How to Write a Memoir: Examples and a Step-by-Step Guide

Zining Mok  |  January 29, 2024  |  29 Comments

how to write a memoir

If you’ve thought about putting your life to the page, you may have wondered how to write a memoir. We start the road to writing a memoir when we realize that a story in our lives demands to be told. As Maya Angelou once wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

How to write a memoir? At first glance, it looks easy enough—easier, in any case, than writing fiction. After all, there is no need to make up a story or characters, and the protagonist is none other than you.

Still, memoir writing carries its own unique challenges, as well as unique possibilities that only come from telling your own true story. Let’s dive into how to write a memoir by looking closely at the craft of memoir writing, starting with a key question: exactly what is a memoir?

How to Write a Memoir: Contents

What is a Memoir?

  • Memoir vs Autobiography

Memoir Examples

Short memoir examples.

  • How to Write a Memoir: A Step-by-Step Guide

A memoir is a branch of creative nonfiction , a genre defined by the writer Lee Gutkind as “true stories, well told.” The etymology of the word “memoir,” which comes to us from the French, tells us of the human urge to put experience to paper, to remember. Indeed, a memoir is “ something written to be kept in mind .”

A memoir is defined by Lee Gutkind as “true stories, well told.”

For a piece of writing to be called a memoir, it has to be:

  • Nonfictional
  • Based on the raw material of your life and your memories
  • Written from your personal perspective

At this point, memoirs are beginning to sound an awful lot like autobiographies. However, a quick comparison of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love , and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin , for example, tells us that memoirs and autobiographies could not be more distinct.

Next, let’s look at the characteristics of a memoir and what sets memoirs and autobiographies apart. Discussing memoir vs. autobiography will not only reveal crucial insights into the process of writing a memoir, but also help us to refine our answer to the question, “What is a memoir?”

Memoir vs. Autobiography

While both use personal life as writing material, there are five key differences between memoir and autobiography:

1. Structure

Since autobiographies tell the comprehensive story of one’s life, they are more or less chronological. writing a memoir, however, involves carefully curating a list of personal experiences to serve a larger idea or story, such as grief, coming-of-age, and self-discovery. As such, memoirs do not have to unfold in chronological order.

While autobiographies attempt to provide a comprehensive account, memoirs focus only on specific periods in the writer’s life. The difference between autobiographies and memoirs can be likened to that between a CV and a one-page resume, which includes only select experiences.

The difference between autobiographies and memoirs can be likened to that between a CV and a one-page resume, which includes only select experiences.

Autobiographies prioritize events; memoirs prioritize the writer’s personal experience of those events. Experience includes not just the event you might have undergone, but also your feelings, thoughts, and reflections. Memoir’s insistence on experience allows the writer to go beyond the expectations of formal writing. This means that memoirists can also use fiction-writing techniques , such as scene-setting and dialogue , to capture their stories with flair.

4. Philosophy

Another key difference between the two genres stems from the autobiography’s emphasis on facts and the memoir’s reliance on memory. Due to memory’s unreliability, memoirs ask the reader to focus less on facts and more on emotional truth. In addition, memoir writers often work the fallibility of memory into the narrative itself by directly questioning the accuracy of their own memories.

Memoirs ask the reader to focus less on facts and more on emotional truth.

5. Audience

While readers pick up autobiographies to learn about prominent individuals, they read memoirs to experience a story built around specific themes . Memoirs, as such, tend to be more relatable, personal, and intimate. Really, what this means is that memoirs can be written by anybody!

Ready to be inspired yet? Let’s now turn to some memoir examples that have received widespread recognition and captured our imaginations!

If you’re looking to lose yourself in a book, the following memoir examples are great places to begin:

  • The Year of Magical Thinking , which chronicles Joan Didion’s year of mourning her husband’s death, is certainly one of the most powerful books on grief. Written in two short months, Didion’s prose is urgent yet lucid, compelling from the first page to the last. A few years later, the writer would publish Blue Nights , another devastating account of grief, only this time she would be mourning her daughter.
  • Patti Smith’s Just Kids is a classic coming-of-age memoir that follows the author’s move to New York and her romance and friendship with the artist Robert Maplethorpe. In its pages, Smith captures the energy of downtown New York in the late sixties and seventies effortlessly.
  • When Breath Becomes Air begins when Paul Kalanithi, a young neurosurgeon, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Exquisite and poignant, this memoir grapples with some of the most difficult human experiences, including fatherhood, mortality, and the search for meaning.
  • A memoir of relationship abuse, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House is candid and innovative in form. Machado writes about thorny and turbulent subjects with clarity, even wit. While intensely personal, In the Dream House is also one of most insightful pieces of cultural criticism.
  • Twenty-five years after leaving for Canada, Michael Ondaatje returns to his native Sri Lanka to sort out his family’s past. The result is Running in the Family , the writer’s dazzling attempt to reconstruct fragments of experiences and family legends into a portrait of his parents’ and grandparents’ lives. (Importantly, Running in the Family was sold to readers as a fictional memoir; its explicit acknowledgement of fictionalization prevented it from encountering the kind of backlash that James Frey would receive for fabricating key facts in A Million Little Pieces , which he had sold as a memoir . )
  • Of the many memoirs published in recent years, Tara Westover’s Educated is perhaps one of the most internationally-recognized. A story about the struggle for self-determination, Educated recounts the writer’s childhood in a survivalist family and her subsequent attempts to make a life for herself. All in all, powerful, thought-provoking, and near impossible to put down.

While book-length memoirs are engaging reads, the prospect of writing a whole book can be intimidating. Fortunately, there are plenty of short, essay-length memoir examples that are just as compelling.

While memoirists often write book-length works, you might also consider writing a memoir that’s essay-length. Here are some short memoir examples that tell complete, lived stories, in far fewer words:

  • “ The Book of My Life ” offers a portrait of a professor that the writer, Aleksandar Hemon, once had as a child in communist Sarajevo. This memoir was collected into Hemon’s The Book of My Lives , a collection of essays about the writer’s personal history in wartime Yugoslavia and subsequent move to the US.
  • “The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week.” So begins Cheryl Strayed’s “ The Love of My Life ,” an essay that the writer eventually expanded into the best-selling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail .
  • In “ What We Hunger For ,” Roxane Gay weaves personal experience and a discussion of The Hunger Games into a powerful meditation on strength, trauma, and hope. “What We Hunger For” can also be found in Gay’s essay collection, Bad Feminist .
  • A humorous memoir structured around David Sedaris and his family’s memories of pets, “ The Youth in Asia ” is ultimately a story about grief, mortality and loss. This essay is excerpted from the memoir Me Talk Pretty One Day , and a recorded version can be found here .

So far, we’ve 1) answered the question “What is a memoir?” 2) discussed differences between memoirs vs. autobiographies, 3) taken a closer look at book- and essay-length memoir examples. Next, we’ll turn the question of how to write a memoir.

How to Write a Memoir: A-Step-by-Step Guide

1. how to write a memoir: generate memoir ideas.

how to start a memoir? As with anything, starting is the hardest. If you’ve yet to decide what to write about, check out the “ I Remember ” writing prompt. Inspired by Joe Brainard’s memoir I Remember , this prompt is a great way to generate a list of memories. From there, choose one memory that feels the most emotionally charged and begin writing your memoir. It’s that simple! If you’re in need of more prompts, our Facebook group is also a great resource.

2. How to Write a Memoir: Begin drafting

My most effective advice is to resist the urge to start from “the beginning.” Instead, begin with the event that you can’t stop thinking about, or with the detail that, for some reason, just sticks. The key to drafting is gaining momentum . Beginning with an emotionally charged event or detail gives us the drive we need to start writing.

3. How to Write a Memoir: Aim for a “ shitty first draft ”

Now that you have momentum, maintain it. Attempting to perfect your language as you draft makes it difficult to maintain our impulses to write. It can also create self-doubt and writers’ block. Remember that most, if not all, writers, no matter how famous, write shitty first drafts.

Attempting to perfect your language as you draft makes it difficult to maintain our impulses to write.

4. How to Write a Memoir: Set your draft aside

Once you have a first draft, set it aside and fight the urge to read it for at least a week. Stephen King recommends sticking first drafts in your drawer for at least six weeks. This period allows writers to develop the critical distance we need to revise and edit the draft that we’ve worked so hard to write.

5. How to Write a Memoir: Reread your draft

While reading your draft, note what works and what doesn’t, then make a revision plan. While rereading, ask yourself:

  • What’s underdeveloped, and what’s superfluous.
  • Does the structure work?
  • What story are you telling?

6. How to Write a Memoir: Revise your memoir and repeat steps 4 & 5 until satisfied

Every piece of good writing is the product of a series of rigorous revisions. Depending on what kind of writer you are and how you define a draft,” you may need three, seven, or perhaps even ten drafts. There’s no “magic number” of drafts to aim for, so trust your intuition. Many writers say that a story is never, truly done; there only comes a point when they’re finished with it. If you find yourself stuck in the revision process, get a fresh pair of eyes to look at your writing.

7. How to Write a Memoir: Edit, edit, edit!

Once you’re satisfied with the story, begin to edit the finer things (e.g. language, metaphor , and details). Clean up your word choice and omit needless words , and check to make sure you haven’t made any of these common writing mistakes . Be sure to also know the difference between revising and editing —you’ll be doing both. Then, once your memoir is ready, send it out !

Learn How to Write a Memoir at Writers.com

Writing a memoir for the first time can be intimidating. But, keep in mind that anyone can learn how to write a memoir. Trust the value of your own experiences: it’s not about the stories you tell, but how you tell them. Most importantly, don’t give up!

Anyone can learn how to write a memoir.

If you’re looking for additional feedback, as well as additional instruction on how to write a memoir, check out our schedule of nonfiction classes . Now, get started writing your memoir!


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Thank you for this website. It’s very engaging. I have been writing a memoir for over three years, somewhat haphazardly, based on the first half of my life and its encounters with ignorance (religious restrictions, alcohol, and inability to reach out for help). Three cities were involved: Boston as a youngster growing up and going to college, then Washington DC and Chicago North Shore as a married woman with four children. I am satisfied with some chapters and not with others. Editing exposes repetition and hopefully discards boring excess. Reaching for something better is always worth the struggle. I am 90, continue to be a recital pianist, a portrait painter, and a writer. Hubby has been dead for nine years. Together we lept a few of life’s chasms and I still miss him. But so far, my occupations keep my brain working fairly well, especially since I don’t smoke or drink (for the past 50 years).

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Hi Mary Ellen,

It sounds like a fantastic life for a memoir! Thank you for sharing, and best of luck finishing your book. Let us know when it’s published!

Best, The writers.com Team

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Hello Mary Ellen,

I am contacting you because your last name (Lavelle) is my middle name!

Being interested in genealogy I have learned that this was my great grandfathers wife’s name (Mary Lavelle), and that her family emigrated here about 1850 from County Mayo, Ireland. That is also where my fathers family came from.

Is your family background similar?

Hope to hear back from you.

Richard Lavelle Bourke

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Hi Mary Ellen: Have you finished your memoir yet? I just came across your post and am seriously impressed that you are still writing. I discovered it again at age 77 and don’t know what I would do with myself if I couldn’t write. All the best to you!! Sharon [email protected]

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I am up to my eyeballs with a research project and report for a non-profit. And some paid research for an international organization. But as today is my 90th birthday, it is time to retire and write a memoir.

So I would like to join a list to keep track of future courses related to memoir / creative non-fiction writing.

Hi Frederick,

Happy birthday! And happy retirement as well. I’ve added your name and email to our reminder list for memoir courses–when we post one on our calendar, we’ll send you an email.

We’ll be posting more memoir courses in the near future, likely for the months of January and February 2022. We hope to see you in one!

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Very interesting and informative, I am writing memoirs from my long often adventurous and well travelled life, have had one very short story published. Your advice on several topics will be extremely helpful. I write under my schoolboy nickname Barnaby Rudge.

[…] How to Write a Memoir: Examples and a Step-by-Step Guide […]

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I am writing my memoir from my memory when I was 5 years old and now having left my birthplace I left after graduation as a doctor I moved to UK where I have been living. In between I have spent 1 year in Canada during my training year as paediatrician. I also spent nearly 2 years with British Army in the hospital as paediatrician in Germany. I moved back to UK to work as specialist paediatrician in a very busy general hospital outside London for the next 22 years. Then I retired from NHS in 2012. I worked another 5 years in Canada until 2018. I am fully retired now

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I have the whole convoluted story of my loss and horrid aftermath in my head (and heart) but have no clue WHERE, in my story to begin. In the middle of the tragedy? What led up to it? Where my life is now, post-loss, and then write back and forth? Any suggestions?

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My friend Laura who referred me to this site said “Start”! I say to you “Start”!

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Hi Dee, that has been a challenge for me.i dont know where to start?

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What was the most painful? Embarrassing? Delicious? Unexpected? Who helped you? Who hurt you? Pick one story and let that lead you to others.

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I really enjoyed this writing about memoir. I ve just finished my own about my journey out of my city then out of my country to Egypt to study, Never Say Can’t, God Can Do It. Infact memoir writing helps to live the life you are writing about again and to appreciate good people you came across during the journey. Many thanks for sharing what memoir is about.

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I am a survivor of gun violence, having witnessed my adult son being shot 13 times by police in 2014. I have struggled with writing my memoir because I have a grandson who was 18-months old at the time of the tragedy and was also present, as was his biological mother and other family members. We all struggle with PTSD because of this atrocity. My grandson’s biological mother was instrumental in what happened and I am struggling to write the story in such a way as to not cast blame – thus my dilemma in writing the memoir. My grandson was later adopted by a local family in an open adoption and is still a big part of my life. I have considered just writing it and waiting until my grandson is old enough to understand all the family dynamics that were involved. Any advice on how I might handle this challenge in writing would be much appreciated.

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I decided to use a ghost writer, and I’m only part way in the process and it’s worth every penny!

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Hi. I am 44 years old and have had a roller coaster life .. right as a young kid seeing his father struggle to financial hassles, facing legal battles at a young age and then health issues leading to a recent kidney transplant. I have been working on writing a memoir sharing my life story and titled it “A memoir of growth and gratitude” Is it a good idea to write a memoir and share my story with the world?

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Thank you… this was very helpful. I’m writing about the troubling issues of my mental health, and how my life was seriously impacted by that. I am 68 years old.

[…] Writers.com: How to Write a Memoir […]

[…] Writers.com: “How to Write a Memoir” […]

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I am so grateful that I found this site! I am inspired and encouraged to start my memoir because of the site’s content and the brave people that have posted in the comments.

Finding this site is going into my gratitude journey 🙂

We’re grateful you found us too, Nichol! 🙂

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Firstly, I would like to thank you for all the info pertaining to memoirs. I believe am on the right track, am at the editing stage and really have to use an extra pair of eyes. I’m more motivated now to push it out and complete it. Thanks for the tips it was very helpful, I have a little more confidence it seeing the completion.

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Well, I’m super excited to begin my memoir. It’s hard trying to rely on memories alone, but I’m going to give it a shot!

Thanks to everyone who posted comments, all of which have inspired me to get on it.

Best of luck to everyone! Jody V.

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I was thrilled to find this material on How to Write A Memoir. When I briefly told someone about some of my past experiences and how I came to the United States in the company of my younger brother in a program with a curious name, I was encouraged by that person and others to write my life history.

Based on the name of that curious program through which our parents sent us to the United States so we could leave the place of our birth, and be away from potentially difficult situations in our country.

As I began to write my history I took as much time as possible to describe all the different steps that were taken. At this time – I have been working on this project for 5 years and am still moving ahead. The information I received through your material has further encouraged me to move along. I am very pleased to have found this important material. Thank you!

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Wow! This is such an informative post packed with tangible guidance. I poured my heart into a book. I’ve been a professional creative for years to include as a writer, mainly in the ad game and content. No editor. I wasn’t trying to make it as an author. Looking back, I think it’s all the stuff I needed to say. Therapy. Which does not, in and of itself, make for a coherent book. The level of writing garnering praise, but the book itself was a hot mess. So, this is helpful. I really put myself out there, which I’ve done in many areas, but the crickets response really got to me this time. I bought “Educated” as you recommended. Do you have any blog posts on memoirs that have something to say to the world, finding that “something” to say? It feels like that’s theme, but perhaps something more granular. Thanks for this fantastic post. If I had the moola, I would sign up for a class. Your time is and effort is appreciated. Typos likely on comments! LOL

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thanks. God bless

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I am a member of the “Reprobates”, a group of seven retired Royal Air Force pilots and navigators which has stayed in intermittent touch since we first met in Germany in 1969. Four of the group (all of whom are in their late seventies or early eighties) play golf together quite frequently, and we all gather for reunions once or twice a year. About a year ago, one of the Reprobates suggested posterity might be glad to hear the stories told at these gatherings, and there have since been two professionally conducted recording sessions, one in London, and one in Tarifa, Spain. The instigator of these recordings forwarded your website to his fellow Reprobates by way of encouragement to put pen to paper. And, I, for one, have found it inspiring. It’s high time I made a start on my Memoirs, thank you.

Thank you for sharing this, Tim! Happy writing!

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The Write Practice

Write a Great Memoir: How to Start (and Actually Finish) Your First Draft

by Joe Bunting | 1 comment

When I first started writing my memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris , about a real-life adventure I experienced with my wife and ten-month-old son, I thought it was going to be easy.

After all, by that point in my career, I had already written four books, two of which became bestsellers. I’ve got this, I thought. Simple.

How to Write a Memoir: How to Start (and Actually Finish) Your First Draft

It wasn’t. By the time Crowdsourcing Paris was published and became a #1 New Release on Amazon, it was more than five years later. During that time, I made just about every mistake, but I also learned a process that will reliably help anyone to start and finish writing a great memoir.

My memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris , as a #1 New Release on Amazon!

In this guide, I want to talk about how you can start writing your memoir, how you can actually finish it, and how you can make sure it’s good .

If you read this article from start to finish, it will save you hundreds of hours and result in a much better finished memoir.

Hot tip : Throughout this guide, I will be referencing my memoir Crowdsourcing Paris as an example. To get the most out of this guide and the memoir writing process in general, get a copy of the book to use as an example. Order your copy here »

But Wait! What Is a Memoir? (Memoir Definition)

How do you know if you're writing a memoir? Here's a quick memoir definition:

A memoir is a book length account or autobiography about a real life situation or event. It usually includes a pivotal experience in your life journey.

A key point to make is that memoir is a  true story . You don't have to get every piece of dialogue perfect, but you do have to try to tell the personal story or experience as best as you remember.

If you're looking to fictionalize your real life account you're writing a novel, not a memoir (and specifically a roman à clef novel ).

For more on the difference between a novel and a memoir, check out this coaching video:

This Memoir Writer Impressed Me [How to Write a Memoir]

How to Get Started With Your Memoir: 10 Steps Before You Start Writing

This guide is broken into sections: what to do before you start writing and how to write your first draft.

When most people decide to write a memoir, they just start writing. They write about the first life experience they can think of.

That’s sort of what I did too. I just started writing about my trip to Paris, beginning with how I first decided to go as a way to become a “real writer.” It turned out to be the biggest mistake I made.

If you want to finish your memoir, and even more, write a good memoir, just starting with the first memory you can think of will make things much harder for you.

Instead, get started with a memoir plan.

What’s a memoir plan? There are ten elements. Let’s break it down.

Get the memoir plan in a downloadable worksheet. Click to download your memoir plan »

1. Write Your Memoir Premise in One Sentence

The first part of a memoir plan is your premise. A premise is a one-sentence summary of your book idea.

You might be wondering, how can I summarize my entire life in a single sentence?

The answer is, you can’t. Memoir isn’t a full autobiography. It’s not meant to be a historical account of your entire life story. Instead, it should share one specific situation and what you learned from that situation.

Every memoir premise should contain three things:

  • A Character. For your memoir, that character will always be you . For the purposes of your premise, though, it’s a good idea to practice thinking of yourself as the main character of your story. So describe yourself in third person and use one descriptive adjective, e.g. a cautious writer.
  • A Situation. Memoirs are about a specific event, situation, or experience. For example, Marion Roach Smith’s bestselling memoir was about the discovery that her mother had Alzheimer’s, which at the time was a fairly unknown illness. My memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris , begins on the first day of my trip to Paris and ends on the day I left. You can’t write about everything, at least in this book. But you can write about one thing well, and save all the other ideas for the next book.
  • A Lesson. What life lesson did you learn from this situation? How did your life change inexorably after going through this situation? Again, here you can’t write about everything you’ve ever learned. Choose ONE life lesson or emotional truth and focus on it.

Want to see how a premise actually looks? Here’s an example from my memoir Crowdsourcing Paris :

When a Cautious Writer is forced by his audience to do uncomfortable adventures in Paris he learns the best stories come when you get out of your comfort zone.

One thing to note: a premise is not a book description. My book description, which you can see here , is totally different from the premise. It’s more suspenseful and also less detailed in some ways. That’s because the purpose of a premise isn’t to sell books.

What is the premise of your memoir? Share it in the comments below!

2. Set a Deadline to Finish Your First Draft

Or if you’ve already finished a draft, set a deadline to finish your next draft.

This is crucial to do now , before you do anything else. Why? Because there are parts of the memoir plan that you can spend months, even years on. But while planning is helpful, it can easily become a distraction if you don’t get to the writing part of the process.

That’s why you want to put a time limit on your planning by setting a deadline.

How long should the deadline be?

Stephen King says you should write a first draft in no longer than a season. So ninety days.

In my 100 Day Book program, we’ve helped hundreds of memoir writers finish their book in just 100 days. To me, that’s a good amount of time to finish a first draft.

However, I wouldn’t take any longer than 100 days. Writing a book requires a level of focus that’s difficult to achieve over a long period of time. If you set your deadline for longer than 100 days, you might never finish.

Also set weekly milestones.

In addition to your final deadline, I recommend breaking up the writing process into weekly milestones.

If you’re going to write a 65,000-word memoir over 100 days, let’s say, then divide 65,000 by the number of weeks (about 14) to get your weekly word count goal: about 4,600 words per week.

That will give you a sense of how much progress you’re making each week, so you won’t be in a huge rush to finish right at the end of your deadline. After all, no one can pull an all-nighter and finish a book! Create a writing habit that will enable you to actually finish your book.

Keep track of your word count deadlines.

By the way, this is one reason I love Scrivener , my favorite book writing software , because it allows you to set a target deadline and word count. Then Scrivener automatically calculates how much you need to write every day to reach your deadline.

It’s a great way to keep track of your deadline and how much more you have to write. Check out my review of Scrivener to learn more.

3. Create Consequences to Make Quitting Hard

I’ve learned from experience that a deadline alone isn’t enough. You also have to give your deadline teeth .

Writing a book is hard. To make sure that you show up to the page and do the work you need to finish, you need to make it harder to not write.

How? By creating consequences.

I learned this from a friend of mine, writer and book marketing expert Tim Grahl .

“If you really want to finish your book,” he told me, “write a check for $1,000 to a charity you hate. Then give that check to a friend with instructions to send it if you don’t hit your deadline.”

“I don’t need to do that,” I told him. “I’m a pro. I have discipline.” But a month later, after I still hadn’t made any progress on my memoir, I finally decided to take his advice.

This was during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. So I wrote a $1,000 check to the presidential candidate that I most disliked (who shall remain nameless!), and gave it to a friend with instructions to send the check if I didn’t hit my final deadline.

I also created smaller consequences for the weekly deadlines, which I highly recommend. Here’s how it works:

Consequence #1 : Small consequence, preferably related to a guilty pleasure that might keep you from writing. For example, giving up a game on your phone or watching TV until you finish your book.

Consequence #2 : Giving up a guilty pleasure. For example, giving up ice cream, soda, or alcohol until you finish your book.

Consequence #3 : Send the $1,000 check to the charity you hate.

Each of these would happen if I missed three weekly deadlines. If I missed the final deadline, then just the $1,000 check would get sent.

After I put in each of these consequences, I was the most focused and productive I’ve ever been in my life. I finished my book in just nine weeks and never missed a deadline.

If you actually want to finish your memoir, give this process a try. I think you’ll be surprised by how well it works for you.

4. Decide What Kind of Story You’re Telling

Now that you’ve set your deadline, start thinking about what kind of book you’re writing. What is your story really about?

