039 How to Write Your Memoir

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So, you have a book burning within you. You want to write your memoir or autobiography. How do you mine your life for its gold and write something people will actually find valuable? In this post and podcast I’ll share a little formula I’ve come up with to help you find and write your own authentic story.

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A 4-Step Process

St Augustine’s Confessions. Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. A good memoir can change the world. And there’s probably a story in your life that could change the world too – even if it’s just the world for one person. How do you unearth that story? How do you write a book others will want to read?

That’s the question I was given to address at the Panning for Gold writer’s retreat at Scargill House recently. Keeping with the mining metaphor, I unpacked the following statement with the audience, drawing on my experience writing the memoir Resurrection Year. Here is a basic outline. I share more details and illustrations in the podcast.

Take the raw materials of your life, and

          sift them

                    lift them

                              craft them [tweet this]

1. Take the Raw Materials of your Life…

‘Panning for Gold’ is an apt metaphor for memoir writing. Just like the precious metal, the ‘gold’ in your story is hidden in the raw materials of your life. It’s scattered in little flecks through life’s dust and dirt – the events, conversations and emotions of each day. It’s found like veins running through the hard stone moments of loss and tears and broken dreams. It’s found as a happy by-product when you’re searching for something else.

What are these raw materials?

  • The People in your life
  • The Places you’ve been
  • The Emotions you’ve experienced
  • The Revelations you’ve had along the way

Where are they found?

Try looking in these ‘pits and streams’ for your gold:

  • Your senses
  • Your memories
  • Your records, journals, photo albums
  • Your family’s tales

The gold will be found in the ground beneath your feet. [tweet this]

Start with the raw materials of your life.

2. Sift them…

When the gold is found it’s sifted from the raw materials. The sediment is washed away, the rock is thrown aside. Even valuable metals like copper found in the process are left behind… because copper is not gold. Here’s the point: not everything in your story needs to be written. You have to sift the gold from the dirt. How do you do that? Ask two questions:

Who are you (really) writing for?

There are many good reasons to write your memoir or autobiography:

  1. For meaning
  2. For healing
  3. For pleasure
  4. For posterity
  5. For publishing

Who is being written for in reasons 1, 2 and 3? You. What about reason 4? You, or perhaps your family or community. Only in reason 5 are you writing for others. This is important when considering the next question:

What is most valuable to them?

What will be most helpful for your reader to read? What will be gold (not dirt, or even copper) to them? If you’re writing for others, keep in mind that readers of memoir are looking for at least four things:

  • Insight
  • Inspiration
  • Entertainment
  • Hope

3. Lift them…

The gold is discovered through sifting, then it is lifted out of the ground. And if your story is going to bring riches to others it will need to be lifted out too – lifted out and up, to transcend you and become a story about your reader. This is key if you’re writing to publish. American writer Beth Kephart puts it like this:

Memoir at its very best… makes its interest in readers explicit, offering not just a series of life events, but a deliberate suggestion of what it is to be a human being—to experience confusion, despair, hope, joy, and all that happens in between. True memoir is a singular life transformed into a signifying life. [tweet this]

Three transitions to make

  • From small story to big theme
  • From particulars to universals
  • From events to discoveries

Ultimately you’re not sharing your story so much as revealing your discoveries – even if that is one discovery revealed on the very last page.

4. Craft them

A nugget of gold is ugly in its raw form. Flecks of gold need to be melted together to become something useful. Gather your gold and employ all your skills to craft it into something beautiful for your readers. There are entire books on writing memoir; in the podcast I extrapolate on just a few key areas:

Master the craft of storytelling

  • Immerse yourself in good work
  • Remember the character arc
  • Details, Dialogue, Delayed Resolution

 Tell the truth

  • Be brave, be vulnerable
  • Avoid undue exaggeration, or romanticising events
  • But don’t write out of anger or self-pity

Balance light and shade

  • Map each chapter emotionally

Get critical feedback

  • Difficult to receive but necessary for success


We sleep and dream. We wake. We work. We remember and forget. We have fun and are depressed. And into the thick of it, or out of the thick of it, at moments of even the most humdrum of our days, God speaks.

Frederick Buechner, [amazon_link id=”0060611839″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Sacred Journey[/amazon_link]

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