A memoir is a powerful tool that allows you to share your story and benefit others. Memoirs can encourage, uplift, inspire, and offer insight.
However, your success as a memoirist depends on choosing the right topic.
Before you brainstorm possible topics, it helps to remember what a memoir is and what it isn’t. A memoir is a story about a specific time period or set of events in your life. This is not to be confused with an autobiography, which is broader in scope, covering your entire life from birth through adulthood.
As you consider what to write a memoir about, focus on specific topics, time periods, or themes, rather than your “life story.”
Still struggling for ideas? Check out the following suggestions for good memoir material.
What to Write A Memoir About
We all have favorite stories from our past. Some of these stories are meaningful to our intimate circle of family and friends, while others could speak to a wider audience. Your book should tell a story that would interest readers who don’t already know you.
Here are examples of stories that could draw a wide audience.
Circumstances You Have Overcome
We call these “overcomer stories” because you, the author, share how you were able to overcome difficult circumstances.
Difficult circumstances in memoirs are often beyond the author’s control, such as infidelity, death, illness, job loss, or other unforeseen events. Your response to these unwanted circumstances drives the central action of the story.
Nancy Jo Nelson wrote Lessons from the Ledge: A Little Book About Big Stuff to explore the fallout from her husband’s suicide, which happened in the middle of their divorce. Nancy didn’t choose this agonizing road, yet she found a way to support her family, work through the grief, and come to peace with what happened.
A popular book-to-movie overcomer story is Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail solo after her mother’s death and her own slide into drug abuse. Cheryl grapples with her cruel circumstances by choosing a tangible journey to test her mettle.
If you’ve faced difficult circumstances in your relationships, career, health, or some other area of life, consider writing an overcomer memoir.
A Pivotal Moment
Sometimes a memoir’s story is not set in motion by a set of circumstances, but by one pivotal event that changes your life.
Memoirist Jes Averhart calls these “crucible moments,” and they birthed the idea for her memoir title: Out of the Crucible. Her crucible moments involve the search for her biological father, and her interest in these life-changing events drove the theme of her memoir
Sometimes, pivotal moments arrive at the end of life. Physician Paul Kalanithi wrote When Breath Becomes Air to process the change in his life after he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at age 36. This one event redefined Paul’s definition of a meaningful life and changed his perspective on nurturing his new baby.
If you can point to a moment in your life and show how it changed you, consider writing about it.
An Amazing Experience
Maybe you had a thrilling or impactful experience that you’ll always remember. While the average reader may not want to know every cool trip or touching moment in your life, some experiences are so fantastic, or reveal something so universal, that you should share them.
After Life: Waking Up from My American Dream by Carlo Sanfilippo included many of Carlo’s most memorable experiences from midlife. His determination to say “yes” to opportunities led to amazing memories of trips to Italy and the discovery of distant family there. The memoir works because Carlo delves into something most readers can relate to: the desire to know what constitutes “the good life.”
Likewise, Braving It by James Campbell recounts a father-daughter coming of age adventure in the Alaskan wilderness. It reveals as much about the dynamic between fathers and daughters as it does about Alaskan trekking.
Something You’ve Accomplished
Everyone loves to see a narrator reach a goal. It reassures readers that they, too, can reach goals.
Lindsey Jacobs wrote her book Stronger: From Trials to Triathlete to Triumphant about her struggle to train for an IRONMAN while adjusting to life as a divorcee. The IRONMAN was her tangible accomplishment, the thing she could point to as a concrete accomplishment. It served as a metaphor for the less tangible accomplishments in life, like overcoming a fear or learning independence.
Mary Rechkemmer-Meyer wrote her memoir I Meant It For Good about her process of visualizing, planning, and then attaining a fulfilled life. In Mary, the reader sees a woman who dreams an ambitious dream, goes after it, and achieves it. Because Mary did it, readers believe they can, too.
Childhood or Adolescence
Writing about childhood can be tricky, because not every writer’s childhood is the most interesting part of their life—in fact, loving parents hope their child’s growing-up experience will be calm and orderly rather than riddled with conflict.
However, conflict happens to children, too. If your childhood story has some type of struggle at its center that adults could relate to or find interesting, it may work for a memoir.
Storming the Tulips by Hannie J. Voyles is a particularly dramatic example. It chronicles the experience of several children who survived World War II in Amsterdam. Likewise, memoirist Saeed Jones’s book How We Fight For Our Livesis a window into the struggles of growing up Black and gay in the South. Jeanette Walls wrote her popular memoir The Glass Castle about the poverty and neglect she faced as the child of unstable, homeless parents.
Not every childhood or adolescent memoir must feature abuse, trauma, or horrific war stories, but it should have some obstacle that would entertain grown readers.
What You Blog About
If you already blog about some aspect of your life, and your devoted readers tune in week after week, you might have the start of a memoir on your hands.
Here again, we can look to Lindsey Jacobs for an example. Her book grew from her blog, where she explored the emotions that came along with IRONMAN training and divorce
After you select a topic, you’ll want to check out some best practices for memoir writing. It’s not as simple as writing down all the important moments of your story in the order they occurred. You need to think about:
- Developing the concept
- Making the story memorable
- Connecting to your readers
- How to market a memoir
- Crafting stellar prose
If you need a little help getting oriented to the task, consider an online writing coach program. Contact us today to learn more about individual coaching, group work, and the self-guided course.