If you’ve lived an exciting life, or gone through a trying time that taught you many lessons, it’s likely that many people have told you that you should write a memoir. And maybe you’ve been thinking to yourself, “Yeah, I really should!” Maybe you’ve been a writer before, and you know it’s time to write down the crazy twists and turns of your life in long-form writing. Maybe you aren’t a writer at all, and you don’t even know where to start—but you have a story to tell, and you’re ready to do it. Whatever your situation might be, it’s exciting but also stressful to imagine writing a book like Cheryl Strayd’s Wild or Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors. Can you do it?
The fact is, you can. It’s all about getting the right inspiration, creating a disciplined writing routine, and sharing your work with the right people. Here’s how.
Reread your favorite memoirists
Nothing teaches us to do any art as well as revisiting the people we admire who do it well. Whether your favorite writers are sarcastic and funny like David Rakoff, or nostalgic and dreamy like Natalia Ginzburg, reading them again is going to inspire you. You’ll remember how powerful good writing can be, and want to do it yourself.
Once you’ve done that, reread your old journals too, and inspire yourself with ideas about what you might write. Life is a complex, crazy thing to write about, and if we wrote about everything that ever happened to us, we’d never get anything done. So page through your life, so to speak, and write down notes of what you think might be interesting. After a couple of months of doing this, you should be able to settle on what focus you want for your memoir.
Considering that print units in juvenile nonfiction grew 8 percent from 2016 to 2017, it’s an exciting time to be a nonfiction writer.
Create a writing schedule and routine
Next, it’s time to plan out your writing time. Writing a long work takes a lot of discipline, and you aren’t going to have it if you haven’t set aside time. Create a schedule for when you want your first draft to be finished. In half a year, or two? Depending on how busy you are, and whether you’re going to be enrolled in an MFA program that forces you to make time for writing, create a long-term calendar that works for you. Don’t forget to set aside days off every week and vacation every once in a while so that you won’t burn out.
Once you have your schedule set, create a routine that’ll put you in the right creative headspace. Whether you’re writing 500 words a day or 5,000, writing with the same routine every day will train you to have confidence every time you write. Take Hemingway’s routine, for example:
“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible…You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”
Later, when you’re revising, you can improve your writing. But when it comes to writing this first draft, the best thing you can do is write as much as you can, churning out content almost every day. That’s what people want, is content: in 2016, print books accounted for 70.6 percent of all units sold.
Get a writing partner—or join a workshop
As you can imagine, writing can be a lonely passion. Even though you’re entering the world of memory and style as you write your memoir all alone, sharing it is important. For one thing, having a writing partner can hold you accountable. Whether it’s someone you send your work to read, or they’re someone you set next to at a cafe and write with, they’ll help you stay productive and stick to your goals.
Joining a workshop, once enough of your memoir is written, is helpful, too. You’ll get great feedback, so you understand what you need to work on, whether it’s pacing, dialogue, or structure. It’s worth investing time in getting critiqued, considering that most authors make 10 percent in royalties for hardcover book sales. Think of it as necessary homework.
These are some of the best strategies you can use to write your memoir and make it as good as it can be. Why have you decided to write a memoir? What story are you thinking of telling?