How to Write a Memoir – Reveal & Frame

Have you thought of writing a memoir and wondered if readers will be interested in your experiences?

Fiction shows truths about the human condition through invented characters. Memoir reveals the author’s particular truths through his or her character.

In memoir, you frame for your readers particular views of the world, revealed through your experiences. And you frame mirrors for your readers’ own revelations, prompted by yours. Readers of memoir relate to how you select the experiences for them. The elements and techniques of fiction are useful in memoir to structure your story and make it vivid.

Just as a novelist doesn’t include everything about the invented characters, a memoirist doesn’t include every experience of his or her life.

In his memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson writes, “So this is a book about not very much: about being small and getting larger slowly.” His specific experiences are of growing up in the Midwestern United States in the 1950s. But anyone who has been a kid and has grown into an adult can relate. Being small and getting larger slowly is a universal experience. He makes the everyday minutia of his childhood memoir-worthy by framing it through humor, exaggeration, and a remembered in-the-body sensory awareness.

“I knew pain the way you know it when it is fresh and interesting — the pain, for example, of a toasted marshmallow in your mouth when its interior is roughly the temperature and consistency of magma. I knew exactly how clouds drifted on a July afternoon, what rain tasted like, how ladybugs preened and caterpillars rippled, what it felt like to sit inside a bush.”

His reason for sitting inside a bush may be different from mine, but I can relate to being small enough to hide in one when playing hide and seek with the neighbor kids. Can you?

By valuing your life experience, discovering its universal essence, and magnifying it through vivid writing aided by fiction techniques, you can write a memoir that could make a splash!

Now— Reminisce on your childhood. What comes to mind vividly? What do you remember through all your senses? Write about it to discover your personal framing and its universal appeal.

Prepare yourself for Moments of Mastery!


A Man Called Ove and What Love’s Got to Do with It

“Ove is fifty-nine.” That opening line, which is the complete first paragraph of Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel A Man Called Ove, contains a world of inference about the curmudgeonly character. He exists, he’s of an age, and he’s called “Ove.” On first glance at the book’s cover, I read “Love.” My brain wanted to insert the missing “L.” Hmm. My mind corrects —no, not “love.” It’s Ove—an unusual name. However, the author is Swedish, so maybe not so unusual. (Later checking online there are many famous Scandanavian men called Ove.) But I’m English speaking, and I can’t help but hear the refrain from one of my favorite Tina Turner songs—“What’s love got to do with it?”

Backman spends the rest of the book answering this question, even as Ove protests. As it turns out, love has everything to do with it. We’re told in the third sentence that this man called Ove “is the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight.” I admit to not liking Ove here on page one, even if he does drive a Saab—a sturdy car which once saved a friend of mine’s life. So why did I read on?

Lesson: Make the reader want to spend time with the character.

This is a fiction writer’s great challenge, especially if the main character, for the sake of the narrative arc, is not a likeable guy or anticipated hero. On page one, Ove is trying to buy an iPad or laptop. He counters his feelings of being diminished by this experience—the confusing technology, the skinny young assistant who offers more arrogance than assurance (a common sales practice that in the nonfictional world often signals how much the clerk doesn’t know him or herself)—with demands. “I want a computer!” When the clerk tells him that a laptop is a computer, Ove explodes. “You think I don’t know that!”

With this, Ove steps into the reader’s heart. Whether you’re young or old, tech literate or not, shop at Apple, Best Buy, or big box, no doubt you’ve felt as Ove does—like a complete idiot (which you know you are not), extremely frustrated (which you have been for reasons having nothing to do with buying a computer and which exist in your life outside of the store), and shamed by someone whose help you need but who makes you feel (1. too old) (2.too young) (3. too dumb) (4. t00 desperate). You choose.

