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Five Things I’ve Learned About Memoir Writing

1. Your protagonist (you) should be 80-90% sympathetic with only a few flaws.

I used to think that the more flawed a character was, the more people would be able to relate to him/her. I quickly learned that too many flaws make a character unlikable. Readers don’t want to read 200-300 pages about a jerk or a loser. They want to root for someone who is smarter than average, stronger than average, and more clever than average—a hero(ine) à la Katniss Everdeen.

2. Your memoir needs a story arc, just like a novel.

This is one of the most difficult tasks of the memoir writer because life does not happen like a plot, with an inciting incident, tension that builds to a climax, and a neat resolution. But your story needs to, even if that arc is emotional or psychological. Work out the story arc before you begin writing, or you will spend years revising (trust me, I know.)

3. Avoid the info dump.

The trickiest chapter to write is the first one because you need to relay “how we got to this point” without dumping all that information into the first chapter or a prologue. This isn’t easy. Try to work the critical information throughout the first few chapters—through a combination of exposition, action, conversations with other characters, etc. And leave the rest out. You probably don’t need as much as you think you do.

4. Details should have two or more reasons for being in your story.

In addition to adding texture, they should serve at least one other purpose, like to reflect a character’s mood or to help advance the plot. For example, if the protagonist looks out his window and hears “the plaintive cry of the peacock,” this detail could a) foreshadow an ominous event b) reflect the character’s melancholy mood and/or c) add descriptive detail to the setting.

5. The true power of memoir lies not in what happened, but in how the author interprets what happened.

She stole a car when she was 16. Does she regret it? Why or why not? Whether you write your memoir in the past or present tense, make sure you find a way to work in the older author perspective. If you’re writing in present tense, this can be tricky. One solution is to weave a past tense commentary into the present tense narrative. Another is to comment on the protagonist’s actions through other characters’ reactions and the protagonist’s own realizations as he/she develops and matures. There is more than one way to skin this cat, but without this older author perspective, your memoir will lack the depth that separates good memoirs from great ones.

What about you? How have you, as a memoirist or novelist, addressed these issues in your own work?

42 comments to Five Things I’ve Learned About Memoir Writing

  • mainecharacter

    The part about details needing two or more reasons for being there is something I'm working on. I remember Ray Bradbury saying once in an interview that it's not the detail that matters, but how it's interpreted by the character. Because that describes the character and how they're feeling as much as the setting.

    And here I am with a notebook full of details of settings that, if I included them all, would be one big info dump.

    • meghancward

      I had a professor who said that HER professor at Iowa (a famous author) said every sentence needs THREE reasons to exist in a book. I look for two, but I suppose three is even better.

  • Gosh, that's a very wise list of things to know about memoir writing. Looking for the novel-like arc of the story is, I agree, tough but all-important. A good mental trick is to jump ahead and imagine the movie version… one's internal Hollywood scriptwriter can find the dramatic arc a little easier than one's inner fine writer… sometimes. Also, keeping a list of standard story archetypes, such as the wise old man, the trickster, etc., can help you identify real people who need to be brought into that arc. Real life, when you look closely enough, is always a great story. The best questions for the planning meeting with oneself are: who changed? who got wised up? what was lost? gained? sacrificed? Imagine that you believe in reincarnation and that a lifetime is for a reason. What was the reason for this one? What was the lesson of it? The payment?

    • meghancward

      Dennis, I'm embarrassed to admit that I do learn a lot about plot and character development from watching shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. I found Season Four of Mad Men boring because there was so little character development in Don Draper. Another affair and another and another. Then all that changed with season five. The protagonists of Breaking Bad and Damages undergo drastic developments. It keeps the story moving. I only wish I could achieve the same success in my own writing!

  • Sara Renae


    I am particularly drawn to your first point on character. While I have always written in journals and kept diaries, I've only recently begun my focus on memoir and where I want to go with it. Thinking about it in terms of writing one, I have immersed myself in reading memoirs (something I am enjoying, immensely).

    What I have discovered about memoir characters is while you want to display their vulnerability, you don't want them to be push-overs or doormats. At some point, the character needs to exhibit strength and conviction.

