The Key Ingredients of an Effective Memoir - Write a Nonfiction Book with The Book Professor

The Key Ingredients of an Effective Memoir

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The Key Ingredients of an Effective Memoir

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Are you an Overcomer?

When author Lindsey Jacobs came to work with me, she had an incredible story. She went through a divorce but found her way, bit by bit, as she trained for a triathlon. That triathlon became a metaphor for the change she experienced as a person.

The book she wrote, Stronger: From Trials to Triumph to Triathlete, comes out of that particular slice of her life. Her story, along with her life change, culminates with the moment when she crosses the finish line.

Like many of the authors I work with as The Book Professor®, she had to face off with several problems. Over time, she found solutions to each of them. She could have communicated what she learned through a variety of genres:

  • A self-help book
  • A business book
  • A how-to book

However, Lindsey decided to write a memoir, or what I call an Overcomer’s Story. In an Overcomer’s Story, the author’s life has a strong and direct “point” to it. That point is the main takeaway of the book.

Here are the key elements to a memoir, and what you need to know to write one.

Memoir Ingredient 1: Honesty

I love memoirs. Lucy Greeley’s Autobiography of a Face and Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle are two of my favorites. Throughout each of these books, the author gives us a snapshot of a real and messy life told with absolute honesty.

In a memoir, the reader gets on the roller coaster with the writer.

This is not typically true of an autobiography. Autobiographies are usually a textbook-like, long (and tedious) highlight reel: “I did this, then I did this, and then I did this.”

I rarely enjoy those kinds of books. They create psychological distance between the writer and the reader. The author tells his or her story in a way that ends, “And we all lived happily ever after.”

By contrast, though a memoir can end in triumph, it doesn’t end with a fairy tale resolution. It ends like this: “And here I go on, still trudging this road. But I’m here.” Readers can relate to that kind of conclusion.

Memoir Ingredient 2: Hope & Help

As The Book Professor®, I only work with authors who want to offer hope and help to people. To make sure the final result will accomplish this goal, we always do two things.

  1. Create a purpose statement
  2. Define the audience

We talk more about these two critical parts of the process in this article. Those two “boundary lines” help inform every word the author writes from that point on.

When we build these two components, the memoir becomes more than pure entertainment. As the author tells his or her Overcomer’s Story in an emotionally descriptive way, the audience receives a sense of hope: “If the author made it through that, maybe I’ll be okay, too.”

Then, the “help” comes in how the person did it. These books still contain problems and solutions, but the author shows more than they tell.

The skinned knees and bruised elbows represent the problems the author faced. But he or she will then say, “I found this, and it really helped.” With a well-defined audience and purpose statement, the author can be certain that the book’s readers have faced similar problems.

Memoir Ingredient 3: Pivotal Moments

When I help authors structure their book, I use a tool I developed called BookMAPs™ (read more here). There are two of them, and each serves a vital role for the author. BookMAP 2 looks at the problem/solution sets the author discovered.

However, memoirs use BookMAP 1 to define their overall structure:

  • What it used to be like
  • What happened
  • What it’s like now

It’s the second bullet point, “what happened,” that makes up most of the memoir. It’s a series of pivotal moments where everything shifts, and through those shifts, the author’s life completely changes.

Sometimes, these pivotal moments can be “Aha!” moments, when the author decides, “I’m going to do things differently.” But most of the time, those pivotal moments come to us as a surprise. They can be happy surprises: You meet the love of your life, have a child, or fall into a career that’s perfect for you.

However, pivotal moments often come as a result of unwelcome surprises: A death, divorce, or job loss.

But as the author describes these pivotal moments, he or she can’t just recount the facts. The reader needs to experience all of what the writer has to offer.

Memoir Ingredient 4: Go Deep

Through BookMAP 2, authors will look at each of these pivotal moments through a variety of lenses. They’ll ask themselves what their life was like:

  • Professionally
  • Financially
  • Relationally
  • Physically
  • Personally
  • Spiritually
  • Mentally

For each of these, we take a deep dive into the “before,” the “during,” and the “after.” There will likely be more than one element that the writer has yet to consider.

For example, a pivotal moment might cause someone to learn about his or her relationship: “I don’t want to be around people who make me feel bad anymore.”

Or, it might be a financial change: “I tethered myself to this person because of the money, but I decided to put myself first. I may live hand-to-mouth for awhile, but that’s better.”

As the author writes, we look for ways to pull out these moments through sensory language. We want readers to feel what the author felt at the time. There, as the readers viscerally experience the author’s story, they experience more of the hope and help so crucial to the audience the author has defined.

Are you an overcomer?

Of all the genres of nonfiction books, memoirs can be the most difficult to write. The experience can be emotionally draining, and a lot of people think they can just farm the work out to a ghostwriter.

But here’s the thing. Ghostwritten memoirs rarely make a personal connection! The person who lived the story has to write the story for it to make an impact.

If you want to write a memoir, you don’t have to do it by yourself. At The Book Professor®, we don’t write your book for you. We guide you through a tried-and-true process. We become your sounding board. And we help you finish and publish a book that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with anything else on the market.

If you’re an Overcomer, I’d love to help you write your book. Let’s get your story out there!


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