“Memoir is about something you know after something you’ve been through,” says Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project .

I think there are seven types of stories that most memoirs are about.

  • Coming of Age. A story about a young person finding their place in the world. A great example is 7 Story Mountain  by Thomas Merton.
  • Education. An education story , according to Kim Kessler and Story Grid, is about a naive character who, through the course of the story, comes to a bigger understanding of the world that gives meaning to their existing life. My memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris , is a great example of an education memoir.
  • Love. A love story is about a romantic relationship, either the story of a breakup or of two characters coming together. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is a great example of a love story memoir, as it tells the story of her divorce and then re-discovering herself and love as she travels the world.
  • Adventure/Action. All adventure stories are about life and death situations. Also, most travel memoirs are adventure stories. Wild by Cheryl Strayed is a great example, and Crowdsourcing Paris is also an adventure story. (You can apply the principles from our How to Write Adventure guide here , too!)
  • Performance. Performance memoirs are about a big competition or a competitive pursuit. Julie and Julia , Julie Powell’s memoir about cooking her way through Julia Child’s recipes, is a good example of a performance memoir. Outlaw Platoon , about the longest-serving Ranger platoon in Afghanistan, is another great performance story.
  • Thriller. Memoirs about abuse or even an illness could fall into the crime, horror, or thriller arena. (Our full guide on How to Write a Thriller is here .)
  • Society. What is wrong with society? And how can you rebel against the status quo? Society stories are very common as memoirs. I would also argue that most humor memoirs are society stories, since they talk about one person’s funny, transgressive view on society. Anything by David Sedaris, for example, is a society memoir.

For more on all of these genres, check out Story Grid’s article How to Use Story Grid to Write a Memoir .

Three Stories

Note that I included my memoir in two categories. That’s because most books, including memoirs, are actually a combination of three stories. You have:

  • An external story. For example, Crowdsourcing Paris is an adventure story.
  • An internal story . As I said, Crowdsourcing Paris is an education story.
  • A subplot . Usually the subplot is another external story, in my case, a love story.

What three stories are you telling in your memoir?

5. Visualize Your Intention

One of the things that I’ve learned as I’ve coached hundreds of writers to finish their books is that if you visualize the following you are much more likely to follow through and accomplish your writing goals:

  • Where you're going to write
  • When you're going to write
  • How much you're going to write

Here I want you to actively visualize yourself at your favorite writing spot accomplishing the word count goal that you set in step two.

For example, when I was writing Crowdsourcing Paris , I would imagine myself sitting at this one café that was eight doors down from my office. I liked it because it had a little bit of a French feel. Then I would imagine myself there from eight in the morning until about ten.

Finally, I would actively visualize myself watching the word count tracker go from 999 to 1,000 words, which was my goal every day. Just that process of imagining my intention was so helpful.

What is your intention? Where, when, and how much will you write? Imagine yourself actually sitting there in the place you’re going to write your memoir.

6. Who Will Be On Your Team?

No one can write a book alone. I learned this the hard way, and the result was that it took me five years to finish my memoir.

For every other book that I had written, I had other people holding me accountable. Without my team, I know that I would never have written those books. But when I tried to write my memoir, I thought, I can do this on my own. I don’t need accountability, encouragement, and support. I’ve got this.

To figure out who you need to help you finish your memoir, create three different lists of people:

  • Other writers. These are people who you can process, with who know the process of writing a book. Some will be a little bit ahead of you, so that when you get stuck, they can encourage you and say, “I’ve been there. You’re going to get through it. Keep working.”
  • Readers. Or if you don’t have readers, friends and family. These will be the people who give you feedback on your finished book before it’s published, e.g. beta readers.
  • Professional editors. But you also need professional feedback. I recommend listing two different editors here, a content editor to give feedback on the book as a whole (for example, I recommend a Write Practice Certified Coach), and a proofreader or line editor to help polish the final draft. (Having professional editing software is smart too. We like ProWritingAid. Check out our ProWritingAid review .)

Just remember: it takes a team to finish a book. Don’t try to do it on your own.

And if you don’t have relationships with other writers who can be on your team, check out The Write Practice Pro. This is the community I post my writing in to get feedback. Many of my best writing friends came directly from this community. You can learn more about The Write Practice Pro here .

7. What Other Books Will Inspire You?

“Books are made from books,” said Cormac McCarthy. Great writers learn how to write great books by reading other great books, and so should you.

I recommend finding three to five other memoirs that can inspire you during the writing process.

I recommend two criteria for the books you choose:

  • Commercially successful. If you want your book to be commercially successful, choose other books that have done well in the marketplace.
  • Similar story type. Try to find books that are the same story type that you learned in step four.

For my memoir, I had four main sources of inspiration.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert; The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain; A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway; and Midnight in Paris , the film by Woody Allen.

I referred back to these sources all the time. For example, when I was stuck on the climactic scene in the memoir, I watched one scene in A Midnight in Paris twenty times until I could quote the dialogue. I still didn’t come up with the solution until the next day, but understanding how other writers solved the problems I was facing helped me figure out my own solutions for my story.

8. Who Is Your Reader Avatar?

Who is your book going to be for? Or who is the one person you’ll think of when you write your book? When the writing gets hard and you want to quit, who will be most disappointed if you never finish your book?

I learned this idea from J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote his novel The Hobbit for his three boys as a bedtime story. Every day he would work on his pages, and every night he would go home and read them to his sons. And this gave him an amazing way to get feedback. He knew whether they laughed at one part or got bored at another.

This helped him make his story better, but I also imagine it gave him a tremendous amount of motivation.

This Can Be You, Sort Of

I don’t think your reader avatar should be you. When it comes to your own writing, you are the least objective person.

There’s one caveat: you can be your own reader avatar IF you’re writing to a version of yourself at a different time. For example, I have friends who have imagined they were writing to a younger version of themselves.

Who will you write your memoir for?

9. Publishing and Marketing

How will you publish your book? Will you go the traditional route or will you self-publish? Who is your target market (check your reader avatar for help)? What will you do to promote and market your book? Do you have an author website ?

It might be strange to start planning for the publishing and marketing of your book before you ever start writing it, but what I’ve discovered is that when you think through the entire writing process, from the initial idea all the way through the publishing and marketing process, you are much more likely to finish your book.

In fact, in my 100 Day Book program, I found that people who finished this planning process were 52 percent more likely to finish their book.

Spend some time thinking about your publishing and marketing plans. Just thinking about it will help you when you start writing.

Start Building Your Audience Before You Need It

In the current publishing climate, most memoir agents and publishers want you to have some kind of relationship with an audience before they will consider your book.

Start building an audience before you need it. The first step to building an audience, and the first step to publishing in general, is building an author website. If you don’t have a website yet, you can find our full author website guide here .

(Building a website doesn’t have to be intimidating or time-consuming if you have the right guide.)

10. Outline Your Memoir

The final step of the planning process is your memoir outline . This could be the subject of a whole article itself. Here, I’ve learned so much from Story Grid, but if you don’t have time to read the book and listen to over 100 podcast episodes, here’s a quick and dirty process for you.

But First, for the Pantsers

There are two types of writers: the plotters and the pansters . Plotters like to outline. Pantsers think outlining crushes their creative freedom and hate it.

If you identify with the pantsers, that’s okay. Don’t worry too much about this step. I would still recommend writing something in this section of your memoir plan, even if you only know a few moments that will happen in the book, even recording a series of events might help as you plan.

And for you plotters, outline to your heart’s content, as long as you’ve already set your deadline!

Outlining Tips

When you’re ready to start outlining, here are a few tips:

  • Begin by writing down all the big moments in your life that line up with your premise. Your premise is the foundation of your story. Anything outside of that premise should be cut.
  • S eparate your life events into three acts. One of the most common story structures in writing is the three-act story structure. Act 1 should contain about 25 percent of your story, Act 2 about 50 percent of your story, and Act 3 about 25 percent.
  • Act 1 should begin as late into the story as possible. In Crowdsourcing Paris , like most travel memoirs, I began the story the day I arrived in Paris.
  • Use flashbacks, but carefully. Since I began Crowdsourcing Paris so late into the action, I used flashbacks to provide some details about what happened to lead up to the trip. Flashbacks can be overused, though, so only include full scenes and don’t info dump with flashbacks.
  • Start big. The first scene in your book should be a good representation of what your book is about. So if you’re writing an adventure story (see Step 4), then you should have a life or death moment as the first scene. If you’re writing a love story, you should have a moment of love or love lost.
  • End Act 1 with a decision. It is you, and specifically your decisions , that drive the action of your memoir. So what important decision did you make that will drive us into Act 2?
  • Start Act 2 with your subplot. In Step 4, I said most books are made up of three stories. Your subplot is an important part of your book, and in most great stories, your subplot begins in Act 2.
  • Act 2 begins with a period of “fun and games.” Save the Cat , one of my favorite books for writers, says that after the tension you built with the big decision in Act 1, the first few scenes in Act 2 should be fun and feel good, with things going relatively well for the protagonist.
  • Center your second act on the “all is lost” moment. Great stories are about a character who comes to the end of him or herself. The all is lost moment is my favorite to write, because it’s where the character (in this case you ) has the most opportunity to grow. What is YOUR “all is lost” moment?
  • Act 3 contains your final climactic moment. For Crowdsourcing Paris , this was the moment when I thought I was going to die. In a love story memoir, it might be when you finally work things out and commit to your partner.
  • Act 3 is also where you show the big lesson of the memoir. Emphasis on show. Back in Step 1, you identified the lesson of your memoir. Act 3 is when you finally demonstrate what you’ve learned throughout the memoir in one major event.
  • A tip for the final scene: end your memoir with the subplot. This gives a sense of completion to your story and works as a great final moment.

Use the tips above to create a rough outline of your memoir. Keep in mind, when you start writing, things might completely change. That’s okay! The point with your plan isn’t to be perfect. It’s to think through your story from beginning to end so that you’ll be prepared when you get to that point in the writing process.

Want to make this process as easy as possible? Get the memoir plan in a downloadable worksheet. Click to download your memoir plan »

That’s the end of the planning stage of this guide. Now let’s talk about how to write your first draft.

How to Write the First Draft of Your Memoir

If you’ve followed the steps above to create a memoir plan, you’ve done the important work. Writing a memoir, like writing any book, is hard. But it will actually be harder to not be successful if you’ve followed all the steps in the memoir plan.

But once you’ve created the “perfect” plan, it’s time to do the dirty work of writing a first draft.

In part two of our guide, you’ll learn how to write and finish a first draft.

1. Forget Perfection and Write Badly.

First drafts are messy. In fact, Anne Lamott calls them “shitty first drafts” because they are almost always terrible.

Even though I know that, though, any time I’m working on a new writing project, I still get it into my head that my first draft should be a masterpiece.

It usually takes me staring at a blank screen for a few hours before I admit defeat and just start writing.

If you’re reading this, don’t do that! Instead, start by writing badly.

Besides, when you’ve done the hard planning work, what you write will probably be a lot better than you think.

2. Willpower Doesn’t Work. Neither Does Inspiration. Instead, Use the “3 Minute Timer Trick.”

My biggest mistake when I began Crowdsourcing Paris was to think I had the willpower I needed as a professional writer and author of four books to finish the book on my own. Even worse, I thought I would be so inspired that the book would basically write itself.

I didn’t. It took not making much progress on my book for more than a year to realize I needed help.

The best thing you can do to help you focus on the writing process for your second draft is what we talked about in Step 4: Creating a Consequence.

But if you still need help, try my “3 Minute Timer Trick.” Here’s how it works:

  • Set a timer for three minutes. Why three minutes? Because for me, I’m so distractible I can’t focus for more than three minutes. I think anyone can focus for three minutes though, even me.
  • Write as fast as you can. Don’t think, just write!
  • When the timer ends, write down your total word count in a separate document (see image below). Then subtract from the previous word count to calculate how many words you wrote during that session.
  • Also write down any distractions during those three minutes. Did the phone ring? Did you have a tough urge to scroll through Facebook or play a game on your phone? Write it down.
  • Then, repeat the process by starting the timer again. Can you beat your word count?

This process is surprisingly helpful, especially when you don’t feel like writing. After all, you might not have it in you to write for an hour, but anyone can write for three minutes.

And the amazing thing is that once you’ve started, you might find it much easier to keep going.

Other Tools for Writers

By the way, if you’re looking for the tools I use and other pro writers I know use, check out our Best Tools for Creative Writers guide here .

3. Make Your Weekly Deadlines.

You can’t finish your book in an all-nighter. That being said, you can finish a chapter of your book in an all-nighter.

That’s why it’s so important to have the weekly deadlines we talked about in Part 1, Step 2 of this guide.

By breaking up the writing process into a series of weekly deadlines, you give yourself an achievable framework to finish your book. And with the consequences you set in Step 3 of your memoir plan, you give your deadlines the teeth they need to hold you accountable.

And as I mentioned above, Scrivener is especially helpful for keeping track of deadlines (among other things). If you haven’t yet, check out my review of Scrivener here .

4. Keep Your Team Updated.

Having a hard time? It’s normal. Talk to your team about it.

It seems like when you’re writing a book, everything in the universe conspires against you. You get into a car accident, you get sick, you get into a massive fight with your spouse or family member, you get assigned a new project at your day job.

Writing a book would be hard enough on its own, but when you have the rest of your life to deal with, it can become almost impossible.

Without your team, which we talked about in Step 6 of your book plan, it would be.

For me, I would never have been able to finish one book, let alone the twelve that I’ve now finished, without the support, encouragement, and accountability of the other writers whom I call friends, the readers who believe in me, and most of all, my wife.

Remember: No book is finished alone. When things get hard, talk about it with your team.

And if you need a team, consider joining mine. The Write Practice Pro is a supportive encouraging community of writers and editors. It’s where I get feedback on my writing, and you can get it here too. Learn more about the community here.

5. Finally, Trust the Process.

When I walk writers through the first draft writing process, inevitably, around day sixty, they start to lose faith.

  • They think their book is the all-time worst book ever written.
  • They get a new idea they want to work on instead.
  • They decide the dream to write a book and become a writer was foolish.
  • They want to quit.

A few do quit at this point.

But the ones who keep going discover that in just a few weeks they’ve figured out most of the problems in their book, they’re on their last pages, and they’re almost finished.

It happens every time, even to me.

If you take nothing else from this post, please hear this: keep going. Never quit. If you follow this process from start to finish, you’re going to make it, and it’s going to be awesome.

I’m so excited for you.

How to Finish Your Memoir

More than half of this guide is about the planning process. That’s because if you start well, you’ll finish well.

If you create the right plan, then all that’s left is doing the hard, messy work of writing.

Without the right plan, it’s SO easy to get lost along the way.

That’s why I hope you’ll download my Memoir Plan Worksheet. Getting lost in the writing process is inevitable. This plan will become your map when it happens. Click to download the Memoir Plan Worksheet.

More than anything, though, I hope you’ll never quit. It took me five years to write Crowdsourcing Paris , but during that time I matured and grew so much as a writer and a person, all because I didn’t quit.

Even if it takes you five years, the life lessons you’ll learn as you write your book will be worth it.

And if you’re interested in a real-life adventure story set in Paris, I’d be honored if you’d read Crowdsourcing Paris . I think you’ll love it.

Good luck and happy writing.

More Writing Resources:

  • How to Write a Memoir Outline: 7 Essential Steps For Your Memoir Outline
  • 7 Steps to a Powerful Memoir
  • The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith
  • Crowdsourcing Paris by J.H. Bunting

Are you going to commit to writing a memoir (and never quitting, no matter what)? Let me know in the comments .

Summarize your memoir idea in the form of a one-sentence premise. Make sure it contains all three elements:

  • A character
  • A situation

Take fifteen minutes to craft your premise. When you’re finished, share your memoir premise in the Pro Practice Workshop for feedback. And if you share, please be sure to give feedback to three other writers. Not a member? Join us .

How to Write Like Louise Penny

Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris , a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.

Top 150 Short Story Ideas

Work with Joe Bunting?

WSJ Bestselling author, founder of The Write Practice, and book coach with 14+ years experience. Joe Bunting specializes in working with Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, How To, Literary Fiction, Memoir, Mystery, Nonfiction, Science Fiction, and Self Help books. Sound like a good fit for you?

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One of my book chapters has been accepted for publication, but I lack confidence in the accuracy of what I have written. I have completed the chapter, but I would appreciate your assistance in improving its quality.


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How To Write a Memoir Essay That Readers Won't Forget

Declan Gessel

May 11, 2024

pen and copy on table - Memoir Essay

For those seeking guidance on how to write an essay on how to write an essay , the process can be daunting. It is a meticulous task that requires precision, clarity, and a keen understanding of the topic. The task is not easy, but with the right guidance, you can excel. In this guide, we will explore the necessary steps required to craft a brilliant memoir essay. 

Table Of Content

What is a memoir essay, 4 key elements of a memoir essay, how to choose a topic for your memoir essay, 4 memoir essay writing tips to keep your readers engaged, jotbot highlights 3 great memoir essays, write smarter memoir essay with jotbot — start writing for free today.

Memoir Essay writing on a laptop

A memoir essay is a piece of writing that combines elements of personal narrative and essay writing. The term itself is derived from the French word mémoire, meaning memory or reminiscence. A memoir essay tells a true story that happened to the author. It allows the author to explore and share memories from their past, reflecting on the significance of those experiences as they relate to them now.

Limited Scope

Unlike an autobiography , a memoir essay focuses on a specific period of the author's life, a particular event, or a significant relationship. This limited scope helps to keep the narrative more centralized, allowing the author to deeply explore the emotions and consequences of those experiences within the context of the overall theme.

Essay Structure

A memoir essay uses an essay structure to introduce a central theme, develop the story, and offer reflections or insights. This structure can help the author to organize their thoughts and present their story in a way that is engaging and easy to follow. It also allows the author to weave in other elements, such as research or commentary, that can help to enrich the narrative.

Emotional Depth

A memoir delves into the author's feelings and thoughts related to the experience. By exploring the emotional depth of their memories, the author can create a more evocative and powerful narrative that resonates with readers on a personal level. This emotional depth can draw readers in and make them feel more connected to the author's story.

Universal Connection

While personal, a memoir essay aims to connect with readers by exploring broader human themes. By sharing their experiences and insights, the author can help readers to see themselves in the story, finding common ground and shared emotions that make the narrative more meaningful and impactful. 

This universal connection is one of the key strengths of a memoir essay, allowing the author to reach a wider audience and create a more lasting impact with their writing.

Difference between Memoir and Autobiography

A memoir is closely related to the nonfiction format known as autobiography, but the two forms are not identical. Most notably, an autobiography is a first-person account of its author’s entire life. Autobiographies are usually written by famous individuals, such as politicians, celebrities, or business leaders. 

In contrast, a memoir is a nonfiction work that is based on the author’s personal memories, feelings, and experiences. Memoirs are often focused on a specific time period, theme, or relationship in the author’s life. Autobiographies are longer than memoirs and cover a broader scope of the author’s life. Although memoirs and autobiographies are different, both of these genres are entertaining and informative.

Related Reading

• Argumentative Essay • Essay Format • Expository Essay • Essay Outline • How To Write A Conclusion For An Essay • Transition Sentences • Narrative Essay • Rhetorical Analysis Essay • Persuasive Essay

person wiriting Memoir Essay

1. The Use of Vivid Description

When writing a memoir essay, it is crucial to go beyond just recounting events. The use of vivid description can transport readers into the heart of your story, making it a truly immersive experience. By incorporating sensory details, figurative language, and evocative imagery, you can bring your memories to life and create a lasting impact on your readers.

2. Bring Characters to Life with Dialogue

Dialogue is a powerful tool in memoir writing, allowing you to breathe life into your characters and drive the narrative forward. By capturing the nuances of speech, revealing hidden emotions, and using dialogue to move the plot forward, you can create dynamic and engaging interactions that resonate with your readers.

3. How to Use Reflection in Your Memoir Essay

Reflection adds depth and meaning to your memoir essay, allowing you to explore the significance of your experiences and connect them to broader themes. By analyzing the "why" behind the event, connecting it to universal themes, and using introspection to express your vulnerabilities, you can infuse your memoir with emotional resonance and personal insight.

4. Showcasing the Journey of Growth

A compelling memoir essay showcases your personal growth and transformation, illustrating how specific experiences or relationships have shaped you over time. By illustrating your growth through actions and choices, using contrasting scenes to highlight your evolution, and ending on a note of personal growth, you can create a powerful narrative arc that resonates with your readers.

notepad and a laptopn on a table - Memoir Essay

Reflecting on pivotal moments and turning points in your life is essential when choosing a topic for your memoir essay. These moments could be triumphs, losses, love, or transformations that profoundly impacted you. Consider experiences that have shaped your identity, values, or worldview and stand out vividly in your memory.

Emotional Impact

Emotional resonance is key to engaging readers in your memoir essay. Reflect on moments that made you laugh, cry, or feel deeply. These emotional moments provide a window into your soul and allow readers to connect with your story on a personal level.

Personal Growth and Lessons Learned

Exploring personal growth arcs in your life is another vital aspect to consider when choosing a memoir essay topic. Reflect on how you have evolved as a person and the lessons that life has taught you through challenges, mistakes, or unexpected twists. Sharing your insights can inspire and resonate with readers who may be going through similar experiences.

Universal Appeal

While your memoir essay is deeply personal, aiming for themes that resonate universally can make your story more relatable to a wider audience. Consider themes such as love and relationships, identity and self-discovery, resilience and overcoming adversity, journeys and travel, loss and grief, as well as career and passion pursuits. These themes can help your memoir essay connect with readers on a profound level.

Jotbot is your personal document assistant. Jotbot does AI note-taking, AI video summarizing, AI citation/source finder, it writes AI outlines for essays, and even writes entire essays with Jotbot’s AI essay writer. Join 500,000+ writers, students, teams, and researchers around the world to write more, write better, and write faster with Jotbot. Write smarter, not harder with Jotbot. Start writing for free with Jotbot today — sign in with Google and get started in seconds.

pen on a copy - Memoir Essay

1. Identifying Your Narrative Core

When you're writing a memoir essay that truly captures readers' attention, it's crucial to identify the core of your narrative. This means delving into your life experiences to uncover the moments that truly define you. Here are some brainstorming strategies you can use to uncover your narrative core:

Thematic Exploration

Take a journey through the themes of your life, such as loss, friendship, or overcoming adversity. Identify specific moments that epitomize these themes and consider how they've shaped you.

Sensory Prompts

Recall vivid experiences by engaging your senses. Think about a specific smell, taste, or childhood object that brings back powerful memories. These sensory details will help you bring your story to life.

Turning Points

Reflect on pivotal moments that have significantly changed your life or your perspective. These moments often hold the key to understanding who you are and why you've become that way.

2. The Criteria for Choosing a Captivating Topic

Your memoir essay should be about more than just any story from your life. To truly captivate readers, you need to choose a topic that meets certain criteria. Here are some things to consider when selecting your story:

Choose an experience that evokes strong emotions in you. If you feel deeply about the story you're telling, your readers are more likely to as well.


Can readers connect with the story you're telling on a broader level? Look for experiences that resonate with the human experience and the emotions we all share.

Personal Significance

The best memoir essays tell stories that have had a lasting impact on the author. Consider the experiences that have shaped you, challenged you, or changed your life in meaningful ways.

3. How To Build a Memorable Narrative Persona

A key to writing a memoir essay that readers won't forget is to create a strong narrative persona. This persona is the voice through which your story is told, and it should be unique, engaging, and authentic. Here's how you can develop your narrative persona:

Identifying Your Voice

Take some time to analyze your natural writing style. Are you humorous, reflective, or descriptive? Understanding your personal tendencies will help you craft a narrative persona that feels true to you.

Building Your Narrative Voice

Consider the literary influences that have shaped your writing style. What authors or genres resonate with you? You can draw on these influences as you develop your narrative voice.

4. Crafting a Memorable Ending

Every great memoir essay needs a memorable ending. This is the final chance to leave a lasting impression on your reader, so make it count. Here are some strategies for crafting a memorable ending to your memoir essay:

Circle Back to the Introduction

Offer a sense of closure by connecting back to the beginning of your essay. This can create a sense of symmetry and completion that leaves your reader satisfied.

