How to Write Your Memoir: A 3-Step Guide

how to write a memoir image 1Memoir is not just a fancy literary term for an autobiography. I say that from the start, because I hear the terms used interchangeably so often.

Your memoir will be autobiographical, but it will not be your life story.

Confused yet? Stay with me.

Simply put, an autobiography is likely to cover one’s birth to the present — emphasis often on accomplishments, but the more honest and revelatory the better.

A memoir draws on selected anecdotes from your life to support a theme and make a point. For instance, if your point is how you came from some unlikely place to where you are now, you would choose scenes from your life to support that.

Maybe you came from:

  • The wrong side of the tracks
  • A broken home
  • Having been a victim of abuse
  • Addiction
  • An orphanage

To a position of:

  • Wealth
  • Status
  • Happiness
  • Health
  • Faith

You might start with memories that show how bad things once were for you. Then you would show pivotal experiences in your life, important people in your transformation, what you learned, and how you applied certain principles to see this vast change.

Naturally, the better the stories, the better the memoir. However, great stories are not the point — and frankly, neither is the memoirist (you).

What Publishers Look For

Don’t buy into the idea that only famous people can sell a memoir. Sure, if you’re a household name and people are curious about you, that’s an advantage.

But memoirs by nobodies succeed all the time — and for one reason: they resonate with readers because readers identify with truth. Truth, even hard, gritty, painful truth, bears transferrable principles.

Memoirs full of such relatable candor attract readers, and readers are what publishers want. An astute agent or acquisitions editor can predict how relatable a memoir will be and take a chance on one from an unpublished unknown.

Agents and editors tell me they love to discover such gems — the same way they love discovering the next great novelist.

So, when writing your memoir…

You may be the subject, but it’s not about you — it’s about what readers can gain from your story.

It may seem counterintuitive to think reader-first while writing in the first-person about yourself. But if your memoir doesn’t enrich, entertain, or enlighten readers, they won’t stay with it long, and they certainly won’t recommend it.

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How to Write a Memoir in 3 Steps

1. Know Your Theme

And remember, it’s not that you’ve made something of yourself — even if you have. Sorry, but nobody cares except those who already love you.

Your understated theme must be, “You’re not alone. What happened to me can also happen to you.”

That’s what appeals to readers. Even if they do come away from your memoir impressed with you, it won’t be because you’re so special — even if you are. Whether they admit it or not, readers care most about their own lives.

Imagine a reader picking up your memoir and thinking, What’s in this for me? The more of that you offer, the more successful your book will be. Think transferable principles in a story well told.

Cosmic Commonalities

All people, regardless of age, ethnicity, location, and social status, share certain felt needs: food, shelter, and love. They fear abandonment, loneliness, and the loss of loved ones. Regardless your theme, if it touches on any of those wants and fears, readers will identify.

I can read the memoir of someone of my opposite gender, for whom English is not her first language, of a different race and religion, who lives halfway around the world from me — and if she tells the story of her love for her child or grandchild, it reaches my core.

Knowing or understanding or relating to nothing else about her, I understand love of family.

Worried About Uniqueness?

Many writers tell me they fear their theme has been covered many times by many other memoirists. While it’s true, as the Bible says, that there’s nothing new under the sun, no one has written your story, your memoir, your way.

While I still say it’s not about you but really about your reader, it’s you who lends uniqueness to your theme. Write on!

How to Write a Memoir Without Preaching

Trust your narrative to do the work of conveying your message. Too many amateurish memoirists feel the need to eventually turn the spotlight on the reader with a sort of “So, how about you…?”

Let your experiences and how they impacted you make their own points, and trust the reader to get it. Beat him over the head with your theme and you run him off.

You can avoid being preachy by using what I call the Come Alongside Method. When you show what happened to you, if the principles apply to your reader he doesn’t need that pointed out. Give him credit.

2. Carefully Select Your Anecdotes

The best memoirs let readers see themselves in your story so they can identify with your experiences and apply to their own lives the lessons you’ve learned.