In the next chapter, we meet Ove’s wife through his eyes. She doesn’t speak when he talks to her, but we believe she loves him in a way no one has ever loved him—unconditionally. We see their routines, the way she tolerates his difficult personality, perhaps even loves him all the more for it. On his daily perambulation, we meet a cat and a few of his neighbors. Ove has grievances with everyone we meet, except for his wife. And then we discover that she had died, but continues to be very much alive in his imagination. Sonja is easy to love, and soon we join Ove in grieving her loss. Misery needs company.

Lesson: Craft a pitch-perfect narrative point of view.

Backman brings us close to Ove and leaves room for surprises. It’s Ove’s world and becomes ours too. Through a close-enough but not-all-the-way close third-person, Backman draws us into Ove’s head and heart, even though Ove would push us out, as he tries to do with everyone else. We see Ove as he sees himself, but we don’t see everything or make sense of everything until the right time in the narrative. We’re close enough to feel empathy for him and, at times, affinity with him. We often see or learn something that Ove doesn’t yet understand or never will. We are at once within Ove and outside of him, growing to care for him as his neighbors do, cheering him on to fail at each attempt he makes to end his life and to win happiness in the end.

With admirable skill, the author crafts a pitch-perfect, humorous, and deeply empathic narrative that keeps the reader wondering what’s next for Ove and hoping for the best. We feel the fist of his heart opening to accept the love of a family that move in next door, of people he meets and tries to avoid, of neighbors who have lived on his street for decades.

The last chapter could be called “A Man Called Ove and a Reader Who Laughs and Cries because She’s Going to Miss Him When She Closes the Book.”


Narrating into the “Heart of Darkness”

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness begins with a first-person narrator on a yawl in the Thames with four other men. He sets the scene: “…the sky without a speck was a benign immensity of unstained light….” As night arrives, one of the other men, Marlow, begins talking. “‘And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.'” 

That interruption is justified by narrator #1. “His remark did not seem at all surprising. It was just like Marlow.”

There is a narrative volley, as Marlow begins again at length, pauses—so we’re told by narrator #1—begins again, breaks off—again we’re told by narrator #1, who gives us another glimpse of the river: “Flames glided in the river, small green flames, red flames, white flames, pursing, overtaking, joining, crossing each other—.” 

Marlow begins again. We’re still on the yawl, listening, and he takes us on a trip up a different river into the African jungle, where, while working for a trading company, he met Mr. Kurtz, another trading company employee, who due to his unorthodox methods for collecting ivory and his great artistic talents has become a myth in his own time.

Lesson: Distinguish narrative voice through diction

Rivers, real and metaphoric, pull us through the story. Marlow’s river is unlike that of narrator #1. Marlow says, “We called at some more places with farcical names, where the merry dance of death and trade goes on in a still and earthy atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb; all along the formless coast bordered by dangerous surf, as if Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders; in and out of rivers, dreams of death in life, whose banks, were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair.”

Marlow’s lengthy passages are in quotes, so we know he is the one speaking. But even if they weren’t in quotes, his words describe a river from an altogether darker point of view. 

Lesson: Use narrative structure for a story-telling effect

The first narrator occasionally breaks into Marlow’s narration, a device reminding us that Marlow has already returned safely and setting Marlow’s narration in storytelling context, leaving some doubt—is he exaggerating for effect? Natives attack, the jungle teems with menace. It’s Kurtz’s doing; the natives don’t want him to leave. Kurtz, who appears to have lost his sanity, comes on board and dies soon after with Marlow by his side. Kurtz’s last words stay with Marlow: “The horror! The horror!”

Marlow delivers letters to Kurtz’s intended and fudges the truth: he tells her that “The last word he pronounced was—your name.”  This is another story within a story, one that makes us aware that truth is subjective, as are stories and the telling of them.

Lesson: Shape narrative structure integral to theme

Marlow’s tale is a meditation on life and death, on greatness and failure. The encased narration gives the effect of going deeper into the layers of the story—the outer layer is the first narrator, the second layer is Marlow, and the third—at the heart—is Kurtz, the pearl in the oyster. Through the layered narration, readers are drawn into the story and witness Kurtz’s death. We are complicit when Marlow lies to Kurtz’s girlfriend about his final words, and we question whether or not we also would have lied.

