Best memoirs of 2019

Table of Contents

Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site

Biographies and Memoirs

Grades 2 – 9
Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. Illustrated by Mary Azarian. Picture Book, Nonfiction. 32 pages.
Find this book: Local Bookstore, Amazon, B&N
Wilson Bentley was fascinated by snowflakes. Born in Vermont in 1865, his parents supported his interest, spending their savings to buy him a camera and microscope. His thousands of photographs are still used in studies today. Martin tells the tale simply with sidebars adding further information about the science behind Bentley’s studies. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

Grades 5 – 9
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. Memoir. 336 pages.
Find this book: Local Bookstore, Amazon, B&N
Brown Girl Dreaming just won the National Book Award and it’s quite a gem. It’s a book length memoir in verse of the author growing up in the sixties and seventies as well as some of her family history. Living in both South Carolina and then Brooklyn, New York we get to see the life of an African American family in the North and the South. Set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement there is a lot of history here. Read More.

Bruchac, Joseph. Crazy Horse’s Vision Illustrator: Nelson, S. D.
Lee & Low, 2000 ISBN 1880000946. Order Info
Rating: 4 Stars
Grades: 2 – 6
The stylized illustrations help to tell the story of the years of the great chief’s childhood up until he got his name which was Crazy Horse in English or Tashunka Witco in Lakota.

Byars, Betsy. Moon and I. (1992, Messner. ISBN 0-671-74165-9.) Nonfiction. 112 pages. Gr 4-9.
With a light and humorous touch, Ms. Byars tells of the way she writes her books. Throughout the account, she also tells of her relationship with a snake, Moon, which she found near her cabin. Her need to learn more about snakes in general and Moon in particular became an obsession that, for a brief time, dominated her existence. That obsession, the reasons for it, and the ways in which she conducted her research are so interesting and helpful that you want to read the brief book aloud at the outset of a research project. Read more.

Grades PreK – 4
Trombone Shorty by “Trombone Shorty” Troy Andrews. Illustrated by Bryan Collier. Picture Book. 40 pages.
Find this book: Amazon
Growing up in the ’90s in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, Troy was surrounded by music. This beautifully illustrated story follows him from making his own instruments out of household objects with his friends to becoming a world-famous musician. Along the way we get a taste of low-income New Orleans and Trombone Shorty’s consuming passion for music. Great for preschool through at least fourth grade. Read More.

Carle, Eric. The Art of Eric Carle
Philomel,1996 ISBN 039922937X. Order Info
Rating: 4 Stars
Grades: 1 – 9
This is a wonderful source book for information about the picture book author and his work. Author Info.

Carlson, Laurie. Boss of the Plains: The Hat that Won the West Illustrator: Meade, Holly
DK Publishing, 1998 ISBN 0613284275. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: K – 2
John Batterson Stetson didn’t find much gold in the rush to California but the hatmaker from New Jersey did invent the wide-brimmed hat that was to become a symbol of the west.

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Christensen, Bonnie. Django: World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist
Roaring Brook, 2009 ISBN 9781596434226. Order Info
Rating: 4 stars
Grades: 3-6
Jean “Django” Reinhardt, a Gypsy, was born in Belgium in 1910. He taught himself to play the guitar and began playing on the streets of Paris early in life. When a badly burnt left hand threatens to end his career he develops a way to play guitar in spite of the deformity. Striking illustrations carry this book about the Roma people, jazz, and overcoming adversity.

Cleary, Beverly. A Girl from Yamhill: A Memoir
Bantam, 1989 ISBN 0380727404. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 5 – 9
This is Beverly Cleary’s own story from birth to her departure for college. Her first few years were spent on a farm isolated even from the small town of Yamhill.. Her mother’s overbearing and strict nature further isolated Beverly. Eventually her parents quit farming and moved the family to Portland where her father worked as a night watchman and Beverly entered public school which, at first, was a disaster, much to her mother’s embarassment. Later Beverly made friends and succeeded academically.

Cleary, Beverly. My Own Two Feet
Morrow, 1995 ISBN 0380727463. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 5 – 9
This book takes up where A Girl from Yamhill left off with Beverly’s departure for college. Leaving home didin’t mean the end of problems with her mother and, as in the first volume, Cleary makes no attempt to slide over that relationship. At college, she lived with her aunt, and the incidents of her college life and romances are remembered clearly. The book offers a good perspective on growing up in the 1930s.

Cooney, Barbara. Eleanor
Viking, 1999 ISBN 0670861596. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 3 – 9
This is an insightful rendition of the painful childhood years of Eleanor Roosevelt whose emancipation came during her boarding school years in London. Author Info.

Dahl, Roald Boy: Tales of Childhood
Puffin, 2001 ISBN 0141303050. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 5 – 9
In many ways, this is a bitter account of the bullies and authority figures who were a large part of Dahl’s childhood. Amongst the bitterness, however, is hilarity as we witness the rebellious young boy’s dealing with his oppressors.

Dash, Joan. The Longitude Prize Illustrator: Petricic, Dusan
Francis Foster Books, 2000 ISBN 0374346364. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 5 – 9
In a handsome book with wonderfully light illustrations, Dash tells the complex story of an invention by an equally complex man, clockmaker John Harrison, who invented the device to measure longitude.

Demi. The Dalai Lama
Holt, 1998 ISBN 080505443X. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 2 – 8
This beautifully illustrated picture book contains some of the Buddhist beliefs and the Dalai’s efforts toward peace.