If you’re afraid to mine your pain deeply enough tell the whole truth, you may not be ready to write your memoir. There’s little less helpful — or marketable — than a memoir that glosses over the truth.

So feature anecdotes from your life that support your theme, regardless how painful it is to resurrect the memories. The more introspective and vulnerable you are, the more effective will be your memoir.

Worried about throwing family members under the bus by telling the truth? That’s a legitimate concern. Click on the link above for suggestions.

3. Write It Like a Novel

It’s as important in a memoir as it is in a novel to show and not just tell.

Example:

Telling

My father was a drunk who abused my mother and me. I was scared to death every time I heard him come in late at night.

Showing

As soon as I heard the gravel crunch beneath the tires and the car door open and shut, I dove under my bed. I could tell by his footsteps whether Dad was sober and tired or loaded and looking for a fight. I prayed God would magically make me big enough to jump between him and my mom, because she was always his first target…

Use every trick in the novelist’s arsenal to make each anecdote come to life: dialogue, description, conflict, tension, pacing, everything.

Worry less about chronology than theme. You’re not married to the autobiographer’s progressive timeline. Tell whatever anecdote fits your point for each chapter, regardless where they fall on the calendar. Just make the details clear so the reader knows where you are in the story.

You might begin with the most significant memory of your life, even from childhood. Then you can segue into something like, “Only now do I understand what was really happening.” Your current-day voice can always drop in to tie things together.

Character Arc

As in a novel, how the protagonist (in this case, you) grows is critical to a successful story. Your memoir should make clear the difference between who you are today and who you once were. What you learn along the way becomes your character arc.

Point of View

It should go without saying that you write a memoir in the first-person. And just as in a novel, the point-of-view character is the one with the problem, the challenge, something he’s after. Tell both your outer (what happens) and your inner (its impact on you) story.

Structure

In his classic How to Write Bestselling Fiction, novelist Dean Koontz outlines what he calls the Classic Story Structure. Though intended as a framework for a novel, it strikes me that this would be perfect for a memoir too — provided you don’t change true events just to make it work.

For fiction, Koontz recommends writers:

1 — Plunge your main character into terrible trouble as soon as possible

2 — Everything he does to try to get out of it makes it only progressively worse until…

3 — His situation appears hopeless

4 — But in the end, because of what he’s learned and how he’s grown through all those setbacks, he rises to the challenge and wins the day.

You might be able to structure your memoir the same way merely by how you choose to tell the story. As I say, don’t force things, but the closer you can get to that structure, the more engaging your memoir will be.

For your purposes, Koontz’s Terrible Trouble would be the nadir of your life. (If nadir is a new word for you, it’s the opposite of zenith.) Take the reader with you to your lowest point, and show what you did to try to remedy things. If your experience happens to fit the rest of the structure, so much the better.

Setups and Payoffs

Great novels carry a book-length setup that demands a payoff in the end, plus chapter-length setups and payoffs, and sometimes even the same within scenes. The more of these the better.

The same is true for your memoir. Virtually anything that makes the reader stay with you to find out what happens is a setup that demands a payoff. Even something as seemingly innocuous as your saying that you hoped high school would deliver you from the torment of junior high makes the reader want to find out if that proved true.

Make ‘em Wait

Avoid using narrative summary to give away too much information too early. I’ve seen memoir manuscripts where the author tells in the first paragraph how they went from abject poverty to independent wealth in 20 years, “…and I want to tell you how that happened.”

To me, that just took the air out of the tension balloon, and many readers would agree and see no reason to read on. Better to set them up for a payoff and let them wait. Not so long that you lose them to frustration, but long enough to build tension.

Common Memoir Mistakes to Avoid

  • Making it too much like an autobiography (missing a theme)
  • Including minutiae
  • Bragging
  • Glossing over the truth
  • Preaching
  • Effecting the wrong tone: funny, sarcastic, condescending

How to Start Your Memoir

Your goal is to hook your reader, so begin in medias res—in the middle of things.

If you start slowly, you lose readers interest. Jump right into the story!