When narrator #1 at the end takes us out of the story, we feel ourselves leave the rapture of the tale, as if waking from a dream. His description of the Thames reflects how the story has changed his point of view: I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.

The “I” That Binds “Joy Luck Club”

The stories of the four mothers and four daughters in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club are all told through first-person point of view. This approach could be confusing, but Tan accomplishes her feat because she uses, actually, not eight points of view, but two: Chinese-born mothers and American-born daughters. The reader recognizes each narrator not so much through her distinctive voice as through the details of her life: the mothers are attached to their traditions; the daughters are 100% American.

The elder women have their Joy Luck, a mah jong become stock-market club. Suyuan Woo, who started the club, has died, and her daughter, Jing-mei “June,” begins the many-storied book by relating her mothers’ tale. Suyuan’s life was scarred; fleeing the Japanese invasion of Kweilin, she left her baby girls by the side of the road. This first story where June joins their club one night, initiates the narrative pull-through, introduces the other mothers, and mentions the daughters.

Lesson: Cohere your first person narrators

The glue that joins the stories comes from the deep misunderstandings and love that binds mother to daughter, old world to new. The older women dream of evocative past lives, and they chatter about discarded ambitions for their daughters. The daughters are not all best friends. There is rivalry, instilled by their mothers’ competition to have the best daughters. The daughters muddle through their contemporary marriages, careers, and divorces, unable to discard their heritage, always disappointing their mothers. June’s story weaves throughout and ends the novel. She goes back to China and finds the left-behind sisters. “Together we look like our mother.”

The American Heritage dictionary defines cohere as “To have internal elements or parts logically connected so that aesthetic consistency results. To cause to form a united, orderly, and aesthetically consistent whole. Interesting, cohere comes from the Latin “to cling.” In Tan’s narrative structure, the binding “I” is, ultimately, a hallmark of the book’s artistic integrity and the book’s gestalt. 

Together, Tan’s stories paint a vivid picture of clashing cultures and generations. The “I” that could have been confusing deepens the understanding between them all.

Strings Attached in “Vanity Fair”

William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is a romp, a performance, a puppet show told in sixty-seven chapters. The intruding narrator intermittently makes his presence and his control of the story known.

He anticipates and apologizes: “But as we are to see a great deal of Amelia…;” “…indeed I am afraid that her nose was rather short….” (p. 11, Penguin Books 2004 edition)

He admonishes: “How is this? Some carping reader exclaims.” (p. 125)

He challenges: “I throw out these queries for intelligent readers to answer….” (p. 251)

He abdicates: “Why was she so violently agitated at Dobbin’s request? This can never be known.”  (p. 252)

He assumes: “I doubt, I say, that Becky would have selected either of these young men….”  (p. 587)

He lectures: “…so an uninitiated man…had best keep his opinions to himself whatever they are.” (p. 589)

Subtitled “Novel without a Hero,” Vanity Fair has a heroine: Becky Sharp. She’s clever and spirited, self-centered and good-hearted, a wife and mother who is careless with her husband and child, a good friend to Amelia, the other heroine. The narrator is kind to Becky, looks out for her: “She has her enemies. Who has not? Her life is her answer to them. She busies herself in works of piety.”

A plethora of characters and events are packed into this novel: the narrator moves things along in quick summary or explanation, or drops back behind the action, but never for long. He comes directly into it: “It was on this very tour that I, the present writer of a history of which every word is true, had the pleasure to see them first, and to make their acquaintance.”

He’s omniscient (except when he feigns ignorance), but he’s also a character. He’s an entertainer. He’s the puppeteer, manipulating the story; and, as in watching a puppet show, readers are at times unaware, at times keenly aware, of the strings.

Lesson: Try it. Learn from it.

Writing an intruding narrator is a lot harder to pull off than it may seem. You may start strong, humorous, but not be able to maintain that level throughout the long form of a novel. Or the voice may divert attention from the story in an annoying way or become so intolerable the reader closes the book. Or you may write an acclaimed piece of contemporary metafiction.

