Woman writing a memoir

Memoirs are moving, powerful, and full of life. They’re also a bit hard to define. Susan Cheever believes “that the memoir is the novel of the 21st century; it’s an amazing form that we haven’t even begun to tap…we’re just getting started figuring out what the rules are.” So if even the experts don’t know the rules, how are you supposed to write a memoir?

Our experts at Biograph have gathered five tips to help you write a powerful memoir. We’ve designed these tips so you can have the best of both worlds. They’ll guide you as you embark on your writing project. But they’ll also help you tap into the raw power of the genre, so that you can participate in helping to define it for authors to come.

1. YOU OWN YOUR STORY

The author Anne Lamott offers an empowering piece of advice for aspiring memoirists: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Writing a memoir, it’s easy to feel trapped by the expectations of friends and family members—“What will they think if I tell that story? If I reveal that family secret? Would it be better to just not write this memoir?” If you give into those fears, you’re also giving up control—letting other people decide what you write about, and how you make meaning from your own experience. Lamott urges you to claim your story. It’s yours. You own it. And if you want to tell it, you should.

Now that’s not to say that there aren’t ethical concerns you should keep in mind. For instance, some authors feel like it’s not right to write about their children. That’s a matter of principal—something you decide for yourself. If you decide not to write about something, it should be because you don’t want to write about it—not because someone told you not to.

So how do you sort out all these concerns when you start writing your memoir? Here’s the truth: you don’t. It’s impossible to make every decision ahead of time about what your book should and shouldn’t contain. So, put it all down on the page: the whole beautiful mess. Writing should be a space for experience and experimentation. Give yourself permission. You can worry about what to cut—and what to keep—later.

2. TELL YOUR STORY, BUT NOT ALL OF IT

A memoir shouldn’t be a laundry list of everything that happened in your life. In fact, as Isaac Bashevis Singer writes, “The true story of a person’s life can never be written…The full tale of any life would be both utterly boring and utterly unbelievable.” Singer takes us to a problem at the heart of memoir writing. Every life is unspeakably rich; that richness is always slipping out of the author’s grasp.

A memoirist is like a sculptor. You start with a block of material—marble or memory. Then you carve and chisel away until you find the sculpture within it. A good memoir emerges like a sculpture from the raw material of life. In other words, a good memoir begins with some limitations. You have to pick a key theme or relationship from your life to focus on—perhaps your relationship with your mother, or your life-long quest to feel free. Establishing these limits helps you know what to look for as you sculpt away the material of your life.

Of course, you might not know ahead of time which themes or relationships will be central to your memoir. And that’s okay. Writing should be—remember this!—a space of permission and exploration. Give yourself time to experience the living people and moments who shape your life. Feel free to experiment with memory, which is never a perfectly objective museum display of the past but a living breathing representation of your truth, your experience.

The Biograph app provides gentle prompts to get you started. It encourages you to be present even as you reflect on the past and plan for the future. It is designed to help you experience life while telling your story in real time. With free transcripts of your sessions—and keywords automatically drawn from those sessions—Biograph will guide you to the themes at the heart of your memoir. Which keywords, places, ideas, and people appear over and over? Which sessions do you find yourself reading, listening, experiencing, retelling again and again?

3. IT’S NOT ABOUT WHAT YOUR WRITE, BUT HOW YOU WRITE

So, you haven’t cured cancer or climbed Mount Everest. Should you write a memoir anyway? Yes, you can and you should. Some of the best memoirs tell stories of ordinary people living quietly extraordinary lives. As the playwright David Mamet notes, “It doesn’t matter whether it’s truck-drivers or doctors. I think everybody likes to go backstage, find out what people think and what they talk about…”

You have a story tell. You just need to find a way to communicate what’s extraordinary about your life. In other words, it’s about how you tell your story, not whether your story’s worth telling. So, take some time and pay attention to the details.

Are you using static or active verbs? Are you rushing from one event in your life to the next? (“After I graduated college, I met Mark. We got married and had two kids.”) Or are you luxuriating in the language, the details of your memory? (“On a humid night, two months after I graduated college, I walked into a Karaoke bar on a Sunday night. There was a guy on stage—a boy really. With his slight frame and wispy arms, he didn’t look more than twelve. But he was belting “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” What a nerd, I thought. Three years later we were married.”) As you let the words soak up the richness of your experience, your story becomes richer, more compelling, more engaging—even when you think you’re just telling the story of a life like many others.

4. CONNECT WITH YOUR READERS BY BEING YOU

Here’s a worry we hear from authors sometimes: “My story is so specific, so personal. How will audiences connect to it?” It’s an understandable concern. You want tell your story in all its specificity. But you also want your audience to come away from your story better for the experience. And you sure don’t want to put audiences to sleep with tired, aimless stories from your childhood or retirement.

It’s true that you do have to do some work to convince a reader to connect to your story. That’s why it’s so important to invest energy in the quality and detail of your language. Luckily, the problem—representing your personal truth as a shared experience—contains its own solution. The deeper you dig into particulars, the more universal your story becomes.

Nobody likes a book full of broad generalizations and universal lessons. Audiences are hungry to immerse themselves in another person’s world. You connect with your audience by being specific, by being personal—by being you. Memoirs are great conduits for this connection. As celebrated Chilean novelist Isabel Allende observes, “I have more freedom when I write fiction, but my memoirs have had a much stronger impact on my readers. Somehow the ‘message,’ even if I am not aware that there is one, is conveyed better in [a memoir].”

That’s not a knock on Allende’s fiction. It’s a testament to the power of memoir. A memoir full of specific, luminous details will draw in its readers. As you write your memoir, you should collect those details—keep a library of them, so you can draw on them as you write. Biograph can help you do so. Our open-ended questions are designed to promote reflection, to provide time and space to make meaning from memory and experience, to connect your life to the lives of your audience.

5. LET YOUR MEMOIR SHAPE YOU

Writing a memoir can be a powerful, cathartic experience. You’ll find yourself remembering things you’ve forgotten—and revisiting dark corners of your past. It can be overwhelming. Give yourself space and time to process.

But exploring the past can also be healing. As you write about your past, you take ownership over it. Your experience, your trauma, and your memory—it all becomes fully yours. And exploring the past can be transformative. Your future will shift and open as you write. Maybe you no longer feel like a traumatic experience defines you. Maybe you see a key relationship differently. Regardless what shifts for you, embrace the change. Allow writing to change you.

At Biograph, we believe that writing is about more than documenting the past. We believe that language shapes the future.

Our app is designed to help you do just that. Biograph’s platform can help you execute a big writing project like a memoir—gathering and organizing the details and stories that will help your book come to life. But it can also help you develop the practices of self-reflection and representation that are essential to living. Doing so will help you be an author, one who takes ownership of your past and your future.

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