Get Started on Your Memoir Journey—The Basic Craft of Writing a Memoir

Get Started on Your Memoir Journey—The Basic Craft of Writing a Memoir

Most people writing a memoir are learning to write while also excavating the terrain of memories and learning about elements of the past can be painful. 

If you have started your memoir, or are about to start, you know that writing a book is a journey with several stages. As you go through the stages, you build one upon the other to get to your goal. As you write, the journey will change you. It’s important to understand what a memoir is—and isn’t. 

A memoir is a story with structure, a theme, and a reason for a reader to be engaged. Memoir writers are challenged by the many layers that compose a memoir: from finding memories and confronting truths—the psychological aspects of memoir writing—to craft and skill questions: What is a scene, how do I structure my memoir, can I just copy my journal and have a memoir?

If you keep a few things in mind, you can begin your memoir journey—something you’ve always wanted to do. The idea is to keep your writing to the basics, keep it simple, and give yourself permission to write. Then celebrate your courage!

What a Memoir Is:

  • A memoir draws upon the skills and tools of fiction in presenting a story—with scenes, dialogue, sensual details, creating a world for the reader.
  • A memoir is not a journal. In a journal, your personal writing is without a structure and written to be kept private. A memoir is written for an audience.
  • A memoir has an overarching message that a reader is left with, the reason for the book.
  • A memoir is a focused topic or theme.
  • A memoir has significant messages and takeaways for the reader—it’s not just about you and what happens to you.

Tips for memoirists, from my book Journey of Memoir—The Three Stages of Memoir Writing

  • A memoir is your story—no one else’s. Write from the “I” point of view about your experiences, feelings, and perspectives.
  • You’re writing to discover, not only to report. You will be discovering memories, truths, and events that you don’t always understand.
  • A memoir is about memory and how you understand events and inner truths. Your memories are unique to you. Even if you write about an event where there are twelve witnesses, chances are that each person saw, heard, and interpreted different things about that event.
  • You will write your memoir like a novel with scenes and plot using the tools of good fiction.
  • You will learn about how story works, and how to bring a template of structure and story to the long complexity that is your life. Your memoir will focus on a slice of that life. A memoir is more than a journal—it’s a story to be read by others.
  • As your memoir delivers d takeaways that are of value to others, you are creating a universal story.

How to Begin:

  1. List the ten most significant events in your life.
  2. Chart your significant moments or events on your timeline to see when they occurred and get a visual picture of how events clustered together or were spread out in time.
  3. Write each significant moment as a story.
  4. Write using scenes—a specific moment in time, interleafed with reflection and your inner experience.
  5. Write quickly, write in twenty minute bursts without editing or censoring.
  6. Use Anne Lamott’s “shitty first draft” permission to write without editing—you can edit later. Don’t crush your creative sparks!
  7. Honor your point of view and your truths as you write. 
  8. Write another vignette the next day.
  9. Do this exercise for ten days and then see what you have!
  10. Be Brave—Write Your Story!
Turning Points—How to Find the Structure of Your Memoir

Turning Points—How to Find the Structure of Your Memoir

Most of the stories that we want to write are about situations and people that changed us and shifted our lives in a new direction. We call these “turning point moments.”  Being clear and making lists of these moments can provide the basic outline of your memoir. 

These moments may include dark times, such as illness, danger, secrets, and identity crises. Or happier moments such as falling in love, spiritual epiphanies, moments of awe, wonder or transcendence; a great vacation, or a momentous meeting. 

Let’s look further at what a turning point is, and why it’s important to find them as you construct your memoir.

Turning Points

When we look back, there are certain moments when everything changed in our lives, when nothing was the same afterward. We may not realize it at the time, but looking back, we can easily locate most of those important moments. As we reflect upon our memories, we list the significant events, and draw from this list when outlining the scope of our memoir. The more we work with our lists, the more memories arise.

Think about these categories of turning points:

  • Births—Who; when; circumstances; myths and stories around the birth.
  • Deaths—Who; situation; family reactions to the death.
  • Love relationships—Who; When; significance; lessons learned from the loved one.
  • Special friendships—Who; when—at what time of life; importance of the person; what did they bring/give/take away?
  • Mentors—Who; when; what did you learn from them?
  • School events, sports, awards, positive and negative experiences with teachers.

Spiritual Moments

  • Wonder and awe as a child—describe these moments of wisdom and wonder—where? What did you think/feel? Where were you?
  • Church or religious ritual—Baptism, confirmation, Bat Mitzvah—when, what did you think and feel? Did it change your life—and how?
  • Times of inner guidance and wisdom, inspiration, creativity—list these, then write from the list.
  • Dark nights of the Soul—when you felt that all was lost and there was no way back. When? What specifically was happening—write in scene.


  • How were you treated—better or worse by those around you when you were sick?
  • What were your feelings about medicine, doctors, and your relationship to your body? These can be life changing. What did you learn from these experiences?
  • Illnesses in the family—how did these events alter your life?

Safety and danger

  • When did you feel in danger? What did you do and think? Be specific—write in the child’s point of view. Or an adult’s point of view if the danger occurred when you were older.
  • What were your safe places—forts, hideouts, your room? Other people’s houses? Describe and note when and where you might seek shelter or comfort.
  • Were you ever bullied as a child? Who bullied you, and how? Did anyone notice? What life decisions did you make as a result?
  • Secrets—What were your secrets; what secrets did you know that others were hiding? What were the consequences of revealing secrets?
  • Natural disasters, accidents, unusual events. What were they; when; how old were you; how did they affect you?

Family Stories

Family legacies and myths such as these: “We are one big happy family.” “Aunt Alda is always upset.” “Sarah is a troublemaker.”

  • What myths and legacies were passed down through your family? 
  • Write a scene showing one of these myths.
  • What “bad” family story do you disagree with?
  • What is your favorite “good” family story, and why? What does it show about the family?

Turning Point Lists Turn into Stories 

  • Make lists of your turning points. 
  • Next, locate these turning points on a timeline that begins with your birth. Mark the decades through time and set the turning points on the timeline. It helps to draw the timeline on a large sheet of 18×24 inch paper and create it in pencil so you can add and erase easily.
  • Each turning point moment can be a chapter in your memoir. Write the scenes from your turning point list, and you will have the basic structure of your memoir. 

You don’t need to write all the stories in chronological order. Capture first in a flurry of quick writing the memories that strike you emotionally, that you feel powerfully in your body.  Researching history, locations, and news articles can add to and deepen your stories. 

Write a new story every week, and in a year, you will have 52 stories!