    What I am struggling with, at the moment, is how to balance the two and when to introduce these aspects of my character (or myself).

    Thanks for sharing your insights 🙂


    • meghancward

      I know, Sarah, it's tricky to find that balance. In the first draft of my memoir, I made myself too passive and not likable enough. I revealed every last one of my flaws and very few of my strengths, which made me come across not so much as a doormat but as slutty and weak. I learned that the protagonist needs to ACT not REACT–to steer the course of events and not flow with them as though down a river. I'm hoping the latest drive achieves that.

      • Of course we are all still creating our own lives, so we are not yet as strong or as wise or as admirable as we intend to be. My situation is that I am rarely writing about myself, so I have an easier time of it. But I have thoughts on the subject. Look at novels that are memoir in form, maybe Gatsby or Moby Dick: the narrator may not be the strongest or even best-described character. Another character holds the reader's attention and admiration. Yet, as the story moves, the narrator reveals him or herself and slides slowly into the spotlight. By describing the other characters, you of course reveal your own values and concerns and history. If that other person is a role model, a mentor, an inspiration, even an enemy of some valor or intensity, then your own character has a foil against which to grow. It gives the reader someone to love or at least to watch until you become lovable or worth watching in the story yourself.

        • meghancward

          I think the key in that, Dennis, is the last part "until you become lovable or worth watching in the story yourself." You need to make sure that happens, whether it's early on or later in the story. My first draft had my ex-boyfriend as the star of the show. He was funnier, stronger, more interesting than me. But the story needed to be about me, not him. Gatsy is a different story because it's told from Nick's POV. I haven't read Moby Dick yet. Thanks for your input.

  • In Transition

    I am spending my summer focusing on taking my writing to the next level. I have toyed with the idea of writing a memoir, since the bulk of my writing is essays and and journal entries.

    Thanks for providing some much needed guidelines.


    • meghancward

      Good luck, Annette! Another point I'd like to add is that the protagonist should be active, not reactive. She should be taking action to meet her goal rather than sitting back passively while things happen to her. I learned that one the hard way, too 🙂

  • annerallen

    What a great list! I've edited a lot of memoirs and these tips would have helped all of them. The biggest problem is indeed story arc. Many memoirists try to write an autobiography: "I was born and then I did this and then I did that and…." snoozerific.

    The tip about details is just as valid for novelists. I have lots of trouble getting this through to writers who fall in love with their own descriptions. The protag will enter a room and then we get four pages about the flowers on the wallpaper and the color of the rug. They think this is what we mean when we say "show, don't tell." So I'm going to bookmark this and show it to them.

    Thanks much for the wisdom.

    • meghancward

      Thanks, Anne! One of the hardest parts about writing is deleting sections we're in love with. I think I've excised an entire book's length of polished chapters from my memoir at this point – really, at least 200 pages have gone in the trash. And I'm okay with that now (and they're not really in the trash. I'm saving them in case I can use them for something else some day.) I cut another 80 pages last week. Sigh.

  • Kristan

    I'm not sure I agree with #1… I think characters (whether real or fictional) need to be INTERESTING, not necessarily likable. Starbuck from BSG for example. (Or Don Draper from Mad Men, from what I've heard.) With her poor decision making and her rough around the edges attitude, she doesn't exactly inspire warm fuzzy feelings, but she's got certain principles and skills that she puts to good use, and that makes her interesting.

    "Likable" is a tricky word anyway, since it's so subjective.

    The rest I agree with entirely, especially #2 and #5. And #3 is very tricky for fiction writers too, haha.

    "Whether you write your memoir in the past or present tense, make sure you find a way to work in the older author perspective. "

    The only thing I'll say about that is I don't think you have to put that "older and wiser" perspective in right away. Like, thinking about a novel, the hero/ine usually doesn't realize their mistakes until later. And I think that's okay for a memoir too. As long as the mistakes ARE realized and the growth IS clear.

    (In fact, my creative nonfiction professor often chastised me for my current self being TOO present in my past self's narration.)