Memoir Examples

Thoroughly immerse yourself this genre before attempting to write in it. I read nearly 50 memoirs before I wrote mine (Writing for the Soul). Here’s a list to get you started:

  1. All Over But the Shoutin’  by Rick Bragg (my favorite book ever)
  2. Cultivate by Lara Casey
  3. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
  4. Out of Africa by Karen Blixen
  5. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
  6. Still Woman Enough by Loretta Lynn
  7. Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
  8. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  9. This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
  10. Molina by Benjie Molina and Joan Ryan

Want to save this guide to read, save, or print whenever you wish? Click here.

Are you working on your memoir or planning to? Do you have any questions on how to write a memoir? Share with me in the comments below.

Related Posts:

How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps

How to Become an Author: Your Complete Guide

How to Write a Short Story That Captivates Your Reader

  • Dwight Clough

    good thoughts, Jerry … as always

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Dwight. Hope you’re well. :)

  • This is encouraging to me and I’m sure many other aspiring memoirists – it’s easy to find a publisher if you’re a somebody, but a nobody? Your work has to show and show well. Appreciate the encouragement!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Exactly, Katie. How many names did you recognize in my list of suggested memoirs? Surely not more than half.

  • Michelle

    My desire is to write my story, however, I always say it isn’t all mine to tell. I haven’t yet reconciled my perspective verses the others that play a part in it. And if course there are many huge parts. Where to start? Sometimes when friends introduce me they say, “Her life could be a Lifetime movie.” That is a bit overwhelming!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Michelle, imagine yourself sitting across from the one person you want the most to hear this story, and begin: “Let me tell you what happened to me…”

      I think you meant ‘versus’ there, not ‘verses.’ And as for the others who play a part, you might find this interesting: http://bit.ly/2aXZGRT

      • Michelle

        Thank you for the reply. I read the article immediately after posting the comment and it was very helpful.

  • Tammy Wampler

    I was merely a wife and mommy, making lots and lots of mistakes until 1992, when I contracted Viral Encephalitis. I want to tell the story of how this affected me, affected the dancer within, and how I managed to find peace and glory at the end of my struggles.
    I am also the subject of a court case that actually changed one of the laws in my state, when my parents became embroiled in a very nasty battle concerning my paternity. This was the 60’s, so there was no DNA evidence to see. They were married, just not to each other. I have a lot to say about all of the struggles and events of my life. I think it would make a very good story, and everyone I have let read what I have so far, agrees.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Sounds interesting, Tammy, but remember, transferable truths will make it work.

  • Debra Kornfield

    I’m trying to write the story of my daughter (biography?). I didn’t start out wanting to write a memoir, but that is what is emerging: how her life changed mine, and how my view of her life changed through reading her journals. Your suggestions make me wonder whether I need to start over from the perspective of writing a memoir (my story) as it was impacted by hers. Up until now I haven’t felt like my story is very interesting, whereas hers, I think, is very interesting and impactful. People are waiting to read her story, and I wouldn’t want to betray them as they discover it’s actually my story. Food for thought.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Putting on my editor’s cap, Debra, I believe her story IS your story, and telling it from your perspective is the way to go. That actually sounds like the perfect recipe for a memoir. How My Daughter Changed My Life.

  • Hard at work, Jerry! Every day further, the deep waters stretching my limits and limbs, emptying my lungs of breath and story, but there is healing here. Thanks for your words!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thank you, Michelle.

  • Nita Tin

    Hi Jerry, This is so helpful to me. Thank you! I was a Buddhist and God has placed this burden on my heart to tell what He has done in my life. My name is Nita Tin. I have met you several times at Moody President’s Forums for several years and you gave me your card and told me to get in touch with you, but I just had it on my desk. I have had this calling to write my memoirs for more than 15 years now and have always put it aside to take care of things on the front burner, things which will not count for eternity. I have finally come to the place of obedience knowing that God could remove my candlestick and joined your group. God has drawn me to Himself with loving kindness and removed me from the domain of darkness into the marvelous light of His Son, drew me out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay….. and put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God: Many will see and fear. And will trust in the LORD…

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      The key will be to tell that story in the language of the audience, in essence acknowledging where they’re coming from. Inside lingo will limit it to the crowd that needs it least. It’ll encourage them, but I assume you want to reach a wider audience, those like you before you came to faith.