Reveal a Transformation

Show how the experience you've shared has shaped you into the person you are now. This transformation is often at the heart of a memoir essay and can make for a powerful ending.

A Lingering Thought

End your essay with a question or a thought-provoking reflection that will stay with your readers long after they've finished reading. This can prompt further contemplation and leave a lasting impact.

opened pages - Memoir Essay

1. Eat, Pray, and Love by Elizabeth Gilbert 


2. The Book “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed Essay 


3. Wild: a journey from lost to found by Strayed  


• Words To Start A Paragraph • Essay Structure • Types Of Essays • How To Write A Narrative Essay • Synthesis Essay • Descriptive Essay • How To Start Off An Essay • How To Write An Analytical Essay • Write Me A Paragraph • How To Write A Synthesis Essay

person working on a laptop - Memoir Essay

When writing a memoir essay, it is crucial to embrace vulnerability. Readers are drawn to stories that reveal the writer's true self and expose their raw emotions. By sharing personal tales and experiences with readers, writers can form deeper connections. It can be terrifying to share personal stories, but vulnerability is what makes memoirs compelling. Readers relate to vulnerability, and it encourages them to open up about their experiences. 

Embracing vulnerability in your memoir essay allows readers to connect with your story on an intimate level. When readers recognize themselves in your narrative, they are more likely to engage with your work on a deeper level. Vulnerability taps into emotions that are universal, enabling your readers to see themselves in your story. When writers embrace vulnerability, they create an emotional bond with their readers.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

Writer's block is a common challenge faced by memoir writers. It can be frustrating when you want to write but cannot find the words. When writer's block strikes, I use Jotbot to generate an outline for my memoir essay. Jotbot helps me organize my thoughts and ideas, which enables me to write more cohesively. With Jotbot, I can focus on specific sections of my memoir essay, allowing me to overcome writer's block.

Jotbot's AI essay writer helps me with sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation. When I struggle with a sentence, I use Jotbot to revise it. Jotbot helps me to write complete sentences and improve my grammar. I love how Jotbot helps me improve my writing skills. Writing my memoir essay with Jotbot allows me to concentrate on my writing and not worry about sentence structure or grammar.

Creating a Memorable Memoir Opening

When writing a memoir essay, the opening should grab the reader’s attention. A strong opening sets the stage for the rest of the essay. I like to begin my memoir essays with an anecdote or a compelling quote to draw readers in. By starting with a vivid image or a powerful statement, I can spark readers’ curiosity and make them eager to read more.

Jotbot assists me in creating an opening for my memoir essay that hooks readers from the beginning. Jotbot helps me to generate a catchy introduction that sets the tone for the rest of the essay. With Jotbot , I can create a memorable opening that captivates readers and compels them to continue reading. Jotbot allows me to focus on crafting an engaging narrative instead of struggling to find the right words for the introduction.

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Last updated on Apr 27, 2023

How to Outline a Memoir in 6 Steps (with Template)

Memoirists are often daunted by the task of translating memories into a captivating narrative. Even with a clear understanding of your memoir's central themes and the stories you want to share, it can be challenging to weave them together seamlessly. 

In this article, we’ll share 6 steps to organize your memories into a compelling narrative, along with a free template to help you plot your personal story. 

How to outline a memoir: 

1. Order your stories chronologically

2. pick a fitting story structure, 3. hook the reader from the start, 4. lay out your goals and desires, 5. describe how you dealt with challenges, 6. end by showing how you’ve changed.



Memoir Outline Template

Craft a memorable memoir with our step-by-step template.

If you’ve worked through our article on how to write a memoir , you should already have a hand-picked selection of powerful memories. The challenge now is to piece them together, with each memory serving as a crucial puzzle piece in an overarching narrative. 

A popular first step is to arrange your stories in chronological order. You could do this on a whiteboard, a notebook, or within your writing software of choice. For example, the Reedsy Book Editor offers an outlining board where you can create notes for your stories, then drag and drop them around.

Screengrab of Reedsy's Book Editor Outlining features

With this bird’s-eye view, it becomes easier to spot patterns and understand what fundamentally connects your stories together, helping you find a suitable structure for your memoir. 

👻 Want to collaborate with a master storyteller to bring your memoir to life? Hire a ghostwriter! They'll handle everything in the background, but your name will be the one on the cover.



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Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said that every story “has a beginning, a middle, and an end — not necessarily in that order.” When it comes to telling your own story, there isn’t a single way to structure them 一 you'll have to figure out what will have the greatest impact. To help you along, look at some of the most common memoir structures authors use. Three, in particular, stand out: 

Chronological. For memoirs that cover a specific time period or event of the author’s life and have a clear, chronological timeline (e.g. defeating cancer, or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.) For example, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air recounts the 1996 Mount Everest disaster by chronicling the ascent, summit, and descent of the mountain.

Before/After. For memoirs that revolve around a particular event so central to the story that it makes sense to organize the book in a Before/After format, where the narration keeps cutting before and after that event occurred (e.g. being sentenced to jail, or surviving a hurricane). In Lee Lawrence's The Louder I Will Sing , the author describes his life before and after his mother was wrongly shot by police during a raid on their home, using the contrast to describe the two strikingly different realities he experienced.

Theme-based. For memoirs that aren't linked together by a specific timeframe, but rather a common theme, with each story offering a unique perspective into the author's life, yet all coalescing around a central theme. A good example is Trevor Noah's memoir Born a Crime, which explores his experiences as a mixed-race child growing up in Apartheid South Africa. Noah shares a range of poignant and often humorous stories, from going to Church with his mum to selling CDs to his first date, which all grapple with the book’s central themes of resilience and identity.

When outlining your own memoir, play around with your story notes and see if you can arrange them in a unique way that emphasizes your central message or story arc. If you find this especially challenging, don’t despair. You can always collaborate with a book coach 一 they’ll help you make sense of your tales and neatly organize them into a powerful narrative. 



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But in the end, the old ways are often the best — and most stories are best suited to having a distinguishable beginning, middle, and end. Most often, the strongest outline is one that follows a chronological, novel-like structure. To that end, we’ve created a free downloadable template that will help you deconstruct your memoir scene by scene and synthesize an overarching narrative.

Let’s dive deeper into your memoir outline and see that your story hits all the right chords. 

It’s never a bad idea to start your memoir with a moment of high emotion. When deciding whether your book is worth reading, readers will skim through the opening passages , either in-store or with Amazon’s Look Inside feature. If the first few pages don’t grab them, they won’t buy it. To engage readers from the get-go, open with a powerful moment from the middle or even the end of your story .  

For example, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild (which we’ll reference throughout the rest of this post) doesn’t start with her mother’s death, failing marriage, or struggle with drugs. Instead, it begins on day 38 of her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) when Strayed accidentally drops one of her hiking shoes off a cliff. It’s a moment of profound helplessness and loneliness, evoking feelings she’s been grappling with since her mother died, ones that she hopes to overcome on her journey.  

Actress Reese Whiterspoon screaming from the top of her lungs in Wild

Strayed hooks her reader right from the prologue . She knows they’ve picked up her book on the promise that they’ll get stories of hiking through the wilderness, and she delivers on it instantly, instead of spending the first 100 pages detailing her mundane ‘normal’ life.

This kind of in medias res opening is an effective way for memoirists to engage the reader right away, and leave them wanting to know more before providing background information and developing the story. 

Once you’ve figured out your hook, it’s time to lay the foundation for your narrative. If you’re following the classic Three-Act story structure , this would be your Act One.



How to Plot a Novel in Three Acts

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Some of the story elements you may want to include in the first part of your memoir are: 


As the main character, you’ll have to provide some background information about yourself (as long as it’s relevant to your memoir’s main focus.) You’ll want to paint a picture of who you were before the story starts, so that readers can follow along as you evolve through it. 

In Wild , Cheryl vividly portrays the profound bond she shared with her mother, and how her death set her on a destructive path of substance abuse and infidelity.

Character Cheryl Strayed and her mother on the horse in the movie Wild

If your memoir is about joining the Navy Seals, this is the part where you share your ordinary life before military training. If it’s about grieving for your late husband, your exposition might detail how you fell in love with each other, and what made your relationship special. 

An Inciting Incident 

In most cases, you’ll be able to identify a defining moment that set your story in motion, and propelled you on a transformational journey. It’s the moment you fully decide to get out of your comfort zone to achieve your goals and desires. 

Cheryl's turning point in Wild comes after she hits rock bottom in the wake of an unwanted pregnancy. Browsing through a store, she impulsively purchases a guidebook for the PCT, thinking that the trail may help her “walk herself back to the woman she once was.”  

The inciting moment when Cheryl Strayed finds the Pacific Coast Trail guidebook

Of course, not all true life stories start with an earth-shaking epiphany or a serendipitous meeting. Maybe your decision to run an Ironman in your 40s was something that was brewing over a number of years, but try to think of a moment of high emotion that contributed to that choice. Was it the day you were fired from your job, or the time when a kid on the street called you 'old'? This moment could very well be your inciting incident. 

Introduction of Main Theme

As your story develops, make sure that your personal objectives are tied to a larger, universal theme that can resonate with your readers. In Cheryl's story, her primary goal is to hike the PCT, but on a deeper level, her quest touches on the themes of redemption and self-discovery. As she writes in the first pages of the book:

“It was a world [the trail] I’d never been to and yet had known was there all along, one I’d staggered to in sorrow and confusion and fear and hope. A world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me into the girl I’d once been.”

Think about what your memoir's theme really is (e.g. parenting, mental health, social inequality) and spotlight it from the very beginning.

Now that your story is truly in motion, with backstory, an inciting incident, and thematic heft, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty. 

The second act of your memoir is often the trickiest. This is the section where you will usually deliver on the ‘ promise of the premise ’: if your book is about becoming an astronaut, this is the part where you’ll undergo training and plan for your mission. If you’re writing a memoir about hiking the wilderness, you better be in the woods by the start of the second act.

The tough part comes with making sure that you’re building momentum, increasing the stakes, and not just telling anecdotes that don’t contribute to the bigger picture. For this reason, a memoir’s second act usually sees your hero (you!) responding to bigger and bigger obstacles. 

Here are a few key plot points to consider to keep your narration strong: 

Rising Action

During this part of the story, you usually face external and internal challenges in order to achieve your goal. The key to maintaining credibility is to share both your failures and successes, moments of both fear and courage. 

On her first sleepless night camping on the trail, Cheryl is terrified of animal sounds. But as she grows more confident each day, she starts to join in with their howls. Despite her undersized boots, her heavy backpack, and her lack of camping experience, she manages to walk 100 miles through the Mojave Desert and reach the first campground. She also learns to trust strangers and ask for help, especially when it comes to letting go of some of her unnecessary baggage.

Cheryl camping in the woods in the movie Wild

The rising action in your story may be less adventurous than in a travel memoir. If your topic is recovering from addiction, for example, it may include getting into arguments at Alcoholics Anonymous, before developing an uneasy friendship with your sponsor and growing more confident in your ability to get better. 

This is a turning point in your story, like a crisis, triumph, or simply a realization, that pivots your journey in a new direction. Usually, it’s a moment that carries significant emotional weight and sets the stage for the climax to come. 

Despite her growing confidence, Cheryl is forced to reckon with her emotions. This is when she loses her boots and feels helpless, used as the story hook. This time though, we get to see how she reacts: she reinforces her sandals with duct tape and keeps marching forward, with ever more strength and determination.   

Dig around your memories and try to identify that path-altering, highly emotional moment 一 it may be your midpoint. In a memoir chronicling the journey of building a successful startup, the midpoint may be a promising call from angel investors, willing to pour some money into your idea. It’s the moment when things turn around. 

It’s time to outline the final act of your memoir to end on a strong note and with a powerful message.

The Third Act is where the main conflict of your story is finally resolved, so the stakes and tension should be at their highest. Some of the key plot points to outline in this last section are: 

This is where you introduce your greatest challenge for the final act of your manuscript. It often involves a series of events that further escalate the conflict and heighten the anticipation for the ultimate resolution. 

In Wild , Cheryl deals with debilitating thirst, dodgy hunters, and a heavy storm, but more importantly, she revisits some of her most painful memories, from the abuses of her alcoholic father, to the heart-wrenching task of putting down her mother's cherished horse after her passing.

Cheryl crying and reckoning with her emotions in Wild

In your memoir, this is the moment before the end of your story that threatens to dash your dreams once and for all. It may be the moment when a global pandemic hits, countries close borders, and flights to Vanuatu are suspended, threatening your quest to visit every single country in a year.  

This is the point where the central conflict or challenge of your memoir comes to a head. It’s the culmination of everything you've built up to, and it should feel like a defining moment in your life. For Cheryl, it’s finally reaching the Bridge of the Gods and completing the PCT after a three-month-long hike. In your story, it may be the moment you complete an Ironman, sell your successful startup, or finally land in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu.  

Resolution/Thematic Wrap-Up

The resolution is an opportunity for you to show the results of your journey and how you’ve changed as a result of it. Here you can again address the central theme of the book, sharing the lessons you’ve learned and how your perspective has changed over time. 

For Cheryl, it’s all about redeeming her turbulent past 一 from cheating to heroine 一 owning up to it, and rediscovering that inner strength and beauty she had lost touch with. In your memoir, this is the time to reflect on what you learned from overcoming addiction or running a race, and muse on how you have been able to move forward since.

Close up of Cheryl at the end of the movie Wild

Aaand scene! It's important to keep in mind that every memoir is unique and may require a distinctive structure, but we hope that our suggestions and template will provide you with a solid foundation to write with more clarity and get that memoir published.

Also, remember that writing a book is a marathon. After outlining, writing, and publishing your memoir, you'll have to publish it! Proceed onto our post teaching you how to publish a memoir and rest assured that you have a solid roadmap in front of you.

Evelyn Sinclair says:

04/03/2018 – 21:17

I've read a lot of the Reedsy information about memoirs, finding it all very helpful and I'm around 20,000 words in. Recently I'm struggling over how to bring it to an interesting end, and whether I can reach the length of a novel.

Comments are currently closed.

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How to Write a Memoir Essay

October 12, 2023

What is a Memoir Essay?

A memoir essay is a form of autobiographical writing that focuses on a specific aspect of the author’s life. Unlike a traditional autobiography, which typically covers the author’s entire life, a memoir essay hones in on a particular event, time period, or theme. It is a deeply personal and reflective piece that allows the writer to delve into their memories, thoughts, and emotions surrounding their chosen subject.

In a memoir essay, the author aims to not only recount the events that took place but also provide insight into the impact and meaning of those experiences. It is a unique opportunity for self-discovery and exploration, while also offering readers a glimpse into the author’s world. The beauty of a memoir essay lies in its ability to weave together personal anecdotes, vivid descriptions, and introspective reflections to create a compelling narrative.

Writing a memoir essay can be both challenging and rewarding. It requires careful selection of memories, thoughtful introspection, and skillful storytelling. The process allows the writer to make sense of their past, gain a deeper understanding of themselves, and share their unique story with others.

Choosing a Topic for Your Memoir Essay

Selecting the right topic is crucial to write a good memoir essay. It sets the foundation for what you will explore and reveal in your personal narrative. When choosing a topic, it’s essential to reflect on your significant life experiences and consider what stories or themes hold the most meaning for you.

One approach is to think about moments or events that have had a profound impact on your life. Consider times of triumph or adversity, moments of exploration or self-discovery, relationships that have shaped you, or challenges you have overcome. These experiences can provide a rich foundation for your memoir essay.

Another option is to focus on a specific theme or aspect of your life. You might explore topics such as identity, family dynamics, cultural heritage, career milestones, or personal beliefs. By centering your essay around a theme, you can weave together various memories and reflections to create a cohesive narrative.

It’s also important to consider your target audience. Who do you want to connect with through your memoir essay? Understanding your audience’s interests and experiences can help you choose a topic that will resonate with them.

Ultimately, the topic should be one that excites you and allows for introspection and self-discovery. Choose a topic that ignites your passion and offers a story worth sharing.

Possible Memoir Essay Topics

  • Childhood Memories
  • Family Dynamics
  • Life-altering Events
  • Overcoming Societal Expectations
  • Love and Loss
  • Self-discovery and Transformation
  • Lessons from Nature
  • Journey from Darkness to Light
  • Triumphing Over Adversities
  • Life’s Defining Moments

Outlining the Structure of Your Memoir Essay

Writing a memoir essay allows you to share your personal experiences, reflections, and insights with others. However, before you start pouring your thoughts onto the page, it’s essential to outline the structure of your essay. This not only provides a clear roadmap for your writing but also helps you maintain a cohesive and engaging narrative.

First, consider the opening. Begin with a captivating introduction that hooks the reader and establishes the theme or central message of your memoir. This is your chance to grab their attention and set the tone for the rest of the essay.

Next, move on to the body paragraphs. Divide your essay into sections that chronologically or thematically explore different aspects of your life or experiences. Use vivid descriptions, anecdotes, and dialogue to bring your memories to life. It’s crucial to maintain a logical flow and transition smoothly between different ideas or events.

As you approach the conclusion, summarize the key points you’ve discussed and reflect on the significance of your experiences. What lessons have you learned? How have you grown or changed as a result? Wrap up your memoir essay by leaving the reader with a memorable takeaway or a thought-provoking question.

Remember, the structure of your memoir essay should support your storytelling and allow for a genuine and authentic exploration of your experiences. By outlining your essay’s structure, you’ll have a solid foundation to create a compelling and impactful memoir that resonates with your readers.

How to Write an Introduction for Your Memoir Essay

The introduction of your memoir essay sets the stage for your story and captivates your readers from the very beginning. It is your opportunity to grab their attention, establish the tone, and introduce the central theme of your memoir.

To create a compelling introduction, consider starting with a hook that intrigues your readers. This can be a surprising fact, a thought-provoking question, or a vivid description that immediately draws them in. Your goal is to make them curious and interested in what you have to say.

Next, provide a brief overview of what your memoir essay will explore. Give your readers a glimpse into the key experiences or aspects of your life that you will be sharing. However, avoid giving away too much detail. Leave room for anticipation and curiosity to keep them engaged.

Additionally, consider how you want to establish the tone of your memoir. Will it be reflective, humorous, or nostalgic? Choose your words and phrasing carefully to convey the right emotions and set the right atmosphere for your story.

Finally, end your introduction with a clear and concise thesis statement. This statement should express the central theme or message that your memoir will convey. It serves as a roadmap for your essay and guides your readers in understanding the purpose and significance of your memoir.

By crafting a strong and captivating introduction for your memoir essay, you will draw readers in and make them eager to dive into the rich and personal journey that awaits them.

Write the Main Body of Your Memoir Essay

When developing the main body of your memoir essay, it’s essential to structure your thoughts and experiences in a clear and engaging manner. Here are some tips to help you effectively organize and develop the main body of your essay:

  • Chronological Structure: Consider organizing your memoir essay in chronological order, following the sequence of events as they occurred in your life. This allows for a natural flow and a clear timeline that helps readers understand your personal journey.
  • Thematic Structure: Alternatively, you can focus on specific themes or lessons that emerged from your experiences. This approach allows for a more focused exploration of different aspects of your life, even if they did not occur in a linear order.
  • Use Vivid Details: Use sensory details, descriptive language, and engaging storytelling techniques to bring your memories to life. Transport your readers to the settings, evoke emotions, and create a vivid picture of the events and people in your life.
  • Show, Don’t Tell: Instead of simply stating facts, show your readers the experiences through engaging storytelling. Use dialogue, scenes, and anecdotes to make your memoir more dynamic and immersive.
  • Reflections and Insights: Share your reflections on the events and experiences in your memoir. Offer deeper insights, lessons learned, and personal growth that came from these moments. Invite readers to reflect on their own lives and connect with your journey.

By organizing your main body in a logical and engaging manner, using vivid details, and offering thoughtful reflections, you can write a compelling memoir essay that captivates your readers and leaves a lasting impact.

Reflecting on Lessons Learned in Your Memoir Essay

One of the powerful aspects of a memoir essay is the opportunity to reflect on the lessons learned from your personal experiences. These reflections provide deeper insights and meaning to your story, leaving a lasting impact on your readers. Here are some tips for effectively reflecting on lessons learned in your memoir essay:

  • Summarize Key Points: In the conclusion of your essay, summarize the key events and experiences you have shared throughout your memoir. Briefly remind readers of the significant moments that shaped your journey.
  • Identify Core Themes: Reflect on the core themes and messages that emerged from your experiences. What did you learn about resilience, love, identity, or perseverance? Identify the overarching lessons that you want to convey.
  • Offer Personal Insights: Share your personal insights and reflections on how these lessons have influenced your life. Were there specific turning points or moments of epiphany? How have these experiences shaped your beliefs, values, or actions?
  • Connect to the Reader: Make your reflections relatable to your readers. Explore how the lessons you learned can resonate with their own lives and experiences. This allows them to connect with your story on a deeper level.
  • Offer a Call to Action: Encourage readers to reflect on their own lives and consider how the lessons from your memoir can apply to their own journeys. Pose thought-provoking questions or suggest actions they can take to apply these insights.

By reflecting on the lessons learned in your memoir essay, you give your readers a chance to contemplate their own lives and find inspiration in your personal growth. These reflections add depth and impact to your storytelling, making your memoir essay truly memorable.

Crafting a Strong Conclusion for Your Memoir Essay

The conclusion of your memoir essay is your final opportunity to leave a lasting impression on your readers. It is where you tie together the threads of your story and offer a sense of closure and reflection. Here are some tips to help you craft a strong conclusion for your memoir essay:

  • Summarize the Journey: Remind your readers of the key moments and experiences you shared throughout your essay. Briefly summarize the significant events and emotions that shaped your personal journey.
  • Revisit the Central Theme: Reiterate the central theme or message of your memoir. Emphasize the lessons learned, personal growth, or insights gained from your experiences. This helps reinforce the purpose and impact of your story.
  • Reflect on Transformation: Reflect on how you have transformed as a result of the events and experiences you shared. Share the growth, self-discovery, or newfound perspectives that have shaped your life.
  • Leave a Lasting Impression: Use powerful and evocative language to leave a lasting impact on your readers. Craft a memorable phrase or thought that lingers in their minds even after they finish reading your essay.
  • Offer a Call to Action or Reflection: Encourage your readers to take action or reflect on their own lives. Pose thought-provoking questions, suggest further exploration, or challenge them to apply the lessons from your memoir to their own experiences.

By crafting a strong conclusion, you ensure that your memoir essay resonates with your readers long after they have finished reading it. It leaves them with a sense of closure, inspiration, and a deeper understanding of the transformative power of personal storytelling.

Editing and Proofreading Your Memoir Essay

Editing and proofreading are crucial steps in the writing process that can greatly enhance the quality and impact of your memoir essay. Here are some tips to help you effectively edit and proofread your work:

  • Take a Break: After completing your initial draft, take a break before starting the editing process. This allows you to approach your essay with fresh eyes and a clear mind.
  • Review for Structure and Flow: Read through your essay to ensure it has a logical structure and flows smoothly. Check that your paragraphs and sections transition seamlessly, guiding readers through your story.
  • Trim and Refine: Eliminate any unnecessary or repetitive information. Trim down long sentences and paragraphs to make your writing concise and impactful. Consider the pacing and ensure that each word contributes to the overall story.
  • Check for Clarity and Consistency: Ensure that your ideas and thoughts are expressed clearly. Identify any confusing or vague passages and revise them to improve clarity. Check for consistency in tense, tone, and voice throughout your essay.
  • Proofread for Errors: Carefully proofread your essay for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. Pay attention to common mistakes such as subject-verb agreement, verb tenses, and punctuation marks. Consider using spell-checking tools or having someone else review your work for an objective perspective.
  • Seek Feedback: Share your memoir essay with a trusted friend, family member, or writing partner. Their feedback can provide valuable insights and help you identify areas for improvement.

By dedicating time to edit and proofread your memoir essay, you ensure that it is polished, coherent, and error-free. These final touches enhance the reader’s experience and allow your story to shine.

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Table of Contents

Part 1: Uncover Your Memoir

Part 2: outline your memoir, memoir example of a finished outline, how to outline your memoir (a complete step-by-step guide).

feature image timeline with books

You might think that because you’re writing a book about your own life, you don’t have to do any outlining for it.

That’s not true.

I know it’s tempting to start writing without a plan. But if you do that, you’ll end up with a convoluted mess—if you finish at all.