    • meghancward


      Well, good to hear your last point because that's how my own memoir is written – in present tense with me learning lessons as I go and no older perspective inserted into the narrative. But I do learn those lessons and the older author does have an influence – offering commentary through the actions/words of other characters, for eg.

      As for likable – I don't think likable means they have to be nice. Tony Soprano isn't nice. Don Draper isn't particularly nice. And you're right about Starbuck, too. But they're all likable (IMHO) because they're strong, they're smart, they're bold, etc. Maybe "likable" isn't the perfect word – Admirable? Charismatic? They all have qualities that we're drawn to and that we admire, even if they're assholes much of the time.

      • Rachel


        I'm a newbie to the site and a 1st-time commentor. First of all, thank you so much for sharing and teaching in the way you do! This site has been helpful to me on more than one occasion.

        I have a q about what you wrote "offering commentary through the actions/words of other characters."

        I too am writing my memoir in present tense (given my vivid writing voice and, I guess, other story telling gifts, my coach thinks I can def pull it off, besides, present tense is what came naturally) and am researching how I will impart wisdom once my story calls for it.

        Thank you!

        • meghancward

          Hi Rachel, and thanks for your comment! By offering commentary through the actions/words of other characters, I mean, for example, if Joe says to Susie, "You're such a control freak" and Susie says, "No, I'm not!" and Jennifer chimes in with, "Uh, sorry Susie, but I agree with Joe on this one," we've just learned something about Susie (that she's a control freak but is in denial about it) through the words of the other characters.

      • valinparis

        I strive for "sympathetic." If I know why a character/author acts in a way I find disagreeable, but I know what caused it, or a scene offers a good reason for that behavior, then I'm on board. For example, if the author who was a teenager who made a terrible mistake is told by the parents never ever to mention what they've done in order to keep up appearances, and the author found him or her self with a habitual need to steal, then I can sympathize, particularly if the author shows internal conflict, such as when he/she buries all those stolen items instead of using or really wanting them.
        Great post, Meghan! I'm glad I came across it even so late. I write fiction and the idea to make details work more than just for texture I call "doing double duty." In our critique group we always talk about leveraging the setting, the details, the weather, etc. I love the idea of making the details work on THREE levels. That would really enrich the story. Will have try that.

  • Meghan, thank you so much! As much as I've read about memoirs, no one has ever mentioned or explained ANY of these! You're mahhhhhvelous!

    • meghancward

      I'm glad this was helpful, Becky. I've been working on my memoir for a LONG time, so I've learned a few lessons along the way 🙂

  • kathypooler

    Hi Meghan,

    I'm so happy I found you! I have been working on my memoir for the past three years-getting ready to shape all my vignettes into a story and also blog weekly at Memoir Writer's Journey so all your points resonate with me. I especially like #4 on making sure the details have a reason for being there. We hear so much about "show,don't tell" but also about "staying in the scene" so striking the right balance is so important. Sometimes too many details can distract the reader from the story. I find it very challenging to find that balance but determining the purpose of the details is a helpful guide.

    You have a great website and I subscribed. Thanks for sharing this very valuable information!

    Best Wishes,

    • meghancward

      Thanks so much for your comment and subscription, Kathy. Be careful with those vignettes – make sure you have a strong story arc! My own memoir read too much like a series of vignettes in earlier drafts and it will save you a lot of time later if you build a strong story arc early on.

  • Hi Meghan. I am closing in on my first draft, hoping to finish it in October. I tried for a narrative arc, but the structure still seems like the hardest task. I'm hoping that the dominant theme will emerge out of all those possible threads I've sown and that the revision process will get me to a bold, clear structure. Just wrote about starting over in my blogpost today. My book contract calls for a final manuscript next Feb. 15, so I am intensely focused now.

    • Sometimes the forces on us are so big that they are hard to see. I expect that growing up in a Mennonite community in Lancaster County (I read your blog) was something of a Little Mermaid experience: ideal in some ways, while the lure of the sparkling world beyond pulled fiercely. Whichever fairy tale archetype fits best––it may not be that one––tells something of the big storyline and the outcome.

