Structure, theme, and takeaway are foundational elements of memoir.
When they start writing their memoirs, few writers plan out the work’s structure, let alone the overarching themes and the desired takeaways for the reader. But taking some time to ponder these points before you get too far into your memoir can save you a lot of time — and often many tedious and painful revisions!
Here are your blueprints to planning a memoir.
Although you’ll hear from memoirists who didn’t use an outline, or who prefer a process over a structured experience, I believe that all memoirists can benefit from having a structure in place before they start writing.
Creating a structure for your memoir is not about reinventing the wheel. You can and should base your structure off of memoirs that have already been written. Choosing a beginning point and an endpoint for your story will help you start building your structure.
Great examples of structure
The most straightforward memoirs are those that start at point A and end at point B, moving the reader along in linear time. These include coming-of-age memoirs, like Augusten Burroughs’s Running with Scissors and Julia Scheeres’s Jesus Land, or books that take place over the course of a year, such as Julia Powell’s Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen.
Then there are framed memoirs, like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, whose narrative is contained over the five-month period of her hike and yet includes liberal flashbacks to her childhood, her upbringing, past relationships, and what brought her to the current timeline of the narrative.
There are also thematic memoirs, like Lucy Grealey’s Autobiography of a Face, which spans a twenty-year period and whose timeline is neither linear nor framed, but is clearly focused on a singular issue: deformity and its impact on the author.
All memoir should be a slice of your life: don’t try to encompass the entirety of your lived experience since birth or childhood. Memoir is not autobiography, and can be distinguished from its sister genre by its thematic focus.
There are countless categories of memoir that point to big-picture themes: addiction and recovery; parenting; travel; cooking; coming-of-age; dysfunctional family; religious experience; death and dying; divorce; and more. Sometimes your category is your theme, but theme is not the same as category.
Your theme (or sometimes themes) infuses every chapter you write, and it/they can be quite nuanced. For instance, a theme might be healing through running. What’s important to take into account when you identify your theme is that you must always keep sight of it. I liken this to wearing a pair of tinted glasses. If you put on glasses with purple lenses, you can still see the entirety of the world around you, but you will never forget that you’re wearing the glasses because everything you look at is tinted purple.
The same should be true with good memoir: introduce the reader to your world, but keep your memoir contained and on point by keeping your principal (and sometimes secondary) themes front and center. (Like this idea? Click to tweet it!)
Great examples of theme
Thematic memoirs abound, and they typically sell a lot better than other memoirs because they’re what the industry calls “high-concept,” meaning that they’re easy for buyers and readers to wrap their minds around.
Addiction memoirs like Tweaked: A Crystal Meth Memoir, by Patrick Moore; Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, by Koren Zailckas; and Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, by Marya Hornbacher are great examples. So are single-destination travel memoirs, or issue-specific books, like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking or Laura M. Flynn’s Swallow the Ocean: A Memoir (about life after loss and growing up with an mentally unwell parent, respectively).
Takeaway is your gift to the reader. It’s a message, reflection, or truism.
Sometimes these fall at the end of scenes or the end of chapters, but that’s not always necessary. Takeaway can happen at any moment, when the author shares something heartfelt, universal, and true. It’s those moments in reading memoir that hit you hard because you can relate — even if you haven’t had the exact experience the author is describing.
Understanding takeaway is a long process, and some authors, when they first start thinking about takeaway, make the mistake of being too overt or trying too hard. These are subtle moments of observation about the world around you, a wrapping up of an experience through a lesson learned or the sharing of the way something impacted you. The idea is to sprinkle these moments into your chapters, without overwhelming or spoon-feeding your reader.
Great examples of takeaway
Takeaway can be found in all good memoir. These are moments of reflection, and speculative prose that drives home a specific experience.
Good writers do this so seamlessly you don’t even realize it’s happened, except that you feel like he or she has burst your heart, or crushed you with the weight of their insight. You feel like you know the author because it’s as if she’s speaking directly to you. Good takeaway is in fact mirroring. It’s a way of relaying that we are not alone and the world is a crazy place, isn’t it?
Here’s a reflective passage from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia:
But is it such a bad thing to live like this for just a little while? Just for a few months of one’s life, is it so awful to travel through time with no greater ambition than to find the next lovely meal? Or to learn how to speak a language for no higher purpose than that it pleases your ear to hear it? Or to nap in a garden, in a patch of sunlight, in the middle of the day, right next to your favorite foundation? And then to do it again the next day?
Of course, no one can live like this forever.
Not all reflective passages have to be questions, but you can see that this technique is effective. Gilbert is ruminating over the life she’s living, but which she cannot maintain; in her experience — through the vantage point of her American understanding of the world — it’s not possible, and undoubtedly 99% of her readers agree.
We all know what it feels like to be saddled by the burdens of everyday life. Gilbert’s readers would feel this passage on a visceral level, even if they’d never before been to Italy, because everyone understands the longing that’s wrapped up in allowing yourself to just let down. And that’s what makes this a takeaway; it’s a universal connection to the reader.