Frank, Anne Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
Prentice Hall, 1992 ISBN 0553296981. Order Info
Rating: 4 Stars
Grades: 6 – 9
The diary has been the basis of both a play and a movie. It is important for the account it gives us of the persecution of the Jews, but even more important for the intimate portrait of the hopeful young girl.

Freedman, Russell. Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery
Clarion, 1993 ISBN 0899198627. Order Info
Rating: 4 Stars
Grades: 5 – 9
Freedman’s biography of one of the most influential and controversial first ladies of America creates the full-bodied picture of the activist who served as her husband’s legs and often his conscience.

Freedman, Russell. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Clarion, 1990 ISBN 0395629780. Order Info
Rating: 4 Stars
Grades: 5 – 9
Freedman makes the life of the charismatic leader vivid and engaging for all readers, using photographs liberally.

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Freedman, Russell. Lincoln: A Photobiography
Clarion, 1989 ISBN 0899193803. Order Info
Rating: 4 Stars
Grades: 4 – 9
Freedman received the Newbery Award for this masterful biography of Lincoln in which the complicated nature of the witty storyteller and astute politician at times overwhelmed by melancholy is revealed.

Fritz, Jean. And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? Illustrator: Tomes, Margaret
Putnam, 1996 ISBN 0698113519. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 2 – 6
This was the first of Jean Fritz’s short biographies of Revolutionary War heroes. She fills in the portrait of Paul Revere and his times in a light but factual manner. Author Info.

Fritz, Jean. Bully for You, Teddy Roosevelt
Putnam, 1997 ISBN 039921769X. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 4 – 8
In one of her longer biographies, Fritz tells the story of the frail child who became a zestful, enthusiastic and charismatic leader. Author Info.

Fritz, Jean. Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? Illustrator: dePaola, Tomie
Putnam, 1996 ISBN 0698114027. Order Info
Rating: 4 Stars
Grades: 2 – 8
Fritz’s portrait of King George III is fascinating as we see the American Revolution from the British, or at least the King’s, point of view. Author Info.

Fritz, Jean. The Great Little Madison
Putnam, 1998 ISBN 0399217681. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 5 -9
In this book we begin to understand the personality as well as the effect on United States history of this little man. Author Info.

Fritz, Jean. Leonardo’s Horse Illustrator: Talbott, Hudson
Putnam, 2001 ISBN 0399235760. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 3 – 9
First conceived by Leonardo da Vinci, the huge statue of a horse was to stand in front of a Duke’s palace in Italy. This is the biography of a statue that was started by da Vinci and finished centuries later. Author Info.

Fritz, Jean. Traitor: The Case of Benedict Arnold
Puffin, 1981 ISBN 0140329404. Order Info
Rating: 4 Stars
Grades: 4 – 9
As always, with Jean Fritz’s work, the book is carefully researched and she invents and assumes nothing. Here’s his heroism in earlier times, his greed and, at last, his incredible treachery. Author Info.

Fritz, Jean. What’s the Big Idea, Ben Franklin? Illustrator: Tomes, Margot
Scott Foresman, 1996 ISBN 0698113721. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 2 – 6
Fritz’s light shines brightly on the engaging and eccentric inventor who became so influential in the American political and scientific world. Author Info.

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Fritz, Jean. Why Don’t You Get a Horse, Sam Adams? Illustrated by Hyman, Trina Schart
Putnam, 1999 ISBN 0808544853. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 2 – 8
This is the eccentric man who became a leader of the Revolution and strode about Boston because he refused to ride a horse. Author Info.

Fritz, Jean. Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? Illustrator: Hyman, Trina Schart
Paper Star, 1997 ISBN 069811440X. Order Info
Rating: 4 Stars
Grades: 2 – 6
The wealthy, rather foppish man who became one of the mainstays and financiers of the American Revolution is given a light coverage in this brief bicentennial biography. Author Info.

Hopkins, Lee Bennett. Been to Yesterdays: Poem of a Life
Boyds Mills, 1995 ISBN 1563974673. Order Info
Rating: 4 Stars
Grades: 5 – 9
Twenty-nine separate poems combine to tell a story of the disintegration of the author’s family.

Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki. Farewell to Manzanar
Houghton Mifflin, 2002 ISBN 0618216200. Order Info
Rating: 4 Stars
Grades: 4 – 9
One of the first families to be relocated to a Japanese Internment Camp in the California mountains was the Wakatsuki family which was forced to abandon a thriving fishing business in Long Beach and take only what they could carry.

Hurst, Carol Otis. Illustrated by James Stevenson. Rocks in His Head. (2001, Greenwillow. ISBN 0060294043.) Picture Book. 32 pages. Gr PreK-3.
Some people collect stamps. Other people collect coins. Carol Otis Hurst’s father collected rocks. Nobody ever thought his obsession would amount to anything. They said, “You’ve got rocks in your head” and “There’s no money in rocks.” But year after year he kept on collecting, trading, displaying, and labeling his rocks. The Depression forced the family to sell their gas station and their house, but his interest in rocks never wavered. And in the end the science museum he had visited so often realized that a person with rocks in his head was just what was needed. Read more.

Lowry, Lois. Looking Back: A Book of Memories
Houghton, 2000 ISBN 0385326998. Order Info
Rating: 4 Stars
Grades: 4 – 7
Liberally illustrated with family photos, this is a series of memories inspired by those photos. Author Info.

Marrin, Albert. Virginia’s General
Beautiful Feet Books, 2003 ISBN 1893103145. Order Info
Rating: 4 Stars
Grades: 5 – 9
Marrin shows Lee through many quotes from other generals and his soldiers as the brave and extraordinary soldier that he was.