  • Wow, Dennis. You must have read my blog often! Thanks so much for the Little Mermaid analogy. Never thought of that one before. I have the soundtrack on my iPod. I think you have given me some background music for writing today. Thanks again.

  • andyrossagency

    Thanks, Meghan. Great post. Memoirs are really tough to write. I think the big challenge is to get perspective. Which is a problem since no one has perspective on his own life. Everyone's life is a hero's journey, but most people won't want to read about it. And things that might have been life changing in the memoirist's life might just be a boring distraction for the reader. So it really is not much different than writing a novel, except it's a lot harder. You have to tell a great story that engages the reader and has a powerful arc. But in a novel, you can cheat. If a scene is boring, you can change it. In a memoir, you can't rewrite your life….but you can choose the parts that make the story more compelling.

  • […] had to pass it along. I found myself at Meghan Ward’s blog titled Writerland. The article is 5 Things I’ve Learned About Memoir Writing. (I know that’s a lot of links, but I want to give credit where […]

  • This is a wise list. I have learned these lessons in turn myself, writing my own memoir, now in its sixth draft.

  • Great tips, Meghan. More examples might help. Thanks, Kris

  • Dennis Michael Burke

    Rule 1: Yes, protags need to be interesting AND likable. The definition of likable sometimes gets quite stretched, however. I ghosted a memoir of a bank robber (just came out) that deals with that likability challenge. In the first few pages, he must pretty much erase his unsympathetic self so the reader can become emotionally willing to travel along with him on a long journey. He does that by reliving a tornado that hits as he is being sent into prison. He imagines the storm mercifully taking him, and the rest of his chain gang, up into the clouds and out of this life––he was ready to end everything, and it takes him back to his mother's protecting arms when tornadoes hit his town when he was a little kid. It is more than remorse, and it allows the reader the space to connect a bit. As writers, we are obliged to give the reader someone to care about, if they are to invest their time and money. Caring requires some degree of liking. Even King Kong has fleeting hugability. If the protag is just too cold or cruel, then perhaps we need a likable narrator the reader can ride with.

    Rule 2, strong story arc. On a memoir of a 90-year-old woman who walked across the US for political reform (Granny D), the first publisher rejected the proposal because of this concern. The publisher said Granny's adventures crossing the country would be too repetitive, and there would be no strong arc. We re-mapped the book, literally, using the topology of the US as the metaphor for her stories. So, for example, the deserts of Arizona and California would be where she remembered, as she walked, the stories of her starting point in her walk: her mental depression after the death of her husband and her best friend. The spring flowers of west Texas related to her coming alive again, and to her stories of childhood. Midlife stories in the Midwest; midlife crisis stories remembered while climbing the Appalachians; late life stories while making the last miles into DC (which, incidentally, she skied through a snowstorm). The effect was subtle enough to be invisible to most readers, but it subconsciously created a story arc that kept the pages turning.

    Rule 3. Avoid giving it away up front. I agree, but you have to hook the reader early. In a memoir of a Darfur tribesman, I used an opening story where a gun is to his head and he has a few second to live. We learn a lot about him and his companion and the situation in Darfur in that brief moment, and the reader is hooked, and very little was given away. There is almost always, somewhere in your notes, enough true facts to make all these things work.

    I'll skip rule 4, but here's for 5: I agree that the story is found not in the raw facts but in their interpretation by the central characters. I'm working on a Rwanda memoir now, and you would think that the story of the genocide's overwhelming horror would overwhelm all personal stories, but, in fact, the personal stories, the interpretations of what happened, are remarkably diverse. In many instances, the worst thing that ever happened to someone was the very thing that gives their lives beauty and meaning.

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  • Ann

    I am writing my father's memoir or story in past tense, but I feel like my introduction to the book, should be in present tense. He tells his story.

    But my preface is in the past tense, like the rest of the book. The preface tells why I wrote the book.

    Is this the wrong way?

  • […] Memoirist Meghan Ward emphasizes the importance of having a strong story arc early on as you write. […]

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