The 4 Pillars Of A Memoir

The 4 Pillars Of A Memoir


Are you writing a memoir? In this post, we look at how including the four pillars of a memoir can improve the story you’re writing.

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In this post, we will be exploring the four pillars of a memoir.

What Is A Memoir?

A memoir is a ‘history or record composed from personal observation and experience. …writers of memoir are usually persons who have played roles in, or have been close observers of, historical events and whose main purpose is to describe or interpret the events.’

A memoir is a personal recounting of true events.

The 4 Pillars Of A Memoir

Pillar #1 – Narrow Your Focus

A memoir is not an autobiography. It does not tell us your entire life story. It is a book that concentrates on a time, or an event, or a series of events, or a choice, that is tied together with a theme.

You have to narrow your focus and decide what you’re going to include.

Narrowing your focus means you will concentrate on certain places, people, and times. (Creating a timeline can be helpful with this.)

Read: Writing A Memoir? Narrow Your Focus

Once you understand this, you can concentrate on including only those scenes that relate to these events, choices, and themes.

  1. In Matt Haig’s memoir of dealing with depression, Reasons To Stay Alive, he focuses on the scenes that show how depression and anxiety made his life feel impossible.
  2. In Julian Barnes‘s memoir of grief, Levels of Life, he focuses on scenes that show how empty his life is without his wife.
  3. In Frank McCourt‘s memoir of a poverty-stricken childhood, Angela’s Ashes, he writes about the traumatic times that show this life – and eventually how he leaves Ireland for the United States.

When you’re reading a great memoir, you feel as if everything adds to the essence of the story and that you’re learning about an intense experience. If you don’t do this, you risk losing your reader’s interest and confusing them with too many different storylines.

Pillar #2 – Theme

A good memoir has a theme. This theme can be summed up in a sentence.

Read: 3 Steps To Help You Find Your Story’s Theme

Every scene and every person you include in your memoir should relate to this theme in some way.

  1. A memoir of grief could be summed up as ‘Grief is a journey you have to travel alone.’
  2. A memoir of drug addiction could be summed up as ‘The things I did to feed my addiction.’
  3. A memoir of surviving abuse could be summed up as ‘Leaving was the same as letting go.’

Once you have this theme sorted out, every scene in the book should echo it or relate to it in some way. A good theme makes the story seem coherent. This is good for readers who like to feel that there is some respite from the chaos of real life and some way to filter what is important.

Pillar #3 – First Person Present Tense

Write your story as if it is happening in real time. You are telling the story through your eyes, so you will be using first person. Adding present tense makes the story more compelling. Readers feel as if they are experiencing it with you.

Read: Why First Person Present Tense Is Perfect For Your Memoir

Most stories are told in third person past tense. Memoirs are almost always told in first person present tense. If you feel uncomfortable with using this viewpoint, practise. Write in it until you feel comfortable. Your voice must sound realistic and it should engage the reader. Starting a scene with ‘I’m scared.’ is more immediate than ‘I was scared.’

Using the five senses helps you to show the story in first person present tense. Reader will tastesmellheartouch, and see your story with you.

Pillar #4 – It Must Be True

A memoir must be true, and it should be told as truthfully as you can tell it. This means doing a lot of research and even interviewing people to check your facts.

Gather all your old documents and photographs. File your important bits and pieces and keep them in reach. Use them to help jog your memory.

Read: The 5 Top Tips For Turning Memories Into A Book

Visit the settings you will be describing in the memoir again – if you can. This will help you sort fact from fiction and being there will probably make you remember a few more things.

Read: How To Create Perfect Settings In Your Memoir

If you feel as if you cannot remember most of your story or that you may be making it up, it might be a good idea to write fiction instead. You could use your core story idea and then tell the story as if it happened to somebody other than you.

The Last Word

These are the four pillars of a memoir that really make you feel as if you’re reading one. There are many more things to include, but make sure you’ve concentrated on these four.

If you want to read more about memoirs:

  1. Why Memoirists Are Their Own Worst Enemies
  2. The Ultimate Memoirist’s Checklist
  3. 5 Ways To Write About Real People In Memoirs
  4. 5 Common Traits Of A Successful Memoir
  5. 6 Differences Between A Novel & A Memoir
  6. 7 Tips For Finding Your Memoir Mojo
  7. 7 Tips From Journalists To Write A Better Memoir

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a memoir, look into our Secrets of a Memoirist course.

 by Amanda Patterson
© Amanda Patterson

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