Every good book—including every good memoir—starts with a good outline .

Before you start writing, it’s important to know what your book will include. Your outline will be your roadmap throughout the writing process. It will keep you on track and make sure that you’re writing a compelling story that appeals to your audience.

But before you say, “What if I don’t have a compelling story to share?” — let me stop you.

Every story matters.

Every person has overcome struggles in their life that are worth sharing.

Every person has a story to tell, and every person has a good memoir hiding inside them.

I truly believe that.

At a minimum, if you write down your life experiences, your kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids will know who you were and where they came from. That’s valuable by itself.

But if you turn those real-life turning points into a compelling story, you’ll also be able to help other people in the world. People who are facing the same struggles you did.

We’ve helped thousands of Authors publish their personal memoirs. And while there’s no such thing as a standard memoir, there is a process that will help you write the best memoir possible.

Here’s a step-by-step guide for outlining your life story.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Your Memoir Outline (with Template)

We’ve put together an entire Scribe Book School course on memoir writing. It’s a free, self-directed course that covers everything from what makes a good memoir to writing (and editing) your first draft .

But for this article, I’m going to focus on creating a memoir outline.

Outlining your memoir is actually a two-part process.

I’ll break down the two parts below. Each part contains a video overview, plus a step-by-step written breakdown that goes more in-depth.

Before you get started, download this template . I suggest you use it as you watch or read along.

Step 1. Determine what you’re hoping to get out of your memoir

Pull up your memoir template and start from the top.

Answer this very basic question: “What are you hoping to get out of writing your memoir?”

Choose the 3 things you want most.

Your answer might be something tangible. Maybe you want to find more clients for your business or earn more money .

Or your answer might be intangible . Maybe you want to help others in need.

Whatever the case, be as specific as possible. This will give you a concrete goal to work toward and an easy way to measure your progress later.

And be realistic . A lot of writers start off with unrealistic goals like, “I want to be on Oprah.”

Why? Aside from serving your ego, what will that do for you?

It’s much better to set incremental, attainable goals that will actually improve your business, help your target audience , create a lasting legacy, or serve whatever purpose you are writing for.

Step 2. What do you think your memoir will be about?

Next, take 2 minutes and answer this question: As you sit here—right at this moment—what do you believe your memoir will be about (recognizing you may change your mind)?

The reason I say “2 minutes” is because this should be your gut reaction. Don’t overthink it.

Nothing causes writer’s block quite like anxiety. Don’t give yourself a chance to get nervous. Just jump in and write what comes to mind.

Don’t stop before 2 minutes is up, either. That probably means you aren’t giving it enough thought.

“My life story” isn’t specific enough. Neither is “my entire life.”

Try to think about the key elements you’re going to include or what major events might go in your book.

What life experiences are relevant to the story you want to tell?

Step 3. Figure out what excites you

Take another 2 minutes and answer this question: What are you most excited about with regards to your memoir?

There are a number of answers to this. You could be excited about the stuff that’s going to go in the memoir. I’m excited to write the story about founding my business. I’m excited to tell people about the time I went to Aruba.

You could write down answers related to the process of writing the memoir. I’m excited to spend time working through my thoughts about this particular part of my life. I’m excited to see the memoir when it’s finished!

Or, it could be something related to your emotional experience of the memoir. I’m excited to deal with my issues in writing. I’m excited to share my truth with others.

Whatever the case may be, figure out what excites you.

format of a memoir essay

Memoir writers inevitably struggle during the writing process because it’s hard to dig through your past.

Your answer to this question will give you motivation when the going gets rough.

Step 4. List your self-expectations

Take another 2 minutes to answer this question: What do you expect from yourself in the process of writing your memoir?

Your answers may be positive. I expect to set up a writing plan and stick to it. I expect to write 250 words every day. I expect to complete the first draft in six months. I expect to write some funny flashbacks about my time in high school.

As always, the more specific you can be, the better. Give yourself concrete goals to work toward.

Your answers may also be negative. We all have some bad habits, and it’s important to be honest with yourself. I expect that I will sleep in instead of getting up at 5 a.m. to write. I expect that I’ll procrastinate when I get to the hardest parts of the story because I don’t like remembering them.

If you can acknowledge those tendencies from the get-go, you’re more likely to fend them off when you’re in the thick of writing.

Awareness is the first step to making progress.

Step 5. Imagine the afterglow

Writing a book is never easy. I don’t care whether you’re a first-time Author or a professional writer. You’re going to hit a slump at some point.

The way to keep going is to keep the finishing line in mind. That’s one reason you listed your goals in step 1.

But there’s another kind of motivator that can keep you going—the way writing your memoir will make you feel .

Take 2 minutes and imagine how you would like to feel after you’ve written your memoir.

Do you imagine feeling proud of your hard work? Overjoyed? Deeply satisfied because it was a cathartic experience?

What’s your emotional goal with this book?

I need to point out something important, though.

Be careful how much pressure you put on your book.

Write down how you’d like to feel after putting all that work into your memoir. But understand that the memoir itself can’t do anything for you.

In other words, your emotional goal needs to come from inside you.

Writing a memoir isn’t going to make your dad love you or make your addiction go away.

Writing a memoir can help you process those feelings and help you motivate yourself so you can keep working through them.

Step 6. Consider how your life might change

Take 2 minutes and answer the following question: How do you think your life will change after writing your memoir?

Speaking your truth in a memoir will inevitably change your life.

Short-term, it can be painful. You might have to face some unpleasant, hard truths.

But in the long run, the change is going to be for the better.

Again, don’t immediately fast forward to visions of grandeur. Writing a memoir probably isn’t going to land you on the main stage of TED or get you on The Today Show .

It might help you develop more discipline in your day-to-day life. It might give you a sense of calm since you’ll learn how to express yourself. Or it might help you feel prepared to tackle some emotional challenges in your life.

But be honest with yourself.

Step 7. Define the limits of your memoir

Now we’re going to change it up. Only take 1 minute for the next question.

Consider this: Do you anticipate your memoir will cover your whole life, a specific period in your life, a specific relationship or theme in your life, or something else?

You’re not writing a memoir because you want to tell the world about the great sandwich you had at lunch.

You’re writing a memoir because there’s something in your life that’s worth telling. What is that something?

I believe most people who sit down to write a memoir know what they want to say. You may not have admitted it to yourself yet, but deep down, you know.

That’s why I suggest only taking a minute for this question.

It’s also why I also don’t extensively cover the types of memoirs. Sure, some memoirs cover a whole life, while others cover a single event or theme. Some move chronologically, while others don’t.

None of that really matters when it comes to planning your memoir.

You know your truth. You know what’s compelling you to write your story. Just be honest, and that truth will become clear.

This question is still important, though, because it helps you realize specifically what it is about your story that’s worth telling.

It will also help you start thinking about your narrative arc and story structure. What are the turning points in your memoir? What did you learn and how?

Don’t feel locked in by this answer. It can always change. But it’s important to get the ball rolling by considering what the most impactful elements of your life story are.

You’ll sort it out more as you write the book.

Step 8. Create a working title

If you were to title your memoir—just right now, not permanently—what would it be?

Only give yourself 1 minute for this.

I’ve written about how hard it can be to come up with the perfect title . I’ve also written about how important it is to get it right.

But your title doesn’t need to be perfect at this stage. It just needs to be something that works for you.

Ideally, it will be something that encapsulates your mission and gives you a sense of direction as you move forward.

But remember, the aim here is to start zeroing in on a direction, not to nail the bullseye.

Your working title can be boring and straightforward, like My Cancer Story .

Or, it can be enigmatic, like Candy Rain .

It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it means something to you.

Just brainstorm.

Step 9. Develop a sense of urgency

Why write your memoir now? Why not wait?

Give me the short, honest answer. This shouldn’t take more than a minute or 2.

It takes a lot of motivation to write a book, so what’s your motivation?

Why is this story so worth telling that you want to take on the extra trouble, time, and effort right now?

Did something just happen in your life to motivate you? Are you trying to process your feelings about something? Is there a pressing need for it in the community you want to serve?

What’s your purpose?

Here’s my advice: if you have a burning desire to tell a story, now’s the time. Don’t wait. Why? Because you’re going to change. As humans, we’re always growing and evolving.

There are things I’ve written that, at the time, were my absolute truth. But I can’t even imagine writing about them now.

If something about your story feels urgent to you right now, seize the opportunity.

Step 10. Dig deeper

Take 2 minutes and dig as deep as you can. Why are you really writing your memoir?

Be brutally honest.

You don’t have to show this to anyone, so there’s no answer that should make you feel embarrassed.

The more upfront you can be with yourself about your reasons, the easier it will be to write a memoir that fulfills you, your mission, and others’ needs.

But remember this: a memoir isn’t about telling people what to do. If you want to do that, consider writing a knowledge-share nonfiction book .

A memoir is about digging deep into your personal story and your own emotions.

If you want others to learn about themselves from your memoir, the best way to do it is to be honest about yourself.

Others may see themselves reflected in your story—and chances are, they will—but they aren’t the subject of the book.

Step 11. Sum it all up

Now it’s time for your big takeaway.

Working through all these questions should give you a lot more clarity about what your memoir is about and why you need to share your own experience.

So, given your answers above, what do you think your memoir is really about?

Your answer doesn’t have to be about specific content, although it may be related.

Maybe your “what’s it about” is sharing a particular experience or insight. Or maybe it’s about sharing your journey through a difficult time.

Perhaps it’s about answering a question that’s driven you professionally for decades.

Or, maybe it’s about a feeling you want to have on the other side (e.g., I am not a mistake. I am worthy.) Just remember, your personal memoir can’t heal you. But the work that you put into it can.

Step 1. List the stories, experiences, events, or time periods that might go in your memoir

Open your template and scroll down to the orange section. Where it says “memoir topic,” include your answer from Step 11 of Part 1.

Now you can get into the actual outlining.

To be clear, there are many ways to outline a memoir.

But I recommend the simplest way possible, which is to brainstorm the stories, experiences, major events, and time periods that you want to cover in your book.

For this step, make bullet points and jot down all the stories you want to cover.

They don’t have to be connected. They don’t have to be complete sentences. They just have to remind you of what you’d like to cover in the book.

Think of this as a brainstorming exercise. These stories might end up in your book, and they might not.

With a memoir, a lot of the discovery comes in the writing. This is just your basic guide for all the stuff that could or should be in the first draft.

Step 2. Put those stories in the best order for your specific memoir

Once you have all your bullet points, put them in the order you want them in the book.

Don’t feel like your book has to move chronologically. What matters is that everything is in an order that resonates with you.

When you’re done, your outline will look very basic, almost like a table of contents.

I realize this is very simple. I literally just told you to write down the memories you want in the book and put them in order.

But do not mistake simple for easy.

This process will require you to really understand what you want your memoir to be about.

Also, this outline exercise almost guarantees that your memoir will change as you begin writing.

Your outline doesn’t always have to connect the dots. In fact, your final book may not even connect the dots.

For example, take Tiffany Haddish’s The Last Black Unicorn . It sold a million copies for a reason—but there are no dots there.

The reader can read it and see dots that connect certain themes.

But the stories aren’t directly connected. Tiffany just wanted to tell her most important stories as honestly as possible.

She did. And they were great. If you go to Audible, you’ll find countless reviews that testify to the power of her stories.

Your dots don’t all have to connect for your story to resonate.

Here’s a good rule of thumb. If you don’t want to connect the dots, that’s okay. But it probably means that connecting the dots would be too painful.

Ask me how I know… Connecting the dots was a bridge too far when I was writing my “fratire” stuff. I wasn’t ready to dig that deep, emotionally.

If you need to, just tell your stories.

And if you’re an overthinker, you might want to actually try not to connect all your dots.

Because sometimes when you over-plan, it’s a sign that, deep down, you don’t think your story is meaningful enough. You don’t think it can stand on its own without an elaborate structure behind it.

Steps 1 and 2 should take anywhere from an hour to 4 hours combined.

Do not take longer than 4 hours. In the next step, I’ll explain why.

Step 3. Are there stories that should be on that list but aren’t?

Unlike a knowledge-share nonfiction book, notice that I don’t recommend taking much time to outline your memoir. I also don’t teach you how to structure your chapters (if you want a comparison, check out this article on outlining a knowledge-share book).

That’s because a memoir works differently. You have to struggle a little putting together your outline. You have to struggle a little while writing each chapter.

Those struggles will help you figure out what’s important. They will strengthen your story.

You’re going to feel like your outline isn’t complete.

That’s okay. It probably isn’t.

Your outline isn’t going to be perfect. But perfection isn’t the point of an outline. The point is to get you writing quickly in the right direction.

In fact, if you wait until you have a perfect outline before you start your book, you’re doing it wrong.

You’ll discover much of your book as you write it . That’s just how it works.

Other stories will come to you as you write. You’ll uncover hidden connections. You’ll develop deeper insights as you get deeper into the material.

That’s all part of the process.

Your outline gives you a scaffold so you know how to move forward. But you still have to put in the struggle to make the story come to life.

Uncovering your truth is hard. If you try to make it easy, you won’t actually uncover that truth.

Like I said, your memoir outline will be very basic. It will look almost like a table of contents.

It may not make a lot of sense to an outside reader yet, but it will make sense to you.

Since I mentioned Tiffany Haddish’s The Last Black Unicorn earlier, I’ll give you her table of contents as an example.

Here’s what it looks like:

  • Mascots and Bar Mitzvahs: High School Years
  • Laugh Factory Comedy Camp
  • Family and Foster Care
  • Titus the Boyfriend
  • The Pimp Gets Pimped
  • Roscoe the Handicapped Angel
  • How I Got (Restarted) in Comedy
  • The Ex-Husband
  • The Long Road to Comedy Success
  • Tiffany’s True Hollywood Stories

You can tell there’s a rough chronology at work. We start with high school stories and end with Hollywood.

But within that basic narrative arc, there’s not necessarily a clear connective thread.

These are basically the moments that mattered most to Tiffany. They’re the formative experiences that made her into who she was.

And that was enough to create a riveting, vastly popular book that sold millions of copies because it spoke to her readers on a deep emotional level.

An outline is indispensable, but at the end of the day, there’s no wrong way to organize your memoir.

A memoir’s success hinges entirely on 1 thing: authenticity. Are you speaking your truth? Are you being vulnerable? Are you letting your readers see who you are?

If so, the specific dots won’t matter. It’s all about how you tell them.

format of a memoir essay

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Writing the Memoir (Moxley): Introduction

  • Introduction
  • Tips for Writing the Memoir
  • Annotated Memoirs
  • Describing a Person
  • Describing a Place
  • Sample Topics and Essays

Introduction to Writing the Memoir

Teaching and writing the memoir .

            A memoir can be one of the most meaningful essays that a student can write and one of the most engaging essays for a teacher to read.  The spirit generated by the memoir can create class fellowship less attainable through subjects requiring pure analysis, description, or narration.  More than any other subject, a memoir demands that a student bring his sensibilities and experiences to school, and when that happens, it is virtually impossible for anyone to accept a mediocrity of passion.  Students and teachers are likely to treat writing as an experience in itself, a means for writers to understand their lives and for teachers to understand their students’ worlds.

              In Terrains of the Heart, Willie Morris writes,

  If it is true that a writer's world is shaped by the experience of childhood and adolescence, then returning at long last to the scenes of those experiences, remembering them anew and living among their changing heartbeats, gives him, as Marshall Frady said, the primary pulses and shocks he cannot afford to lose. I have never denied the poverty, the smugness, the cruelty which have existed in my native state [ Mississippi ].  Meanness is everywhere, but here the meanness, and the nobility, have for me their own dramatic edge, for the fools are my fools, and the heroes are mine too.

  As a young editor who left his native state for New York City, Willie Morris wrote prolifically about his hot Mississippi youth from the cold Northeast.  His essays on home preserve a way of life in the Delta—a complicated history marked by romance and violence—while he lived in a New York far removed from this past.  We sense when reading Willie Morris’s carefully crafted memories that he is coming to know himself through his writing and, in a broader sense, has resurrected a world that can help others understand their own lives.

            To both student and teacher, this is what I hope teaching and writing the memoir will give you:  a chance to investigate your past, your culture, and your lives in general, and in so doing, create a community of authors who delight in the struggle to write clearly, meaningfully, and correctly.

The Rationale

              By clicking here , or by opening the above tab, Annotated Memoirs, you will go to a list of six types of essays, each of which is hyperlinked to a sample essay and a discussion of it. 

              Each sample annotated essay will have the following:

1.  an introduction that comments on the type of essay and how it may generate good writing from young students;

2.  a link to the essay so you can open or print it;

3.  a discussion of the essay, called “The Craft of the Essay,” which explains the strategy in each paragraph or “part” of the essay so that the teacher and student can see how the memoir was crafted from the bare memory.  This section should encourage teacher and student to scrutinize the essay together during a read-aloud session to determine how they think the memory was turned into memoir;

4.  an “Assignment” section that gives the student some specific questions to answer that might help them see the further craft of the particular memoir.

Teaching Strategies

              As with any assignment, the teaching strategy depends on the size of the class, the amount of time allotted for the assignment, how much it is weighted, and so forth.

            Ideally, teaching the memoir should take 6-7 nights of homework.  These nights could be spaced over the course of two-three weeks.

            You could also make it a lighter assignment and cut it to 3-4 assignments, with only one rough draft, instead of the two I suggest.

Homework Assignment #1: 

              The teacher/class decides which category of memoir they will read together as a class to introduce the assignment.  For example, you may choose from the Annotated Memoirs to read the Writing about Death and Mortality assignment and its sample annotated essay “Death of a Pig” by E. B. White.  For this night’s homework, the students should print out the assignment and essay at home to bring to class as their text.  They should read the essay, read the “Craft of the Essay” discussion, and then answer on paper the questions under the “Assignment” section. 

            In class the next day, read the essay aloud (or as much of it as possible), go over the “Craft of the Essay” and finish the day having the students explain their responses to the “Assignment.”

            If there is any time left, you might get the students to discuss the topic, “Where does memory begin?” ( Click here for a passage from Willie Morris's Taps to get the ball rolling. )

  Homework Assignment #2:

              Open the  Sample Topics and Essays  tab to find numerous topics and sample essays.  Decide whether everyone is going to write the same type of essay or whether the topic will be open to a variety of memoirs.  Then read a few sample essays for the topic you choose. 

Written homework is to sit for 40 minutes and do a “fast write,” in which the student writes about half of the first draft of the memory, paying no attention to grammar, style, syntax, or organization. This assignment is to get the student to write or type 2-3 pages of his memory with some, but minimal, revision (the revision should take place after the fast-write).  Click on the tab, Tips for Writing the Memoir, for some help getting started after the fast-write.

            In class the next day, students will read aloud what they have written.  The object is to hear one or two inspiring accounts so that each student can “get the hang of the assignment.”  The teacher should be pushing everyone to develop his “voice.”   Again, see Tips for Writing the Memoir  for a discussion of voice and other terms.

  Homework Assignment #3: 

              Continue where the students left off in Assignment #2 and try to write 4-5 handwritten, or 3-4 typed, pages.  If someone does not like what he/she did in Assignment #2, then start anew.

            In class the next day, have the students read aloud their work.  By the end of this day everyone should have read his/her essay at least once, either on this day or the day before.  The teacher should keep track of who has read.  Again, note how distinct the students’ written voices are, and who is putting in moments of self-reflection and not getting hung up on chronological retelling.

  Homework Assignment #4:

              By this time the students should know the focus of their essay (in other words, what wisdom, revelation, or general idea that their essay is revealing) and should begin “crafting,” or creatively organizing, the memory to become a memoir.

            It is crucial that the student realize that facts are not solely important.  Good memoirs are a blend of fact and creation; this concept will be tough to defend, but the writers of memoir have flexibility regarding the facts of the memory, since it is the “truth” of the memory they are creating; sometimes the facts are too confusing or pallid to have the needed color to make a memory vivid.  For a memory to become memoir, it needs a larger-than-life appeal.  ( Click here for some comments by Dorothy Gallagher on fact versus truth in memoir. )

To craft the essay, for homework (5-10 minutes) try having them draw a timeline of the way the memory works; in class the teacher can draw the timeline of other successful sample essays.  They will see that many essays about a lost loved one starts at the funeral, flashes back to the life, and at the end returns to the funeral.  Flashbacks are crucial to building characters, dead or alive

            Also ask them to outline what they have written as best they can (10-15 minute assignment).  Then, looking at their outlines, they may see a way to restructure the telling of the memory to get the most out of it. 

            The students should be encouraged to imitate the structure of essays that resemble the one they are writing.

            With all this in mind, they should go back and begin writing a new draft for 30 minutes.  In class the next day, have them report on what they’ve changed and have them read some first paragraphs aloud.

    Homework Assignment #5:

              Finish draft number 2.  The students should be keeping track of their rough drafts, as their grade will be based as much on effort and process as on final product.  By now the essays should have incorporated a number of ways to build character, place, and their focus:  short dialogue, concrete descriptions, anecdotes, and moments of reflection.

            Have each student read his or her first 3-4 sentences.  Urge everyone to listen intently and decide which of these sentences should be the first one in the essay.  Frequently, the first paragraph or two can be cut.  It takes most writers about 100 or more words to get warmed up.  Remind them of the Truman Capote Rule:  “I believe more in the scissors than I do the pencil.”

  Homework Assignment #6:

              The final essay is due, approximately 4-5 typed pages.  The student should turn in at least two verifiable rough drafts and the final draft.  The teacher will have heard every student’s paper at least once and should have encouraged each student to drop by for 5-10 minutes during the last 4-5 days to discuss the progress of the memoir.

            The process of this assignment should be weighted as heavily as the final product.  I usually check that the student has written two drafts, contributed to class workshops, and has revised carefully by showing he has learned: 

  (1) to start strategically;

(2) to create the various characters through description, action, anecdote, and brief dialogue;

(3) to create place and atmosphere through concrete description, temperature, climate, and telling details;

(4) to build a strong focus through moments of self-reflection;

(5) to organize strategically, dividing his essay into many paragraphs, some short, some long;

(6) to unify his essay so that, although it may wander, it ultimately returns to some unifying point or image;

(7) to punctuate and write solid sentences that create a pleasing variety and rhythm.

  • Willie Morris's "Taps"
  • Comments by Dorothy Gallagher
  • Next: Tips for Writing the Memoir >>
  • Last Updated: Jan 18, 2024 11:10 AM
  • URL: https://libguides.montgomerybell.edu/memoir

10 Essential Essay-Length Memoirs You Can Read Online for Free

Short insights with big impacts.

essay-length memoirs feature

  • Photo Credit: Unsplash/Sincerely Media

Are you a fan of anecdotal reading, but lacking the time to dive into a 300 page memoir? Do you love the specificity of short essays? Or are you looking for a taste of an author’s work before you peek any deeper into their psyche? Then you might consider looking into some essay-length memoirs—think of them as memoir examples, rather than full-fledged books.

Whether you’re hoping to find a piece of writing that makes you feel less alone, or you want to expand your understanding of the human race, these true accounts will stick with you. Here are 10 phenomenal memoir examples you can read online right now for free.

Related: The Best Essay Collections to Add to Your TBR List

"Me Talk Pretty One Day"

by David Sedaris

paris essay-length memoirs

  • Photo Credit: Chris Karidis/Unsplash

Comedian and author David Sedaris wrote the memoir essay “Me Talk Pretty One Day” about his time living in Paris to learn the French language. While matriculating as a middle-aged man has its benefits—"No one will ever again card me for a drink or demand that I weave a floor mat out of newspapers"—it doesn't spare him, or any of his peers, from the abuse of their teacher. Sedaris recounts carrying a special brand of insecurity, tackling the complexity of language and the thrill of being a humorist going toe-to-toe with a stern and scathing professeure .

For collections of Sedaris’ writing, be sure to check out Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and When You Are Engulfed in Flames .

Related: 13 Famous Memoirs Everyone Should Read Once

"Age Appropriate"

by Jen Doll

Jen Doll is a freelance journalist—whose credits include articles for The Atlantic , Esquire , and New York Magazine —and author of the young adult novel Unclaimed Baggage . In this anecdotal essay about a summer vacation spent with family, Doll explores what it means to bring your teenage self along into adulthood. Stuck between the frustration of being treated like a child by her parents, and the ever-present desire to run from the strains of adult self-sufficiency, she writes to come to terms with the different selves she houses in the context of her surroundings.

