5 Tips on Writing Memoir

writing memoir

1. Forgive yourself

When setting out to write a memoir, it’s easy to waste a lot of time – or even to stop yourself completely – by listening to the internal voices that say, ‘Who do you think you are, writing all this about yourself? Whoever’s going to be interested?’ But there is absolutely no point trying to pacify the haters – including those that live inside your head. By definition, you’re writing for readers who are sympathetic to you. The haters didn’t even get past the title. There’s nothing people love more than fossicking through the details of other people’s lives – their family conflicts, their intimate triumphs.

2. Remember easily

The best exercise I know, for getting started writing about the past, is based on Joe Brainard’s 1970 memoir I Remember. In this charming cult classic, every widely spaced paragraph starts with the words ‘I remember’. The exercise is to pick one small part of your life – perhaps a place, perhaps a person – and to begin writing using Brainard’s form. Don’t worry about chronology. Just let each memory prompt the next. Leave the sorting out for later.

3. Be Sensational

When you’re trying to transport any reader into your story, whether it’s invented or true, you need to be specific. Not about dates and times, but about textures, smells, associations and physical reactions. It may seem trivial, but it makes a big difference whether you were wearing a grey or a red jumper when that life-changing news arrived. Unless you tell the reader it was red, they won’t know, and in their imagination, you’ll be wearing colourless clothes.

4. Be Quirky

Whilst writing my memoir, Wrestliana, I came across a useful concept: quirk historicism. It dates from the 2010s, and refers to ‘the recent tendency of music scholars… to avail themselves of objets trouvés and historical micronarratives’. In other words, going small in the writing, and letting the quirky detail stand for the whole. Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is a great example of this. Here’s another example: My great-great uncle worked for years as a country vet in Shropshire, but you’ve already lost interest in him. However, he was also the first man in the world to fit a wooden leg on a cow.

5. Try Anything

My most recent memoir-type-thing is called A Writer’s Diary. It’s a year in my life and my life in a year. True but also fictional. I’m releasing an entry every day on Substack, and it will be published as a book by Galley Beggar Press on January 1st 2023. Looking back, I realise that I started writing a book before I knew it was a book. If I’d known, I probably never would have started. Sometimes the best, most intense writing you can do seems, at the time, to have no obvious outlet. You don’t even know that it is anything as recognisable as a memoir. It’s just words that seem important. But that freedom from expectation can open the way to unselfconscious new forms.