What the Best Memoirs Have in Common: Tips for Writing Your Story

hi my friend so many aspiring authors

come to me for advice on writing memoir

telling your story telling about a

particularly difficult time in your life

telling about your childhood whatever it

might be we are called as human beings

to share our stories with others and I

wanted to talk to you about what the

best memoirs of all time all have in

common because I think it's something

that's invisible if you haven't actually

been an editor of books and you haven't

worked on memoir which I have so I also

want to tell you about a few of my

favorite memoirs so that's what this

video is going to be about my name is

Kelly note Aras I have been a book

editor for 20 years I've worked at some

of the biggest publishing companies in

the United States and now my goal is to

help you get the book you were born to

write into the world subscribe to this

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I leave videos here all the time you can

also visit me on the web at kn literary


all right what are the elements that the

best memoirs of all time have in common

well the truth is there are two of them

the first one is that those memoirs are

character driven and the second one is

that they are written in scenes so these

are two things that I think are

invisible to people who don't really

understand how books are put together

many of us think well I'm gonna write my

story I'm gonna start at the beginning

maybe it's the beginning of our life but

maybe it's just the beginning of the

period of time that I want to write

about and they're like I want to start

at the beginning and I'm gonna tell you

what happened first and second and third

and what I noticed when I look back in

hindsight that I didn't notice at the

time that now I see and it's a chronicle

that is really different than a memoir a

chronicle is actually sometimes very

important it's very useful and valid

it's something that you might write for

yourself you might write it for your

family you might write it for the people

that know you you might write it for

people who have a specific interest in

whatever was happening during that time

in your life so let's say you had you

overcame cancer and someone has their

commune of a similar rare form of cancer

to you and they are looking for some

story that explains what happened to

someone else and how they overcame it in

that case a chronicle is totally fine

that book will unlikely find a publisher

that it publishes for a general trade

audience meaning a big audience of

people who are not friends of yours who

don't know you and don't actually

understand or don't really have a

personal connection with whatever the

thing is that you went through right the

book set that Stan

the crowd for a general audience the

kind that your mom reads and your sister

reads and your dad reads and everyone

loves because they are just so amazing

and wonderful those are stories that are

crafted like a novel they are not

written chronologically in a lot of

cases directly chronologically they are

theirs interjections there's lots of

discussion of life there's lots of

understanding of a bigger picture of

what's going on and an articulation of

that but specifically though the thing

that's the most important in those books

is that they are character driven and

scene driven just like a novel okay when

I say character driven what do I mean by

that I mean that we have to grow to love

you as the protagonist of your memoir

you we can't assume that the person

reading it is automatically going to

just be on your side understand who you

are get you and one aside with you you

have to win them over how do you do that

you do that in a variety of different

ways one way is which you are really

vulnerable and revealed about who you

are you maybe start off not looking like

a princess for some reason we don't

actually connect to other people who are

just perfect all the time right if you

think about old stories that you've read

novels mythology etc the perfect person

usually gets their comeuppance at some

point right because none of us are

perfect we are all flawed and so the

thing that's at the core of those really

those best memoirs is our own flaws and

foibles we are revealing ourselves maybe

we're talking about our cancer journey

but we tell you a lot about who we are

were before that we explained we we

don't tell you in fact we show you we

show you that's where we get into the

scene question we show you through this

through different very carefully

tailored chosen scenes from our life who

we were before we don't tell you well

this is what I was like before that's

more of a chronicle that's more of a

just said here's what happened when

we're writing a memoir that we want to

have a really wide audience we need to

show what happened scene by scene it's

very very important to start with an

outline when you're writing it a novel

that you want or sorry a memorable novel

to see slip at the time when you're

writing a memoir that you want to read

like a novel it needs to actually have

elements of the hero's journey in it we

need to have the universal elements of

storytelling they must be

to starting with who you were before

show us don't tell us show us through

scenes show us the moment where you got

the diagnosis of the cancer not by

telling us this is what happened and

then this is what happened and that this

is what happened we live through it with

you it is a scene you start off the

scene I'm driving down the road and

maybe there's something has nothing to

do with cancer that gets involved and

you know so and so called I was really

mad and I said something really mean and

then all of a sudden oh my gosh the