Related: 15 Best Memoirs That Will Change Your Outlook on Life

"The Price of Black Ambition"

by Roxane Gay

In “The Price of Black Ambition,” Roxane Gay interweaves a timeline of her struggles and successes with a frank discussion on the sociopolitical racism inherent in the United States. She speaks on the fact that children of color are often given an inflated sense of “ambition” at a young age, as they must work twice as hard with half as much to achieve opportunities that are more carelessly given to their white peers. And, despite the exceptional amounts of work people of color put in to move forward in life, their efforts are regularly regarded as less than—their presence in “white” circles is considered a fluke or consequence of required diversity. She refers to her ambition as a hunger that can never be satisfied in the current status quo of America.

Gay is most notable for her essay collection Bad Feminist , as well as her fiction novel An Untamed State .

Related: 8 Extraordinary Biographies About Strong Women

An Untamed State

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"My Dad Tried to Kill Me with an Alligator"

by Harrison Scott Key

alligator essay-length memoirs

  • Photo Credit: Karl Bewick/Unsplash

Harrison Scott Key is the author of two memoirs: Congratulations, Who Are You Again? and The World’s Largest Man . Key details one humorous afternoon on Mississippi’s Pearl River, where he believes his brother’s “badass” antics and his father’s gruff and wild nature almost led to his death-by-alligator. Through a consideration of the differences between him and his father, he contemplates how his near-death experience might have shaped his adult life. Remembering his father fondly, Key reconsiders his own path of fatherhood.

Related: 10 Moving Biographies and Memoirs

"Explicit Violence"

by Lidia Yuknavitch

Known for her provocative novels Dora: A Headcase , The Small Backs of Children , and The Book of Joan , Lidia Yuknavitch wrote “Explicit Violence” about the terrible abuses she suffered throughout her lifetime. She talks not just of the physical acts, but the ways in which violence changed her state of mind. Yuknavitch is honest about the ways in which she was made to feel like she deserved the violence heaped upon her—and if how she didn’t deserve it, she should become the kind of person that might deserve it. With a sharp clarity, she condemns the ways in which those who suffer abuses, particularly women, are made to feel as though to talk about it is an inconvenience on those who could never understand.

For more from the life of Lidia Yuknavitch, she has also published the full-length memoir The Chronology of Water .

"Surviving Anxiety"

by Scott Stossel

In the essay “Surviving Anxiety,” journalist and author Scott Stossel opens up about his experience with mental illness. Suffering from anxiety since infancy, Stossel paints a startling and surprising picture of the measures he has to go through to appear unaffected and “normal” due to his internal (and often irrational) worries. In an honest detailing of therapeutic, medicinal, and self-medicinal attempts to get his high-functioning anxiety under control, he expresses the frustrations and constant battle those who suffer from mental illness experience. For a deeper look into Stossel’s experience and the history of anxiety, read his full-length memoir My Age of Anxiety .

"Darkness Visible"

by William Styron

depression essay-length memoirs

  • Photo Credit: Ian Espinosa/Unsplash

William Styron, acclaimed writer of Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner , suffered deeply from bouts of depression. In his memoir essay, “Darkness Visible,” Styron is compelled to speak out about his struggle with mental illness after the suicide of Primo Levi. To combat the ignorance and taboo nature surrounding depression, Styron speaks about his own struggles with dark emotions, as well as the difficult path of healing. In the book of the same name, Styron expands upon this essay in a more complete memoir.

Related: William Styron: A Life in Books

Darkness Visible

"No Labels, No Drama, Right?"

by Jordana Narin

This enlightening and insightful essay comes from Jordana Narin, the winner of the New York Times 2015 Modern Love College Essay contest. Her memoir account exemplifies how new relationships have changed in the modern era, often careening toward an amorphous understanding between two people. She touches on an inclination to avoid not only labels, but vulnerability. Narin outlines how in a situation where the feelings are no less profound than something “real,” people are putting obstacles in their own paths by embracing an aversion to emotional honesty.

"I Was Pregnant, and Then I Wasn't"

by Laura Turner

crib essay-length memoirs

  • Photo Credit: freestocks.org/Unsplash

Laura Turner is a journalist who has written for such publications as the New York Times , The Atlantic , Glamour , and The Verge , with a book in-progress about the cultural history of anxiety. In this tear-jerking short memoir, Turner talks about her recent experience with a miscarriage. Her account encapsulates the worries of burgeoning motherhood put at sudden odds with grief and an overwhelming feeling of suddenly being alone. In an especially poignant and candid moment, Turner writes, “Your life doesn’t change, and that’s the strange part—because it was supposed to.”

Related: 7 Tragic Memoirs That Deserve Your Tears

"After Life"

by Joan Didion

Following the death of her husband in 2003, renowned essayist, journalist, and author Joan Didion penned “After Life.” In her essay, Didion describes the moments leading up to her husband’s sudden death, and continues on in aching detail about the moments following her realization that he was gone. She describes her “waves” of grief which were at the same time both strange and typical, and reaches for an explanation of how different grief can be when it’s unexpected.

More of Didion’s profound writings include Slouching Toward Bethlehem , The White Album , and After Henry .

Collected Essays

Fiction & Memoirs From 6 Influential Writers

Featured photo: Sincerely Media / Unsplash ; Additional images courtesy of Chris Karidis/ Unsplash ; Karl Bewick/ Unsplash ; Ian Espinosa/ Unsplash ; freestocks.org/ Unsplash

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The Personal Memoir

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Because the personal memoir is more demanding than the personal essay, for both writer and reader, it doesn’t fit into introductory courses as well as the personal essay. An intermediate level course is a good place to introduce the memoir. However, if the instructor takes the time to explain and introduce the memoir form, it can be adapted for introductory courses.

Difference Between the Personal Essay and the Memoir

While the personal essay can be about almost anything, the memoir tends to discuss past events. Memoir is similar to the personal essay, except that the memoir tends to focus more on striking or life-changing events. The personal essay can be a relatively light reflection about what’s going on in your life right now.

Where the personal essay explores, free from any need to interpret, the memoir interprets, analyzes, and seeks the deeper meaning beneath the surface experience of particular events. The memoir continually asks the following questions:

  • Why was this event of particular significance?
  • What did it mean?
  • Why is it important?

In this sense, the memoir is heavier than the personal essay, and it mines the past to shed light on the present. The memoir seeks to make sense of an individual life. The questions that are left unanswered in Wole Soyinka’s essay from the personal essay resource, Why do I Fast? are answered in the memoir.

Generating Ideas for Personal Memoirs

Moore’s memoir exercise from The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction is useful in both beginning and intermediate courses:

“Make a list of six to ten events or circumstances in your own life, or the lives of those very close to you, that still provoke your curiosity. Mine your own life for the events and circumstances that still raise questions in your mind. Once you have the list (and this list should be private - don’t share it with others - and don’t hold back because you think someone else will be looking), pick one of the questions on the list that you are willing to explore.“

The potential questions Moore asks in this exercise are meant to be answered in the memoir. While the memoir tries to make sense of experience, it also shares something in common with the personal essay - the exploration of the question, and the process of trying to arrive at an answer, is at least as important as the answer or resolution you may arrive at.

Writing the memoir is not a simple Q & A with yourself; rather, the complicated process of trying to seek the answers is what makes the memoir engaging to write, and read. Here is an example from Carlos Fuentes’ How I Started to Write :

Fuentes is constantly questioning and answering, interpreting and analyzing his experience, trying to make sense of why and how he did what he did in order to become a writer. He seeks answers and tries to make sense of his life by interpreting his own experience, the cultural and political life of his time, the meaning of language and literary influence, and by stepping over imagined nationalist borders.

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Memoir coach and author Marion Roach

Welcome to The Memoir Project, the portal to your writing life.

How to Write A Memoir in Essays

format of a memoir essay

Sorting the Stories — Memoir as Essay Collection

by Linda Styles Berkery

When I told a friend that I was taking a memoir-writing class, she replied, “Your life just isn’t that interesting.” Obviously she was thinking autobiography , not understanding memoir . I ignored her comment and continued to write about the small threads of wisdom I’ve learned.

After many edits, additions, and subtractions, I had built a wardrobe. I had a collection of fourteen personal essays—each one told through the lens of a dress. A Little Black Dress —learning compassion as illustrated by growing up in a funeral home. Memory Gown —naming mistakes as illustrated by a trip to the ER. Red Mini —seeing individuals as illustrated by teaching third grade. Ordinary dresses can bring out profound lessons.

Since all the writing pieces were in essay format, I adjusted Marion Roach Smith’s famous writing math, It’s about X as illustrated by Y to be told in a Z , and made a chart. To my Z factor, (essays) I added color and noted the dress: a turquoise paisley print, a navy maternity dress, an orange Hawaiian muumuu, a yellow sundress from 1941, a blue velvet jumper.

Each essay could stand alone, yet a book kept coming to mind. It was not enough to say I have a collection of “dress stories” of different length and various moods. I had more work to do. Although my structure would not be typical of a book length memoir (Act 1, Act 2, Act 3), even memoir as an essay collection must have an overall arc—a roof overhead, not just dress threads running through. Yes, memoir can be an essay collection, but it still needs structure and order.

I printed each story individually and laid them across my living room carpet. I knew which essay to put first and which would be last, but the other twelve? Originally I was tempted to group them. These three relate to my father’s WWII stories—put them together. Two had childhood dresses. My husband was mentioned in this group. But nothing really worked until my wonderful editor, Robyn Ringler, passed along tips she had learned from her own writing coach.

“Mix them up,” Robyn suggested. “Vary the word count. Don’t try to force the order, but pay attention to the emotions and lessons in the stories. Then, after you collect everything in the order you think might work, read the last paragraph of one story and the first paragraph of the following story and see if that works. You might need to do that process a few times.”

Robyn was right. I did arrange the essays a few times. But since these were, after all, dress stories, I got creative. If I had a photo of the dress, or a scrap of material from the dress, I stapled it to the printed page. Clearing a closet rod, I hung each essay from fourteen skirt hangers and started arranging them for a book. (Don’t try this at home.) I moved them and moved them until I could see a lovely rainbow arc for the entire collection.

When I was finally comfortable with the flow, I released my dress stories from their hangers and returned to the computer to cut and paste the individual essays into one long document. More edits. Moving paragraphs. Breaking up stories into parts. Adding just a bit more here and there. Writing an introduction and a final note to the reader. Two years after I wrote the first “dress story” for a memoir class, the book was published as Reflections: A Wardrobe of Life Lessons. Memoir, like a classic great dress, never goes out of style.

From the Introduction:

The hardest years in life are those between ten and seventy.

—Helen Hayes

At ten, I wasn’t the moody middle child wanting to be noticed, as much as the one who always seemed to notice. I was the sorter of stories, the keeper of traditions. Reaching up, or out, or down, I saw invisible threads that joined people together. I still do. Now, at seventy, I’m connecting more strands. And dresses are coaching my memory.

Three hard white suitcases live under my bed. I yank out the middle one and plop it on the blue star quilt. I’m not loading it up for a trip; it’s already full. I know what’s inside: dresses, scraps of fabric from dresses, and old photos. Clicking on the double locks feels like opening a black box of flight recordings. Messages vibrate from crinkles and creases, stains and frills. Memories rise from cotton, velvet, and silk—fibers from my journey through life.

Wisdom remains on the fold of one dress. I smooth a wrinkle and kindness appears. When I trace my pinky over white lace, I remember letting go. Hope is in there too, along with judgment, loss, compassion, forgiveness…a wardrobe of memories just waiting to be unpacked. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.” I agree. But sometimes a life lesson can also be worn as a dress.

  Excerpt from a middle essay:  Navy Maternity

My first maternity outfit was a long-sleeved navy blue dress from Sears that I bought for my father’s wake and funeral. I wore it again on Father’s Day and then buried it under the lilac bush in my childhood backyard, watering the ground with my tears. The words from a homily echoed in my head. Ritualize where you are now . That’s what I was doing—dressing a wound by burying a dress…

The moment I stepped out of that dress, I felt different. Lighter. Aware. I was carrying a new life—had been all along—but now I could finally breathe. I glanced in the mirror and saw myself as a mother-to-be. I shoved the dress in the bag and tossed it in the car. The dress was easy to remove, but not the grief. Shifting my focus to new life, I decided to take one small step.

The following week, on my final day of teaching elementary school, I drove to my childhood home only two blocks away. I pulled the navy maternity dress from the white plastic bag. My mother was at work. But I didn’t need her. I knew where my father’s garden tools were kept. I grabbed a shovel and began digging in the dirt near the lilac bush—Dad’s favorite bush. It didn’t take long to scoop a hole big enough to bury a death dress…

Excerpt from the final essay: Dressing for a Reunion

At the Hyatt Regency Hotel near Dulles Airport, I’m wearing the same tri-colored dress that I wore for my 50 th  high school reunion in 2016—it’s mostly blue, with bands of black and white. I call it my past-present-future dress. The dress is making an encore appearance in 2017 at a different reunion tonight.  Can it really be called a reunion if we’ve never met?  My husband tells me to hurry. We exit the elevator and enter a full dining room. The celebration begins.

Arms reach across the table to shake my hand. A shoulder nudges close. I feel a tap on my back. Legs move toward me. Fingers clasp. Another arm extends around my waist. Then hugs, so many embraces and tears. I am aware of my middle-ness. I am a quiet middle child, in the middle of a loud story. I am in the middle of history, in the middle of generations, in the middle of Danish fishermen and American flyers. I’m standing in the middle of memory and expectation because I did what middle children do best—I made connections…

Author’s bio: Linda Styles Berkery holds an M.A. from Russell Sage College. Linda taught third grade, led retreats and worked in parish ministry. Her writings on faith/life have been published in various magazines, blogs and books. Her new book is Reflections: A Wardrobe of Life Lessons. 

HOW TO WIN A COPY OF THE BOOK I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment takes on one short topic addressing how to write memoir. It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by. Love the author featured above? Did you learn something in the how-to? Then you’ve got to read the book. And you can. I am giving away one copy, and all you have to do to win is leave a comment below about something you learned from the writing lesson or the excerpt. I’ll draw winners at random (using the tool at random dot org) after entries close at midnight on May 15, 2019. Good luck!

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Related posts:

  • Writing Lessons: Picking Small Topics To Write About
  • Writing Lessons: Finding Time to Write
  • Writing Lessons: How to Write About A Difficult Subject, by Bette Lynch Husted


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Reader interactions.

Amy Laundrie says

April 14, 2019 at 7:37 am

I found this extremely helpful. I’m a columnist for “The Wisconsin Dells Events” and am searching for a way to connect my “Slice of Life” columns into a second memoir. My first, “Laugh, Cry, Reflect: Stories From a Joyful Heart” includes pieces on nature, my pet ducklings, antidotes about my teaching career, and family stories. I appreciate the tips on how memoirists should make sure the last paragraph of one piece ties in with the first paragraph of the next and I think using dresses as a uniting metaphor was brilliant. I’m eager to read your book.

April 14, 2019 at 10:50 am

Dear Amy, I appreciate your kind words. I had a lot of fun using dresses as a thread through the essays. I would love to read your own slices of life columns. Marion has helped all of us go small. Linda

Susan Davies says

April 14, 2019 at 8:05 am

I love this concept! I have been so stuck in my writing, feeling overwhelmed. I had contemplated this approach but was so unsure….this lesson just gave me that push! Wish me luck! Thank you for your lessons! I enjoy them so much!

April 14, 2019 at 10:54 am

Susan, This is great news. I found all the writing lessons to be so helpful in my own work and I am honored that sharing my experience can help nudge you today. It is so good to give back. My editor, Robyn Ringler shared these tips from her own writing teacher so we are helping each other to gain movement. Linda

Laura McKowen says

April 14, 2019 at 8:09 am

Your content is so very helpful, Marion. About nine months ago, I read your book, and then I was on one of your calls. What I learned helped me focus, organize, and finish my manuscript for my first book, a memoir about sobriety. I sent it to my publisher last week. :) Thank you!

April 14, 2019 at 10:57 am

Marion’s content has always been so helpful to me too. Congratulations on completing your story.

David Sofi says

April 14, 2019 at 8:10 am

Excellent lesson and piece by Ms. Berkery. Especially resonating was the bit about Robyn’s advice from her writing coach. I will have that posted on my Writing Wall. I also tingled with her modification of The Algorithm (That is my personal emphasis of Marion’s lesson, it is so insightful and meaningful.)

Linda Berkery says

April 14, 2019 at 8:31 am

Marion’s writing math made each essay possible and I held it in mind throughout the entire book. Robyn RIngler’s advice pulled the entire collection together. Thank you for your comments.

Careen says

April 14, 2019 at 8:14 am

I want this book! Not only for its content, but because it illustrates the principles Marion puts forth.

April 14, 2019 at 11:34 am

Careen, I hope you continue to find help from the writing lessons and the wisdom from Marion. I surely did. Linda

Ginger Hudock says

April 14, 2019 at 8:16 am

This was wonderful post! The book would be something I could relate to because my age (61) and the metaphor of dresses. This is a great and doable way to structure a book as a series of essays. It seems much more doable for me. I am comfortable writing blog posts and magazine articles, but the thought of a long book is overwhelming sometimes.

April 14, 2019 at 11:01 am

Ginger, I am with you on the thoughts of a long book. It seemed too much for me. I was so happy to find that a series of essays was a reachable goal and Marion gave good feedback when I shared that I was attempting to do just that – she reminded me that I still needed an overall arc in order to print them together as a book. I hope you continue.

April 14, 2019 at 8:30 am

Breaking up the writing into smaller, more manageable pieces seems to tame the bigger writing project, sticking to the algorithm in each section. I loved seeing the process of finding the structure of the book, which is my biggest challenge.

April 14, 2019 at 11:40 am

Dear Beth, Smaller pieces worked so well for this collection. And yes, with each essay I made sure to follow the writing math. I kept asking myself what is this about ? Although told through the lens of a dress, it wasn’t about the dress… it was about a universal theme. Thank you for your thoughts. Linda

April 14, 2019 at 8:35 am

I can’t tell you how often I used Marion’s book and notes from her course as I was completing this book. Such good advice.

Elizabeth says

April 14, 2019 at 8:38 am

I flipped through my closet in my mind – many ideas there for essays, including the ban on trousers for women in my high school in the sixties, and the godawful bloomers for gym class. Thank you!

April 14, 2019 at 11:09 am

Oh Elizabeth, Our minds must run similar. There is a story about those gym “dresses” from my first P E class at Russell Sage College. And oh yes, a mini dress from my teaching days, when women were not allowed to wear pants, but COULD wear a mini dress three inches above the knees. Keep flipping through your closet in your mind. Clothing is so rich to draw out the memoir essays. Thank you for your post. Linda

Ruth Crates says

April 14, 2019 at 8:59 am

I continue to look for a way to write my memoirs. Essays might be a good fit for me. I love how Linda used an unlikely subject…. dresses – to relate her life experiences. If I don’t win the book, I will buy it…I loved the exerpt about burying her grief. We can all relate to that.

April 14, 2019 at 4:30 pm

Dear Ruth, I do hope that you will continue to write memoir. I found that essays were a perfect length. Mine ranged from about 800 to 1200 words in the book. Some had several parts but each one could be read alone which helped me continue. I am happy whenever someone considers the book, the proceeds are going to assist a local thrift store, called ReStyle, from Unity House in Troy. When we have some book signings we are also inviting readers to donate a gently used dress. So my unlikely thread of dresses is really being put to good use. Linda

April 14, 2019 at 4:34 pm

Isn’t it amazing how an idea can take off in so many directions! A wonderful way to help others.

April 14, 2019 at 4:40 pm

If you are in the Albany-Troy area look for several benefit book signings on the Facebook page: Reflections: A Wardrobe of Life Lessons

Cynthia C says

April 14, 2019 at 9:04 am

Incredibly helpful hearing about the writing process! I love reading how these authors make decisions about how the final product will look.

April 14, 2019 at 4:36 pm

Cynthia, I always loved reading the writing lessons from Marion’s posts. I was fascinated with the whole process of structure. Linda

Cassandra Hamilton says

April 14, 2019 at 9:41 am

Great post. I appreciate Linda Styles Berkery sharing her process. By breaking her subject into essays she was able to work ideas in smaller sections. I like how when she focused on the larger piece, the book, she turned to a visceral and visual method: hanging up her essays, each represented by a dress, to sort and rearrange until she felt they were right. I would think the photos of the dresses also evoked in her thoughts and feelings and helped her to pack her writing with vivid descriptions. I’m inspired with her process and how she cleverly teased us with snippets of her new work. Thank you!

April 14, 2019 at 4:44 pm

Dear Cassandra, Thanks for your comments. You are right about the visual part. It really helped me to organize the flow of the essays and the overall arc of the book. (And at one point when I realized that I didn’t have a green dress – it brought up a life lesson from an old memoir of a green gym dress!) Linda

Cheryl Hilderbrand says

April 14, 2019 at 10:08 am

Since the excerpts offered here resonated so strongly, I can’t wait to read the rest of the book. Is it just women our age who grew up with dresses who are so emotionally connected to fabric, and tucks, and gathers? A quilt made from childhood dresses keeps me warm, but I worry that I should put it away so that it’s scrapbook, memory-spurring nature can be preserved. The advice from Ms. Berkery’s editor was something I needed to hear . Thank you Marion, Linda, and Robyn.

April 14, 2019 at 4:49 pm

Dear Cheryl, I do think that dresses meant a lot more to us than they do to the next generation. My own adult daughters rarely wear dresses, but they still have emotional and memories attached to clothing. My husband saved his race t-shirts and had them made into a quilt! He no longer runs, only walks due to an injury, but that quilt hangs over his couch reminding him of all those races. Robyn Ringler’s insights (my editor for the book) were so valuable in getting this collection to print. I am glad to pass her advice along. Linda

Jen Chambers says

April 14, 2019 at 10:17 am

I find this very helpful- it solidifies a concept that I’ve been working on for some time of using essays as memoir in my own work. Using a literal thread to hold the narrative together made a great metaphor here. I am intrigued by the structural ideas and hope to get the book!

April 14, 2019 at 5:18 pm

Dear Jen, Thank you for your comments. I hope you continue to use essays as memoir. It really helped me to keep going.. I could focus on one essay at a time. Indeed I kept them in separate folders on my computer until I recognized how to make “dress stories” into a literary closet collection. Best regards,’ Linda

Debbie Morris says

April 14, 2019 at 10:28 am

I’ve had an idea brewing for years now, and this style has opened up a completely new way to join them yet keep them separate. I thoroughly enjoy the teachings here as well as that wonderfully inspiring sampling of essays. I feel energized, thank you!

April 14, 2019 at 6:03 pm

Dear Debbie, Thanks for the comments. I hope this idea keeps brewing and maybe finds a similar outlet. Linda

Barbara Womack says

April 14, 2019 at 10:38 am

I love this concept and have been inspired to use a similar approach in my own (somewhat stalled) writing.

I can’t wait to read this book!

April 14, 2019 at 6:06 pm

Dear Barbara, I am glad to hear about your writing. I wish you well on the journey and am happy that you found this approach to be helpful. Linda

Ann Hutton says

April 14, 2019 at 10:44 am

Excellent! I’m sharing this with a memoir writing group I facilitate. Meanwhile, I call out a “Yes!” to visually laying out your pages to really SEE what you’ve got and how it might fit together. Once I taped 260 pages to three walls in an empty office in order to look at the structure of a memoir manuscript. That’s when I realized that I did indeed have a beginning, middle, and ending! And looking for repetitions or other glaring mistakes was easier this way, rather than trying to read through pages on a computer screen.

Many thanks!

LInda Berkery says

April 14, 2019 at 6:11 pm

Dear Ann, Wow that must have been some wall sight! Yes, I think we sometimes need a visual way to keep us moving forward. Glad that worked for you and thank you for the comments. Best to your writing group. If you send me a personal message on Facebook page for the book. I will send you my “chart” with all the essays. My editor used that page for a talk she was giving on memoir writing. Linda

Merrie Skaggs says

April 14, 2019 at 10:49 am

Linda’s wardrobe structure is brilliant. I learned that I might be able to include an essay I wrote about my dad in my memoir. Also, Linda’s words spoke to me on several levels, or with various threads as she might say. I am still in the unraveling stage of my memoir writing and relish the connections since I am a Marion disciple, have seen my 70th birthday, and taught third grade. I learned much from your charming writing and the lessons you shared. Thank you, Linda, and thank you to our guru Marion. I’m not going to wait to win your book; I plan to buy it, read it, and learn from it now. “. . .bury a death dress. . .” My heart strings are still vibrating.

