How to write a book about your own life

A lot of people seem to be curious about writing a story about their own life, so I figured I’d get into how exactly do that. Now, I’m not an expert in nonfiction, but I do read memoirs regularly and I picked up some memoir-writing craft books before writing this post.

The rules of good writing also apply to memoirs, so there’s plenty for you to learn in my blog even if it’s not a novel you want to write. But before you get lost in my blog archives, let’s talk about how to get started writing a book about your life.

How to write a book about your own life

Memoir vs autobiography vs autofiction

Before we can get into this post, let’s make sure we’re on the same page.

First of all, what’s the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? A biography talks about someone’s entire life while a memoir is more focused on a specific theme or time period. Unless you’re a famous person, people probably won’t be interested in your (auto)biography, but anyone could write a memoir if they’ve got interesting life experiences and a way with words.

Autofiction has a more, well, fictional take on the autobiography or memoir, and it’s where the author uses their own life as the basis of the story but also makes things up. For example, a Hollywood actress could write a book about a fictional film star and use her own experiences in the plot and use fiction to fill in the gaps and change whatever she wants. It could still be an authentic look behind the scenes of Hollywood stardom.

Which should you choose?

I can only assume that you’re not a famous person reading this, so I’d say you’re probably looking to write a memoir rather than an autobiography. If you’re not quite yet ready to reveal all the intimate details of your life but you’d still write about yourself, maybe autofiction is the way to go.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll assume you’re going to write a memoir. I’ll probably write a different post about autofiction at some point once I learn more about it!

What is your memoir actually about?

A memoir is usually focused around a certain theme, event or time period in your life. Even if the book consists of separate stories from different parts of someone’s life, there’s still something that’s in common with all of them. You’ll need to figure out what the uniting factor of your memoir is.

Readers love a story, and although most readers (and regrettably, many beginning writers) don’t have a clue about this, stories are usually structured in the same way. To keep your readers doing what you want them to do, reading, your memoir needs some kind of an arc. There needs to be something you’re going towards.

To get some inspiration and really understand how to find a focus for your own memoir, you might want to dissect some existing works in this genre.

Let’s look at some examples of great memoirs

Read these memoirs to learn how to focus your own story

These memoirs might not be THE memoirs that writing students are encouraged to look at, but they are ones that I’ve personally read and enjoyed. They’re also very focused and therefore very good examples.

All That Remains: A Life in Death by Sue Black combines a memoir with medicine and even true crime. Black recounts her experience with death, including the death of a beloved great-uncle and the first cadaver she ever dealt with, and shares fascinating information about death and human biology. She’s also, in my opinion, quite funny, so this book is a wonderful example of the “interesting job” genre of memoirs.

Corvus: A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson focuses a lot more on the experiences of the writer rather than her personal life or thoughts. The book is all about the corvids and other birds Woolfson and her family have looked after, and like in the previous book, you also end up learning a lot. Looking after birds, however, is not Woolfson’s actual job so you kind of get to go on a journey with her into learning more about them while enjoying of her wonderful way with words.

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy became really popular soon after publishing and for a good reason. Both dark and funny, it recounts McCurdy’s relationship with her mother and her acting career, including all the details of the devastating results of both of those things. Yes, this is a celebrity memoir, but personally I had no idea who the writer was when I grabbed it so the book still has appeal beyond “hey, I know the person who wrote this”.

Red-Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang is the story of a young girl growing up in communist China during the time when Mao launches his horrific Cultural Revolution. Jiang is just a regular girl detailing her experience during a specific period of time in history – something that you can do, too, if you’ve lived through political upheaval or other big changes or disasters in your country.

Just Another Kid by Torey Hayden is not just an “interesting job” memoir but it also focuses on a specific period of time and specific people. Hayden is a special education teacher and all her memoirs are focused on specific students, and this book is also about one of the parents who’s “just another kid” in her life.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the types of memoirs there are in the world, just a few examples that should give you some ideas and should help you figure out the focus of your own memoir.

What do you want to say with your book?

What do you really want to say with your memoir?

Whether you – or the writers – realise it or not, all books have a message. There’s something they’re saying about the world and how you should be in it, and this includes novels and memoirs.

What do you want to say with your memoir? Is it that people everywhere are the same or that you can make it in life despite difficulties? Do you want to drill it in how important it is to look after animals or do you want to reveal what life is really like when you’re stunningly beautiful?

Think about why you want to write your memoir. What really is the driving force behind that desire? Why do you need people to read it? What do you want people to take away from your story and how do you want them to feel like after reading it? These are all important questions that you need to be able to answer.

Finding your voice when writing your memoir

Don't forget your voice when writing a book about your own life

“Voice” is one of those intangible things that writers need to figure out but that is still there even when we don’t try. It’s how you come across in your writing, what you “sound like”.

Are you going to be funny or serious? Painfully self-aware or hopeful? Whatever you choose – or maybe it just happens without choosing – you need to stick to your choice. You can’t have your voice or your tone changing in the middle of a book no matter what you’re writing about.

If you’ve never really written anything, it can be daunting to be yourself. However, if you want anyone to be interested in your life, you need to be YOU. That means showing up authentically in your story and not being afraid of sounding like yourself. You can’t pretend to be someone else so that people will like you more.

If this feels difficult, don’t jump into writing your memoir straight away. Practise writing stories about your life and see what makes your writing you. Ask for opinions from your friends and family and see what they say – often it’s too easy to become blind to your own writing.

