Introduction to writing memoir and autobiography

Every single person on this planet has a story, and you are no exception!


All the twists and turns, successes and disappointments, joys and challenges of every second, minute, and hour of your life thus far have brought you right to this moment. It’s your story. And why wouldn’t you want to write some or all of it down?


There’s no time like the present. Imagine how excited future generations will be to learn about the events that shaped you, and how you responded?


Are you ready to start capturing your unique perspective of this amazing ride called life? I’ve put together some top tips to get you started!


What am I writing – memoir, autobiography or biography?


Let’s start by defining the differences. If you are writing about yourself, you will be writing either a memoir or an autobiography. The distinction is not too difficult to understand. If you intend to chronicle your whole life story from birth until now, you are writing an autobiography. However if a specific aspect, event, or time period of your life (which could be several years) is the major focus of your writing, you are creating a memoir.


A memoir puts you front and centre as the ‘hero’ of the story, and usually has a bit more ‘drama’. You don’t need to tell every detail of your life – just the things that are relevant to the story, the events, or the theme you are writing about. If you write a story about family events or a period of family history from your perspective and in your voice, this is also a memoir.


There are fewer rules when writing memoir, which means you can take a bit of creative license with things like timelines, changing the names of people to protect their identity, and compressing events for the purposes of your story. However the truth must still be at the heart of everything you write.


What if you are writing about someone else?


 If you are examining and writing about someone else’s life in the third person, you are writing a biography. It is also possible to write someone else’s autobiography as a ghostwriter, which captures the subject’s voice, but is actually written by you. There are much stricter rules when writing biographies and ghostwritten autobiographies, which I’ll cover in a future blog.


I’m ready – what are the first steps?


If you want to write your own story, the first thing to consider is whether you will create an autobiography or memoir.


Think about your goals for writing your story.


Do you want to record all of your life history or aspects of it for your family and future generations? Do you have a compelling story you think will inspire, educate or entertain people? Are there lessons you have learned during your life that you think will help others? Will writing your story be therapeutic or help you to process some challenging or traumatic life events?


Defining the ‘why’ will help you to gain clarity about your writing project, so you are not wasting time gathering irrelevant information.


If you plan to write a memoir (which I recommend) start to think about which period of your life or events you intend to record and the reasons for choosing it.


If you are new to writing, I suggest drilling down to a fairly narrow time period, or series of events, to get you started.


Breaking it down in this way makes the task seem a lot more do-able and provides you with some valuable practice when it comes to recall, research and writing.


Do I have to be an experienced writer, or have kept a diary, notebook, or scrapbook in the past?


Nope! Once you have defined what you are going to write about, the secret is to simply dive into your subconscious, take a bird’s eye view of your life’s events so far, extract all the relevant details and write them down. Trust in yourself and the process. Remember that no one in the entire world knows your life story like you do. You are truly the authority, and it’s so much easier to write about what you know.


If you struggle with writing in the beginning, a great tip is to start by speaking your story into your smartphone or dictaphone instead. Speak the story just as you would tell it to a friend over coffee or dinner. Then transcribe the audio onto the page. This is also a great method to find your ‘voice’ in super quick time.


Should I start to carry a notebook?


Absolutely yes! And you’re going to need more than one. I always have a notebook and pen in my handbag, and another on my beside table. Once you start delving into the events of the past, things will pop into your mind when you least expect it. Write them down immediately, because you won’t remember them later once you’ve been to that meeting, wiped the dog’s spew off the carpet, or cooked dinner. Trust me. You won’t. If you don’t have pen and paper handy (I’m old school and have a notebook obsession) then jot a note down on your smartphone, or record a message to yourself – all work just fine. You are about to become a bona fide reporter digging into your own life, and you’re going to have to start taking some notes.


Keep an eye out for my next blog, when we’ll explore some great brainstorming ideas to help you extract all those wonderful memories and information out of your brain, and get them down on the page.


The importance of showing up


We’re all busy right? Life can get crazy. There’s work, maybe other people in the house to care about, kids to drop off and pick up, exercise to fit in, no time to rest, how the hell am I going to write a memoir you might say? Well, like the tortoise, slow and steady wins the race.


Set aside regular time to work on your writing and stick to it.


It might only be an hour a week from 8–9pm every Tuesday evening, but who cares? Stick to it and over the course of a year you will have spent 52 hours working on your memoir. You’ve made progress, and after a few months, you might have even bumped your work rate up to two hours a week. We have 24 hours in a day, and usually only sleep for eight or nine of them. How are you using your 24 hours? Could you spend half an hour less on social media or watching Netflix each day, and do some writing instead?


Tell the truth


Whatever you write – make sure it’s your truth. Stay true to your recollections, your viewpoint and your take on the things that happened. There will always be someone else’s versions of events, but they’re not yours. The reader wants to hear your voice and trust in it.


Don’t be afraid to add dialogue. Of course we didn’t take notes when we were having that massive fight with our sibling when we were 16, but we can still capture the general gist of the discussion in dialogue, as long as we are representing the essence and intent of the exchange (and not screwing with what actually happened and trying to rewrite history!)


It is also worth remembering that just because something happened, it is not always interesting or relevant to the story, so if that’s the case, you might want to think about leaving it out.


Writing about family stories and traumatic events


Thinking about that massive fight you may or may not have had with your sibling, brings me to the dangers of writing about challenging family situations and traumatic events. It is all do-able, but the process needs to be handled with considerable care. I’ll provide some hints and tips for things to consider and how to avoid the pitfalls in a later blog.


In upcoming blogs we’ll delve into a range of topics, including brainstorming tips; finding your voice and maintaining it; writing craft; tackling tricky subjects and traumatic events; writing family stories; and more!

Happy writing!

Jo x