Linda Styles Berkery says

April 14, 2019 at 11:13 am

Dear Merrie, I am so happy to meet another over 70 writer of memoir. My father’s journey through his WWII experience rescued in the North Sea by Danish fishermen and as a POW is another thread through the collection. The proceeds from this book are also being used to help ReStyle, the thrift store run by Unity House in Troy, NY – my hometown. So buying the book supports a great cause. Thank you. Linda

Carol Gyzander says

April 14, 2019 at 11:00 am

I love the connecting device of the dresses! The first essay excerpt was interesting, but then I found myself curious about how it would be used in the next…and the next…

April 14, 2019 at 4:53 pm

Carol, I am so glad that you found yourself curious about the dresses used and the lessons they told. Sometimes I found myself pondering how a certain dress or saved piece of fabric could bring out so many memoires. What was going on? – You start writing and then you find more and more life experiences coloring the page. Linda

Jan Duffy says

April 14, 2019 at 11:15 am

Thank you Marion for another excellent post. The idea of basing a series of personal essays on a collection of dresses is so good. As I was reading the excerpts I felt as though I was Linda’s alter ego, experiencing every emotion that she did. Good work, I hope I can be as successful in my writing endeavors.

marion says

April 14, 2019 at 2:31 pm

Dear Jan, You are most welcome. Isn’t this a lovely, helpful post? Linda did an excellent job with this and with the book. I am delighted to see you here. Please come back soon. Best, Marion

Thank you Jan and Marion for your kind remarks. Several readers have commented that they felt they were standing right with me as they read. So we touched universal topics – close to our hearts. Linda

Karen Elizabeth Lee says

April 14, 2019 at 11:42 am

Thank you for writing this piece. I have been struggling with structure for my memoir for almost a year! writing short pieces as that is how it seems to be unfolding but then questioning myself – “Is this the right or acceptable format?” “Can I do it this way?” Your insight gives me the courage to follow this path – the essay path – to see where it will lead me! thank you.

April 14, 2019 at 4:57 pm

Dear Karen, I never started out to write a book or a collection. I just began with one essay of a brown plaid dress – a short piece for a writing assignment. I casually remarked, “I could probably write a lot more essays through the lens of a dress…” and I received such encouragement to continue. See where the short pieces lead you. Perhaps you have a collection rather than a traditional memoir book. Blessings for your good work. I am happy that this piece could encourage you. Linda

Cheryl A Kesling says

April 14, 2019 at 2:19 pm

Thank you, Linda, for sharing your story. I’m a 72-year-old struggling writer working on a memoir since 2014. It seems life keeps flying in front of me to the point of building a wall too high to see over. I’ve journaled, keeping track of unimaginable tragic moments and survival. I’ve written words on paper for a critique group but never seems to hit the mark, or at least to my satisfaction. Maybe I’m too hard on myself. Your memoir essay structure is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time but I know that each essay needs a reason or a lesson learned, and that is been my problem. Knowing what lessons I’ve learned is hard to put on paper when one holds back emotions. I’m sure reading your book would be helpful. Maybe making a chart as you did from Marion’s math and color coding for different periods ( as told in a Z- the essay) and using one metaphorical object to push the essays along is the answer for me as well. Thank you again.

April 14, 2019 at 5:06 pm

Dear Cheryl, Thank you for your heartfelt comments. Some essays (lessons) needed space and time before I could write about them. We all tend to be hard on ourselves. Keep writing. and Keep journaling. I found that going back to journals and circling some key memoires allowed me to move toward an essay. But journal writing is different than writing for print and I had to allow some pieces to stay in a journal and not try to force them to be an essay. But making the chart using X, Y, and Z was the most important formula I learned from Marion.

Etty Indriati says

April 14, 2019 at 3:11 pm

I love the excerpt of Linda’s book as it reflects the “what it is about” in Marion’s online course The Memoir Project that I took; and Linda cleverly wrote her book into chapters of personal essays. It makes me want to read the whole book! It is also inspires me to not giving up writing a memoir.

April 14, 2019 at 5:09 pm

Dear Etty, Marion’s outline is a wonderful way to start. I hope you can read the whole book and please don’t give up writing memoir in whatever form it takes. I think reflecting through writing is a blessing. Thank you for the comments. Linda

iliana says

April 14, 2019 at 7:23 pm

Linda, thanks so much for sharing aspects of your writing process! Cut and paste, and I really mean printing the pages, cutting where needed and rearranging, gluing them on another blank page, was my graduate advisor’s way of writing and editing articles, reports and proposals. That’s how I wrote my thesis too, hands on, feeling it. Looking at a dress as a metaphor, so clever! Looking forward to reading your book :)

April 14, 2019 at 7:36 pm

Seems like I did something like that old fashioned cut and paste on my TYPED thesis back in the day. Thanks for your kind remarks. Linda


April 14, 2019 at 7:28 pm

OMG. I’ve been struggling with not having lived “an important life” and yet wanting to write a memoir for my kids. My father died when I was 31. I often wished I had received more lessons from him and had them for my kids. In recording my own, 20 years later, on the upside of my life lessons, I’m hoping they see the possibilities for their lives even in The dark days. The idea of writing bits and and pieces of varying length and letting them tell me how to structure the book is liberating. Thank you!

April 15, 2019 at 9:00 pm

Dear Krista, I am happy that you can see your life as memoir worthy as it surely is. My father died when I was 26 and yet his influence is strongly felt in this collection. I wish you all the best for your writing. Linda

Lisa Sonora says

April 15, 2019 at 8:43 am

So many take aways here!

I haven’t read all of the comments, but skimmed, so hope to offer something not shared yet.

First, that you ignored your friends comment about writing about your life.

Then… using Marion’s algorithm for each of the essays (described in the second paragraph) —brilliant!

I too, am a student of Marion, and have been so STUCK on trying to figure out the algorithm for my memoir.

Your piece gave me the idea to look closer at the individual pieces within the book and trying to name what those are really about.

I just love the image of you hanging up your essays like dressed in the wardrobe, and laughed out loud at “don’t try this at home”. Because, yeah, I would try that at home — it make sense to give the writing some physical form that relates to the subject to help see it differently.

Congrats on the publication of your book, Lynda — I cannot wait to read it!

April 15, 2019 at 9:07 pm

Dear Lisa, Thank you for such great comments. Yes, hanging up those dress stories was crazy but a fun way to really see them in place. And it was wonderfully refreshing too. We often need to trust our own instincts sometimes more than the voices of dear but sometimes bossy friends! Best to you for your own writing. Linda

Cathy Baker says

April 15, 2019 at 8:47 am

I love everything about this post as I’m working on a book with mini-memoirs on our building my future writing studio, Tiny House on the Hill. After reading this post, I might consider having fewer chapters with a higher word count. I always learn so much from you, Marion, as well as those you coach. Thank you!

April 15, 2019 at 9:09 pm

I love the idea of mini-memoirs! Great! Thanks for your comments. I have also learned so much from Marion and her writing posts. Linda

Tammy Roth says

April 15, 2019 at 11:51 am

I’m always looking for clever ideas of arranging memoir topics and this is just brilliant. Thank you for sharing the process.

April 15, 2019 at 9:14 pm

Dear Tammy, Arranging those memoir essays was made easier using Robyn’s advice along with Marion’s wisdom. I was honored to share the process with so many interesting writers. Thank you for your comments. Linda

April 16, 2019 at 8:35 pm

Oh my! This came at the most perfect time. I am trying to write a memoir and it keeps running through my mind that I should try doing it in essays. I lost my son to suicide, so it’s about grief, hope, and faith. I loved what Robyn shared with you about connecting the last paragraph of one to the beginning of the next. The excerpts are wonderful. I can’t wait to read the book. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

April 16, 2019 at 9:01 pm

Dear Faith, I am glad that Robyn ‘s idea might help you find your way through a collection of essays. She suggested the last paragraph and the first one should flow for the reader but they can still stand alone as individual essays. I wish you blessings in your writing. Linda

Naomi Johnson says

April 16, 2019 at 10:51 pm

I LOVED the wonderful advice from her editor, while she was still working out the overarching structure: “pay attention to the emotions and lessons in the stories . . .. Then . . . read the last paragraph of one story and the first paragraph of the following story and see if that works.”

Lovely, indeed!

April 17, 2019 at 7:00 pm

Thank you for your comments. Robyn Ringler and Marion offer such valuable suggestions. And I am grateful. Linda

Melanie says

April 17, 2019 at 2:49 pm

I’m in the process of structuring my next book now. I was right there, with descriptions of white suitcases containing “…fabrics from my journey through life.” I could hear the crinkle of crinoline, and I was reminded of one of my absolute favorite couplets by Joni Mitchell: “Everything comes and goes, marked by lovers and styles of clothes…” As I enjoyed all the other places the piece had taken me, I asked myself, “Do I have milestones (like these dresses) that mark the milestones of my life?” And I realized, I DO! I am a songwriter, so of COURSE, every milestone has a song! Thanks, Marion & Linda for such beautiful and inspiring work.

April 17, 2019 at 5:23 pm

You are most welcome, Melanie. Please come back soon. Best, Marion

April 17, 2019 at 7:06 pm

Thank you for your comments and the great quote! Love it. And nice for me too as my maiden name was Styles. I am glad that you found yourself asking questions about your own milestones.

Teresa Reimer says

April 20, 2019 at 9:12 pm

What a wonderful idea to hang each story and it’s inspiration on a clothes hanger. Organization and expanding on the theme! Can’t get much better than that.

April 22, 2019 at 6:15 pm

Teresa Thanks for your comments. Yes it was definitely different but fun! Linda

Donna P says

April 29, 2019 at 11:36 am

Dear Linda,

Your ideas, along with Marion’s brilliant advice, strike a real chord with me. I, too, have been struggling with the concept of essays within a memoir. Due to health issues, I have not given my book as much attention lately. I’m going to paste this article to my forehead to keep it top of mind! Truly inspirational at a time when I really needed it. Thanks to you and to Marion. I will definitely buy the book.

April 29, 2019 at 12:34 pm

Dear Donna, Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Marion’s advice really helped me stay focused on each individual essay. And I am so happy to know that sharing my experience making a collection of essays could help you move your own writing along. Best to you for your writing. Linda

Gail Gaspar says

Essays in the form of a wardrobe of dresses, yes. I am wondering if my memoir will take the form of essays unified by a theme (I adore metaphors) and you have illustrated how it can done. As a coach, I am happy you listened to your inner voice and not to the friend who remarked, “Your life just isn’t that interesting.” I appreciate how you show, don’t tell, about what each dress represents. The image of your dress stories hanging in your closet is an excellent reminder of how creative and expansive the writing process can be – when we allow it.

Laurie says

May 1, 2019 at 3:10 pm

Marion – This is my first visit to your blog and site. So much info! Thank you! I too am working on a memoir that right now is a collection of stories. This truly resonated with me as I am stuck as to how to pull them together into a book. Linda – your insights and suggestions couldn’t have been more on target. I have already printed them out and moved them about – but I think I need to write a few more – and then piece them together – reading the last para / first para – and adding bits as you suggested. I LOVED reading the excerpt of the book – what a wonderful way to tie the stories together by the dresses. As a writer – I loved that creative idea to tie it all together – and as a reader – each except you shared – I could apply to my own life and my own past closet of dresses! Well done! I would be tickled to win the book and read more!

May 1, 2019 at 5:47 pm

Dear Laurie, Thank you for your thoughtful remarks. Finding Marion’s blog and site is certainly a real gift. I was fortunate to take a class when she was teaching in Troy before everything went online. But look how many more people can be reached. I am delighted that you could relate to the dress stories and find memories arriving from your own closet. I loved making the book a collection/ wardrobe of stories. All the best to you with your own memoir. Linda

May 2, 2019 at 11:52 am

What a lovely way to seamlessly piece together a book! I’m in awe of your process and inspired by the concept! I’ve always struggled to let go of certain garments because of the memories associated with them. Now I understand why: Not only does each one offer a memory, but you’ve proven each one tells a story. I can’t wait to visit your story-closet and read more!

May 2, 2019 at 8:59 pm

Dear Susan, Thank you for your kind remarks. I hope you do visit my “story-closet” as well as peek at some life lessons from your own wardrobe. Linda

Maggie Yoest says

May 3, 2019 at 10:57 am

I am new to memoir writing and have been encouraged by Susan and Marion. Hopefully, as I stay with this, some of the fear will dissipate and the courage to share myself and my view will grow. Thank you both!

May 3, 2019 at 4:00 pm

Maggie, I hope you continue with memoir. Marion is a wonderful guide. Linda


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format of a memoir essay

Home — Essay Types — Memoir Essay

Memoir Essay Examples

Selecting the right topic is the cornerstone of a compelling memoir essay. It's the initial step in crafting a narrative that resonates with readers and leaves a lasting impression. The chosen topic serves as the foundation upon which your entire memoir is built, setting the tone and direction for your storytelling journey. To better illustrate this point, let's examine some memoir essay examples in our base of essays.

When you carefully consider your memoir essay topics, you're essentially inviting readers into your world, allowing them to connect with your personal experiences, emotions, and insights. The more relatable the topic, the deeper the connection you can establish with your audience. After all, the power of memoir lies in its ability to evoke empathy and understanding.

To gain a better understanding of this concept, we can turn to some well-known memoirs, such as "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls and "Eat, Pray, Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert, as memoir essay examples. "The Glass Castle" revolves around her unconventional upbringing and the struggles of her impoverished family, illustrating how the right topic can engage readers and make a memoir not just a personal narrative but a shared human experience.

Finding Inspiration for Memoir Essay Topics

So, where can you find inspiration for your memoir essay topics? The answer lies in your own life experiences, and there are countless facets to explore.

I. Start by reflecting on significant life events, such as your childhood memories. Think about the moments that shaped you, the adventures that left a lasting impression, and the challenges that forced you to grow. These events often hold the key to compelling memoir essay ideas, as they offer glimpses into your personal journey.

  • A Life-Altering Event and Its Profound Impact
  • Exploring the Impact of Milestones in Life
  • Personal Crisis Leading to Transformation
  • Influence of Key Moments on Life's Path
  • Lessons from Milestones: Successes and Failures

II. Additionally, consider your milestones and achievements. Successes and accomplishments, both big and small, can be fertile ground for memoirs. Whether it's graduating from college, starting a business, or completing a marathon, these moments represent your growth and perseverance.

  • Reflecting on the Marathon: Perseverance and Transformation
  • Transitioning from College to the Real World
  • Entrepreneurial Ventures: Navigating Challenges in Business
  • Shaping Character Through Personal Achievement
  • Personal Growth Through Accomplishments

Personal challenges and growth experiences also make for engaging topics. Everyone faces adversity at some point in their lives, and sharing how you navigated through these trials can inspire and connect with readers who have undergone similar struggles.

Of course, here are the essay topic examples marked up as a list:

  • My Journey Through Personal Challenges and Triumph
  • My Most Memorable Experiences in Life
  • Navigating Personal Struggles for Personal Growth
  • Triumphing Over Life's Obstacles: Stories of Resilience
  • Lessons from Adversity: Building Empathy and Connection Through Shared Struggles

Lastly, your career and professional experiences are a goldmine of stories. Share your successes, the challenges you've faced, and the valuable lessons you've learned along the way. Your career journey can offer valuable insights and inspiration to others pursuing their own professional paths.

  • Lessons Learned from My Professional Journey
  • How Past Experiences Influence Our Present
  • Overcoming Challenges and Thriving in My Career
  • Shaping Growth Through Career Path and Mentorship
  • Inspiring Others with Insights from My Professional Odyssey

By delving into these various aspects of your life, you can uncover memoir topics that are not only deeply personal but also universally relatable, creating a narrative that resonates with readers on a profound level.

A memoir essay, with its vulnerability, introspection, and focus on key life lessons, differs from a standard personal essay or autobiography. Unlike chronological autobiographies, memoir essays thoughtfully reflect on specific meaningful experiences. By candidly revisiting impactful moments, memoir essayists gain self-awareness, find meaning in hardship, preserve family histories, and share life-changing epiphanies. 

Great memoir essays , illustrated by memoir essay examples , balance vivid scenic recreation, raw emotional insights, and universal truths. Evocative sensory details transport readers to pivotal moments, while introspective narration reveals the inner turmoil, growth, and realizations that recollection brings. The most compelling memoirs extract wisdom from lived experience, inviting readers to reflect on their own journeys.

Memoir Essay’s Central Theme 

Identifying your memoir essay’s central theme or message provides focus for both writing and reflection. Set aside time for deep thought about the big life moments you could explore within your memoir essay and what universal insights they hold.

Common memoir themes include overcoming adversity, grief and loss, achievement, parenthood, sexual identity, family dynamics, disillusionment, recovery from trauma or addiction, spiritual awakening, and more. For example, a parent’s memoir may center on personal growth through raising a special needs child. A memoir of grief could find meaning in love and legacy after loss.

Once you land on a specific theme, use it as a touchstone while shaping your memoir’s scenes, tone, and takeaways. Let it guide your writing toward impactful self-revelation.

Memoir Essay’s Structure

An intentional structure connects your memoir’s scenes into a cohesive narrative arc. Chronological organization works well for linear stories, while a braided narrative with interwoven timelines suits winding journeys. 

Some memoirs, as in memoir essay examples for college students, utilize frame narratives that “bookend” the story, like Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s childhood recollections in My Mother’s House. Others divide chapters into thematic segments, like cancer survivor Kathy Kamen’s shifting outlooks in The Medicine Wheel.

Play with different structures until you find one that mirrors your narrative’s emotional cadence. Outline essential scenes like epiphanies, darkest moments, turning points, and resolutions to build your blueprint. A strong structure elevates your memoir’s impact.

Introduction Introduce the central theme or message of the memoir. Engage readers with a compelling hook or opening line. Provide context for the events and experiences to come.
Body Comprises multiple sections or chapters. Each section delves into a specific event or facet of the memoir’s central theme. Use vivid descriptions, sensory details, and dialogue to immerse readers in each scene. Reflect on thoughts, emotions, and personal growth. Convey the impact of the experiences on the narrator.
Conclusion Synthesize the various threads of the memoir. Reflect on the central theme and its significance. Offer insights, lessons learned, or personal growth. Leave readers with meaningful takeaways or reflections.
Reflection and Impact Discuss the broader implications of the memoir. Reflect on how the experiences relate to the writer’s overall life journey. Explore universal truths or lessons that resonate with readers.
Afterword (Optional) Share additional personal insights or reflections. Acknowledge the writing process and its challenges. Express gratitude or wisdom gained from the writing experience.

Memoir Essay’s Voice and Tone

An authentic narrative voice and complementary tone shape how readers connect with your memoir. Your voice should fit the story, while your tone reflects the narrator’s perspective. 

For example, a humorous, ironic tone could capture the absurdities of childhood. A somber, reflective tone may suit a memoir of loss. Word choice profoundly affects tone, so select descriptors deliberately based on the desired mood and emotions.

Beyond tone, stylistic devices like metaphor and imagery convey voice. Is your narrator contemplative? Sarcastic? Lyrics? Fragmented sentences or analytical asides also contribute nuance. Remember your voice makes the memoir uniquely yours.

Bringing Scenes and Characters to Life 

Transport readers right into your memoir’s most pivotal scenes using vivid sensory description. Share sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes that set the scene and make it relatable. Zoom in on resonant images and telling details that reveal deeper meaning and character insight.  

Dialogue and anecdotes also help dramatize events and portray relationships. Let important conversations and interactions unfold naturally to illuminate the interpersonal dynamics, motivations, and emotions at play. Specific, evocative details turn recalled moments into immersive scenes.

Polishing Memoir Essays

Refine your first draft by revisiting your memoir’s central theme and emotional impact. Strengthen the narrative arc and deepen insights through targeted revision:

  • Read sections aloud to polish language and flow.  
  • Ask trusted readers for constructive feedback.
  • Develop motifs and metaphors that underscore themes.
  • Enhance scenes with more vivid sensory descriptions. 
  • Adjust structure and pacing as needed.
  • Clarify the narrative perspective and voice.

Revision is key to crafting a memoir that resonates. It takes raw recollections and molds them into universally relatable experiences suffused with meaning.

Free Memoir Essay Examples

We hope these free memoir essay examples inspire you to embrace the power of storytelling and to celebrate the uniqueness of every life’s narrative. Explore the pages of these memoirs to witness the resilience of the human spirit, the complexities of relationships, and the transformative power of personal reflection. These examples of memoir essays are a testament to the richness of the human experience and the artistry of memoir writing.

College Memoir Essay Examples

These insightful essays provide a glimpse into the diverse and transformative experiences of college life. Explore these stories of growth, challenges, and self-discovery as students share their personal narratives, shedding light on the unique journey that is higher education. Whether you’re a student seeking inspiration or simply curious about the college experience, these essays offer valuable insights and perspectives.

How to Write a Memoir Essays

Tips in memoir essay infographics.

3 Most Important Tips for Writing Memoir Essay

Checklist for Writing a Memoir Essay

  • Before You Start

✓ Choose a Specific Topic: select a meaningful and impactful life experience to write about.

✓ Identify Your Message: determine the central theme or message you want to convey through your memoir essay.

✓ Gather Memories: brainstorm and collect memories, details, and emotions related to your chosen experience.

✓ Narrow Your Focus: decide on the specific aspect or moment within your experience that you’ll explore in-depth.

  • Structuring Your Memoir Essay

✓ Create a Three-Part Structure: plan for a clear beginning, middle, and end in your essay.

✓ Craft an Engaging Introduction: start with a compelling hook that introduces the topic and grabs the reader’s attention.

✓ Develop the Body: explore your chosen experience in detail, utilizing vivid descriptions, emotions, and reflections.

✓ Conclude Thoughtfully: wrap up your essay by tying together loose ends and leaving readers with something to ponder.

✓ Reflect and Connect: consider the broader implications of your memoir, connecting your personal experience to universal truths or lessons.

  • Writing Your Memoir Essay

✓ Write Clearly and Concisely: use clear and concise language to convey your story and message effectively.

✓ Use Sensory Details: incorporate sensory details to bring your experiences to life for the reader.

✓ Be Honest and Authentic: share both strengths and vulnerabilities to make your memoir more relatable and authentic.

✓ Embrace Vulnerability: don’t shy away from sharing your emotions and vulnerabilities, as they add depth to your narrative.

✓ Revise and Edit: carefully revise and edit your work for clarity, coherence, and overall polish.

  • Additional Resources

✓ Refer to Memoir Examples for College Students: seek inspiration and guidance from memoir examples tailored to college students’ experiences.

✓ Explore how to start a memoir essay examples: study various ways to begin your memoir essay effectively, drawing from examples.

Using this checklist can help you stay organized and focused while writing your memoir essay, ensuring that you craft a compelling and meaningful narrative.

While delving into the intricacies of writing a memoir essay, it’s essential to embrace the complexities of your narrative, weaving together the threads of your experiences with insight and reflection. However, expanding your understanding of different essay formats can further refine your writing craft. Specifically, by crafting a problem-solution essay, you can develop a keen eye for identifying and articulating challenges within your stories, while also presenting thoughtful, engaging resolutions. This skill not only enhances the depth and structure of your memoir but also equips you with a versatile approach to writing that can be applied across various genres. Engage with this dynamic essay format to enrich your storytelling toolkit and bring a new level of sophistication to your memoir.