      • Nita Tin

        Yes, my whole purpose is to reach a wide audience. To keep the interest of those who do not know! It starts off with Nepal where I was invited to train over 1000 Nepalese church planters in Kathmandu, our Mr Everest adventure, slowly unraveling my Buddhist heritage, a despot Burmese government, leaving the land of the pagodas on $20, while God pursued me with His relentless love

  • Very good information and points. I self-published some what of a memoir where I used several of my bad and abusive life situations as examples on how the reader can overcome them by trusting in God and his spiritual team. The goal of the book is to help people know they are not alone and they can heal.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Great, Laura. Curious why you chose to self-publish.

      • I did submit my manuscript to literary agents and book publishers who were looking for new age/spiritual material, but it was rejected. Thing is people who have read my book find it interesting.

  • Robin

    Thanks again for the inspiration Jerry. It is very timely. After enduring a “concentration camp” like life, I’ve been endeavouring to deal with the grief and pain that has been my shadow for the last seventy years.
    After having endured this trial, I have nothing. No family (my children were taught by their sociopathic mother, never to speak to me, never to listen to me. A memorial that burns brightly to this day) no social resources and staring down homelessness every day.

    So doing this memoir work is real pick and shovel work, let me tell you. It gets so bad that I have to stop writing for one and two weeks at a time because of the regurgitated pain and stuff. Having endured this stuff in my mind and heart twenty-four-seven, for the last seventy years, it get tedious and can only bear very short stints with pen in hand to write.

    However, may I recommend “Write Your Memoir” by Allan Hunter. He directs the writer to focus on the spiritual aspect of the memoir process, and is highly effective in inducing the writer to focus on drawing out the meaningful aspects of the individuals experience. Highly recommended.

  • Barbara Murphy

    I am writing a biography/ memoir that involves our oldest daughter who was nearly killed in an automobile accident about 4 years ago. She is still in a minimal conscious state, unable to speak or move purposefully, but responding with her eyes, her smile, and an occasional chuckle to familiar faces, funny sounds, and activities around her. The crucial back story is that she was in an emotionally abusive marriage at the time of the accident. Even though she was seeking the Lord’s answer to these problems, she would become quite depressed with the life that she and her two little daughters were in. Then on her way to a Christian women’s conference specifically for mothers of preschoolers, the car she was riding in was involved in an accident caused by a sleepy or distracted semi truck driver leaving our daughter with catastrophic brain damage and killing another woman in the car. The story is a journey in faith because the Lord miraculously intervened in so many details of the accident and the days, weeks, and months or her early recovery. It is my memoir/ our family’s memoir in that the Lord has taught me so much about forgiveness, faith in His ability to heal Katie, and waiting on His timing for more complete healing, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, for everyone concerned. I am 60+pages into the writing. I struggle with how much to say about family past and how to write about her husband’s emotional abuse without getting into legal trouble because he doesn’t really acknowledge his problem. (I read your article on how not to throw a family member under the bus) I am writing with the hopes that at some point Katie will be able to add her own details. (There has been a rollercoaster of improved skills and loss of skills for her- but overall slight degrees of improvement in her consciousness.) But I want this to be God honoring all the way.

  • Janet

    Good points Jerry! Thank you. I self-published a memoir about 1.5 years ago — knowing that I had not really worked through some of these issues. I’d been working on it for 15 years and needed to ‘get it done’. Now I’m feeling like I published too ‘soon’ and would like to fix some of it. Do you think it is too late?

  • Al Harris

    Excellent tips, Jerry. I’m working on a memoir about a young lady whose “hobby” is serial sex. How far can I go without it turning into porn?

