How to Write a Riveting Memoir

BY MYRA FORSBERG • July 16, 2019

How to Write a Riveting Memoir

Politicians, doctors, dancers, preachers, activists, and sailors have all written memoirs reviewed by Kirkus Indie in the last few years. Medical memoirs, particularly those recounting battles with cancer, abound.

When even a resourceful bird named Super Duck shares her exhilarating life story (with a bit of help), how can a human author stand out in this crowded field? Four veteran Kirkus Indie reviewers offered their tips.

1. Consider your audience.

One of the most difficult challenges memoirists face when recounting their experiences involves providing crucial background for readers. Steve Donoghue, who writes regularly for the National, the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, and the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette, strongly advises authors to consider their audiences, because this genre encourages self-indulgence. “Usually, the stories contained in a person’s memoir have undergone a lot of repetition over a long time—either they’re old family chestnuts that get trotted out for holiday gatherings every year, or they’re private, personal monologues of the type we repeat to ourselves often over the years. Those two circumstances have one thing in common: a receptive audience already up to speed on context.”

Donoghue recommends that authors step back and ask themselves whether they are giving readers enough information so that a stranger would understand their stories.

He cites an easy way to test this: take one of the tales, change the names and genders of every person, and read it out loud. “You’ll start to see right away where and how you should fill in some missing bits in order to round the story out for a general audience.”

He adds that memoirists should also remember that “the fact that all these things happened to you is of absolutely no inherent interest to anybody who doesn’t actually know you. So ask yourself on every page: Do your stories make the reader interested? Describing in detail how your car swerved off the road one rainy night will only interest your friends and family; a general audience needs you to transform the plot of that anecdote into a story. If you’d rather not expend the effort to do that, fine—definitely still try your hand at writing your memoir. But don’t publish it.”

2. Be true to the timeline of events and add plenty of detail.

Jim Piechota, whose reviews and features have appeared in Publishers WeeklyBay Area Reporter, and Edge Media Network, recommends employing a chronological timeline and including plenty of details, anecdotes, and feelings. “When life events are written in a linear fashion, it creates a better narrative flow, makes the memoir easier to read, and allows the readers to become more emotionally invested in the book.”

However, he cautions writers against inserting too many details—particularly grisly ones in a work that examines tragic events; they can overwhelm a sensitive audience reading about rape, torture, war, or a violent death.

To guard against rambling, he suggests keeping memoirs under 350 pages—and under 300 is even better. “Briskly written, tightly detailed memoirs with crisp prose sell books and get your name on the tongues of everyone involved.”

3. Remember that it’s your story, but it shouldn’t just be about you.

Ivan Kenneally, who writes for Open Letters Monthly and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other literary magazines, believes that memoirs should achieve a balance between the universal and the idiosyncratic. “The particular drama of the author’s life makes it real and emotionally authentic, but the evocation of universal themes makes it relatable. The author needs to provide both personal details and a path to transcendence.”

Echoing Steve Donoghue, Kenneally suggests that authors should try to envision their readers. They will not care about “the vacation you took to Hilton Head 15 years ago unless something happened on that vacation that changed your life. But don’t leave out the first time you fell in love, or the hardest you ever cried as an adult. Share defining moments, not digressive minutiae.”

And he implores writers to avoid overly journalistic accounts of their lives. “The reader needs your commentary—the more personal the better. Even better, tell the reader why you’re writing a memoir. What makes your life so gripping it should be told to strangers in great detail? Every memoir distributed beyond the perimeter of family and friends is touched by a measure of hubris that needs to be justified.”

Jim Piechota agrees that there should be a point to penning a memoir besides chronicling daily adventures or leaving a work for assorted grandchildren to read. He suggests closing the book with an epilogue “that supports what you prize in life, how you enriched the lives of others, or the things you cherished and wish to share with the world.” 

4. Take your creative cues from novels.

For Barbara London, who has reviewed hundreds of titles for Kirkus Indie, an elegantly written memoir evokes a well-organized novel: it delivers drama, conflict, a bit of comic relief, and resolution. “Indie publishing has provided a platform for many new voices to share their individual journeys or to offer historical context and details that enrich our understanding of the human experience. The best memoirs bring readers into the experience. A memoir should make readers laugh, or cringe in fear, or cry, or celebrate a triumph.”

Steve Donoghue adds that authors need to make sure they are telling a coherent, satisfying story with internal unity, a feeling of development, and a dramatic payoff. “This is the trickiest tip for memoir writers to apply, but it’s also the most important in terms of your potential readership.”

5. Never underestimate the value of fresh eyes.

A significant issue raised by the critics was editing—having a fresh, professional reader can help ensure your manuscript takes all the aforementioned aspects into consideration. Steve Donoghue praised the virtues of professional editors, calling them the most important figures in self-publishing. “No matter how many times you’ve combed through your manuscript, I unconditionally guarantee you’ve not only missed typos, dangling modifiers, and plot problems but missed lots of them.”

Hiring a talented editor, he adds, brings an impartial new reader into the process who will catch the mistakes that inevitably distract an audience.

Jim Piechota asserts that an expert editor will fix a memoir that “tends to ramble on or includes too many stories or events that fail to move the book along.”

As Barbara London notes: “Few readers want to spend 60 pages in someone else’s hospital room.”



—Myra Forsberg is an Indie editor.

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