What were the narrator’s desires in the memoir? What was motivating the narrator to share this particular story with the reader? Often, memoirs can be cathartic for the writer. Perhaps the writer was trying to process a year of grieving and loss, as Didion does in The Year of Magical Thinking, or perhaps the writer was trying to describe a childhood in a concentration camp, as Spiegelman does in his memoir Maus. Consider the motivations of the writer for putting down their story and presenting it to readers.
“I was born in 19XX year, I entered school N…” Would you read that if you had a choice? Most likely not, especially if you already have read a dozen biographies which star with the same phrase. Yes, an autobiography is a formal piece of writing. But here, it rather means that you are not allowed to use slang and colloquial language, instead of following a specific pattern of writing.
It may help to identify the reading level of the ideal reader of your book. You can determine the reading level based on the grade level of your ideal reader. If you account for ESL readers, you should aim for a grade 6 or 7 reading level. If you are writing for a higher education audience, you may write at a grade 8 or 9 level. You can use the Hemingway app to determine the reading level of your draft, or other online reading level tools.
Online publishing has an advantage of extensive reach. There are no restrictions on territory so your book can be purchased and read in any part of the world. Research online publishers, submit your query letter, edit the copy, wait for approval and have your work published online – it is one of the best feelings you could possibly have to see yourself on a virtual shelf in Amazon and a dozen other online bookstores. This is a great course on publishing.
Your life story, or autobiography, should contain the basic framework that any essay should have, with four basic elements. Begin with an introduction that includes a thesis statement, followed by a body containing at least several paragraphs, if not several chapters. To complete the autobiography, you'll need a strong conclusion, all the while crafting an interesting narrative with a theme.
It’s possible that writing your life story could be therapeutic, offering closure on some not so bright spots of your personal history along with emotional and psychological healing. Maybe your life was just a circus act from the beginning and is funny. If writing your life story touches you while you are writing it, think about all the people you can touch when they read it.
If you graduated from high school despite struggling with dyslexia, you may have a powerful story about perseverance. If you became hugely successful in your career, perhaps your story is rooted in diligence with a dash of luck. While researching this idea in the course of writing the book Writing Your Legacy (WD Books), Richard Campbell and co-author Cheryl Svensson focused on the concept of life themes, developed by the father of gerontology James E. Birren. In the January 2017 Writer’s Digest, Campbell explains why the 10 core legacy themes are an essential piece in puzzling together your memoir. Below, he breaks down each element and poses questions sure to prompt a personal response from writers.
For example, if you grew up on a farm, you know the difference between the smell of hay and wheat, and certainly that of pig manure and cow manure—because you had to shovel one or all of these at some point. City people probably don’t even know there is a difference. Describing the subtle differences of each and comparing the scents to other scents can help the reader imagine the situation more clearly.
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.
People usually tend to think that writing all this will be monotonous for them and boring for their potential readers, but you will soon find your life to be unique from anyone else’s as you undertake this task. Add in information like interesting snippets from the lives of your ancestors, their achievements and the popularity of your place of birth. This will inspire readers to gather even more information from other sources.
You may not have had the most interesting childhood in the world, but everyone has had a few memorable experiences. Highlight the best parts when you can. If you live in a big city, for instance, you should realize that many people who grew up in the country have never ridden a subway, walked to school, ridden in a taxi, or walked to a store a few blocks away.
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.
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.
Weave in themes. Use the major themes of your life as a way to tie stories together, connecting your past and your present. Aside from the central conflict, what themes have followed you throughout your life? A fondness for certain holidays, your fascination with a certain place that you visited over and over, a certain type of guy you've always fallen for, a rich spiritual life you fall back on again and again. Bring up the themes every so often to help form a cohesive picture of your life.