5 tips for writing a memoir : Life Kit Everyone has a story to tell. Writing a memoir is more than just documenting your life — it can help you process what you've gone through, capture a moment in history for descendants and help others make sense of their own lives. Here's how to get started.

How to get started documenting stories from your life

How to get started documenting stories from your life

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Nora Carol Photography/Getty Images
An empty notebook and pen lie against a bright yellow background.
Nora Carol Photography/Getty Images

Editor's note: This piece includes the repeated use of a racial slur.

We all have personal memories and stories, and documenting them in writing can be a way to preserve and revisit milestones from our lives.

Maybe you've lived through and conquered some major feats, and your story can inspire others. Or maybe you care less about publishing a book and simply want to document your memories as a written history for yourself or your family.

For Shanita Hubbard, the author of Ride or Die: A Feminist Manifesto for the Well-Being of Black Women, writing a memoir was about more than just telling her own story. It was a way to celebrate others too.

"I'm going to use my words to shed light on communities who are often ignored to magnify perspectives and voices that are often muted," says Hubbard.

Regardless of why you want to start writing your own story, we have tips from four memoirists, including Hubbard, to help you get started.

Draft an outline

Consider your outline to be a map of your story.

Start by freewriting all of the personal, meaningful anecdotes from your life. They can be extraordinary moments, like when you trekked the Himalayan mountains. Or they can be the memorably mundane, like when you taught your youngest child to tie their shoelaces.

For now, just get your creative juices flowing. You'll be more discerning about the stories that actually make it in the memoir later.

After your free writing, look for recurring themes, and decide if you'd like to focus on one part of your life or many. Pick out the essential parts of your story to showcase, then use those points to punctuate your outline.

Civil Rights icon David Dennis Sr. wrote the memoir The Movement Made Us: A Father, a Son, and the Legacy of a Freedom Ride, with his son, David Dennis Jr.

As a part of their writing process, Dennis Jr. interviewed his 83-year-old father to help jog his memory. "Recording the interviews, writing it out, having him read over it. Sometimes when I would write things, it would help him remember the details."

The father-son duo used the recurring themes from the interviews to structure their book.

If you are writing a joint memoir (particularly with an older family member, friend or colleague), consider interviewing them to draw out personal memories. If you're writing your own memoir, consider using this technique, too. Interview yourself! Write out questions and record yourself using your phone or another device.

Ask yourself introspective questions like, What was the most meaningful moment in your life? What are you most proud of? Why? Use your responses to this self-interview to guide your outline.

Lead with a juicy story that is indicative of who you are as a writer

Now that you've finished your outline, find an anecdote to attract readers. Ensure that this anecdote says something about who you are. Then, lead with it.

Don't be afraid to tell the truth in your memoir. This is a story about your life, and it should reflect who you are – blemishes and all. Honor the vastness of your experience.

Memoirist Damon Young lives up to his truth with the first anecdote in his memoir, What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker. Young opens with "N***** Fight Story"—a story about a time in the mid-1980s when Young's parents got into a fight at a deli after being called the n-word. The author subsequently grew up wanting to be called the n-word too, so he could have his very own heroic fight story to tell. Young recounts the anecdote unapologetically.

"I feel like the best work is when people get as specific to their experience, specific to the point of being esoteric about themselves, about their experiences, about their lives," says Young.

The writer and satirist says that you can explain your experiences to your audience, but if you choose not to, that's fine, too. "You don't have to be self-conscious about it."

As an author, you don't have to strive for a universal piece of work that everyone will understand. By not explaining yourself or your experiences, you can free yourself from the need to be validated by your audience.

Write stories that you're willing and ready to share with others

While memoirs are a collection of personal stories, you decide how personal you want to get. As an author, you have agency—just because you're writing a memoir doesn't mean you must share all of the details of your life, especially if you're not quite ready.

Author Shanita Hubbard has a rule about sharing when it comes to her writing.

"I only show my scars, not my wounds. So I only show the pieces of myself that are healed." says Hubbard. "I don't owe anyone an unhealed version of me."

In life, we will inevitably experience pain and suffering. These moments and our ability to persevere make us human. If you choose to be vulnerable in your writing, then part of your story might be hard to write about. Ask yourself if you're willing to share those hard experiences with others.

Consider how you include other people in your story

During your writing process, be mindful: Your personal story and lived experiences will inevitably involve others. When writing, ask yourself these questions: Is this account accurate? Am I sharing details about an individual's life they would be uncomfortable with me sharing?

Fact-check your memory. Make sure that your account of whatever happened aligns with any verifiable public accounts. Ask others in your life how they remember specific incidents or conversations as well.

Remember that as an author, you have options. You can change identifiable details related to a specific event. Or you can even send your friend or family member a section that involves them so they can review it. As a final resort, you might opt to remove specific anecdotes altogether.

Get feedback from people who you trust

Self-editing is difficult (if at all possible), even for the most talented writers.

Find fellow writers, editors and friends you respect to get their feedback. Don't be precious or overly sensitive about your work, and be sure to call upon people who have your best interest at heart. If you have a good friend who is particularly negative, then it'd likely be best not to ask for their opinion. Find someone who is fairhanded and honest.

When writing his memoir, Young called upon his agent for some very honest feedback. "When my agent read the first draft, she called me up on the phone screaming, 'Damon, what the f*** is wrong with you? You cannot release this book!'"

Young admits that the first draft of his memoir was sloppy politically—it had bad references, flippant jokes and the book generally lacked a basic level of conscientiousness. Based on his agent's feedback, Young adapted his work.

After getting feedback, remember that you are the author. Use what's useful to you, and discard the rest!


The audio portion of this episode was reported by Felice León, produced by Margaret Cirino and edited by Meghan Keane.

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