The advantage of trying it is this: Once you’ve written that kind of narrator intentionally, you will probably be able to spot your own intrusions and residue of author’s notes more easily in your work when they aren’t desired.

Lesson: Use it incidentally for narrative control

You may decide to use a bit of intrusion in your work for narrative control. Ann Patchett does this in Bel Canto when she steps out of the story for a time bridge and begins again—So to rejoin the story a week after Mr. Hosokawa’s birthday party ended seems as good a place as any.

This jumped out at me the times that I’ve read Bel Canto. But it fits with the established narrative voice—omniscient, distant to close-third person point of view—fully in control, no nonsense (won’t waste our time), comforting, and wise.

Narrating “To Kill A Mockingbird”

There’s at least one great reason that To Kill a Mockingbird has been in print for 50 years: Scout. From the novel’s first sentence, this lovable, mischievous, innocent, hard-headed, and wise first-person narrator (aka Jean Louise Finch) takes us firmly by the hand and escorts us through a story spanning three years of her childhood and racial prejudice in a small Southern town. Her lost innocence and growing awareness is our own, again and again. Her matter-of-fact assessment “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” which comes at book’s end and is spoken to her father, Atticus, is as startling, provocative, and revelatory on rereading as it was the first time we came upon it. Why would anyone kill a mockingbird, when all it does is sing?

Whose story is it?

Harper Lee’s Scout is a masterful teacher for studying point of view and narrative voice. Writers are often confronted with the question: “Whose story is it?” The answer can lead to decisions about narrative structure. With Scout, the better question is “Whose story is it to tell?” Scout is at the center of story and it’s very much about her, but it’s also about her brother Jem, her attorney father, a recluse named Boo Radley, a black man unjustly accused, and the town of Maycomb, Alabama—a fictional microcosm of race and class prejudice in the Depression-era deep South. Scout can tell it not only because she witnesses most of it, but because she’s the innocent and can ask, “Well how do you know we ain’t Negroes?”

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird encapsulates a time and place before the civil rights movement. Scout’s narrative voice and point of view has kept the story relevant for current times. Issues of race, class, and morality continually challenge us and to see them fresh we need an unbiased, open perspective, such as Scout’s. Ultimately, it becomes again and again our story and ours to tell.

Lesson: Distinguish the voice through diction

It’s clear upfront that the story is being narrated after the incidents: “When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them…” The voice is adult—”Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged…” How many six-year-olds say “assuaged”? Lee’s mastery is in how that narrative voice dips easily back into Scout’s in-the-child-moment presence, so that we are there with her. Scout is intelligent and precocious, an avid reader who is told by her teacher not to read because she’s too far ahead of the class. The setup allows for young Scout’s intelligent observations and rich vocabulary of remembered descriptions, and also for authenticity. Because she’s a child living in a small town in the South—no matter how well she’s been schooled by herself or her self-schooled attorney father—she says things like “Dill’ll wanta come” and “Then I’m goin’ with you. If you say no you’re not, I’m goin’ anyway, hear?” and “Ain’t you feeling good?”

She’s childlike but not childish, and she’s a reliable source of information when it comes to knowing what’s important to children. She relates in high vocabulary an incident involving Jem and a cantankerous old woman—”I wasn’t sure what Jem resented most, but I took umbrage at Mrs. Dubose’s assessment of the family’s mental hygiene.” Two pages later, angry with Atticus for making Jem apologize to Mrs. Dubose, she slips from child wisdom —”I hated him for that, but when you are in trouble you become easily tired; soon I was hiding in his lap and his arms were around me.”— to child wondering—”I said I didn’t see why we had to keep our heads anyway, that nobody I knew at school had to keep his head about anything.” 

