15 ways to write a better memoir


Like I wrote about in the previous blog post, How To Ruin Your Memoir in 10 Easy Steps, you’re writing a memoir, not an autobiography, which means that there are details and events and seasons of your life that don’t belong in your memoir -- no matter how interesting they might be.  So anything that doesn’t support the big story has to go.


Some people use outlines; I use a story map that has each of the big scenes in my story.  And then I write from one event to the next.  I think of the big events as train depots and the words in between as the tracks.  It’s helpful for me to plan out the route before I start writing so I go in a consistent direction and don’t get too far off track.



One of the best writing trends that occurred in the last century was the idea of literary non-fiction, which borrows fiction techniques to tell non-fiction stories.  Joan Didion and the writers of her generation were the inventors and masters of it.  When you’re telling your story, think of how the events fit into fiction’s "introduction --> complications --> crisis --> climax --> resolution" arc.  Think of how to develop your character, how to use description and plot-pacing, etc.  It’ll make your memoir feel more like a story instead of a news article.


Read authors who are critically-acclaimed and notice what they do that makes their writing so interesting.  Some of my favorite authors are Joan Didion, Anne Lamott, Toni Morrison, and David Sedaris.  I read them not only for the entertainment value, but I also try to learn from their technique.  Find writers whose voices resonate with you, and absorb as much of their talent as possible.


There are lots of writing advice books out there.  I read most of them while I was in college, very angsty about how to become a good writer.  Authors suggest a lot of things -- carry notecards with you, write every day, write in the same spot, write at the same time of day, try writing exercises, join a writers’ group……..the list goes on and on.

I tried it all and I found that there is no fail-proof writing advice, and that not every suggestion worked for me.  (this is a whole other blog post!) But I was able to at least try it all, take what worked well and leave what didn’t. All that to say, read as much advice as possible, give it all a try, and then do what works for you.


Having a great story to tell, but then lacking the skills to tell it well, is like giving a chef gourmet ingredients and a mediocre recipe.  The ingredients go to waste.  Don’t let that happen to your story!  Take a writing class, read books on how to write well, pay attention to verb tenses and grammar and vocabulary.  You need the ingredients PLUS a great recipe to make a phenomenal feast.


We get to experience the world with five senses, but many writers only write using one or two of them.  As an experiment, write as though you were telling your story to a blind person.  Describe every color, shape, and shadow as vividly as possible.  Then write as though you were telling the story to a deaf person.  Write about the birds outside the window, the whistle of the tea kettle, the quality and volume of someone’s voice.

I read an article once about John Grisham’s writing -- that he often described what his characters were eating, and many novelists didn’t write about the food their characters were eating.  But eating’s one of the great pleasure of life, right???

So treat your readers to a multi-sensory experience.  Go through the story and tell it to a reader that’s lacking each of the five senses.  Soon, you’ll see how readily your story comes to life.



The best memoirs are written by authors who actually experience the story again as they write it.  There’s a scene in my book where the man I thought I was going to marry broke up with me while I was on chemo.  I wrote the scene five years after the event happened, when I was totally over it.  However, in order to write it well, I put myself back into the scene and experienced it as though it was happening for the first time.

Thankfully my housemates were’t home because I sat on the couch writing the scene with tears pouring down my face, sobbing, “I -- can’t believe -- he left me.  I can’t -- believe -- Ian left.”

Whether it’s looking through a photo album, or driving past an old house, or listening to a song, do whatever it takes to put you back into the story.


You can not edit and write at the same time.  Let me say that again.  You can not EDIT and WRITE at the same time.  If you’re peering over your own shoulder asking, “Can we really say that?  What will Aunt Mary think?  I wonder what people will think of me after they read that?”,  you’ll paralyze yourself.  It’s like driving with your feet on the gas pedal and brake at the same time.  It’s not going to work.

Do yourself a favor. Turn your editor off.  Write freely without overanalyzing or judging what you’re saying.  Then, after you’ve gotten the first draft, go back with your editor’s cap on and make whatever changes you want to.


How the reader experiences your story is just as (maybe even more than) important than the story itself.  Make the reader’s job as easy and enjoyable as possible.

In writing, words are like water. The more you add, the more you dilute the story.  Edit and re-edit until you’ve told the story in as few words as possible, which will make the story more poignant.  Tell events as vividly as possible.  Use a full range of emotions -- bring your readers to tears, then make them laugh out loud.  Let them have a visceral experience when they read your story.


There’s more than one way to tell a good story.  Play around with yours until you get it just right.  Experiment with the structure of the story, the order of events, the pacing of the narrative.

Take a scene and use dialogue, then write it again using narration.  See which one makes the story better.  Keep playing around with the story, keep adjusting knobs up and down, until you get the balance just right.


As I mentioned in the last blog post, a good memoir is more than a one-dimensional story.  It’s not just “this happened, and then this happened, and then that happened.”  A good memoir makes connections between itself and more universal themes, and makes unexpected connections between things in the story itself.

For instance, in my memoir I write about the Somali girls, who I nicknamed “The Invisible Girls” because the day I met them on the train, no one seemed to see them but me.  But by the end of the story, I’ve made the connection that because I’d had a refugee experience of sorts, almost dying and then ending up in a new city thousands of miles away with just clothes and a broken heart, the reason the girls resonated with me was because I’d been an Invisible Girl, too.



Lots of writers write with stilted diction -- which is to say, they write with a much more formal vocabulary and sentence structure than the one they speak with.  Sometimes it’s because they’re trying to seem smarter, and sometimes it’s because they’re emulating writing they’ve read.

This is a terrible idea. Don’t do it.  Don’t write “I could not grasp that about which the professor was speaking” when you could say, “The biology lecture was complicated and I was totally lost.”


Get feedback from writers you respect and listen to it.  Absorb it.  Be humble enough to acknowledge that you’re not a perfect writer.  That no one nails it on the first draft.  That your story has holes and flaws.  If you don’t get feedback that’s more substantial than, “Wow! Great story!”, your writing won’t ever improve.


Keep going.  Remember that every single author who ever lived had moments when they felt like quitting.  We’ve all gotten rejection slips.  We’ve all been stuck and haven’t been able to figure out how to write past an obstacle.  We’ve all written draft after draft after draft and still not been able to get it quite right.

Keep going, have fun in the process, and don’t ever quit.  Remember that one cares about your story more than you do.  And no one will tell it for you if you don’t.


All of the proceeds from my memoir, The Invisible Girls, go into a trust fund for the five little Somali girls I wrote about. To pick up a copy, click here.