McClafferty, Carla Killough. Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium
Farrar Straus Girous, 2006 ISBN 9780374380366. Order Info
Rating: 5 stars
Grades: 5-10.
Interspersed with photos this engrossing narrative goes into great detail about Marie Curieís life and work. Thereís lots of material here for topics such as famous women, science, ethics, economics and radiation. Includes source notes, bibliography and recommended web sites.

Mowat, Farley. Never Cry Wolf: Amazing True Story of Life Among Arctic Wolves
Back Bay Books, 2001 ISBN 0316881791. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 5 – 9
Assigned fifty years ago by the Canadian Wildlife Service to find out why wolves were killing arctic caribou, Farley Mowat spent a summer studying wolf behavior. This account tells almost as much about him as it does about the wolves he studied for a summer.

Nelson, Marilyn. Carver: A Life in Poems
Front Street, 2001 ISBN 1886910537. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 5 – 9
In fifty-nine stand-alone poems, Nelson covers the life and some of the deeds of George Washington Carver.

Paulsen, Gary. Woodsong. (1990, Bradbury. ISBN 0-02-770221-9.) Novel. 144 pages. Gr 3-9.
These are autobiographical sketches of Paulsen’s experiences in the north woods. There is acceptance and respect for animal life, especially sled dogs, in all its harsh reality. A good portion of the book relates the author’s experiences in running the Iditarod. These are good adventure and outdoor stories which should appeal to outdoor enthusiasts and to animal lovers. Read more.

Raschka, Chris. Charlie Parker Played Be Bop
Orchard, 1992 ISBN 0531070956. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 2 – 9
A rhythmic text in varied formats and playful language recalls the rhythm and cadences of jazz musician, Charlie Parker.

Ray, Deborah Kogan. To Go Singing Through the World: The Childhood of Pablo Neruda. (2006, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0374376271.)Picture Book. 40 pages. Gr 4-6.
Born in 1904 Neruda lost his mother as an infant but became very close to his stepmother. Tortured by shyness and embarrassment about his stutter Pablo retreats more and more into his solitude. He finds comfort and a sense of belonging in books and writing. Pablo Neruda went on to become the most celebrated literary figure in Latin America, a political activist, diplomat and senator. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971. Read more.

Rockwell, Anne. Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth Illustrator: Christie, R. Gregory
Knopf, 2000 ISBN 0679891862. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 3 – 9
Remarkable text and stylized illustrations cover her early years up to her travels as an advocate for civil rights with an author’s note telling us more about her life and work. The illustrations are remarkable. Read More.

Rylant, Cynthia. When I Was Young in the Mountains Illustrator: Goode, Diane
Dutton 1993 ISBN 0140548750. Order Info
Rating: 4 Stars
Grades: PreK – 3
This is so beautifully done and so popular as a picture book that we frequently forget it’s an autobiography. More Info.

Say, Allen. Grandfather’s Journey
Houghton, 1993 IBN 0395570352. Order Info
Rating: 4 Stars
Grades: PreK – 3
In this beautifully done picture book biography is the story of the author’s grandfather’s search for the place where he felt completely at home.

Schroeder, Alan. Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman Illustrator: Pinkney, Jerry
Puffin 2000, ISBN 014056196X. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 2 – 6
Beautifully illustrated, this book tells of the young rebellious slave, Minty, who grew up to become Harriet Tubman.

Sis, Peter. Starry Messenger
Farrar, 1996 ISBN 0374371911. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 3 – 9
This biography of Galileo is a startlingly beautiful book in which words and illustrations twist about the pages giving new vantage points as the reader must turn the book to see them all. More About Peter Sis.

Spinelli, Jerry. Knots in My Yo-Yo String: The Autobiography of a Kid
Knopf, 1998 ISBN 0679987916. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 4 – 7
Spinelli writes of his childhood with the humor and sensitivity you’d expect from the author of Maniac Magee.

Stanley, Diane. Cleopatra
Morrow, 1994 ISBN 0688104134. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 3 – 9
This is an excellent picture book biography of Cleopatra. There are maps and a lot of information about that time period as well as that about ancient Egypt.

Stotts, Stuart. Books in a Box: Lutie Stearns and the Traveling Libraries of Wisconsin (Big Valley Press, 2005 ISBN 0976537206. Order Info.
This is a quiet, fictionalized biography about the work of Lutie Stearns. Around the turn of the century she traveled throughout Wisconsin providing boxed sets of books which circulated from town to town. Funded by state taxes these were the first free libraries for many communities. This is a good nonfiction companion to novels and picture books set in the time period.

Tanaka, Shelley. Illustrated by David Craig. Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator. (2008, Abram. ISBN 9780810970953. Order Info.) Nonfiction. 48 pages. Gr 4-7.
This book covers her childhood and her flying career and her fight for women to be able to do anything a man can do. It is well written, full of great information even as it flows along quickly. The text is illustrated with period photographs and a few original illustrations. Source notes, a bibliography, recommended websites and an index are included. Read more.

Thomson, Sarah L. Gary Paulsen.
Rosen, 2003 ISBN 0823937739. Order Info
Rating: 4 Stars
Grades: 4 – 7
Part of the “Library of Author Biographies” series. Gary Paulsen writes his books based on experiences in his own life and his biography is full of fascinating adventures as well as lots of information on his writing career.

