How to Begin Writing Memoir

Many authors are first called to writing by the lure of memoir. Exploring the interior of one’s own life is heady stuff. And in a world held at arm’s length by Covid-19, bestselling memoirs (Wild, Becoming, Educated) have captured the imaginations of readers eager to bridge gaps and slip into someone else’s shoes.

New writers are often taken aback by the realities of how to write memoir. Many readers misunderstand what memoir actually is and is not. Memoir is not all the things that happened to you as a child, nor is it your grandfather’s life history. Memoir is also frustratingly difficult to publish and sell.

It’s enough to scare a new author right back to the couch with a bowl of popcorn and some Netflix.

How Not to Write a Memoir

Memoir is frustratingly difficult to publish and sell.

The most common advice I give new authors interested in how to write memoir is to peek inside memoirist and writing professor Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir. You don’t even even have to get the book, (although I wish you would). Use Amazon’s Look Inside feature (on a computer) or download the free sample (mobile devices), and read the publicly available section from Part One called “Memoir Is Not.”

If what you’ve written or would like to write resembles any of the characterizations of memoir from Kephart’s list, while writing it has undoubtedly been powerful and personally rewarding for you, you’ve not created a commercially salable memoir.

The Brutality of the Memoir Market

Memoir is a challenging market to break into, whether you hope to be traditionally published or plan to self-publish. It’s common for first-time writers to find their memoir won’t sell. It’s a brutal nut to crack. How brutal? Brutal. (And it hasn’t changed since that article was published.)

So start by learning the market. Learn what’s selling, and learn why they’re selling. Kephart’s book includes an excellent list of memoir recommendations, although the list is now a bit dated. Another list can be found in Mary Karr’s seminal The Art of Memoir, which is itself another must-read for an aspiring memoirist. As an editor, my personal prescription would be that you read at least a dozen memoirs from the lists in Kephart’s and Karr’s books, as well as the craft books themselves, before beginning serious work on your own manuscript.

What to Do With Your Completed Memoir Manuscript

If you’ve already written what you hoped would become a memoir but are having second thoughts about its viability, publishing industry expert Jane Friedman offers excellent advice on what to do if your memoir has a problem.

Given the high tide of common misconceptions about memoir, I accept memoir projects only from authors who have seriously studied several craft books on writing memoir, such as Kephart’s and Karr’s, and read at least a dozen of the memoirs recommended in those books. If that sounds like you, let’s talk about your project.

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Lisa Poisso, Editor & Book Coach

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