  • Kathy Storrie

    I wrote 45, 1-3 page stories, starting with my tiny spirit in Heaven, begging God to send me to Earth to be born, my young years, elem. & high school, college, seminary, and up until I was 35 (I’m 68 now) and I stopped because few were commenting on my blog. I thought I was writing my memoirs, but now I see I wasn’t. These true and honest writings were quite emotional at times and they opened my spiritual eyes to how God was helping me to heal through all my many disappointments that made me feel invisible. As I wrote, God revealed to me how many times I was blessed by Him through so many people. My purpose was to show my precious readers how God was/is with us all through all our trials, whether good, bad, or ugly, and with Him by our side we can survive any problem and grow through each one. It’s been a year since I stopped writing them and I miss them. I’m not sure whether to continue.
    Anyone interested in reading my non “memoirs” can visit my website:
    http://www.kathystorrie.com

    • Hi Kathy! Dean from Jerry’s Team, here. As I mentioned in response to Rebecca’s comment, also on this page, we would certainly encourage fellow commenters to feel free to check out your blog site and start a discussion about your blog posts here in the Comments section!

      • Kathy Storrie

        Thank you, Dean! I appreciate your offer. After I posted my “memoir lament” I felt a bit guilty and presumptuous for leaving my website on your site. It was refreshing to check my emails tonight thanks to you and Rebekah. Jerry is teaching me a lot!

    • I loved your Mardi Gras story, Mrs. Storrie! What a name! I hope you keep writing! I read somewhere that blogs only start to get noticed after fifty or so posts. I hope I’m getting close, but you should surely keep on! God bless :)

      • Kathy Storrie

        Thank you Rebekah Love Dorris! I LOVE you for taking the time to read one of my blog stories and then write me an encouraging comment! God Bless,You! Back when I was young, I said, “God, please let me marry a man with a good last name.”God heard me and blessed me with a wonderful man & he happened to have the last name of Storrie! I have loved it for 44 yrs. and it looks very good on the front of my first novel. After we got married we joked about naming a daughter Love Storrie and a son First Storrie. haha Thanks, again!

        • Haha! Great story! 😜 I love my maiden name. I was going to completely forsake it once I married my dream prince, but when Facebook came along he encouraged me to go by both maiden and married names. So happy I still get to use it! And I do love Dorris! Haha

          Fun talking with you! God bless :)

    • John Tucker

      Your website is intriguing. Lots of love and personal stories fill your life and your blogs. Thanks for your intimate views of life in Florida, your bond to your cat, and other cool stories there. Keep writing!

  • Ro♜ (Randi Oomens)

    I’m on the third draft of my memoir about staying sober through going totally blind, and the people who helped me along the way. I just sent my first chapter to my writer’s group and have gotten excellent feedback. The best one though? A person giving me a link to this post, saying I might find it helpful, but that I’m following all the suggestions anyway. She had no idea that I’ve been studying under you for months now. YES!

  • patrick brunson

    I finished my memoirs and it sits at the feet of agents. I tried to follow all those tips you gave me. I read several missionaries’ books, so I made mine different. One theme, the 1st sentence puts me in trouble and it continues chapter after chapter. Each chapter is written like a 3 box cartoon, set up, story, punchline (may or may not be funny like AIDS, war wounded children). The punchline is designed for the reader to read one more short chapter. I also cartoon blog my memoirs, twice a week. This past week I sent out 100 postcards to churches about my blog and speaking. I am trying to generate interest for my book. My memoirs are filled with humor because when I speak that is what comes out of my mouth. My editor only made two thousand changes and said she laughed out loud. A tourniquet was needed for the blood. I am writing another family based story without the humor. And if no agent accepts it, then I am willing to go through those 21 ideas, again. Thank you for the tips!

  • Ellen Andersen

    Thank you so much for this, Jerry. I started writing a memoir years ago but stopped because even though it’s my story, EVEN I DIDN’T LIKE IT. It was boring and who would care anyway.
    I know I want to show people how I’ve changed emotionally and spiritually after many years of dealing with a stroke at age 34 (NOT supposed to happen!) The whole point is how God changed my anger and self-contempt and by changing my focus.
    Starting in the middle should help, I think. How do you put in backstory without a huge flashback? How do you sprinkle it in so the reader sees where things were before?