Warren, Andrea. Orphan Train Rider: One Boy’s True Story
Houghton Mifflin, 1998 ISBN 0395913624. Order Info
Rating: 3 Stars
Grades: 4 – 9
Liberally illustrated this story of one boy is placed within the context of the Orphan Train movement as a social experiment. It therefore becomes more than the story of one boy and his new life.

Related Areas of Carol Hurst’s Children’s Literature Site

  • Biographies. Featured Subject with activities and related links.

How to Write a Memoir: 7 Creative Ways to Tell a Powerful Story

Whether you curl up with memoirs on a frequent basis or pick one up every now and again, you know powerful memoirs have the capacity to take you, as a reader, for an exhilarating ride.

When I teach people how to write and sell memoir, we talk about how to tell a compelling story. While all memoirs are different, the best memoirs all have certain elements in common.

My goal with this piece is to review some of those common elements, so you can weave them into your own memoir.

How to write a memoir

If you’re planning to write a memoir, you’ll want to take your readers on a journey they won’t forget. In this post, we share tips for writing a memoir well, as well as plenty of memoir examples.

Here’s how to write a memoir.

1. Narrow your focus

Your memoir should be written as if the entire book is a snapshot of one theme of your life. Or consider it a pie, where your life represents the whole pie, and you are writing a book about a teeny-tiny sliver.

Your memoir is not an autobiography. The difference is that an autobiography spans your entire life, and a memoir focuses on one particular moment or series of moments around a theme. You want your readers to walk away knowing you, and that one experience, on a much deeper level.

Perhaps you are familiar with Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. This memoir focuses on Frank’s life as a first-generation immigrant child in Brooklyn. Angela is his mother, and much of the storyline focuses on her and how Frank saw her, as well as the role she played in trying to hold the entire family together.

2. Include more than just your story

Even as you narrow your focus, we also need to think bigger in our writing pursuits.

For example, if Hillary Clinton wrote a memoir about raising a child in the White House, she would be pulling in tidbits about how she handled the media, who she let visit her daughter during sleepovers and how she navigated the politics of parenting during her time in the White House.

Likewise, if Madonna was writing a memoir about reinventing herself after 20 years away from the public spotlight, she most likely would include what it felt like to return to the music scene and how she continued to travel and perform while raising her children.

How does this apply to you? Imagine you are writing a memoir about your three-week trek through the Himalayan Mountains. While the focus is on your trip, as well as what you learned about yourself along the way, it would be wise to also include other details about the place, your experience and your thoughts.

You could describe the geography and history of the area, share interesting snippets about the people and donkeys you interacted with, and discuss your exploration of life-and-death questions as you progressed along your arduous journey.

Your readers want to know about you, but it’s the backstory and vivid details that make for a powerful memoir.

3. Tell the truth

One of the best tips for how to write a memoir that’s powerful is to be honest and genuine. This is often tricky, because we don’t want to hurt or upset the people (our family and friends!) we’ve written into our books. But it’s important that you tell the truth — even if it makes your journey as an author more difficult.

When Shannon Hernandez wrote her memoir, Breaking the Silence: My Final Forty Days as a Public School Teacher, she knew she had a major dilemma: “If I opted to tell the whole truth, I would pretty much ensure I would never get a job with New York City Public Schools again.”

But she also knew teachers, parents and administrators needed to hear why great teachers are leaving education in droves and why the current educational system is not doing what’s right for our nation’s kids.

“I wrote my book with brutal honesty,” she said, “and it has paid off with my readers. It’s bringing national attention to what is happening behind closed school doors.”

One more note on honesty: Memoirs explore the concept of truth as seen through your eyes. Don’t write in a snarky manner or with a bitter tone. The motivation for writing a memoir shouldn’t be to exact revenge or whine or seek forgiveness; it should simply be to share your experience.

Don’t exaggerate or bend the truth in your memoir. Your story, the unique one that you hold and cherish, is enough. There is no need to fabricate or embellish.

4. Put your readers in your shoes

Powerful writers show, not tell. And for a memoir writer, this is essential to your success, because you must invite your reader into your perspective so she can draw her own conclusions.

The best way to do this is to unfold the story before your reader’s eyes by using vivid language that helps him visualize each scene.

Perhaps you want to explain that your aunt was a “raging alcoholic.” If you say this directly, your description will likely come across as judgmental and critical.

Instead, paint a picture for your audience so they come to this conclusion on their own. You might write something like this:

“Vodka bottles littered her bedroom, and I had learned, the hard way, not to knock on her door until well after noon. Most days she didn’t emerge into our living quarters until closer to sunset, and I would read her facial expression to gauge whether or not I should inquire about money — just so I could eat one meal before bedtime.”

5. Employ elements of fiction to bring your story to life

Think of the people in memoirs as characters. A great memoir pulls you into their lives: what they struggle with, what they are successful at and what they wonder about.

Many of the best memoir writers focus on a few key characteristics of their characters, allowing the reader to get to know each one in depth. Your readers must be able to love your characters or hate them, and you can’t do that by providing too much detail.

Introduce intriguing setting details and develop a captivating plot from your story. Show your readers the locations you describe and evoke emotions within them. They need to experience your story, almost as if it was their own.

While your memoir is a true story, employing these elements of fiction will make it far more powerful and enjoyable for your readers.

6. Create an emotional journey

Don’t aim to knock your readers’ socks off. Knock off their pants, shirt, shoes and underwear too! Leave your readers with their mouths open in awe, or laughing hysterically, or crying tears of sympathy and sadness — or all three.

