The Making of a Memoir Part 2: Finding Your Focus

Filed in Ask the Editor, Uncategorized, Writing Tips by on February 16, 2018 0 Comments

In the previous post in this series we looked at what a memoir is and how it differs from an autobiography. So now you know you are writing your memoir, but what exactly will it be about? You need a unifying theme or event that every scene builds up to (a random smattering of “stuff that happened to you” isn’t going to work). Perhaps you can think of a hundred possible turning points in your life to write about, or maybe one defining event jumps out at you. Figuring this out is perhaps the most important step of all. This is the heart of your memoir.

At this step you may begin to think that your life is nothing to write about, but you would be wrong. You don’t need some grandiose story to make a memoir. You don’t need a childhood that rivals Oliver Twist’s, or experience in a French circus. All of us are filled with seemingly unsubstantial experiences that have molded our perspectives and personalities. Gather what you have been through and put it in words. You have a beautiful story inside you waiting to come alive.

Follow these steps to brainstorm your focus:

1. List every life-changing event of your life.

Think about events that changed you somehow or taught you a valuable lesson. You are looking for the conflict of your memoir, or possibly the climax.

Now circle the event that you think you could write an entire book about and be specific.

  • “Surviving abuse” is not a specific defining event, but it could be how you got there. What have you accomplished despite the odds?
  • Think about how others might gain insight into their own lives by reading it, but it doesn’t have to be a universal experience. Perhaps overcoming dyslexia helped you graduate as Valedictorian of your class, and your perseverance could inspire other readers to be persistent in their own endeavors.

2. Decide on your theme.

What is the underlying idea of your story? What lesson do you want reader to take away? (The silver lining of missed opportunities? Life goes on after tragedy?) This is what you will say when someone asks you what your book is about. You can’t just say, “me”!

  • It helps to think about how you changed from the beginning to the end of the time period you want to write about.
  • You should have a good idea of what your theme is when you begin writing, but it is okay for it to change as you begin developing your memoir. 

3. Read with a writer’s eye

Now that you are starting your memoir, begin reading with a focus on the craft of writing. Read memoirs, but everything else as well. What does their first sentence look like? How do they unfold their timeline? What actions and descriptions give the protagonist’s personality? How do they create suspense? What writing style do you love? What writing style do you hate?

Some More Memoirs Worth Reading

Go back to the first post in the series for the first list of some inspiring memoirs.

  • Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love by Anna Whiston-Donaldson

  • Fly a Little Higher: How God Answered a Mom’s Small Prayer in a Big Way by Laura Sobiech

  • Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet by Jenifer Ringer

The next post in the series will get down to the business of writing your book, including some great ways to organize all those events.

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About the Author ()

With experience as an English literature teacher and freelance writer, Elaine brings her knack for revision to the editorial team. She started at the University of Central Florida in 2005, and she holds degrees in English Literature and Language Arts Education with an additional minor in writing. As a parenting blogger, she enjoys writing about her adventures with her toddler daughter and husband as they take advantage of living where the rest of the world vacations.

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