10 tips for writing your memoir

For many people blogging leads naturally to writing a memoir – it’s all about the Me (and we mean that in the best possible way). Sometimes putting your own life into a story is difficult. You have to showcase the drama and find the beginning, the middle, and the end even though your own life, obviously, continues to roll on.

My friend Steve Friedman, a journalist in New York, has always had a talent for writing first-person stories that sound like he’s sitting right next to you, cracking jokes and spinning tales. He’s just published Driving Lessons: A Father, a Son , and the Healing Power of Golf (Rodale) in the US. Kirkus has called it “inspirational” among other things.

In June, he has a second book coming out called Lost on Treasure Island: A Memoir of Longing, Love, and Lousy Choices in New York City (Arcade). One blurb describes him as “hapless, hopeful and utterly hilarious.” (You can read more about his books on www.stevefriedman.net.)

When I asked him for his tips on writing memoir-style books, the advice came pouring out. Here are his 10 best nuggets of wisdom.

1. Let chronology be your friend – just lay out “this happened then that happened” and so on. It makes your structure so much easier.

2. But remember you don’t have to write it chronologically. If you want to write about an episode, write about it, then slot it in the overall structure afterward.

3. Sometimes you won’t know what an episode “means” until you’ve written it. You discover how you feel about it as you write about it. Be OK with that.

4. Mary Karr once told him: Every time you think, “I can’t write that because that makes me as the writer look venal, shallow, whatever – write it. That’s going to be the juiciest part.”

5. That said, try not to use writing as a way to get revenge. If somebody does something really awful, report it but don’t stick the knife in.

6. Enjoy the drama. You’re telling a juicy story about what happened to you. Don’t be shy about that.

7. Don’t worry about the rewriting. Focus on the process of getting down your story and think “This is the greatest thing I’ll be doing”. They always say, One page at a time.

8. Don’t get hung up on where you’re going to finish. It may change as the story comes together.

9. Turn off your Internet. The temptation to search for a fact or background information or something you need for the book can turn into freeform time-wasting that eats up writing time. “For me the internet is such an endless opportunity to not write. Just emailing, Googling, what happened to that 3rd grade girlfriend,” Steve says. (He uses Macfreedom.com to schedule a set amount of time to disable Internet on his Mac.)

10. Don’t think about publishing or marketing, although it’s hard not to. He suggests picturing publishing a book like throwing a stone into water. “Some books are little pebbles that cause barely a ripple, some are huge stones that cause a huge splash. But eventually they all sink to the bottom. The chance of something making a big commercial success are so minimal that people who choose to write for commercial success are putting all this effort into that one moment. Enjoy the process and then if it’s published and it does well, it’s gravy.”

— Jennifer Howze, www.jenography.net

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About Jennifer Howze

Jennifer Howze is the Creative Director and co-founder of BritMums. She blogs about family travel at Jenography.net, tweets at @JHowze and Instagrams at @JHowze. Previously, she wrote the Alpha Mummy blog at The Times and as a journalist has contributed to The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, Budget Travel, CNN.com, Allure, SELF and Premiere, among others. She won The Maggie Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America for a health article in Seventeen magazine.

2 Comments

  1. 25 November 2012 / 19:35

    This is really interesting to me, because I’ve been wondering what to do about all the snippets I want to write about my experiences and life. Here you’ve given me the answer I need to write my memoirs. Excellent best crack on!

    • 25 November 2012 / 20:24

      Hi Sarah, yes it’s all about just getting started. I keep worrying about how things were all going to fit together but the more people I talk to who have written memoirs, the more I hear that it’s about letting it happen. Then you sit down with all these stories or nuggets and you’ll start to see a pattern AFTER you’ve written them. It was a revelation when I realised that!