Take them on an emotional journey that motivates them to read the next chapter, wonder about you well after they finish the last page, and tell their friends and colleagues about your book. The best way to evoke these feelings in your readers is to connect your emotions, as the protagonist, with pivotal events happening throughout your narrative arc.

Most of us are familiar with the narrative arc. In school, our teachers used to draw a “mountain” and once we reached the precipice, we were to fill in the climatic point of the book or story. Your memoir is no different: You need to create enough tension to shape your overall story, as well as each individual chapter, with that narrative arc.

That moment when you realized your husband had an affair? Don’t just say you were sad, angry or devastated. Instead, you might say something like:

“I learned of my husband’s affair when the February bank statements arrived and I realized that in one month’s time, he had purchased a ring and two massages at a high-end spa.

Those gifts weren’t mine. He was using our money to woo another lady and build a new life. I curled up in a ball and wept for three hours — I had been demoted to the other woman.”

7. Showcase your personal growth

Speaking of narrative arc, the best way to accomplish that in a memoir is by showing how you, the main character, grew and changed as a person.

That experience you had carries more weight when you show how it affected not just that point in time, but the weeks, months and even years after. How did it change your approach to life? Did it change how you thought about others or yourself? Did it help you become a better or wiser person in some way?

This can be the hardest part of writing a memoir because it requires so much introspection. It’s also the reason why most writers can’t effectively write a memoir immediately after their life-changing experience; they need the passage of time to reflect on what that experience meant to them.

If you do this well, your readers will want to wrap themselves around you, root for you, help you get wherever you’re going on the life journey.

Memoir examples as inspiration

Let’s look at a few memoir examples.

We broke these into three categories of memoirs, those that can help us learn about structure, theme and takeaway. Each of these are essential elements of the genre.

Memoirs that use an effective structure

Although you’ll hear from memoirists who didn’t use an outline, or who prefer a process over a structured experience, most memoirists can benefit from having a structure in place before they start writing.

The most straightforward memoirs are those that start at point A and end at point B, moving the reader along in linear time.

Some examples include coming-of-age memoirs, like Kiese Laymon’s Heavy or Daisy Hernandez’s A Cup of Water Under My Bed, or memoirs that are narrowly focused, like Lori Gottleib’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, or Jennifer Pastiloff’s On Being Human.

Then there are framed memoirs, like Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance which chronicles the A to B linear journey of finding out that the father who raised her was not her biological father, making use of flashback and memory to piece together the front story of what’s happening as she figures out the truth of who she really is.

There are also thematic memoirs, like Lucy Grealey’s classic Autobiography of a Face

, which spans a twenty-year period and whose timeline is neither linear nor framed, but is clearly focused on a singular issue: deformity and its impact on the author.

Examples of thematic memoirs

Thematic memoirs abound typically sell better than other memoirs because they’re what the industry calls “high-concept,” meaning that they’re easy for buyers and readers to wrap their minds around.

Countless categories of memoir point to big-picture themes: addiction and recovery; parenting; travel; cooking; coming-of-age; dysfunctional family; religious experience; death and dying; divorce; and more.

Your theme (or sometimes themes) infuses every chapter you write, and it/they can be quite nuanced. For instance, a theme might be healing through running.

Once you identify your theme, you must always keep sight of it. I liken this to wearing a pair of tinted glasses. If you put on glasses with purple lenses, you can still see the entirety of the world around you, but you will never forget that you’re wearing the glasses because everything you look at is tinted purple.

The same should be true with good memoir: introduce the reader to your world, but keep your memoir contained and on point by keeping your principal (and sometimes secondary) themes front and center.

Addiction memoirs like Tweaked: A Crystal Meth Memoir

, by Patrick Moore; Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, by Koren Zailckas; and Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, by Marya Hornbacher are great examples.

So are single-destination travel memoirs, or issue-specific books, like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which is about life after loss, or Laura M. Flynn’s Swallow the Ocean: A Memoir

, about growing up with an mentally unwell parent.

Examples of memoirs with strong takeaways

Takeaway is your gift to the reader. It’s a message, reflection, or truism.

Sometimes these fall at the end of scenes or the end of chapters, but that’s not always necessary. Takeaway can happen at any moment, when the author shares something heartfelt, universal, and true.

It’s those moments in reading memoir that hit you hard because you can relate — even if you haven’t had the exact experience the author is describing.

Understanding takeaway is a long process, and some authors, when they first start thinking about takeaway, make the mistake of being too overt or trying too hard.

These are subtle moments of observation about the world around you, a wrapping up of an experience through a lesson learned or the sharing of the way something impacted you. The idea is to sprinkle these moments into your chapters, without overwhelming or spoon-feeding your reader.

Good writers do this so seamlessly you don’t even realize it happened, except that you feel like he or she has burst your heart, or crushed you with the weight of their insight. You feel like you know the author because it’s as if she’s speaking directly to you.

Good takeaway is, in fact, mirroring. It’s a way of relaying that we are not alone and the world is a crazy place, isn’t it?

As an example, here’s a reflective passage from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia


But is it such a bad thing to live like this for just a little while? Just for a few months of one’s life, is it so awful to travel through time with no greater ambition than to find the next lovely meal? Or to learn how to speak a language for no higher purpose than that it pleases your ear to hear it? Or to nap in a garden, in a patch of sunlight, in the middle of the day, right next to your favorite foundation? And then to do it again the next day?

Of course, no one can live like this forever.

Not all reflective passages have to be questions, but you can see that this technique is effective. Gilbert is ruminating over the life she’s living, but which she cannot maintain; in her experience — through the vantage point of her American understanding of the world — it’s not possible, and undoubtedly 99% of her readers agree.

