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Monday, February 14, 2011

How to Write a Memoir

Hi there. Thanks for stopping in.

Today, I've invited my good friend, Clay Rivers, to submit a guest post on writing a memoir. Turns out he knows quite a lot about it.

Take it away, Clay

So You Want To Write Your Memoir.

Writing a memoir can be an exhilarating and exhausting experience. It requires not only taking a look at your life in retrospect, but making sense of it. Readers want to know what obstacles you faced and how you overcame them. Before writing the first paragraph of your memoir, check out this list of the top five things I think you should consider that could make the actual process of writing your life story go a lot smoother.

1. The Message
What do you want to say in your memoir? Is there one thing you want your readers to take with them after reading your tome? Memoirs aren't laundry lists of events. "First I did this. And then I went there. Next we..." Snooze.

Good memoirs give readers insight into personal struggles as well as lessons learned. Picking a central message will help you in choosing which anecdotes to include.

2. The Content
When friends found out I was writing a memoir, the number one question was "how do you remember everything that happened?" The answer: I didn't.

Before I wrote the first word of the manuscript, I made a time line of my life and included the major events that supported my theme. I didn't get hung up on exact dates. I jotted things down as they occurred to me for the first few days; funny stories, sad events, accomplishments, cultural events, and the like. When I felt I had enough events I checked them against my theme. If the events didn't fit into my theme they were cut. Why spend all that time writing about an event that doesn't serve your theme?

The next step involved checking dates and events for accuracy. I dug out old pictures and documents to ensure things happened the way they did, not as I remembered. I talked with friends to compare recollections and fill in details.

Periodicals, TV shows, pop music, sporting events, and general history are also great resources that will help you sharpen your memories.

3. The Voice
Choose how you'll tell your story. How will you relate to your reader? Perhaps your style will be conversational and intimate as if speaking to a good friend. Or will your tone be that of an insider spilling hard facts in a cut and dried manner? Whichever you choose, make sure the style is one that reflects who you are and serves your content well.

4. The Plan
Put yourself on a reasonable writing schedule. Two pages a day is a good start. The goal isn't to write it perfectly the first time, the goal is to get it committed to paper, be it real or virtual. Don't edit yourself on your first draft. There'll be plenty of time to go back and edit your manuscript. If you get to a point where you're stuck or the subject matter is something you still need to process or it's of a sensitive nature, take the time to work through what you're writing about. Eventually, the direction you should take will become apparent.

There are desk drawers and hard drives all over the world harboring thousands of unfinished memoirs. Don't let your memoir become a casualty of perfection.

5. Have fun
Go easy on yourself. If you don't have fun telling your story, your readers won't have fun reading it. And remember writing is rewriting.

Clay Rivers is a working actor (TV, film , and stage), screenwriter, and print art director. He is currently finishing his memoir "Walking Tall." Feel free to chat with him on Twitter (@TuffyPants) or read his posts at

Leave a comment for Clay here, or contact him at the above Twitter address.

Thanks, Clay, for providing this great post. And thanks readers for visiting once again.




  1. Very helpful post. I found that the time-line gave me a great track to run on.

    Also found the process of writing a memoir to be profoundly healing.

    Thanks for writing.

  2. CAPT. DAVID ALVES, Thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. The timeline along with the theme works a lot like the old outline did for grade school reports. Thanks for your comment. —Clay.