Lesson: Don’t tell all you know

As narrator, the adult Scout knows the answers to the child Scout’s questions, and she could tell us from her adult perspective. But, bless her heart, she doesn’t. Who put the carved soap figures in the knothole of the tree? Who saved Jem’s life?  The adult Scout lets the reader have the satisfaction of figuring many things out ahead of her childhood self. We know she knows all now, but understand what she didn’t know then. She pulls the reader through the story by sustaining the suspense as she experienced it in childhood. “Something crushed the chicken wire around me. Metal ripped on metal and I fell to the ground and rolled as far as I could, foundering to escape my wire prison. From somewhere near by came scuffling, kicking sounds, sounds of shoes and flesh scraping dirt and roots.” She’s in the ham costume, so logically she can’t see and tell in the moment. For this reason, among many, the ham costume is a masterful narrative prop. It keeps Scout and us in the dark and allows an omission of information that readers will accept, as they keep turning pages.

Lesson: Telescope

At times she speaks from the long view: “I never saw [Boo Radley] again.” At other times, she moves in closer to the action—“Christmas came and disaster struck”—and closer still— “I felt the sand go cold under my feet and I knew we were near the big oak.” This telescoping keeps us engaged as readers. It gives us the bigger picture for context and draws us into the details with sensory writing. 

Lesson: Write a lovable narrator

Narrators don’t have to be easy to love, and they may be hard to like. But in this case, To Kill a Mockingbird has sold tens of millions of copies and is called “One of the best-loved stories of all time” because readers like spending time with Scout. She’s at the center of the story, but she’s not self-centered, any more than a child is naturally. “It was plain that Aunty thought me dull in the extreme, because I once heard her tell Atticus that I was sluggish.” She’s curious, feisty, and forgiving. “Yeah Walter, I won’t jump on you again. Don’t you like butterbeans? Our Cal’s a real good cook.” She’s humble enough to wear a ham costume in public—”Jem said I looked exactly like a ham with legs. There were several discomforts, though: it was hot, it was a close fit; if my nose itched I couldn’t scratch, and once inside I could not get out of it alone.” (This description sets up her inability to escape in the subsequent scene where she’s accosted while walking home wearing the costume.) She’s brave enough to take the arm of a man whom she’s been terrified of for years—”Mr. Arthur, bend your arm down her, like that. That’s right, sir.” She makes sense of the world, as much as can be made, for her in her time and for us in ours.

Master Craft Juggling

Writing a book is like juggling balloons. You pay attention to one element or the other, while a centrifugal force in your mind keeps them floating together in a big balloon cloud above your head.

Master Fiction Craft Juggling

A graphic depiction of learning fiction craft mastery


 In Read to Write, we begin with first sentences (front gatekeepers), because that’s where we begin as readers. A writer may, in fact, begin in any number of places—with a story seed (whether consciously or not), a character, place, theme, or any other craft element. This diagram shows how the course structure works for your manuscript draft or revision or to gain understanding of an author’s mastery. As we start at 1, thinking about beginnings, we’re also looking to the end (last sentences, gates swinging shut or opening out past the story) and to all that comes between. When writing a book, each craft element influences the development of all the others, and as the book builds from its essential reason for being, the cumulative effect of the elements reaches out to re-influence each element again individually.

This back-and-forth and circular dynamic enriches the writing and the book’s gestalt. Initial close examination of a few sentences sets the standard for mastery. The book is composed of sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, into which we infuse all the elements. The thrill and challenge of writing a book is in keeping it all juggling in the air, whether while writing or going about other activities and consciously or subconsciously tucking new thoughts and observations up into the individual thought balloons and the larger whole.

Books by masterful authors, whether read during the course of working on a project or echoing from having been read however long ago, continually instruct and influence a writer’s processes and projects. 

The diagram above shows why a book project may feel like its spinning totally out of control at times or like its humming along at other times. The writer must make each element serve the cumulative effect of the book. Elements out of balance throw off synchronicity. 

Writers go through a semblance of this craft process many times, perhaps many hundreds of times, when writing a book. And with each new project, they begin again. Call it revision, but it’s more than that. It’s mastery, for which there are no direct routes, easy steps, or guaranteed results. No matter how skilled or famous the writer is, each new book calls for juggling its own way.