We all know what it feels like to be saddled by the burdens of everyday life. Gilbert’s readers would feel this passage on a visceral level, even if they’d never before been to Italy, because everyone understands the longing that’s wrapped up in allowing yourself to just let down. And that’s what makes this a takeaway; it’s a universal connection to the reader.

Now get out there and write!

When you follow these guidelines while writing your memoir, you will captivate your audience and leave them begging for more.

But more importantly, you will share your own authentic story with the world.

The original version of this story was written Brooke Warner, along with assistance from The Write Life team. We updated the post so it’s more useful for our readers.

This post contains affiliate links. That means if you purchase through our links, you’re supporting The Write Life — and we thank you for that!

About the Author: Brooke Warner

Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of Write On, Sisters!, Green-light Your Book, What’s Your Book?, and three books on memoir. Brooke is a TEDx speaker, weekly podcaster (Write-minded with co-host Grant Faulkner of NaNoWriMo), and the former Executive Editor of Seal Press. She currently sits on the boards of the Independent Book Publishers Association, the Bay Area Book Festival, and the National Association of Memoir Writers. She writes a monthly column for Publishers Weekly.

Warner Coaching | @brooke_warner

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

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.

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 “

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 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.

“ When you’re getting started writing a memoir, don’t just start writing about the first thing you remember. Tweet this

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.

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 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 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 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.

“ The purpose of a premise for your memoir is to be the foundation of all your future writing efforts. Tweet this

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 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 hard 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

“ My go-it-alone attitude destroyed my productivity. The truth is, to finish a book, everyone needs help; everyone needs a team. Tweet this

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

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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 Story Grid certified editor), 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:

  1. Commercially successful. If you want your book to be commercially successful, choose other books that have done well in the marketplace.
  2. 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? 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?

“ You can’t make everyone happy with your memoir. But you can make one person happy, right? Tweet this

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 plan, if only a few things about what you know is going to happen in the book.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Separate 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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?
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Write as fast as you can. Don’t think, just write!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

My 3 Minute Timer chart from writing this post! Check out session 26 when I wrote 149 words!

Other Tools for Writers

By the way, I took that screenshot from Evernote, one of my favorite tools for writers. 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 on an all-nighter. That being said, you can finish a chapter of your book on 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.

“ The hardest part of writing a first draft is trusting the process, trusting that if you keep showing up and doing the work, you’re actually going to have something worth reading at the end of it. Tweet this

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.

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:

  1. A character
  2. A situation
  3. A lesson

Take fifteen minutes to craft your premise. When you’re finished, share your memoir premise in the comments section for feedback. And if you share, please be sure to give feedback to three other writers.

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. You can follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Don’t Make These 7 Mistakes When Penning Your Memoir

But, it would be a mistake to write about everything that you’ve experienced in your life at one time. Unless you’re a public figure, very few people are interested in reading about your life from cradle to almost grave. It’s much more impactful, even for public figures, to write about key, transformative events in their lives.

Not sure how to whittle down your epic life into a measly memoir? Remember, you don’t have to write just one memoir. Isn’t that so liberating? Over the course of your life, you can write several memoirs about the different events that shaped who you are.

What event would take up at least one chapter of your autobiography? Take that chapter and expand it into an entire book. A memoir gives you the opportunity to dig deep into a pivotal event or explore how you felt, why you felt it, and the lessons you learned.

Mistake No. 2: Not Finding the Bigger Story

What will the reader learn from your story?

Figure out what lessons you learned from going through the event that is documented in your memoir. Mine for nuggets of truth. Many people use memoirs as a time of self-reflection and even therapy.

If you’re not sure what lessons you’ve learned, focus on what your story is about. This is the theme of your story. Your story’s theme can help clarify what you’ve learned.

Some common memoir themes surround the following topics:

  • Accepting change
  • Adjusting to a new life
  • Coming of age
  • Compassion
  • Dealing with loss
  • Determination
  • Discrimination
  • Friendship
  • Greed
  • Hard work
  • Hope
  • Leadership
  • Making tough choices
  • Overcoming adversity
  • Parenthood
  • Poverty
  • Self esteem
  • Survival
  • War
  • Wealth

Do one of those topics (and associated themes) apply to your memoir? What statement does your memoir make about this topic?

For example, I wrote a memoir about losing my mother to cancer. I was 13 at the time, so it was a combination of dealing with loss and coming of age. If I wasn’t sure what lessons I learned, I’d ask myself, “What did losing my mother at a young age teach me about death or loss?” or “How did my mother’s death affect my transition into adulthood?”

The answer would be the big idea of my story. You see, when you tell a story, it’s not just for you and your processing, it’s for the reader, too. They should be able to come away with a satisfying truth about life– especially when reading a memoir.

Just like you wouldn’t tell a story to someone face to face without connecting to a point so you shouldn’t do that with your memoir, either. Always keep the big idea in mind.

Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have a big idea yet. You can totally start writing your first draft without any idea of your story’s theme or life lesson. Sometimes, the theme becomes obvious after the first draft is on paper.

Mistake No. 3: Starting at Birth

Chances are, you don’t remember when you were born– so why start your memoir at birth? You’ll have to rely on other’s perceptions (at best), and the point of your memoir is to start with your memories.

So, unless you have a really good reason, don’t start your story until you’re at an age where you can actually remember events.

And besides, starting at birth is a slow way to go. Most readers want to dive into the action, not wait for you to hit the major life event somewhere around page 173.