  • Karen Crider

    I started writing something and ended up getting distracted by the number by my name. So I hit the key, mid comment and the site left me on the curb. LOL I was saying, I had wrote some memoirs of people who taught me lessons without a word. I wrote through their actions, portraying them through concrete nouns and verbs, using metaphor and imagery to get my message across. Memoir writing satisfied my need to relish/cherish relationships through the written word. It served to picture the paths of those who’ve gone before, whose memory are sealed in words, like a backup photographed in imagery.

  • Rebecca Vijay

    Hi Jerry, thank you so very much for your tips! I wrote a short memoir about my three-day old firstborn twin son’s death and how I found comfort and hope in HIM.. I self-published it in May this year.. I wanted to bring some hope to bereaved parents, especially of infants, that this is not the end.. GOD will comfort us and we have the hope that we will meet them again in heaven soon.. I would appreciate your feedback and suggestions on My Angel in Heaven hyperurl.co/15290o

    • Dean from Jerry’s Team here, Rebecca! Thank you so much for sharing with us. While Jerry’s crazy schedule does not allow him to review review full manuscripts or extended segments of folks’ writing at this time, we would certainly encourage your fellow commenters to take a peek and feel free to start a discussion about their perspectives on your work in the Comments section here!

    • Hi Rebecca! Your book is precious. It looks like it was a labor of love to put it together. I couldn’t see much of it, but what I saw reminded me of my dear friend Callie Daruk, who’s also writing a memoir based on the traumatic birth of her twins. I believe you both have incredible hearts to share your pain and the love you’ve received from Christ with others who are hurting.

      I have to say, what really impressed me was your acknowledgements page. Not only does it illustrate the lengths you’ve gone to write this book, but it also demonstrates your gratitude to others who’ve helped you along. I pray I follow your example when I finally finish my novel! God bless you richly. :)

  • Good tips except for the show don’t tell. It looks like you’re advising the memoirist to create something they don’t remember. I thought memoir is creative nonfiction. Nothing not recalled or verified should be included.

  • Lene Mumaugh

    I’ve written my memoir concerning the changing attributes of motherhood in the last fifty years. I have had it edited and rewritten it several times. “Milk and Cookies Mom” relays a story of when my mom was a working mom and a minority and I was a stay-at-home mom forty years later and a minority.

  • Flossie Stewart

    Thank you for this very informative post. I have been considering writing a memoir from the point of view of my life as an “Army brat”, but haven’t really had any idea how to go about it. This helps, and I will definitely check out some of the examples you listed. I mostly have written fiction, but I do have something along this line that I am putting the finishing touches on, which will have the story of my NDE in a terrible auto accident years ago with my first husband, although I have written it more as a “faith book”, sharing what all I have learned through the years on my road to healing. I have made a point to try NOT to sound preachy, but more helpful. But I really have wanted to do the “Army brat” memoir, but didn’t have a clue how to write it in a way that anyone else would want to read it. This very helpful post shines a light of hope on it. Thanks!

  • Aimee Elizabeth Caverly

    Hi Jerry. I love this post. I’m writing a memoir with a working title of Embracing freedom, from locked down to abundant life. It’s about living in a psychiatric hospital but now experiencing joy filled abundance despite the circumstances. Thanks for this awesome info on making it a heartfelt experience for my readers. Aimeecaverly.com

    • Wow! What a blog! And what a story. God bless you as you encourage others who feel alone. So inspiring. :)

  • Lisa Enqvist

    I’ve been struggling with choosing a theme. An assignment in a writer’s group gave me focus on what I’ve tried to find.

    Where is Home?

    Long, long years ago
    Our grandparents had no problem
    When asked a simple question
    “Where are you from?”

    The answer was quite evident
    As clear as the rising sun
    Their speech gave them away
    Their talk revealed their roots.

    Today the answer’s not so clear
    My face, my voice, my intonation
    Can keep you guessing —
    mostly wrong – as to where I am from.