other call came and you're you're

telling us but you're bringing us into

the story by giving us details that you

wouldn't otherwise think are relevant

it's those irrelevant details about who

we are and about the scenes that we are

walking through on this journey that

bring the whole story to life in a way

that makes it page turning we can't put

it down it's a very different way of

writing so you start off do some

character development really journal a

lot about you who are you what do you

care about what did you care about at

the beginning before the the event that

you want to write about happened what

were you thinking about most of the time

what were you doing if we've been

following you around with a video camera

at that time what would we have seen you

doing who would you have been talking to

what kinds of thoughts were running

through your mind at that time then

bring us into the scene the moment when

it happened

show us what happened don't tell us let

us understand who you are do some

character development around the people

that were close to you at the time you

might want to do ask yourself those same

character development questions about

the people who were there what was your

husband like what kinds of things were

going through his mind what would we

have seen him doing if we were following

him around with a video camera you're

doing this writing that may never make

it into the book but you need to get it

down on the page to really understand

who you were who he was who the other

players were in your life what was your

life like right about the house you

lived and write about the office where

you worked

write about the yard that you played in

as a child you you're going to have to

do a lot of this developmental writing

if you want to really be able to flesh

out the book in a way that comes to life

for the reader okay so that's the

character development then I want you to

plot the scenes plot them out as if they

were scenes in a movie movies are

actually a great

to learn about scene progression how

does the beginning of a movie fit with

the middle of the movie fit with the end

of the movie there's lots of books out

there that you can read about that that

will give you the insider information

they'll tell you what looks invisible to

you if you're not somebody who writes

screenplays and then use those

principles as you plot the scenes for

your book and I say plot the scenes

because I want you to plot them in

advance you will not be able to include

every single important moment of your

life you must carve it out think of

yourself as Michelangelo carving the

David out of a large block of marble

there was lots of beautiful marble that

ended up on the floor of his studio but

what we got out of it was something that

touched everyone's hearts just with this

immediacy that was undeniable and that's

what I want to have happen when someone

reads your book and I want to talk to

you about some of my favorite books so

you can actually go see what I'm talking


one of my absolute favorite memoirs

traveling mercies by Anne Lamott she's

one of my favorite writers and this is

my favorite book she's ever written it's

the story of who she was as she became

of age there she talks about seems she

has scenes in there from her Travis she

has scenes from her adulthood it talks

about her sobriety it talks about her

relationship with her father

there it's it covers a lot of territory

but it is a gorgeous gorgeous example of

how to craft beautiful scenes this book

is one of my absolute favorite books

I've talked about it before in videos

it's called caravan of no despair by

mirror by star Muir as a friend of mine

this book is one of my favorite memoirs

and what she had to do what she had to

leave on the cutting room floor is a lot

and it was really hard for her to get as

spare as she needed to be to create this

book but now it is an example of a

fairly told but extremely emotionally

intense memoir I love it so much caravan

of no despair so the afterlife of Billy

fingers is a memoir that I really love

it's kind of a kooky memoir by Annie

Kagan and you may or may not agree with

you know her what would happen to her

but she basically had a relationship

with her brother after he died like he

came to her and started speaking to her

and she wrote it down but what I love

about this book is that it is mostly

chronological although not entirely

she does have flashbacks but mostly

chronological but she tells the scenes

in such a lively and funny way that I

think it's worth you reading to

understand how you can tell a chronology

in scenes she's really good at setting

every single scene it's scene after

scene after scene and you'll really

understand it I think if you read this

book and then two more books that I

absolutely love Sumanth kid the dance of

the dissident daughter and Eve Ensler in

the body of the world both extremely

scene driven books and beautiful

beautiful memoirs so I hope that some of

these memoirs will help you understand

you know some of the greatest memoirs of

all time Angela's Ashes educated by Tara

West over that just came out The Glass

Castle these are books that if you go

back and look at them now with the eye

to how our characters characters

developed and how are these books seen

driven you will see what the best

memoirs of all time have in common I

hope this has been very helpful to you I

would love to help you more on your

journey you can find out much more at

Kay and literary calm you can sign up

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editor totally free no obligation at our

website in the meantime I wish you happy

writing the book you were born to write

needs to be in the world let me know if

there's any way we can help