Remember that your memoir doesn’t have to be told in chronological order. You can jump around and insert flashbacks and backstory.

Also, your memoir doesn’t have to cover an extended period of your life. One decade, two years, three months, four hours– you’re not obligated to a specific time period for your memoir. So, choose what makes most sense for telling your memoir.

Mistake No. 4: Not Outlining

To outline or not to outline…

Everyone has an opinion on outlining, but my opinion is to go for it– especially with a memoir.

One of the biggest reasons against using an outline is that it’s restrictive. An outline can confine you to a certain path of events. But,when you’re recounting the actual events of your life, there’s not much wiggle room.

For creative non-fiction like memoirs, outlining won’t hurt the creative process, but will actually help it. Outlining allows you to recall things that you may have forgotten, including dates that inevitably get jumbled up over the years.

Your outline doesn’t need to be strict, but it should include a list of key events leading up to and following the climax of your memoir.

If you like the idea of outlining, take it a little further. Divide your memoir into chapters and sketch out what you’d like to discuss in each chapter. This type of outline can help you stay on course, especially if you have a tendency to meander and digress.

Mistake No. 5: Not Protecting Yourself From Lawsuit

When you’re writing about other people, you face the possibility of getting sued. It sucks, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

If you’re planning to write about individuals who may not like what you have to say, it’s generally a good idea to change the person’s name and individual characteristics. You may even need to change the location, and alter a few other identifying clues, like place of employment. Another option is to write under a pseudonym.

But if some one’s hell-bent on suing you, this may not protect you.

What will protect you is asking all of the people who you discuss in the book to sign a general release form. Make sure you notarize it, too.

Check out this sample release form from Angela Hoy at

Image Courtesy of

Mistake No. 6: Forgetting Your Audience

Who are you writing for?

Always keep your audience in mind as you’re writing your memoir. They’re just as important as the story you’re telling. If your story doesn’t resonate with the audience, there’s no need to even tell it to them.

Who you’re writing for will change how you tell the story.

If you’re writing for an audience that doesn’t know you personally, you should explore the bigger ideas of your narrative. This is important so that those without a personal stake in your story will be able to glean larger truths.

Also remember that an audience who’s unfamiliar with your story won’t be drawn to it without a compelling topic.

If you’re writing for your family or future generations, the way that you frame your story may be different. Chances are, these readers will be familiar with some of the key players in your memoir, so you can use your narrative to create a new perspective of those family members. You can also use your memoir to document and share insight into your mindset during those pivotal events.

Mistake No. 7: Not Editing

Editing is a must, particularly with a memoir.

While you don’t have to be objective about the events within the narrative (it is your life’s story, no one expects you to be completely removed), you do need help to sort through the mechanics of non-fiction storytelling.

This is why you need to work with a professional editor. A professional editor will help you identify the parts of your story that are flaccid and unnecessary. He or she will help you tidy up your narrative so that you can tell the best story possible.

We can help you shape up your memoir narrative. Get started with our manuscript critique now.

Additional Resources

Before you go, here are a few related posts to check out:

  • How to Write a Memoir That People Care About
  • DIY Your Edit: 10 Apps to Help You Shape Up Your Manuscript
  • How to Make the Most of Working With a Professional Editor

The Best Business Memoirs Of All Time

This story was written in collaboration with Forbes Finds. Forbes Finds covers products and experiences we think you’ll love. Featured products are independently selected and linked to for your convenience. If you buy something using a link on this page, Forbes may receive a small share of that sale.

Former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca doing a TV commercial for his cars. (Photo by Ted Thai/The LIFE… Picture Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)


If you’re looking for inspiration and actionable insights from the successes and challenges of great entrepreneurs and executives, each book on this list tells an eye-opening story in the words of the person who was its catalyst.

This gives every title, some of which are recently published, some of which are classic, essential value for anyone planning, managing, or growing or a business. Or an empire.

Some Stories: Lessons from the Edge of Business and Sport by Yvon Chouinard

Some Stories by Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia)

You would expect that the charmed life of Yvon Chouinard–climber, environmentalist and founder of Patagonia–to be so distinct from the rest of us that it would naturally offer inspiration and wisdom when in print. Some Stories, which was released earlier this year, certainly offers plenty of that, but the thoughts and the example set by Chouinard may also upset the equilibrium of any reader who has become stuck in their work or in how they spend their days. It’s an essential read and a worthy successor to Chouinard’s previous work, the well-known Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman.

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Yes is the Answer! What is the Question? by Cameron Mitchell

Cameron Mitchell Restaurants has been in business for more than 25 years with some 60 restaurants in its portfolio and employs somewhere north of 5,000 people. Yes is the Answer! What is the Question? takes you on a ride with Mitchell from his early days as a runaway and small-time drug dealer to where he and his company are today. Along the way, he spells out his belief in “culture first” and in support for employees as the company’s North Star.

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My Father’s Business: The Small-Town Values That Built Dollar General into a Billion-Dollar Company, by Cal Turner, Jr. with Rob Simbeck

My Father’s Business by Cal Turner Jr. (Center Street)

The Dollar General of today is a publicly-traded company with 15,000 stores across America. Few realize that it’s a multi-generational business whose roots go back to the Depression. That’s when author Cal Turner, Jr.’s grandfather started buying and liquidating bankrupt, small-town general stores one by one. Taking us from there to today, Turner reveals the often-stressful dynamics of family involvement in a business, his own need to evolve his leadership style along the way, and the unique realities involved in becoming a prominent, publicly traded firm.