Figurative Language Memoir

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The Power of Traveling: Personal Experiences and Reflections

Introduction Traveling is one of the most enriching experiences one can have. It exposes you to new cultures, customs, and ways of thinking. However, it can also be challenging and unpredictable, making it a true adventure. As a college student, I have had the opportunity…

The Transformative Power of Literacy

Literacy, in its simplest definition, is the ability to read and write. However, it is much more than that. Literacy is a fundamental skill that enables individuals to communicate, comprehend, and learn. It is an essential tool for success in life and is the foundation…

The Significance of Family: A Memoir Paper

Introduction Families are the cornerstone of society. They provide love, support, and guidance to their members, helping them navigate the ups and downs of life. Each family has its unique story to tell, shaped by the experiences they share together. As a college student, I…

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Lessons Learned from Childhood, College, and Long-Distance Connections

Friendship is a fundamental aspect of human life. This memoir reflects on the author’s experiences with childhood friends, college friends, and long-distance friendships, highlighting the lessons learned and the power of friendship in overcoming life’s challenges. Childhood Friends Childhood friends are often the first friends…

Preserving Family Culinary Traditions: A Connection to My Cultural Roots

Food is an essential part of our culture and identity, and it plays a significant role in shaping our family traditions. Growing up, my family’s kitchen was always filled with the smells of delicious home-cooked meals, and the recipes that have been passed down through…

My Journey as a Syrian Refugee: Shedding Light on the Realities of the Crisis

With over 80 million people forcibly displaced from their homes. Syria has been at the forefront of this crisis, with millions of Syrians fleeing the country due to the ongoing civil war. As a Syrian refugee myself, I have experienced the challenges and obstacles that…

Life Experiences: Shaping My Identity

Life is a journey filled with twists and turns that shape who we are today. Our past experiences, both good and bad, have a profound impact on our lives and help us grow into the person we are today. As a college student, I have…

Journey of Self-Discovery through Memoirs

Introduction Memoirs are a powerful tool for self-discovery. They allow individuals to reflect on their past experiences and use them to gain a better understanding of themselves. In this essay, I will be sharing my personal journey of self-discovery through my memoir. I hope that…

From Struggles to Success: My Journey

Introduction Life is a journey full of twists and turns, ups and downs. My journey has been no exception. Growing up, I faced many challenges that tested my resilience and strength. However, through hard work and determination, I was able to overcome these struggles and…

What is a memoir essay?

This type of writing is often mixed up with autobiography essays. However, it is not the same as it represents a first-person narrative that describes a certain part of a person's life. The topics and ideas are always chosen by the author. In terms of comparing a personal essay vs memoir, it is necessary to understand that memoir still keeps to a certain chronology even if describing a single day.

How to write memoir essays?

Even though it is not a fiction story, memoir essay writing still uses various metaphors or literary devices that increase an emotional effect. You can see our memoir essay examples that show how it is done in practice. The structure has a strong temporal effect and an overly emotional tone, which is acceptable for memoir writing. Remember to end your writing with an important argumentation that will make readers think.

How to start writing a memoir essay?

To begin writing a memoir essay, start by identifying a compelling personal story or theme from your life. Reflect on its significance and outline the key moments. Then, create an engaging opening that hooks readers, drawing them into your narrative. Finally, let your story unfold with honesty, reflection, and vivid detail.

How to write a memoir essay structure?

A memoir essay typically follows a chronological or thematic structure. Start with an engaging introduction, introduce the central theme or event, and provide vivid details. Progress through the narrative, building tension or insight. Conclude by reflecting on the significance of your story, offering lessons, or leaving readers with a thought-provoking idea.

How does a memoir essay differ from other types of writing?

Memoir essays differ by their introspective nature, centering on personal experiences and lessons learned. They often incorporate vivid descriptions and emotional depth to engage readers on a personal level.

What are some common themes explored in memoir essays?

Common memoir themes include overcoming adversity, family dynamics, personal growth, grief, identity, and transformative moments. These themes provide a framework for exploring life's complexities.

What is the ultimate goal of a memoir essay?

The primary goal of a memoir essay is to share a personal story while offering universal insights or lessons that resonate with readers. It aims to create a meaningful and reflective narrative.

How much personal detail should I include?

Be judiciously vulnerable. Share telling details that lend insight, but avoid oversharing or exposing others’ privacy. Strive for candid self-revelation in service of the larger theme.

How do I conclude in a meaningful way?

Offer closing reflections on your memoir’s central insights, tying together the theme and narrative arc. Look ahead to the future or revisit where the journey began. End on an uplifting or poignant note.

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format of a memoir essay


Memoir Essay

Memoir essay generator.

format of a memoir essay

Writing out our memories of the past and present , while putting it into paper and pen, for the world to see sounds like a dream come true for those who are into this. To a smaller few, it may sound more like an open diary.   Though it may sound sad to hear, a memoir is actually a fun way of writing something you wish to be remembered. Sounds like a good idea? Do you wish to want to know how and what to write in a memoir? Easy! Check them out below and download any of our  5+ Memoir Essay examples that fit you.

5+ Memoir Essay Examples

1. memoir essay template.

Memoir Essay Template

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2. Visual Memoir Project Essay

Visual Memoir Project Essay

3. Narrative Memoir Essay

Narrative Memoir Essay

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4. Example of Memoir Essay

Example of Memoir Essay

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5. Essay on the Memoir Literary Genre

Essay on the Memoir Literary Genre

6. Mexicana-Chicana Memoir Essay

Mexicana-Chicana Memoir Essay

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What is a Memoir?

A memoir is taken from the French word mémoire which means memory or something to reminiscent. A memoir is a nonfiction narrative that talks about the situations in your life that you want to hold on too. A memoir is different from an essay since the person reading the memoir is taken back to a journey of the author’s life while an essay is a writer’s thoughts and ideas.

What is a Memoir Essay?

A memoir essay is a type of writing where you put both your thoughts and ideas as well as your desired memories together. It is also known as an essay length adaptation of a memoir . The word count ranges from 1,000/2,000 words to 8,000 or 10,000 words. Nothing more, nothing less. Your memoir essay is different from your autobiography. You are not going to write your whole life story, but some snips of your life story.

How to create a Memoir?

Although there are some ways in creating such a beautiful memoir, sticking to the facts is better than making things that do not belong or you have not experienced a part of it to make it sound better. The result is, it is no longer considered a memoir but an essay since you are only sharing your thoughts and not the actual facts. However, there are easy steps you can read to know and understand how to write the perfect memoir.

Think Of What Theme You Are Going For.

Brainstorming what theme you are going for is essential when writing your memoir. Your theme could range from happy or sad. The theme is important in your memoir.

Identify and Write Down Your Memories.

Brainstorm. The second thing you can do is to brainstorm for memories you wish to write down. From your earliest memories to your most recent ones, especially those that gave you the biggest impact on your life.

Your memoir must be truthful.

This is a big deal when it comes to writing your memoir, since this is about you and your special memories. Adding somebody else’s experience to make your memoir sound better is wrong and should be avoided at all costs.

Connect each memory to your current ones, and don’t be afraid to get vulnerable.

Interconnecting your previous memories to your current ones is okay. Some memories often interlink. Also, when writing, do not be afraid to get vulnerable. Readers often relate more if the author gets on to their level of vulnerability.

Write a memoir you want others to remember you for.

When writing, we often want to think about the rules, the formats, how we want our readers to view it. But remember, this is your memoir. Write the facts, write about your memories but do so while having fun. Let your readers be a part of your story. Draw them in. Let them dive in and see how you are viewed in their eyes.

Put life in your memoir.

Readers would love to hear you laugh, to see you smile, to sympathize with you when you are sad through your words. They want to be in your shoes through words. To view your experiences through your eyes.

What is the difference between a memoir and a memoir essay?

A memoir in layman’s terms is like a big open diary you let people read. You write the memories that affected you most from the beginning to present. A memoir essay however is an essay adaptation of a memoir. There is very little difference between the two.

How many paragraphs does it take to write a memoir essay?

It only takes about 2 to 4 paragraphs to write your memoir essay or half a page long.

Writing a memoir essay may take a while and some trial and errors, but as long as you stick to the simple rules on how to write a memoir essay, you are all set. Just remember to look at the rules and to have fun while sticking to the facts as well.


Text prompt

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Write about a pivotal moment in your life for your Memoir Essay.

Discuss the impact of a significant relationship in your life in your Memoir Essay.

format of a memoir essay

18 Essay-Length Short Memoirs to Read Online on Your Lunch Break

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Emily Polson

Emily Polson is a freelance writer and publishing assistant at Simon & Schuster. Originally from central Iowa, she studied English and creative writing at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi, before moving to a small Basque village to teach English to trilingual teenagers. Now living in Brooklyn, she can often be found meandering through Prospect Park listening to a good audiobook. Twitter: @emilycpolson | https://emilycpolson.wordpress.com/

View All posts by Emily Polson

I love memoirs and essays, so the genre of essay-length short memoirs is one of my favorites. I love delving into the details of other people’s lives. The length allows me to read broadly on a whim with minimal commitment. In roughly 5–30 minutes, I can consume a complete morsel of literature, which always leaves me happier than the same amount of time spent doom-scrolling through my various social news feeds.

What are short memoirs? 

What exactly are short memoirs? I define them as essay-length works that weave together life experiences around a central theme. You see examples of short memoirs all the time on sites like Buzzfeed and The New York Times . Others are stand-alone pieces published in essay collections.

Memoir essays were my gateway into reading full-length memoirs. It was not until I took a college class on creative nonfiction that I realized memoirs were not just autobiographies of people with exciting lives. Anyone with any amount of life experience can write a memoir—no dramatic childhood or odd-defying life accomplishments required. A short memoir might be an account of a single, life-changing event, or it may be reflection on a period of growth or transition.

Of course, when a young adult tells people she likes writing creative nonfiction—not journalism or technical writing—she hears a lot of, “You’re too young to write a memoir!” and “What could someone your age possibly have to write about?!” As Flannery O’Connor put it, however, “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.”

Memoir essay examples

As the lit magazine Creative Nonfiction puts it, personal essays are just “True stories, well told.” And everyone has life stories worth telling.

Here are a few of my favorite memoir examples that are essay length.


Scaachi koul, “there’s no recipe for growing up”.

In this delightful essay, Koul talks about trying to learn the secrets of her mother’s Kashmiri cooking after growing up a first-generation American. The story is full of vivid descriptions and anecdotal details that capture something so specific it transcends to the realm of universal. It’s smart, it’s funny, and it’ll break your heart a little as Koul describes “trying to find my mom at the bottom of a 20-quart pot.”


This memoir essay is for all the girls who went through puberty early in a world that sexualizes children’s bodies. Ford weaves together her experiences of feeling at odds with her body, of being seen as a “distraction” to adult men, of being Black and fatherless and hungry for love. She writes, “It was evident that who I was inside, who I wanted to be, didn’t match the intentions of my body. Outside, there was no little girl to be loved innocently. My body was a barrier.”

Kaveh Akbar, “How I Found Poetry in Childhood Prayer”

Akbar writes intense, searing poetry, but this personal essay contextualizes one of his sweetest poems, “Learning to Pray,” which is cradled in the middle of it. He describes how he fell in love with the movement, the language, and the ceremony of his Muslim family’s nightly prayers. Even though he didn’t (and doesn’t) speak Arabic, Akbar points to the musicality of these phonetically-learned hymns as “the bedrock upon which I’ve built my understanding of poetry as a craft and as a meditative practice.” Reading this essay made me want to reread his debut poetry collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf , all over again.


New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino grew up attending a Houston megachurch she referred to as “the Repentagon.” In this personal essay, she describes vivid childhood memories of her time there, discussing how some of the very things she learned from the church contributed to her growing ambivalence toward it and its often hypocritical congregants. “Christianity formed my deepest instincts,” she writes, “and I have been walking away from it for half my life.” As the essay title suggests, this walking away coincided with her early experiences taking MDMA, which offered an uncanny similarity to her experience of religious devotion.

funny short memoirs

Patricia lockwood, “insane after coronavirus”.

Author Patricia Lockwood caught COVID-19 in early March 2020. In addition to her physical symptoms, she chronicled the bizarre delusions she experienced while society also collectively operated under the delusion that this whole thing would blow over quickly. Lockwood has a preternatural ability to inject humor into any situation, even the dire ones, by highlighting choice absurdities. This is a rare piece of pandemic writing that will make you laugh instead of cry–unless it makes you cry from laughing.

Harrison Scott Key,  “My Dad Tried to Kill Me with an Alligator”

This personal essay is a tongue-in-cheek story about the author’s run-in with an alligator on the Pearl River in Mississippi. Looking back on the event as an adult, Key considers his father’s tendencies in light of his own, now that he himself is a dad. He explores this relationship further in his book-length memoir, The World’s Largest Man , but this humorous essay stands on its own. (I also had the pleasure of hearing him read this aloud during my school’s homecoming weekend, as Key is an alumnus of my alma mater.)

David Sedaris, “Me Talk Pretty One Day”

Sedaris’s humor is in a league of its own, and he’s at his best in the title essay from Me Talk Pretty One Day . In it, he manages to capture the linguistic hilarities that ensue when you combine a sarcastic, middle-aged French student with a snarky French teacher.


Samantha Irby is one of my favorite humorists writing today, and this short memoir essay about the difficulty of making friends as an adult is a great introduction to her. Be prepared for secondhand cringe when you reach the infamous moment she asks a waiter, “Are you familiar with my work?” After reading this essay, you’ll want to be, so check out Wow, No Thank You . next.

Bill Bryson, “Coming Home”

Bryson has the sly, subtle humor that only comes from Americans who have spent considerable time living among dry-humored Brits. In “Coming Home,” he talks about the strange sensation of returning to America after spending his first twenty years of adulthood in England. This personal essay is the first in a book-length work called I’m a Stranger Here Myself , in which Bryson revisits American things that feel like novelties to outsiders and the odd former expat like himself.

Thought-provoking Short memoirs

Tommy orange, “how native american is native american enough”.

Many people claim some percentage of Indigenous ancestry, but how much is enough to “count”? Novelist Tommy Orange–author of There There –deconstructs this concept, discussing his relationship to his Native father, his Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, and his son, who will not be considered “Native enough” to join him as an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes. “ How come math isn’t taught with stakes?” he asks in this short memoir full of lingering questions that will challenge the way you think about heritage. 

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, “I Had a Stroke at 33”

Lee’s story is interesting not just because she had a stroke at such a young age, but because of how she recounts an experience that was characterized by forgetting. She says that after her stroke, “For a month, every moment of the day was like the moment upon wakening before you figure out where you are, what time it is.” With this personal essay, she draws readers into that fragmented headspace, then weaves something coherent and beautiful from it.

Kyoko Mori, “A Difficult Balance: Am I a Writer or a Teacher?”

In this refreshing essay, Mori discusses balancing “the double calling” of being a writer and a teacher. She admits that teaching felt antithetical to her sense of self when she started out in a classroom of apathetic college freshmen. When she found her way into teaching an MFA program, however, she discovered that fostering a sanctuary for others’ words and ideas felt closer to a “calling.” While in some ways this makes the balance of shifting personas easier, she says it creates a different kind of dread: “Teaching, if it becomes more than a job, might swallow me whole and leave nothing for my life as a writer.” This memoir essay is honest, well-structured, and layered with plenty of anecdotal details to draw in the reader.

Alex Tizon, “My Family’s Slave”

In this heartbreaking essay, Tizon pays tribute to the memory of Lola, the domestic slave who raised him and his siblings. His family brought her with them when they emigrated to America from the Philippines. He talks about the circumstances that led to Lola’s enslavement, the injustice she endured throughout her life, and his own horror at realizing the truth about her role in his family as he grew up. While the story is sad enough to make you cry, there are small moments of hope and redemption. Alex discusses what he tried to do for Lola as an adult and how, upon her death, he traveled to her family’s village to return her ashes.

Classic short memoirs

James baldwin, “notes of a native son”.

This memoir essay comes from Baldwin’s collection of the same name. In it, he focuses on his relationship with his father, who died when Baldwin was 19. He also wrestles with growing up black in a time of segregation, touching on the historical treatment of black soldiers and the Harlem Riot of 1943. His vivid descriptions and honest narration draw you into his transition between frustration, hatred, confusion, despair, and resilience.


Didion is one of the foremost literary memoirists of the twentieth century, combining journalistic precision with self-aware introspection. In “Goodbye to All That,” Didion recounts moving to New York as a naïve 20-year-old and leaving as a disillusioned 28-year-old. She captures the mystical awe with which outsiders view the Big Apple, reflecting on her youthful perspective that life was still limitless, “that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.”  This essay concludes her masterful collection,   Slouching Towards Bethlehem .

Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”

This is the title essay from O’Brien’s collection, The Things They Carried . It’s technically labeled a work of fiction, but because the themes and anecdotes are pulled from O’Brien’s own experience in the Vietnam War, it blurs the lines between fact and fiction enough to be included here. (I’m admittedly predisposed to this classification because a college writing professor of mine included it on our creative nonfiction syllabus.) The essay paints an intimate portrait of a group of soldiers by listing the things they each carry with them, both physical and metaphorical. It contains one of my favorite lines in all of literature: “They all carried ghosts.”

Multi-Media Short Memoirs

Allie brosh, “richard”.

In this blog post/webcomic, Allie Brosh tells the hilarious story about the time as a child that she, 1) realized neighbors exist, and 2) repeatedly snuck into her neighbor’s house, took his things, and ultimately kidnapped his cat. Her signature comic style drives home the humor in a way that will split your sides. The essay is an excerpt from Brosh’s second book, Solutions and Other Problems , but the web version includes bonus photos and backstory. For even more Allie classics, check out “Adventures in Depression” and “Depression Part Two.”

George Watsky, “Ask Me What I’m Doing Tonight”

Watsky is a rapper and spoken word poet who built his following on YouTube. Before he made it big, however, he spent five years performing for groups of college students across the Midwest. “Ask Me What I’m Doing Tonight!” traces that soul-crushing monotony while telling a compelling story about trying to connect with people despite such transience. It’s the most interesting essay about boredom you’ll ever read, or in this case watch—he filmed a short film version of the essay for his YouTube channel. Like his music, Watsky’s personal essays are vulnerable, honest, and crude, and the whole collection, How to Ruin Everything , is worth reading.

If you’re looking for even more short memoirs, keep an eye on these pages from Literary Hub , Buzzfeed , and Creative Nonfiction . You can also delve into these 25 nonfiction essays you can read online and these 100 must-read essay collections . Also be sure to check out the “Our Reading Lives” tag right here on Book Riot, where you’ll find short memoirs like “Searching for Little Free Libraries as a Way to Say Goodbye” and “How I Overcame My Fear of Reading Contemporary Poets.”

format of a memoir essay

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format of a memoir essay

The Memoir in Essays: A Reading List

Elizabeth kadetsky on the multiple ways we can look at the self.

While the personal essay has enjoyed continued popularity, a book-length collection of linked essays, centered on an author’s self or life, is less common than a traditional memoir or novel. A truly successful essay collection can reveal the author processing experiences at many different points in time and through many different lenses. As a writer, I’ve always been drawn to the essay as a form, for its concision, for its ability to highlight an intriguing gap between author and narrator that lends an inherent tension and self-questioning. A collection of essays treating the same or related inquiries multiplies this effect.

The distance afforded by those multivalent lenses can allow an author to regard one’s younger self as a different character, a different persona. This can create an unease or uncertainty that is exciting, and also very relatable to the reader. An author’s ability to forgive that earlier version of herself is especially prevalent in the memoir-in-essays, perhaps because of the extended time period covered as a writer composes essays across years or even decades.

We are lucky enough to be in the middle of a renaissance. Several recent and upcoming memoirs-in-essays use the inquisitive essay form to tell life stories from different vantage points and make the reader question and revel in unreliable narrators and new perspectives. The more traditional memoir focuses on seeking and attaining redemption. The nonlinear structure of an essay collection reveals that there is never easy redemption, never clear resolution: bad things happen for no reason; overcoming one trial does not lessen the need to adapt in the next.

These new, enchanting and powerful collections are a welcome reminder that in our collective state of unrest and unknown futures, there is a comfort in knowing that there is an inherent uncertainty in having the answers.

format of a memoir essay

Emily Arnason Casey, Made Holy: Essays (University of Georgia Press)

In beautiful, scenic prose, Emily Arnason Casey probes her middle American childhood from the stance of different venues, times of life, and primary characters—a family cabin and repository for memories both happy and sad; a little sister who grew up and wasn’t a sidekick anymore; a mother who didn’t reveal the family propensity to alcoholism until it was too late; an aunt who succumbed to the illness’s lure. In a spiral-like structure that keeps returning to a central and unanswerable question—how, and why, must this family battle the draws and effects of alcohol addiction—Arnason Casey tells a poignant story of a “normal” family that through its quirks and desires must find a path to survival. The author finds solace in nostalgia and a way forward by examining the errors of the past and by embracing, as a mother, the promise of the future generation. Her probing and compulsive need to question reminds us that alcoholism has no simple etiology, and that its cures are as individual as they are elusive.

format of a memoir essay

Sonja Livingston, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion } (University of Nebraska Press)

At a time of dwindling religiosity, Livingston finds herself wishing for greater connection to her Catholic roots while also exploring the physical space of the church in upstate New York that made memories for her as a child. Because of religious attrition, the church that she grew up in becomes the gathering space for dozens of rescued saint statues deaccessioned from other churches nearby. Livingston embarks upon a quest to find a missing Virgin Mary statue, that moves not in straight lines but elliptically, following a parallel physical and emotional journey that is an exploration into faith, Catholicism, and a desire for spiritual connection on modern terms. In examining the sustained power of a central icon of the Catholic church and an object of personal, sentimental attachment, Livingston’s linked essays highlight the irresolvable paradox of modern religiosity—that the seeker must follow an uncharted middle pathway when the old texts and their tropes, their patriarchy and their strictures, necessarily fall away.

format of a memoir essay

Amy Long, Codependence (Cleveland State University Poetry Center)

In this haunting and troubling book, Long revisits scenes and anecdotes from her  boyfriend’s heroin addiction and her subsequent dependence on opioids for chronic pain. Formal experiments such as essays disguised as lists, prescription forms, and medical reports are interspersed among scene-driven recollections from different points in time: the author’s first introduction to the drug; the allure of an older addict; attempts at recovery. The grounding presence of the author’s supportive mother is offset by the narrative’s tragic other constant—the euphoria and escape offered by the drug. By eschewing a linear narrative structure, Long illustrates the difficulty of achieving recovery and puts lie to the myth that addiction is a logical disease that naturally ends with a cure. In its very form, this memoir undermines the narrative so prevalent in media treatments of this illness—that in order to trounce the beast, the individual suffering from addiction need only attend a recovery program. Having written about and witnessed my own sister’s decades’ long struggle to overcome opioid addiction, I was drawn to Long’s wisdom in portraying addiction not as a problem to be solved so much as a complexity to be observed and penetrated.

format of a memoir essay

Sejal Shah, This Is One Way to Dance (University of Georgia Press)

The Indian-American author continually revisits her troubled relationship to her American identity through layered essays treating her bifurcated Indian and American past. Exploring her family’s immersion in Gujarati subculture when she was a child growing up in Rochester, New York; her experience as one of few people of color in her MFA creative writing program; and many family weddings in which she must confront her presumed future as a desi bride, Shah questions her place in both American culture and the thriving American-Gujarati subculture. By placing dates at the ends of the essays, it is suggested that her complicated and lifelong conflicts about race and cultural identity can be told chronologically. But, as she explains in her introduction, many essays had multiple end dates after having been revised and reconsidered as time moved forward. The multiple end dates elegantly upend the notion that a rational, hypothesis-thesis-synthesis structure can encompass the complexities of identity and belonging. Shah’s choice to write non-narratively about her conflicts of identity provide insight for anyone raised with a dual or multiple cultural identity—anyone who may, at different points of time, feel a greater allegiance to one culture, another, or a never straightforward amalgam of many. Who we understand ourselves to be, Shah’s book tells the reader in subtle ways, is not a fact so much as a moving target, an unending query.

format of a memoir essay

Sue William Silverman, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences (University of Nebraska Press)

Silverman is the author of three previous memoirs. In How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences , she tells her life story through the lens of an obsession with death and the desire to come to terms with the inevitable but often avoided reality that in the end we are mortal. The essays begin with a chronological life story of growing up in New Jersey and encountering American culture’s death-avoidance, but then take a swerve when several brief but elusive mentions accrue into an account of a rape at a young age and a discovery that her memory of the event connects to her fixation on death. A chronological structure gives way to a thematic plot, in which Silverman seeks to confront her topic through reporting, immersion, and reflection—for instance by visiting a morgue, exploring mythological figures associated with death, and recollecting a family funeral. The sophisticated writing and structure make the whole greater than the sum of its many fascinating and worthy parts. Silverman’s essays continually reveal the irrational functioning of memory and how it connects our pasts to our worldviews. Honoring subconscious logic, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences makes the gambit that the mysteries of the self are both keys to understanding and uncertainties to be celebrated. We become who we are without being fully conscious of our choices—probing those choices won’t give us easy answers, but the discoveries along the way will be illuminating and well worth the necessary befuddlements.


format of a memoir essay

Elizabeth Kadetsky’s memoir , The Memory Eaters, is available now from University of Massachusetts Press.

