Identify your narrator’s desire line. In your memoir, your narrator is you. You will use the first person, “I”, to lead the reader through your story. But it’s important to focus your memoir on specific need or desire. Your want will drive the food forward and make your story worth reading. Think about your desire line, or what motivates your narrator to tell her story. Your narrator will then struggle to achieve her desire line through telling her story and reaching a realization about a pivotal moment in her story.
How did the memoir keep the reader engaged and interested in the story? The best memoirs are honest and unflinching, with details or admissions that the writer may be afraid to make. The writer may write in a way that feels truthful, full of moments that may not make the writer look good or conflicted. But readers often respond to vulnerability in a memoir, and a writer who is not afraid to describe their failures along with their successes.
Why it helps: First off, if you want to write a memoir, this three-sentence description will form the structure of your book. In effect, it’s a supershort story of your life—a beginning, a middle and the now, if you will. Even if you have zero impulse to write another word, however, the exercise can show you how you view yourself, your past and your present, all of which can inform your future. Unless, of course, you change the narrative—a privilege granted to any writer.
If the purpose of your autobiography is to pass on your story to your heirs, consider including memorabilia (e.g. pictures, heirlooms, medals, mementos, letters, etc.) and putting your story in a scrapbook format. Of course, you may not be able to copy the memorabilia that accompanies your autobiography, so you still have to think about what you intend to do with your original work and other items, such as medals or bulky heirlooms.
If your writing is atrocious, or if you just need some help getting your thoughts in order, consider hiring a ghostwriter or a professional personal historian. Celebrities do it all the time. There is also a software that allows you to type your answers into a template on your computer, thus solving the problem of less-than-perfect handwriting. Many people also choose to type directly into an online template.
Why did the author choose to highlight certain events in their life in the memoir? Consider why the memoirist chose a certain section of their childhood or a specific life event as the focus of the book. For example, Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking focuses on the recent deaths of her husband and her daughter, while Nabokov’s Speak, Memory focuses on his childhood in Russia. One event is in the recent past while one event is in the very distant past. Yet both events have a very strong, and possibly traumatic, effect on the writers.
Identify the main characters. Every good story has interesting characters, friends and foes who help move the plot along. Who are the characters in your life? It's a given that your parents will play a role, along with your spouse and other close family members. Think beyond your immediate family to others who have affected your life and should play a role in your autobiography.