    I was born far away in the North; I grew up far South,
    My parents took me East; I moved to the West
    Is there any place I still call home?
    Is there anyone who still knows my name?

    I’m only one of millions, moving around the globe
    Some call me a TCK – a Third Culture Kid
    Some say I am a nomad – moving from place to place
    The seas of change have thrown me across oceans far away

    I try to find a place to live;
    I’m a stranger wherever I go.
    A refugee, an immigrant, rootless, unplanted
    Is there a place assigned for me?

    (My book is not written in verse mode. This just happened to come that way.)

  • Lila Shelburne

    Hummm…thought provoking. Never thought of doing a memoir. A few weeks ago I did a brain dump and ended up with 13 Biblical truths I learned as a result of having our daughter murdered and haven’t had the faintest idea what to do with them. Feedback from non-family & friends say they are powerful truths…what 2-3 memoirs would you suggest specific for my consideration?

    • Hey Lila, this is Dean from Jerry’s Team, here! One of Jerry’s very favorite books of all time regardless of genre is All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg, and I know he’s also mentioned A Moveable Feast by Earnest Hemingway, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, and Born Standing Up by Steve Martin as great memoirs to read. Enjoy!

      • Ah, just realized Jerry mentioned his top 10 memoirs already in this blog post! I will say, though, that even though they may or may not be super-specific to your journey, Lila, those first three I mentioned Jerry brings up time and time again as not only powerful memoirs but powerful books in general. So I’m sure you couldn’t go wrong starting with those…

    • Whoa, I’m so sorry for your loss. What a powerful memoir that would be. Another really good one, along with the ones Dean mentioned that might help, is “Saving My Assassin” by Virginia Prodan. It’s the story of how a woman in Communist Romania forgave and actually led her would-be assassin to the knowledge of the Christ who loved him. It’s available from Tyndale. :) God bless your writing. Richly.

  • Susanna Forkner

    Thanks, Jerry, for another great article. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a memoir for quite some time. One of the things that’s held me back, is that some of the most pivotal moments in life came at the end of painful experiences. I would never want my memoir to implicate someone else’s wrongdoing, and yet those experiences have taught me so much and made me who I am today. I’m going to read your linked article about throwing people under the bus. Something I don’t want to do, and I’m sure you have an answer for. :)

    Thanks again!

  • Wow! So much info! Thank you. I’m blogging my memoir one story at a time … this post is like a semester’s worth of study. Blessings!

    • No kidding! You should look at Jerry’s Guild if you haven’t yet. It’s like a Writers Conference every month! God bless :)

      • been following his website and learning as I go … Thanks! I’ve listened to a few interviews too and taken lots of notes. I really want to take his classes, but … well … maybe when we get our tax return … LOL!

  • Anitra Merritt

    Printing this out and posting by my computer! The timing is perfect as I was recently contracted to write a memoir for a fiery retired pastor with whom I so not share experiences, ethnicity, gender, denomination or life season but his life is absolutely chock-full of transferable wisdom which makes my job if not easy, certainly enjoyable.

    • That does sound fun! And I bet your fresh eyes will tell the story with even more flair!

  • Ward Tanneberg

    Your help comes to me having already authored my first in the memoir genre. While I would have been resourced well by your thoughts, I’m pleased to say many are incorporated even before receiving your excellent coaching.
    The book is “Sacred Journey,” my wife’s memoir following her death from pancreatic cancer. It is her (our) story, framed in the final 18 months of her journey here on earth. It offers a special focus on the emotional, and spiritual journey caregivers and those facing life-threatening illnesses are on. It was published last year.
    I’m just getting into this course this summer, Jerry, and am looking forward to the help you are to me and to us all.
    ~Ward Tanneberg, author Redeeming Grace (Illumination Award)

  • Thank you Jerry, you have given encouragement to write the story I have had on the back burner for years. I have always heard that publishers were not interested in Memoirs, thank you for this timely article. The working title I have in mind is: “Life is tough, if I could not laugh, I would be crying.”

  • I’ve been saying it nonstop to whoever will listen that joining Jerry’s guild is the best thing I ever did for my writing career! This post is further proof!