What are some of your favorite memoirs? How did they use these three building blocks?
About the Author: Brooke Warner
Brooke Warner is founder of Warner Coaching Inc., publisher of She Writes Press, and author of What's Your Book? and How to Sell Your Memoir. Brooke teaches platform (among other publishing topics) and is hosting a Summit in California this June for anyone looking to grow their platform and expand their understanding of book marketing. Brooke sits on the board of the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) and the National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW). Her website was selected by The Write Life as one of the Top 100 Best Websites for Writers in 2014. She lives and works in Berkeley, California.
Warner Coaching | @brooke_warner
Filed Under: Craft
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A memoir essay refers to a recounting of your life story, based around a specific focus, or a particular event that occurred in your life. Usually, there is a certain theme to the memoir, such as a specific topic you wish to discuss, related to specific memories from your past. The memoir may be sad, happy or a bit of both. As you learn to In this article, we’ll look at how to write a memoir step by step. However, like all good essays, a memoir begins with some pre-writing tasks.
Before You Begin
While some memoirs are rambling affairs that have very little direction, you will probably want to do a little planning. Choose your focus before you begin yourmemoir. What point do you want to get across? Which of your memories are most relevant to this? An outline will help you write more efficiently and will ensure you actually make your point, rather than get lost in ramblings.
Once you know what point you want to share, sit down and write a list of events in your life that pertain to it. Choose one or a series of these memories and events to cover in your book.
Some memoirs cover an entire childhood. Others cover a single journey or event. The choice is yours. Take a look over a memoir example or two so you have a better idea of what it entails. Remember that a memoir is not an autobiography. It doesn’t cover your entire life, just certain parts of it.
Step One: Create a Memoir Outline
Having a basic memoir outline to work from will help you stay on track. Decide how you plan to structure your book and then go from there. You don’t have to build up a full outline, just note down what you want to write about in each section or chapter. A student memoir outline can serve as an example to get you started, or you can use one of our templates. For some people, using a memoir graphic organizer helps organize those elusive memories.
Staying on track can be difficult when you’re writing up your memories. It’s easy to follow the thread that leads to a less enlightening memory. For the sake of the article, stick to a specific focus and pare your recollections down to fit that focus. Stay on topic and you can make your point.
Step Two: Write the Memoir
Writing can be the most difficult part, especially since writing about your life can be an emotional experience. Getting the words down on paper is the most important part, so set a specific time each day to get writing and then do it.
The trick to writing out your first draft is to simply write, without judgment or editing. Get the words down and then you can fix any mistakes later.
Step Three: Revise and Edit
Once you have your first draft completed, leave the writing for a few days. This lets your brain refresh and you’ll be able to look at the memoir with new eyes. Read over it, editing for clarity and eliminated errors. This step will go faster than writing, but it can still take some serious time.
Step Four: Polish Your Memoir
Before you send your memoir out into the world, you should make sure it’s the best it can be. This means a final pass to find the last of the mistakes and to ensure the wording is just right. Grammatical and spelling errors should be sought out and fixed. Nothing looks less professional than using the wrong tense or verb in your writing.
Have someone else read over the memoir before you publish it for everyone to see. Often, someone else can see mistakes that you can’t find, thanks to being so close to the project. If you have a friend or professor who can check the document before it goes public, make use of them.
Step Five: Publish the Memoir
Now that you’re sure the memoir is as good as it can get, you’re ready to publish. This step is scary, but it is worth it to share your work. You have now polished and perfected the memoir and it’s ready to go out into the world.
How to Write a Memoir People Will Love
If you plan to publish your memoir, as most people do, you will want to follow a memoir format. The format ensures you end up with a professional result. It’s what you’ll get when you work with a memoir template.
Add some dialog. Memoirs can get a bit boring when you’re talking about yourself the entire time and dialog can break it up a bit. You don’t have to recall every word that was said, just use the general gist and write it up as dialog to make the story better.
Use vivid language to describe your scenes. A bland retelling of a memory won’t keep the reader interested, but if you make them feel like they were there, you’ll have a great chance of people continuing to read the whole article. Don’t use words like “very” when you can expound on the actual word. For example, use “enormous” instead of “very big.”
Finally, be sure to leave your readers feeling like they’ve learned something. Whether they laughed or cried, they should feel like there was a reason to read what you wrote. The better they feel about it, the more likely they are to share it. The trick to making a memoir memorable is to create emotion and build a lesson into it. When someone finishes the book, they should have knowledge of something new.
Once you’ve completed the memoir, look back and decide if it drives home the original point you decided to make. This is the real test of a good memoir. Did it accomplish its purpose? If so, you’ve done a great job.
Still not sure how to begin a memoir? Use our memoir template to get started with prompts to help you every step of the way.