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The Best Nonfiction Books of 2024, So Far

Here’s what memoirs, histories, and essay collections we’re indulging in this spring.

the covers of the best and most anticipated nonfiction books of 2024

Every item on this page was chosen by an ELLE editor. We may earn commission on some of the items you choose to buy.

Truth-swallowing can too often taste of forced medicine. Where the most successful nonfiction triumphs is in its ability to instruct, encourage, and demand without spoon-feeding. Getting to read and reward this year’s best nonfiction, then, is as much a treat as a lesson. I can’t pretend to be as intelligent, empathetic, self-knowledgeable, or even as well-read as many of the authors on this list. But appreciating the results of their labors is a more-than-sufficient consolation.

Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture by Kyle Chayka

There’s a lot to ponder in the latest project from New Yorker writer Kyle Chayka, who elegantly argues that algorithms have eroded—if not erased—the essential development of personal taste. As Chayka puts forth in Filterworld , the age of flawed-but-fulfilling human cultural curation has given way to the sanitization of Spotify’s so-called “Discover” playlists, or of Netflix’s Emily in Paris, or of subway tile and shiplap . There’s perhaps an old-school sanctimony to this criticism that some readers might chafe against. But there’s also a very real and alarming truth to Chayka’s insights, assembled alongside interviews and examples that span decades, mediums, and genres under the giant umbrella we call “culture.” Filterworld is the kind of book worth wrestling with, critiquing, and absorbing deeply—the antithesis of mindless consumption.

American Girls: One Woman's Journey Into the Islamic State and Her Sister's Fight to Bring Her Home by Jessica Roy

In 2019, former ELLE digital director Jessica Roy published a story about the Sally sisters , two American women who grew up in the same Jehovah’s Witness family and married a pair of brothers—but only one of those sisters ended up in Syria, her husband fighting on behalf of ISIS. American Girls , Roy’s nonfiction debut, expands upon that story of sibling love, sibling rivalry, abuse and extremism, adding reams of reporting to create a riveting tale that treats its subjects with true empathy while never flinching from the reality of their choices.

Leonor: The Story of a Lost Childhood by Paula Delgado-Kling

In this small but gutting work of memoir-meets-biography, Colombian journalist Paula Delgado-King chronicles two lives that intersect in violence: hers, and that of Leonor, a Colombian child solider who was beckoned into the guerilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) only to endure years of death and abuse. Over the course of 19 years, Delgago-King followed Leonor through her recruitment into FARC; her sexual slavery to a man decades her senior; her eventual escape; and her rehabilitation. The author’s resulting account is visceral, a clear-eyed account of the utterly human impact wrought by war.

Madness: Race and Insanity in a Jim Crow Asylum by Antonia Hylton

A meticulous work of research and commitment, Antonia Hylton’s Madness takes readers deep inside the nearly century-old history of Maryland’s Crownsville State Hospital, one of the only segregated mental asylums with records—and a campus—that remain to this day. Featuring interviews with both former Crownsville staff and family members of those who lived there, Madness is a radically complex work of historical study, etching the intersections of race, mental health, criminal justice, public health, memory, and the essential quest for human dignity.

Come Together: The Science (and Art!) of Creating Lasting Sexual Connections by Emily Nagoski

Out January 30.

Emily Nagoski’s bestselling Come As You Are opened up a generations-wide conversation about women and their relationship with sex: why some love it, why some hate it, and why it can feel so impossible to find help or answers in either camp. In Come Together , Nagoski returns to the subject with a renewed focus on pleasure—and why it is ultimately so much more pivotal for long-term sexual relationships than spontaneity or frequency. This is not only an accessible, gentle-hearted guide to a still-taboo topic; it’s a fascinating exploration of how our most intimate connections can not just endure but thrive.

Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here: The United States, Central America, and the Making of a Crisis by Jonathan Blitzer

A remarkable volume—its 500-page length itself underscoring the author’s commitment to the complexity of the problem—Jonathan Blitzer’s Everyone Who Is Gone Is Here tracks the history of the migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border through the intimate accounts of those who’ve lived it. In painstaking detail, Blitzer compiles the history of the U.S.’s involvement in Central America, and illustrates how foreign and immigration policies have irrevocably altered human lives—as well as tying them to one another. “Immigrants have a way of changing two places at once: their new homes and their old ones,” Blitzer writes. “Rather than cleaving apart the worlds of the U.S., El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the Americans were irrevocably binding them together.”

How to Live Free in a Dangerous World: A Decolonial Memoir by Shayla Lawson

Out February 6.

“I used to say taking a trip was just a coping mechanism,” writes Shayla Lawson in their travel-memoir-in-essays How to Live Free in a Dangerous World . “I know better now; it’s my way of mapping the Earth, so I know there’s something to come back to.” In stream-of-consciousness prose, the This Is Major author guides the reader through an enthralling journey across Zimbabwe, Japan, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy, Mexico, Bermuda, and beyond, using each location as the touchstone for their essays exploring how (and why) race, gender, grief, sexuality, beauty, and autonomy impact their experience of a land and its people. There’s a real courage and generosity to Lawson’s work; readers will find much here to embolden their own self-exploration.

Get the Picture: A Mind-Bending Journey Among the Inspired Artists and Obsessive Art Fiends Who Taught Me How to See by Bianca Bosker

There’s no end to the arguments for “why art matters,” but in our era of ephemeral imagery and mass-produced decor, there is enormous wisdom to be gleaned from Get the Picture , Bianca Bosker’s insider account of art-world infatuation. In this new work of nonfiction, readers have the pleasure of following the Cork Dork author as she embeds herself amongst the gallerists, collectors, painters, critics, and performers who fill today’s contemporary scene. There, they teach her (and us) what makes art art— and why that question’s worth asking in an increasingly fractured world.

Alphabetical Diaries by Sheila Heti

A profoundly unusual, experimental, yet engrossing work of not-quite-memoir, Sheila Heti’s Alphabetical Diaries is exactly what its title promises: The book comprises a decade of the author’s personal diaries, the sentences copied and pasted into alphabetical order. Each chapter begins with a new letter, all the accumulated sentences starting with “A”, then “B,” and so forth. The resulting effect is all but certain to repel some readers who crave a more linear storyline, but for those who can understand her ambition beyond the form, settling into the rhythm of Heti’s poetic observations gives way to a rich narrative reward.

Slow Noodles: A Cambodian Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Recipes by Chantha Nguon

Out February 20.

“Even now, I can taste my own history,” writes Chantha Nguon in her gorgeous Slow Noodles . “One occupying force tried to erase it all.” In this deeply personal memoir, Nguon guides us through her life as a Cambodian refugee from the Khmer Rouge; her escapes to Vietnam and Thailand; the loss of all those she loved and held dear; and the foods that kept her heritage—and her story—ultimately intact. Interwoven with recipes and lists of ingredients, Nguon’s heart-rending writing reinforces the joy and agony of her core thesis: “The past never goes away.”

Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story by Leslie Jamison

The first time I stumbled upon a Leslie Jamison essay on (the platform formerly known as) Twitter, I was transfixed; I stayed in bed late into the morning as I clicked through her work, swallowing paragraphs like Skittles. But, of course, Jamison’s work is so much more satisfying than candy, and her new memoir, Splinters , is Jamison operating at the height of her talents. A tale of Jamison’s early motherhood and the end of her marriage, the book is unshrinking, nuanced, radiant, and so wondrously honest—a referendum on the splintered identities that complicate and comprise the artist, the wife, the mother, the woman.

The Great Wave: The Era of Radical Disruption and the Rise of the Outsider by Michiko Kakutani

The former chief book critic of the New York Times , Michiko Kakutani is not only an invaluable literary denizen, but also a brilliant observer of how politics and culture disrupt the mechanics of power and influence. In The Great Wave , she turns our attention toward global instability as epitomized by figures such as Donald Trump and watershed moments such as the creation of AI. In the midst of these numerous case studies, she argues for how our deeply interconnected world might better weather the competing crises that threaten to submerge us, should we not choose to better understand them.

Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection by Charles Duhigg

From the author of the now-ubiquitous The Power of Habit arrives Supercommunicators , a head-first study of the tools that make conversations actually work . Charles Duhigg makes the case that every chat is really about one of three inquiries (“What’s this about?” “How do we feel?” or “Who are we?”) and knowing one from another is the key to real connection. Executives and professional-speaker types are sure to glom on to this sort of work, but my hope is that other, less business-oriented motives might be satisfied by the logic this volume imbues.

Whiskey Tender by Deborah Jackson Taffa

Out February 27.

“Tell me your favorite childhood memory, and I’ll tell you who you are,” or so writes Deborah Jackson Taffa in Whiskey Tender , her memoir of assimilation and separation as a mixed-tribe Native woman raised in the shadow of a specific portrait of the American Dream. As a descendant of the Quechan (Yuma) Nation and Laguna Pueblo tribe, Taffa illustrates her childhood in New Mexico while threading through the histories of her parents and grandparents, themselves forever altered by Indian boarding schools, government relocation, prison systems, and the “erasure of [our] own people.” Taffa’s is a story of immense and reverent heart, told with precise and pure skill.

Grief Is for People by Sloane Crosley

With its chapters organized by their position in the infamous five stages of grief, Sloane Crosley’s Grief is For People is at times bracingly funny, then abruptly sober. The effect is less like whiplash than recognition; anyone who has lost or grieved understands the way these emotions crash into each other without warning. Crosley makes excellent use of this reality in Grief is For People , as she weaves between two wrenching losses in her own life: the death of her dear friend Russell Perreault, and the robbery of her apartment. Crosley’s resulting story—short but powerful—is as difficult and precious and singular as grief itself.

American Negra by Natasha S. Alford

In American Negra , theGrio and CNN journalist Natasha S. Alford turns toward her own story, tracing the contours of her childhood in Syracuse, New York, as she came to understand the ways her Afro-Latino background built her—and set her apart. As the memoir follows Alford’s coming-of-age from Syracuse to Harvard University, then abroad and, later, across the U.S., the author highlights how she learned to embrace the cornerstones of intersectionality, in spite of her country’s many efforts to encourage the opposite.

The House of Hidden Meanings by RuPaul

Out March 5.

A raw and assured account by one of the most famous queer icons of our era, RuPaul’s memoir, The House of Hidden Meanings , promises readers arms-wide-open access to the drag queen before Drag Race . Detailing his childhood in California, his come-up in the drag scene, his own intimate love story, and his quest for living proudly in the face of unceasing condemnation, The House of Hidden Meanings is easily one of the most intriguing celebrity projects of the year.

Here After by Amy Lin

Here After reads like poetry: Its tiny, mere-sentences-long chapters only serve to strengthen its elegiac, ferocious impact. I was sobbing within minutes of opening this book. But I implore readers not to avoid the heavy subject matter; they will find in Amy Lin’s memoir such a profound and complex gift: the truth of her devotion to her husband, Kurtis, and the reality of her pain when he died suddenly, with neither platitudes nor hyperbole. This book is a little wonder—a clear, utterly courageous act of love.

Thunder Song by Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe

Red Paint author and poet Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe returns this spring with a rhythmic memoir-in-essays called Thunder Song , following the beats of her upbringing as a queer Coast Salish woman entrenched in communities—the punk and music scenes, in particular—that did not always reflect or respect her. Blending beautiful family history with her own personal memories, LaPointe’s writing is a ballad against amnesia, and a call to action for healing, for decolonization, for hope.

Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against "The Apocalypse" by Emily Raboteau

Out March 12.

In Emily Raboteau’s Lessons For Survival , the author (and novelist, essayist, professor, and street photographer) tells us her framework for the book is modeled loosely after one of her mother’s quilts: “pieced together out of love by a parent who wants her children to inherit a world where life is sustainable.” The essays that follow are meditations and reports on motherhood in the midst of compounding crises, whether climate change or war or racism or mental health. Through stories and photographs drawn from her own life and her studies abroad, Raboteau grounds the audience in the beauty—and resilience—of nature.

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Six non-fiction books you can read in a day

Resolved to read more there may be no more rewarding genre than the short book.

“La Plage” by Alfred-Victor Fournier, circa 1900. A painting of people sitting on a beach, chatting under a parasol.

T HE SHORT book, long underestimated, has a lot going for it. To start with the prosaic: if you want to get through more volumes, short is shrewd. Slender books can be slipped into a bag or coat pocket and plucked out again in an idle moment, so you’ll be more likely to finish them. For adventurous readers the format allows for casual experimentation with new styles, topics and authors. For indecisive ones it can make a bookshop’s universe of possibilities feel less daunting: just scour the shelves for slim spines. Most of all, there is a rare satisfaction in reaching the final pages of a book while still holding the full sweep of its story in your mind. Taut prose is intense and immersive, like a distilled fragrance. These books offer that, too. They must; they don’t have long to make their point. In an era of many distractions, that is a great virtue.

These six non-fiction books include memoir, journalism, essays and pictorial essays. They take you into the bedroom of a grieving husband in imperial China; into the courtroom where a sensational murder trial split New York’s Bukharan Jewish community in the late 2000s; and, classically, into a room of one’s own. In short, they get plenty done in just 150 pages.

Six Records of a Floating Life. By Shen Fu. Translated by Leonard Pratt and Chiang Su-Hui. Penguin Classics; 144 pages; $16 and £9.99

A meditation on extraordinary love and an ordinary life, this memoir was written at the beginning of the 19th century in Qing-dynasty China by a widowed scholar. Despite the lapse of time, Shen Fu’s joys and sorrows feel comfortingly familiar. He was a civil servant who, though highly educated for his time, did not manage to rise up the ranks. He quarrelled with his parents, played drinking games and went on picnics. He also married the love of his life (they had known each other since they were 13 years old) and, as Shen’s memoir reveals, he treated Chen Yun like an equal, admiring her practicality and sparring with her in ad lib poetry competitions. The book has long been cherished in China as a true account of deep love. For modern readers the records may hold some surprises, too. Shen loved flower arranging. And although he and Yun adored each other, she matter-of-factly sought out a concubine for him—with whom, the text implies, she also had sex (lesbian relationships were not especially frowned upon at the time). The translators’ judicious footnotes make the reading all the more pleasurable.

Oranges. By John McPhee. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 149 pages; $16. Daunt; £9.99

Are there 150 sparkling pages to be written about the everyday orange? John McPhee proves there are. “Oranges”, which evolved from an essay published in the New Yorker in 1966, established a new form of journalism: one that marries whimsy with forensic explanatory reporting. Mr McPhee examines the rise of frozen orange-juice concentrate after the second world war—already then a $700m industry and “the boomiest boom since the Brazilian rubber boom”. He interviews Florida’s orange barons, pickers, packers and pomologists. His essay flows from the fantastic sex life of oranges to the Sanskrit origins of the word ( naranga ) to oranges’ role in the Norman invasion of Sicily. It is sweet to read about Botticelli and Degrees Brix (the standard measure of sugar) in a single sitting. This is also dissection at its sharpest, and eating an orange will never be the same again.

A Room of One’s Own. By Virginia Woolf. Mariner; 128 pages; $16.99. Penguin Modern Classics; £5.99

Among the most influential essays of the 20th century, “A Room of One’s Own” was based on a lecture that Virginia Woolf gave at Newnham College and Girton College, the first two for women at Cambridge University. Woolf lands her best-known line by the second page: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” That sends her down new routes of inquiry. As she relays the train of thought she has while walking around “Oxbridge” (a barely fictitious composite) and London, her wry humour develops a fierceness that builds to anger. “Why are women poor?” she asks. “What effect has poverty on fiction?” And “What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?” She summons the work of women over the centuries, from Aphra Behn to the Brontë sisters, to find the answers. The lot of women in Britain has improved dramatically in the century since Woolf wrote her essay. Yet it still feels like essential reading, in particular as a manifesto on the right to form one’s own opinion and express it.

Iphigenia in Forest Hills: Anatomy of a Murder Trial. By Janet Malcolm. Yale University Press; 155 pages; $13.95 and £9.99

If the aim of journalistic inquiry is to provide answers, Janet Malcolm shows, with devastating rigour, that observation can be enough. “Iphigenia in Forest Hills” tells the story of a murder trial in New York in 2009. Mazoltuv Borukhova, a 35-year-old doctor, is accused of paying an acquaintance to kill her husband. Malcolm lays out the facts of the case, then raises the question at the heart of most true-crime stories: “She couldn’t have done it, and she must have done it.” Yet the title, a reference to the Greek myth of Iphigenia, sacrificed daughter of Agamemnon, says it all. This too is a tragedy; its end certain. Malcolm does not offer suspense. Instead, from many small procedural details at the Queens Supreme Court she coaxes bigger, more unsettling questions. Such as, is bias inevitable? “Borukhova’s otherness was her defining characteristic,” notes Malcolm. Observe, her text urges, how decisive the opinion of an expert witness can be. Notice the seduction of certainty—how courtrooms revel in it. See what small tyrannies the judge permits himself. Unshowily, Malcolm makes her point: a trial is perhaps nothing more than “a contest between competing narratives”.

Ways of Seeing. By John Berger. Penguin Modern Classics; 155 pages; $11 and £9.99

Adapted from a four-part BBC television series of the same name that aired in 1972, John Berger’s book will probably change how you think about art. Four essays consider the reproduction of art; the female form and the male gaze; how ownership influences art; and publicity and the illusion of authority. These are delightfully complemented by three wordless pictorial essays, bold visual arguments for Berger’s incantatory opening—which purposely appears right on the cover of this edition—that “seeing comes before words”. He shows how the meaning of art is always influenced by how and where it is viewed. Berger’s book is naturally a product of its time, too: Marxist, radical and preoccupied with the ruling class. But it made complex ideas about a closed world accessible and engaging. Its influence is lasting: read the review we wrote for its 50th anniversary .

A Man’s Place. By Annie Ernaux. Translated by Tanya Leslie. Seven Stories Press; 96 pages; $13.95. Fitzcarraldo Editions; £7.99

Annie Ernaux made her mark with autobiographical fiction in which, as we wrote when she received the Nobel prize in literature in 2022, she remakes “the private and the ordinary into something profound”. But to write a radically short biography of her father the French author had to strip away all pretence; she abandoned a first attempt at a novel with “feelings of disgust”. “If I wish to tell the story of a life governed by necessity,” she writes, “I have no right to adopt an artistic approach.” The result is a spare, starkly beautiful memoir. Its studied restraint, almost ethnographic, is the work of a daughter at pains to do justice to the life of a father whom she felt she could no longer truly know: “Although it had something to do with class, it was different, indefinable. Like fractured love.” Like many others of his era, he first laboured on a farm, then entered a factory and finally worked for himself, as a shopkeeper in rural Normandy. Ms Ernaux strove, she writes, to convey both his happiness and “the humiliating limitations” of his class. It is the story of a generation, but also firmly her father’s own.

Ms Ernaux wrote a short biography of her mother, “A Woman’s Story”. It is as accomplished as that about her father, and secured her reputation with French readers . If you enjoyed Janet Malcolm’s “Iphigenia in Forest Hills”, try “Still Pictures”, a short book published posthumously that is also perhaps her most personal. We reviewed it last year here . New to John McPhee’s writing? He has written more than 30 books. After “Oranges”, why not try his most recent, “Tabula Rasa”—it comes in at under 200 pages. We offered our appraisal here .

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Why Are Divorce Memoirs Still Stuck in the 1960s?

Recent best sellers have reached for a familiar feminist credo, one that renounces domestic life for career success.

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An illustration of a laptop computer dropping inside a stew pot, along with a tomato, an apron, a spoon and a spice shaker.

By Sarah Menkedick

Sarah Menkedick’s most recent book is “Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America.”

“The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own,” Betty Friedan wrote in “ The Feminine Mystique ,” in 1963. Taking a new role as a productive worker is “the way out of the trap,” she added. “There is no other way.”

On the final page of “ This American Ex-Wife ,” her 2024 memoir and study of divorce, Lyz Lenz writes: “I wanted to remove myself from the martyr’s pyre and instead sacrifice the roles I had been assigned at birth: mother, wife, daughter. I wanted to see what else I could be.”

More than 60 years after Friedan’s landmark text, there remains only one way for women to gain freedom and selfhood: rejecting the traditionally female realm, and achieving career and creative success.

Friedan’s once-provocative declaration resounds again in a popular subgenre of autobiography loosely referred to as the divorce memoir, several of which have hit best-seller lists in the past year or two. These writers’ candid, raw and moving exposés of their divorces are framed as a new frontier of women’s liberation, even as they reach for a familiar white feminist ideology that has prevailed since “The Problem That Has No Name,” through “Eat, Pray, Love” and “I’m With Her” and “Lean In”: a version of second-wave feminism that remains tightly shackled to American capitalism and its values.

Lenz, for example, spends much of her book detailing her struggle to “get free,” but never feels she needs to define freedom. It is taken as a given that freedom still means the law firm partner in heels, the self-made woman with an independent business, the best-selling author on book tour — the woman who has shed any residue of the domestic and has finally come to shine with capitalist achievement.

It is not the freedom for a woman to stay home with her child for a year, or five. The freedom to stop working after a lifetime toiling in low-wage jobs. The freedom for a Filipina nanny to watch her own children instead of those of her “liberated” American boss. The freedom to start a farm or a homestead or engage in the kind of unpaid work ignored by an economy that still values above all else the white-collar professional labor long dominated by men — and in fact mostly fails to recognize other labor as valuable at all.

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Riley Keough Helped Finish Mother Lisa Marie Presley’s Posthumous Memoir — See the Cover Here (Exclusive)

‘From Here to the Great Unknown’ will hit shelves this fall

Carly Tagen-Dye is the Books editorial assistant at PEOPLE, where she writes for both print and digital platforms.

Jeff Vespa; Courtesy of Random House

The title and cover for the highly-anticipated memoir by Lisa Marie Presley , and her daughter Riley Keough , is here.

PEOPLE has an exclusive first look at the cover for From Here to the Great Unknown , the forthcoming posthumous memoir from Presley, also written with Keough. The book will be published on Oct. 15 from Random House. Presley first asked Keough to help her finish her memoir in 2022, per the memoir's description. When Presley died in January 2023 at age 54 , Keough was left with the daunting task of how best to complete the book.

Courtesy of Random House

Thankfully, Presley had recorded her story on various tapes. Keough listened to stories from her mother’s life, in her own voice, such as smashing golf carts at her childhood home, Graceland, Presley’s long relationship with Keough’s father, musician Danny Keough and her marriage to Michael Jackson .

Presley also spoke of the more difficult moments of her life: losing her father, Elvis Presley , in 1977, moving to Los Angeles with her mother, Priscilla Presley and her experiences with addiction and grief.

Keough took on the task of fulfilling her mother’s wish to share her stories, both joyful and painful. From Here to the Great Unknown is the result of a mother and daughter working together “as they try to heal each other,” per the book’s description. 

Todd Williamson/NBC via Getty

“Few people had the opportunity to know who my mom really was, other than being Elvis’s daughter,” Keough previously said, in a statement. “I was lucky to have had that opportunity and working on preparing her autobiography for publication has been a privilege, albeit a bittersweet one.”

“I’m so excited to share my mom now, at her most vulnerable and most honest, and in doing so, I do hope that readers come to love my mom as much as I did,” the Emmy-nominated actress added.

Keough, who recently starred in the Hulu miniseries Under the Bridge , also opened up about her experience writing the memoir while attending the 2023 Emmy Awards.

Neilson Barnard/Getty

“It’s extremely emotional and also very therapeutic,” she said. “It makes me feel very close to her. So it’s kind of, again, bittersweet and difficult, but also really special.”

Never miss a story — sign up for  PEOPLE's free daily newsletter  to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer​​, from celebrity news to compelling human interest stories. 

From Here to the Great Unknown will be published on Oct. 15 and is now available for preorder, wherever books are sold. The book will also be available in an audio format, narrated by Keough.

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