Memoir writing advice from those who do it best

As writers, we’re often looking for advice from other writers. When do you write? How many pages per day? Do you follow that mythical Hemingway logic of “write drunk edit sober”?

When writing memoirs, a few additional questions come up. What if my family gets mad? What if my brother remembers things differently? How do I write about the things that hurt me the most?

In Meredith Maran’s Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literatureshe calls upon great memoirists (like Jesmyn Ward and Cheryl Strayed) to weigh in on their writing careers, habits, and advice. The book is a follow-up to the great Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Doand it reads very much like a reference book filled with inspiration; a helpful guide from the greats. It should find its place on any writer’s desk.

While the whole book brims with wisdom, we selected some of our favorite words from the women of the read.


Outline. Outline. Outline.
“Unlike with fiction, it’s easiest to write a memoir from an outline. You have your experience and your truth to draw from, but there’s so much there. You’re whittling away at your life to find the story underneath. An outline helps.” — Jesmyn Ward, author of Men we Reaped

Turn off the negative part of your brain.
“Worry about other people’s feelings — later. When you’re writing your first draft, don’t imagine negative Internet comments or how much you might upset your parents. Don’t overthink it.” — Meghan Daum, author of My Misspent Youth

Write. Even when you really don’t feel like it. 
“Don’t wait for inspiration. Point your finger at your head and march yourself to your desk. It’s a great dream to do something that connects us with antiquity and with last week’s news. So don’t be a big whiny baby. Woman up and write.” — Anne Lammott, author of Small Victories


Don’t hide from your real story.
“Don’t be afraid of writing into the heart of what you’re most afraid of. The story of a life lives in what you would rather not admit or say.” — Kate Christensen, author of Blue Plate Special

Build your community.
“Don’t rely on Facebook for getting an awesome, legendary writer (Cheryl Strayed! Cheryl Strayed!) to read your three-hundred-page manuscript just because you are her fan. Instead, build genuine connections with the people — writers or not — around you. If you ask a favor of others, be sure to offer a favor back. By nurturing real connections, you will become more experienced, more powerful, and more closely knit as a tribe.” — Sandra Tsing Loh, author of The Madwoman in the Volvo 

Don’t write to get published.
“There’s a huge decision to make between writing a story and publishing it. Don’t write with the assumption that you’ll publish it; that’s not why we write memoir. You’re writing it to document your life and your story. If anything else comes of it, make decisions accordingly.” — A.M. Homes, author of The Mistress’s Daughter


Write every day.
“Write every day. Even if all you do is tweak a few lines, change the fonts, move the margins – anything to put you in the chair, in the headspace, in the zone. There’s tremendous value in keeping the story and the themes in your subconcious mind.” — Kelly Corrigan, author of Glitter and Glue

Get out of your comfort zone. 
“If you’re not uncomfortable and scared while you’re writing, you’re not writing close enough to the bone.” — Ayelet Waldman, author of Bad Mother

Don’t worry about what other people will think.
“Don’t worry about what people will think as you’re writing a first draft. This manuscript will not magically fly from your desk and onto the shelves of your local bookstore. You’ll have time to worry about people’s feelings once you’ve gotten a draft down. But if you begin with this kind of fretting, you’ll stop yourself before you’ve even started.” — Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing 


Go back to the scene of the crime. 
“Pause and reflect on the writing process itself. Make it real. Feed your senses. Go back to the place you’re writing about. Do some research that allows you to bring your subject(s) to life.” — Edwidge Danticat, author of Brother, I’m Dying 

Save your journals. All of them. 
“Don’t burn your journals. You might want those written recollections years from now when you’re ready to write your memoir.” — Pearl Cleage, author of Things I Should Have Told My Daughter


Read, and read well. 
“Read at the level you want to write.” — Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees

No one can tell your story but you. 
“The most powerful strand in memoir is not expressing your originality. It’s tapping into your universality. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be original in your writing — you are the only one who can write that universal experience in just that way. Trust that.” — Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild

Why We Write About Ourselves is on sale as of January 26. Now, get writing.

(Images via Shutterstock)