didion’s husband died and she wrote about surviving the grief in The Year of Magical Thinking. Lance Armstrong wrote a book about his cancer journey titled It’s not about the Bike.

Can you see each of these stories elevate the story about the personal and into the real of universal?

Armstrong is not saying… ok read all about me. He is saying - I have message and this is how I learned it. Is this message is true for you? Didion is saying – grief can reveal magic if you allow it in. She is not journaling every elements of her year (and in fact I am pretty sure this went on for longer than a year but the title sounded far better if she ring-fenced it over a year).

With this in mind….

What are the elements that are critical to a publishable memoir?

  1. An argument / solution / big picture concept you are presenting to readers (this happens upfront and most often in the title) that gives your book a direction.

  2. A kicker of a start (the inciting incident) that grabs the reader immediately and pulls them into your story.

  3. Scenes that make up the working part of your story that promise your reader they are going to be entertained and follow you on one helluva journey.

  4. A well-structured way of presenting your story that leads your reader down your chosen path by making this journey come alive in a dramatic way.

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