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Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight (Scribner)

Shoe Dog

Ask any aspiring or established entrepreneur, including Bill Gates, and they’ll have Shoe Dog somewhere on their list of favorite business books. In his memoir, Phil Knight details how he went from selling sneakers out of the trunk of his car to building Nike, which would become one of the most globally recognized brands. The memoir by the creator of Nike not only follows the history of his career and company but offers valuable startup lessons, including the difference between being a manager and being a leader and how company culture can make or break your company.

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The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch

The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch (W. W. Norton & Company)

Thomas Lynch is principal of a family-owned funeral home in Milford, Michigan. He’s also a National Book Award finalist and a poet of renown. Combining his gorgeous prose style with a unique, emotion-laden subject makes The Undertaking, which also spawned a PBS special, an extraordinary read about a business niche that is rarely discussed in the general business press.

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Growing a Business by Paul Hawken

Growing a Business by Paul Hawken (Simon & Schuster)

This may be the most flat-out encouraging business memoir you’ll ever read (and re-read; it’s worth more than one time through)—particularly if you’re in the early days of building a company. Paul Hawken takes you step-by-step through his founding of Smith & Hawken Tool Company: from the beginnings, when he had to shoot his own catalog photos (because there was no money to hire a pro) through the company’s ultimate, runaway success on a national level.

Hawken discusses the nitty-gritty of making payroll, the near-impossibility of getting a loan when you actually need it, and why too much capital, as opposed to too little, is the bigger danger for a company that’s just getting started.

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Personal History by Katharine Graham

Personal History by Katharine Graham (Vintage)

Personal History

You can watch Meryl Streep play Katharine Graham onscreen or you go straight to the source and read her autobiography. When Graham became president of The Washington Post, it was just a small family-owned newspaper. By the early ‘70s she would become CEO and one of the first women to lead a major U.S. paper. In addition to publishing the Pentagon Papers, she supported investigations into the Watergate scandal, which of course lead to the resignation of President Nixon. By the time Graham stepped down as CEO in 1991, The Washington Post would grow into a media conglomerate with newspaper, magazine, television and cable businesses. But Graham’s autobiography is about so much more than her career. The trailblazer is brutally honest about her life as a dutiful daughter and wife to Phil Graham, who suffered from depression and ultimately committed suicide. The following decades would usher in more first-female CEOs of major companies, including Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard and Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo.

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Rising to the Challenge: My Leadership Journey by Carly Fiorina

Rising to the Challenge by Carly Fiorina (Sentinel)

Rising to the Challenge

Speaking of the first wave of women to lead major corporations, Carly Fiorina becme the first woman to lead a company listed in the Dow Jones Industrial Average when she became CEO and president of Hewlett Packard in 1999. Her first memoir, the bestselling Tough Choices, tracks her journey from the secretary for a small real estate office to the leader of a major Fortune 50 company—but it wasn’t a smooth ride to the top. She had to deal with a storm of criticism that her male peers never had to face. Fiorina took the helm at HP during dotcom bubble of the ’90s yet managed to steer the company toward a period of revenue growth and innovation. Her more recent memoir, Rising to the Challenge, packs more insights and takeaways for other women aiming to reach their fullest potential. It also explores aspects of her life beyond HP, giving the reader a deeper look into her life as a philanthropist, women’s rights advocate and political activist.

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Setting the Table by Danny Meyer

Settting the Table by Danny Meyer (Harper Perennial)

Setting the Table is both a business memoir and one of the best treatises ever written on customer service, or what Danny Meyer prefers to call “hospitality.” The subjects that Meyer, the founder of the Union Square Hospitality Group and a restaurateur renowned in New York (and internationally via Shake Shack, a development that postdates this book), touches on range from the very personal (what it took for his marriage to survive the death of their twin infants) to the nuts-and-bolts practical to the soaringly inspirational. While an obvious must-read for those in the restaurant business, it’s equally essential for anyone who’s aspiring to improve their interactions with and treatment of customers.

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Iacocca: An Autobiography by Lee Iacocca

Iacocca by Lee Iacocca (Random House)

Bantam Dell Pub Group

Lee Iacocca had at least two great acts: First, he led the Ford Motor Company and then swept in an era of great innovation for Chrysler in the 1980s. In addition to saving the auto giant, he was also credited for rebuilding Ellis Island. The autobiography of arguably one of the best executives of the 20th century also touches on his life as a philanthropist and activist. While Iacocca was the bestselling business book of both 1984 and 1985, his leadership lessons still ring true today. Make a trilogy out of it and pick up Talking Straight, in which he lists his ten rules for good management, and, his last book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone? in which he outlines tough questions leaders must address to help restore America.

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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

There has never been another entrepreneurial/political/diplomatic/inventing/publishing career like Ben Franklin’s, and there’s no other business autobiography like this one. You’ll want to read it both for the extraordinary life it describes and for Franklin’s sometimes bluntly practical tips for getting ahead (one key to his ascension in the printing business was to forgo drinking at lunch, even though this made him an outcast among his fellow printshop workers, whom he describes as “beer guzzlers”).

In one particularly telling moment in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, he sets up an elaborate roadmap for how, with daily effort, he’ll cure himself of all his vices and replace them with virtues. Unfortunately, one of these intended virtues is “humility,” which Franklin ultimately gives up on achieving. Why? Because even if achieved, he calculates, he would then be proud of his newfound humility.

Instead, he settles for the appearance of humility. His strategy for achieving this is brilliant and served him throughout the rest of his public life, including his famous stint as ambassador to France: “I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own,” as well as “the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fixed opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present.”

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