Self-awareness is important when you’re writing a story about your own life

Why self-awareness is important when writing about your own life

I don’t read about perfect people, mainly because they don’t exist, but also because they’d be painfully boring to read about. Even you, when writing your memoir, are going to reveal things about yourself that you perhaps didn’t do perfectly, and you’re going to have to be honest about those things.

I’m not saying at all that you need to reveal everything to be honest and self-aware, but if you write about something you did without being aware of the consequences or why you did that, you weaken your connection to your readers. They’ll see immediately if you’re full of it.

I’m not going to name names, but I checked out the reviews of a memoir that I’m interested in reading but haven’t actually read, and this was conveniently in one of the reviews: “It was pretty surface-level stuff; I prefer a memoir that is more introspective.” People do want to know how you feel and what you think about the things in your life – don’t skip this part.

You do need your readers on your side and they can’t do that if they don’t undertand you. No matter how badly you may have messed up, stick to the truth and be real. Your readers can still sympathise with you if you let them into your mind and you’re honest about your shortcomings.

It’s your truth but don’t make stuff up

How honest should you be with your memoir

It’s hard to say what is the truth when we talk about things that happened to us because everyone’s point of view and experiences are different. When you’re writing a memoir, you’re writing what happened to you and in your life and it’s your uncontested truth.

However, don’t make stuff up. Just because readers will assume you’re being truthful doesn’t mean you get to abuse this assumption. If you’re not entirely sure how something actually played out, say that. That’s also part of the self-awareness thing, admitting you don’t have all the answers. In addition, don’t make up stuff to make others seem worse or yourself seem better – hopefully this should be obvious to you!

I can’t remember which one of Torey Hayden’s memoirs it was, but one of the books includes an epilogue where she says that she tried finishing the book in multiple different ways but the publisher was still not happy with how the story didn’t have a neat ending. (I mean, it’s real life. Life doesn’t always have neat endings.) Hayden ended up having to explain how they never got definite answers about her student’s abuse and she can’t just end the book with “and then all the bad guys went to jail” just to make herself seem like the awesome saviour teacher she could have been.

Protect other people when necessary

Our lives include so many different people and sometimes they might not want to be included in our stories. Some people might not want it to come to light how badly they have treated you, but then there are others who have done nothing bad and just don’t want everyone to know about something that has happened to them.

You should, hopefully, avoid causing unnecessary pain with your memoir. If possible, you can ask them if they want to be mentioned or if they’d rather be left out, or maybe they’d rather appear with a fake name or some other changed details. I’m mentioning Torey Hayden’s books again, but she didn’t just change the names of her students but also changed some events and timelines to make it harder for anyone to track and recognise the vulnerable people she wrote about.

Don’t remember something? Fill in the blanks

Now, although you shouldn’t be making stuff up, you do need to fill in the blanks somehow unless you have superhuman memory.

For example, you can’t really remember everything that someone says, word by word, much after it has happened. You know the gist of something that someone said and the way they normally talk, so you can “make up” what they said even if it isn’t verbatim.

It’s the same thing with events in your life – you can fill in the blanks with something that likely happened. You don’t need to remember every single detail when you can fill in with something that makes sense.

Don’t be afraid to teach people something

Don't be afraid of this when writing a memoir

If you’re writing a memoir because you’ve had an interesting job, you’ve had experiences with something that other people don’t know much about or maybe you’re writing about an illness you had, don’t be afraid to teach people something about those things.

Sue Black’s book that I mentioned earlier includes a lot of information about human biology and forensic procedures. If I was reading a historian’s memoir, I would expect to learn something about history and historical research as well.

You can also do research while you write your book. Maybe you’ve had a rare type of cancer and you want to learn more about it, so you include the information and the process of researching it in your memoir about overcoming the disease. You don’t need to be an expert – the process of learning is valuable enough to be included in your memoir.

Make your readers really feel your world

I write a lot about writing good fiction in this blog and some of those skills are applicable to your memoir-writing as well. You see, you’re going to need certain skills if you want your readers to feel like they’re really living your life with you.

When you’re describing people, don’t just write what they look like, especially if their appearance isn’t saying much anything interesting or important. (I once started reading an autofictional novel that started with the writer describing the clothes and hair colour of everyone who came to her house party. I gave up reading in the first chapter.) What do the people sound like? How do they gesture? How do they stand out from other people? Think about those things as well as the appearance.

You also need to remember that places are more than just what they look like – you have five senses after all. Think about your childhood home, what can you hear when you stand in your room? What does the wallpaper feel like? What does your sister’s perfume smell like? What did the cake taste like that your father baked every Sunday? Not every detail will be applicable or necessary in every situation, but include these sensory details as often as you can.

To learn more about these things, you can read my posts on how to describe character appearance and quick tips for describing places. But also, you can get my free ebook of writing exercises:


How should you structure your memoir?

Using story structure to structure your memoir is often a good idea even if it doesn’t seem immediately obvious how it can be applied and although real life definitely doesn’t follow genre conventions. You’ve read so many books and seen so many movies and even adverts in your life – they all are structured in a certain way.

You don’t necessarily have to structure your memoir like a novel, but it does need some kind of a structure with a distinct beginning, middle and end. You need to take your readers on a journey or else you risk your memoir reading like a disjointed collection of short stories.

The simplest way to structure something is like this: Because something happened, other things happened and it all lead to this. That’s literally it. You’re allowed to use a little artistic licence and filling in the blanks here to make it all flow together, but that’s a very good basic structure for your memoir.

And I can’t wait to read it.

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