Thinking of writing your story? Many people are. In fact, of all the people for whom writing a book is on their bucket list, compiling their own life events into a memoir is the most idealized genre.
It has a lot to do with making our stamp on the earth, leaving something behind that can live on through the decades. Words remain when so much else falls away.
In my work as a writing teacher I meet many people who want to write their stories. But lately I’ve been challenging them on the question of “Why”? Why do you want to write your story? Because if it’s just about making our mark, that may not be enough.
The truth is that many people want to write their life story because they think something amazing, or equally tragic happened to them, and the rest of the world needs to hear about it. But many begin to write and don’t make it further than a chapter or two, because they didn’t work through the why’s first.
I began to write my memoir a couple of years ago and along the way I changed direction three times. At first the book focused on my full life story, which I thought I was writing to inspire people to step into their purpose. Then I realized the story didn’t quite match up to my message, so I embarked on a different path.
My next idea was to write about depression, since it’s something I had grappled with periodically throughout my life, and I wanted the world to better understand mental illness. But when I realized the story was more depressing than informative or inspiring, I ditched that one too.
My third attempt—the book I’m currently working on after going through a particularly difficult time in my marriage—is about love, relationships and all their complexities. This one I’m writing for me. I’m writing it to heal and to learn. And I’m writing it because it’s a darn good story. This “why” is the one that works for me. I’m writing my story first and foremost to be true to myself.
Figuring out the “why” of writing your story will determine much of the “how” and direct your steps as you bring your memoir-writing project to a successful beginning, middle and end.
It isn’t enough to write a book because you want to share a message. If you aren’t writing for you, you won’t write at all.
If you want to write to share your message with the world, consider what will keep you going when you reach the messy middle of your book and aren’t sure where to take it next. Why is that message so important? What will others be able to take away from it? How has living your story helped you? And what will you get out of the experience of writing it?
Perhaps you don’t want to share a message and you simply believe you have a captivating story to tell that could one day become a bestseller. This is a good reason, but is it your only reason? If so, you may struggle to stay motivated. No matter what the story, the fact that it is based on your life means you need to be willing to be open and vulnerable in your writing. If your focus is only on selling a great story, you may struggle when it comes to the mechanics of writing it down.
You’ll also need to consider how writing your story will not only affect you, but also the people around you.
People incline more towards telling traumatic stories than happy ones, usually because it has changed them in some way and they have gone on to live a better life. But one of the hardest things about memoir writing is the reliving of past events, which invites a resurgence of emotions. You may also find that the people who have played a role in your story aren’t too happy about you writing them into the pages of your book.
Writing your story is ultimately an investment. An investment of time, emotions and hard work.
It’s also one of the most rewarding things you can do in your lifetime. I haven’t met a single person who hasn’t benefited from writing their memoir, whether that memoir was published or not. The majority have talked more about how it gave them a fresh perspective around things that happened to them, healed their relationships, and ultimately freed them from the past. Publication and royalties, if they happened, were all icing on the cake.
Some have chosen not to publish at all and to keep their memoir as a legacy to pass down through the generations. Others have chosen to wait until enough time has passed to heal relationships that could potentially be broken by sharing their story publicly.
There are many things to consider in the process of writing your story, but why you’re doing it in the first place is the most crucial among them. If you write first for you, from that passionate place inside that tells you to keep going no matter what everyone else around you thinks, you will be successful.
Now let’s look at…
Turning Your Story Into A Captivating Bestseller
Writing memoir is one of the most challenging projects a writer ever tackles. Many people start, and then give up half way through the process. Not only must we recall, (with a believable amount of clarity I might add), the events that have shaped us, but we must also re-live them, which can take a lot of strength and courage. And if that wasn’t enough, we must then take all of that downloaded memory and compile it into a riveting story.
That’s where the biggest challenge comes in: we must create a story, with all the usual twists and turns of our favorite novels, out of our own lives. And it’s no easy task.
So how do we do that? How do we turn what could be a fairly “normal” life (that is, we didn’t kill anyone or spend several months hiding in an attic) into a fascinating drama?
This is something I really struggled with in my initial attempts to write memoir early in my writing career. I tried to transfer the information in my journals to the page, with no idea which events were important and what made the story great. It wasn’t until I studied the mechanics of writing a novel, and then went on to teach creative writing, that I realized how much more involved the process really is.
It took a while, but these are the five main lessons I learned about writing memoir along the way:
1. Change your mindset
To be able to write a memoir that includes all the key elements of a good story, you need to somewhat separate yourself from that story. Look at your life events from a reader’s perspective—the stranger that doesn’t know a thing about you. Does she need to hear about family vacations to “the cabin,” or are you perhaps including these events out of a sense of nostalgia?
As you write your story, you will experience many emotions, especially during the first draft. But the more you write, the more you must be willing to be both writer and observer. Staying too close emotionally will affect your judgment and ability to write a great story.
2. Consider your Stepping Stone moments
There are only a few events that have shaped your life and made you who you are today; in fact you would be surprised at how few. I call these Stepping Stone moments.
These are the events or conversations that change something inside you and set you on a different path in life. It could be the death of a loved one, a relationship break-up, a travel experience or even a childhood conversation with a teacher who told you weren’t worth much.
All of the things we experience in life create who we are, but only a few things profoundly change us from the inside out. Your job is to decide which core events set you on a different trajectory.
3. Ask a question
No matter what your journey through life has been until this point, there are only a few variations on the human experience. We may go through different events, but we all wrestle with the same questions, and this is where we find common ground. What is the question your story seeks to ask?
4. Create a narrative arc
“Narrative arc” is such a fancy term, but the arc is a really helpful way to think about your story. When you’ve compiled your list of stepping stone moments, try to group them into a beginning, middle and end.
Visualize the start of the arc as your beginning, the highest point of your arc as your rising action in the middle, and as the arc curves back down that’s your redemptive ending.
The beginning of your story is when all was well. It’s often referred to as “the ordinary world,” and it’s what your life looked like before the first event that changed you.
The middle is where all the action happens in a series of “crises” that change you considerably, ending with one final “this changes everything” moment, before you embark on your ending.
The ending is where we really see how you, as the main character of your story, have changed between the beginning and end points of your arc.
5. Know thyself
This, Ladies and Gents, is the most important rule of all: you must be self-aware and know how your story has shaped you over time. Ask yourself this question: in what ways have I changed over the course of my story?
A memoir is character driven, which means the most crucial element of your book is the way in which you have psychologically changed from beginning to end. This is how the reader will connect with you. Miss this part and your story will lack meaning and depth.
Now that you’ve figured out your “why’s” for writing your story and have some direction in the “how,” you can begin to write. Start by thinking of just 5 or 6 stepping stone moments that have shaped who you are today. Then share in the comments whether you found it easy or challenging to do!
If you are interested in writing your story, visit Claire’s website, where you can receive a 33% discount on her new course, Write Your Story.