  • Linda

    “A story untold Is forgotten” is an opening line in the book, Sarah’s Keys, and I take that to heart. We ALL have a story to tell. I read memoir after memoir before starting From Tears to Triumph, My Journey to the House of Hope. What I discovered in reading memoirs was what I DIDN”T want to accomplish. I didn’t want a sad, poor me story…we all have them. I wanted an encouraging story, thus the title From TEARS to TRIUMPH. It took me three years to write and I got a lot of feedback (including from you, Jerry Jenkins, early on when you read and critiqued writing samples). I then went on to write Love Thy Neighbor, A Precarious Endeavor. I don’t want to leave the planet with my stories untold. Writing is an honor. Writing with a purpose to change lives is a bigger honor. hugs.

  • Anna L. Russell

    Today I’m organizing the many notes of a memoir, taking a deep, deep sigh and plunging forward. Hesitation flashes bright lights of warning: too big a task, you can’t make it not preach! The subject of the memoir [a recovered addict] has been told by many people, “your story helped me; others need to hear/read your story.” He’s asked me to help so I shouted –somebody HELP me! And Jerry Jenkins sent the above in a mentor email — timely. Thanks.

  • Myrtle Thompson

    What woman in her right mind and facing her 90th birthday in a few months would even attempt writing a memoir that traces a missionary life from the USA to three other countries and two others visited many times, who had a name she hated as a young child but today loves because of the crape myrtle trees?

    I was child number 8, unwanted, but in desperation, given to God before I was born. A midwife cut away the membrane which covered my face and announced “this young’un will cross the water many times and never drown.” That was all past history of which I knew nothing until I was ready to make that long trip across the ocean.

    That is the beginning of my story which as of now has not ended. I did cross the oceans, over 20 times and I am here and ready to start telling the story…

  • I am working on my memoir/testimony. I have started and restarted, but I tend to get hung up on tiny details and chronology. Your advice has shown me that I have been in more of an autobiographical mindset. Suddenly, by simply calling my story a “memoir”, I feel more freedom of expression. Thank you so much!

  • Bonnie Andrews

    Hi Jerry, thank you so much for the insight you’ve written in this article. I like how you articulate the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. I also found it encouraging that one does not necessarily need to be well-known in order to sell a successful memoir. Your specific examples throughout this article are great, like when you walk the reader through “showing” and not just “telling” their story. Ultimately, you bring it back to what really matters when you explain that “you may be the subject, but it’s not about you — it’s about what readers can gain from your story.” Keeping this in mind, I’ll have a better chance of writing something successful!
    – Bonnie Orange (Andrews)

  • Karen Crider

    I have done a few memoirs of different family members. Mostly, my mom. My first one won second prize in a contest and did well. I named it, A Basket Case. And I was shocked. Because it was not a story about great accomplishments or high merit.. But about one mundane aspect of her life, as compared to mine in present day. In this case, ironing. My mother was a hard worker. One who ironed for years. A committed person, alienated against a lifetime of wrinkles coupled with an ironing board seldom unoccupied. Whereas mine hid in the closet, cowering against the very thought of manipulating a wrinkle. That’s the kind of things I write about. I love to incorporate the walls and ceilings of my life, and invite those I knew there to return, to be who they are/ were, in a world that knew more stability than my world does now.

  • HHL_Gigi

    I’ve wanted to write a book for a while, but never knew what to write about. So over the past 2 months, I’ve come to know my father through his family. I never knew him, met him once as a young child, and didn’t even know who he was until I was in my 30’s. It’s a fascinating story of the power of nature, the draw of a biological parent and even how God orchestrated everything for me to begin “knowing” him. But the best part is through me knowing my father, I’ve began to understand myself, at 53 years old!! It’s been an incredible journey. One that’s been quick, action-packed and still unfolding. But, everyone I tell the story to is spell bound! Half I’ve told the story to comment “You’re going to write a book about this, right?” But this post by Jerry has helped me understand it’s actually a memoir and I’m now ready to begin!!!