Memoir has become one of the biggest genres in the nonfiction world, producing some of the best, most exciting books in any given year. It is also, you might guess, one of the toughest to master. Breaking in as a memoirist can be challenging, even for experienced writers, or people whose lives seem ripe for this kind of treatment. That’s because writing a memoir book takes skills and know-how.
Over the course of this blog, I’m going to cover some of what I believe are the keys to writing a memoir book readers want to read. I’ll be the first to admit, this topic is quite broad, worthy of an entire book (or a shelf in your library) but what you read here should be able to get you started on the right foot when it comes to mindset and approach to process.
Let’s Define What A Memoir Book Is
Memoir is a historical account written from personal knowledge or special sources. It’s critically different from a biography (or an autobiography) in that while those types of books focus on a single person, usually a well-known public figure, memoirs tend to be more diffuse. They’re not necessarily life-spanning books or stories. They can focus entirely on a person, but more often, they look at specific events, using that person’s life to shine a light on history.
An example I give is this. If you take an artist who has had a long, rich career, their biography would cover their entire life, addressing all of their experiences, usually in a chronological manner. That same celebrity could write multiple memoirs, each one covering distinct and meaningful periods. If you look at Paul McCartney, founding member of the seminal rock band The Beatles, his life has been the subject of multiple memoirs. His friendship with his songwriting partner, John Lennon. His work during the Beatles tumultuous seven year run. The relationship he shared with Lindy McCartney.
Every one of these memoirs details a chapter in his life. His biography would cover all of it.
Keys To Writing A Memoir Book May Be In The Subject
Is your memoir about a person? Or is it more about an era?
Looking at the Paul McCartney example, you might begin to see how knowing the specific area around the subject would be critical to your writing. In each of those books, McCartney (and his ghostwriting partner) had to know what specific area of his life they’re dealing with.
If you were, for example, writing the definitive memoir about Paul and Linda McCartney’s relationship, a majority of which would have taken place after The Beatles broke up, you’d focus on how the couple met, what their partnership was like, etc…. It would be important to know the history and root of those relationships, but it’s also equally important to know, you’re probably not writing about the tension in the studio around the recording of “Abbey Road” (however fun it might be).
The key here is understanding you need to know your subject broadly. When it comes to writing the actual story though, it is best to focus, really drilling down on the subject.
Does Audience Matter?
If you had a chance to read Rick Rubin’s 2023 book The Creative Act then you understand he completely disregards the role of the audience in the creation of the music. Write and record the music that moves you. Everything else is a byproduct of that.
Can you afford such creative chutzpah when looking at your memoir?
Rick Rubin is one of my creative heroes. He’s been responsible for some of my favorite music of all time as well as encapsulated many of my views on how creativity works. But on this point of disregarding the audience, I can’t agree with him. At least when it comes to winning over readers, keeping them engaged, a writer has to understand who their readers are.
Going to write that McCartney book about his friendship with John Lennon? You’d better understand that your readers likely skew older. They’re likely middle class. The same way you would recognize that writing about Taylor Swift would lead you to a younger, likely female audience.
Knowing your readers isn’t necessarily surrendering creative control of your project. It’s more accurately the process of focusing your story on the people most likely to read it. Different readers want different things, so it is best not to conflate them.
Is Sale-ability A Key To Writing A Memoir Book?
In the previous section, I talked about the importance of knowing your audience when writing a memoir book. I’ll walk that back a bit, however, when we look at the market. Does the subject need to be marketable? The hot topic everyone is talking about?
I don’t think so. Why not?
Well, for one thing, the world is so very broad today. As a writer, you have the unique opportunity to write something very specific, whether that be the person or the era, and find an audience.
Whenever I look at Amazon, I’m amazed at how broad reader interest is these days. I’ll paraphrase something a trusted colleague says: whatever you’re into writing about, however niche and specific, there’s an audience for reading it. Go out, write a great book and reach them.
The caveat here is this: remember how I brought up Taylor Swift just a bit ago? That woman is a heck of a lot more marketable than anything else you could possibly write. I haven’t done the analytics to prove that bombastic statement, but I’ll roll the dice and say she’s the hottest thing (maybe ever). Taylor Swift makes the NFL more popular.
A “hotter” topic makes for a more sellable, likely more profitable book. If you get granular, choosing something niche, however well you please that audience, be prepared for “lesser” results. That doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy topic, it just means that you’re not likely to sell a million copies.
What Is The Actual Key To Writing A Memoir Book?
I really think it comes down to one thing: authenticity. After years as a ghostwriter, editor, story consultant, I think the key to writing a memoir book is about finding a subject you enjoy and that also brings out the best writer in you.
Read this far for that seemingly simplistic take? Don’t be disappointed. Hear me out.
When we love something and really care about it, that feeling comes through in the resulting work. Think about when you pass by a champion garden, beautiful flowers cultivated and maintained by someone who truly loves being outside on a spring day. You can feel that love come through. You’ll probably make it a point to go out of your way to pass it by another time. You might tell friends.
That kind of love comes through on the page too. When you’re writing about something, or someone, that you’re really driven by, it shows up. Readers are attracted to that kind of writing. They read it once and come back for more. They go out of their way to tell their friends.
It’s infectious. Story should be infectious.
Writing a memoir book is an exciting, challenging and, if you do it right, rewarding journey. The keys are understanding the subject, investing in the craft, and really loving what you’re doing. Orient yourself this way and not only will you enjoy the process of writing, you’ll reward readers the world over with a story worth coming back to over and over again.