Tuesday, March 17, 2015

3 Keys to Writing Memoir

Edie here. Today I'm excited to introduce you to a new member of The Write Conversation blogging team, Lucinda Secrest McDowell. I know you're going to love her as much as I do!

3 Keys to Writing Memoir
by Lucinda Secrest McDowell

“So what?”

Unfortunately, that may be just the response when you say you want to write a memoir. Why do you do it anyway?

To communicate a true story. Your story. Or at least part of it.

For a long time, the only people writing memoir were those who were rich, famous or extremely influential. But today anyone can write a memoir – and memoir stories are showing up in blogs, devotionals, and a whole variety of non-fiction books.

Why in the world would people read your memoir?

To gather important lessons, insight and perspective to help in their own personal stories.

Writer Douglas Crow puts it rather bluntly, “Nobody cares about your book. What people truly want is to improve their lives. The only reason someone may find your story interesting is how it relates to them.”

I’d like to encourage you to write your memoir, even if you aren’t rich, famous or particularly influential. Just remember these 3 keys to writing a memoir that people will read:

Memoirs include a theme.
Memoirs include a Theme
Don’t try to tell your whole life story. Pick one theme and weave stories using that thread. The theme you choose must be universal, yet personal, something others can relate to, even if they have never experienced exactly what you have. Memoir doesn’t work when it’s just a bunch of unrelated stories – there must be something that ties them together. How do you choose which theme? Brainstorm some of the most significant watershed moments in your life. As you do, certain constants will emerge --- perseverance over challenges, learning from bad choices, helping the underdog, etc. Remember to include a vital takeaway.

Memoirs are Interesting
Please don’t give us every single word that every person said when that thing happened to you. Just because it occurred doesn’t make it interesting. But if you use storytelling techniques you can make even the most ordinary everyday incident absolutely fascinating. Just don’t stretch the truth (remember James Frey and Brian Williams…) Use fiction techniques in writing your own non-fiction. And be sure to grab the reader from the very beginning with a great opening scene, perhaps even the pivotal moment of decision. Use dialogue to be vivid in your storytelling.
Memoirs are personal, yet universal
Memoirs are Personal, yet Universal
A truly good memoir is one we can all connect to in some way. It’s not just your autobiography; it’s about something bigger than just you. What are people going to do after they read it? Are they moved to make a decision, pursue a dream or change a habit? Perhaps the trickiest part of memoir is the personal vulnerability. 

In memoir, writers are willing to work our way into our readers’ hearts through honest sharing of the hard parts of our story. Honesty is not the same thing as confession (blurting out stuff for shock value.) And you don’t have to include every detail. As Meghan Daum observes, “Honesty means making the reader feel less alone. Honesty is inherently generous. Confession is needy and intrusive.” Pray before you share your story and ask God to help you do it in a redeeming manner.

As you write memoir, remember that readers are looking for your story to help them live their story. If we tell our story well, others will discover insight and inspiration valuable to their own lives. For those of us who are followers of Christ, this is the very reason we write, isn’t it?

“Every word You give me is a miracle word — how could I help but obey?

Break open Your words, let the light shine out, let ordinary people see the meaning.”

Psalm 119.129-130 MSG

Live your story. Write your story. And embrace your role in God’s great Kingdom Story.

"Memoirs are personal, yet universal." 3 Keys to #writing Memoir with @LucindaSMcDowell (Click to Tweet)

Lucinda Secrest McDowell, M.T.S., is the author of 11 books, contributing author to 25 books, and has published in more than 50 magazines. A graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Furman University, she studied at the Wheaton Graduate School of Communication and served as Communications Specialist for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (Thailand) and Editor for Billy Graham’s International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists (Netherlands). A member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association (AWSA), she has received “Writer of the Year” awards from both Mt. Hermon and Blue Ridge Writers Conferences. Cindy speaks internationally through her ministry “Encouraging Words” and co-directs the New England Christian Writers Retreat. Known for her ability to convey deep truth in practical and winsome ways, she writes from “Sunnyside” cottage in New England. Visit her online at www.EncouragingWords.net 


  1. Cindy Thank you for this. After reading it I may consider writing mine. People say that I have lived an interesting life, so far. I feel like Douglas Crow when it comes to my writing. I will be on my knees praying about this one.

  2. It is so true about telling your story. It's only going to reach the hearts of people experiencing the same "thing." I have been working on my own story for years but it's very difficult to cut parts out where they need to be cut. I just give rid-bits on my blog and in magazines right now. It's a good place to start. I too am in New England. LOVE IT. Thanks Lucinda.

  3. Thank you, Cindy. You've made the purpose of memoir very clear. And you've given me ideas on how to use the memoir approach in writing fiction.

  4. Thank you everyone for your comments on this blog. I was on an airplane all day yesterday and just now saw this. So glad that it was helpful because friends, we need to get our stories out --- even just in snippets of our blogs or other writings. You don't even need to start with a full on book memoir! Great to meet you, Bruce, at the FCWC. FirstHalfDay, hope you will check out our New England Christian Writers Retreat, and Cherrilyn, keep living your story.

  5. What valuable words of encouragement. I took notes an hope to implement these ideas. I am currently working on the second memoir taken from my grandmother's diary & letters of 100 years ago. Reading some of her letters written during the great depression have really spoken to my heart. I trust I can glean the parts that will work their way into others hearts and encourage them. Many aspects of the hard years for Elsie were unknown to me. The letters and diary are giving such insight into how to not focus just on the trials. Elsie was one of the most positive people I have ever known. So working on "universal yet personal as my mantra while I work on this memoir.

  6. I liked your suggestions, but I'm not sure I agree that there must be a common theme to the stories. I think we can have the telling of various interesting events in our life, especially if they're inspirational and something we can learn from, even if the theme is different in each one