So you want to tell a story about your life?
There’s no right or wrong way to tell your personal story. Some people choose to tell their entire birth-to-now personal story as a legacy for friends and families. Others prefer to write a smaller-scale story, possibly focusing on one or two aspects of their life, without the burden of telling their whole story, warts and all. We’d normally call that a memoir.
Drawing from some examples of work that I’ve done, memoirs can be books about falling in love, stories of life in business, or accounts of someone’s experiences in the forces. I’ve worked on lots of ‘mental health memoirs’ too, stories written by people who have overcome difficult circumstances and want to help readers learn from their experiences.
Why write a memoir?
It’s good to go into the process of writing your life story with some clear expectations about what you want to get out of doing it. Be very specific. The clearer you are about what your memoir or autobiography is for, the easier it’ll be to achieve your aims.
So, why do you want to write a memoir or an autobiography?
I ask this question of everyone I work with. It helps me understand what the would-be memoir writer wants to achieve with their book, what they want to feel when their book is available for people to read, and perhaps most importantly, who they’re writing their book for.
Here are three of the main reasons why many people choose to write their personal story, and a bonus reason that people don’t talk about enough…
Writing your own story to help others
If you look at some memoir examples online you’ll see that plenty of memoir writers have written their books with the aim of helping others. I mentioned mental health memoirs earlier, and there’s a huge array of books specifically designed to help other people.
People often talk about achieving things with their life, and I can think of few better achievements than taking the pain, misery, or deprivation you may have experienced and making something good out of it. Your book can help people now, and go on helping people for years to come.
Your story about your life is your legacy
Our books will survive us. Our stories will go on informing and entertaining the next generations. That’s a big tick in the box for all of us who want to preserve our part in our family’s story.
The imperative to tell your personal story might creep up on you, or it might hit you all at once. Some people find that the urge to write their memoir or autobiography grows ever stronger as they move into parenthood. Or even when the grandchildren arrive! The sense of joining the dots between the generations – of showing people where they came from – and of preserving your own part in that story can be irresistible.
Telling your story to promote your understanding or expertise
Your book can celebrate your understanding of your industry, your art, or your niche. Many people write memoirs that mark them out as the go-to people in their sector. Books that provide unique perspectives on subject areas that are inundated with the same-old ideas can’t help but elevate their writers above the crowd.
There are lots of great examples of memoir writers turning stories from their lives and careers into books that really sell their services. My favourite – and surely the most unusual example of that – would have to be a book called Escaping the Empire. I helped the author (a private-hire hostage rescuer) turn his story of recuing a child from a parent who had absconded with him into a gripping page-turner of a memoir. As adverts for my client’s services go, they don’t come much more exciting!
Writing your story for the sheer joy of doing it!
This is the one that people don’t talk about enough…
Don’t think about book sales, or meeting a specific agenda; don’t even think about writing a good book, just write a book.
Do it because it’ll give you the chance to revisit old memories. Do it because you can gain new perspectives on your life as a whole when you look back at the journey you’ve been on. Most of all, do it because, it’s some of the best me-time you can have. It will help you see your who life in context. It will be a roller-coaster ride of memories. It will help resurrect some of the long-forgotten people and places of your past.
Provided you don’t worry too much about your writing style, spelling, and grammar, it can be a very relaxing thing to do. And then, if you find that having got so far with writing your own story, you want to take it more seriously, you can.
Choosing the right memoir writer for your project
Chances are, you may not need the help of a memoir writer. And if you’ve got the time to give it a go, I’d urge you to just start writing and see how you get on. Some memoir writers enjoy the process of writing, but choose to work with an editor who’ll help improve their manuscript. Some work with a writing mentor who will guide them through the writing process and help them overcome any difficulties. (You might also consider drafting in trusted friends to give you objective feedback on your book once you’ve written it.)
I’ve already covered some of the reasons why you might choose to hire a memoir writer in another article. So instead, let’s focus on five considerations that will help you find the right memoir writer…
These days, location isn’t as important as it used to be. Provided you’re happy being interviewed over the phone, or on Zoom, your memoir writer can be based almost anywhere. Having said that, I do think it’s really helpful if you meet your memoir writer at least once. I try to meet my clients at the beginning of the process, just so we can start getting to know each other.
Whichever memoir writer you choose, you are going to have to feel comfortable working with them. They are going to need to ask you all sorts of questions about your life experiences, and if you’re not comfortable confiding in them, it’ll harm your book.
I spend time talking to prospective clients about their ideas, and giving them a chance to ask me lots of questions before anything else happens. It helps us both make sure we’ll be happy working together. (Neer underestimate the reassurance of knowing you’re working with the right person.)
How important is your memoir writer’s experience? Does it matter if you’re writing a story of your life for your family, and your memoir writer has only ever written business books? Do you mind if they’ve never tackled the sorts of issues your book is going to cover?
Good memoir writers are adaptable and can turn their hands to many things. But you must decide if you’ll be happier working with someone who has written books that feel broadly similar to yours.
When you read your personal story, it should feel like you’ve written it. (Even if a memoir writer has written it for you.)
Good memoir writers are masters of tone of voice. They should be able to take their interviews with you and retain the essence of your voice in your book. You can always ask for samples of other personal stories they’ve worked on to see how they’ve conveyed other clients’ voices in their prose.
When you’re choosing among various memoir writers, the acid test has got to be their portfolio. Look at memoir writers’ portfolios and see whose work you most enjoy reading. Even in a few pages, their work should be compelling. It should be inviting and easy to read.
What will your memoir writer need to know?
Your memoir writer is going to get to know you very well over the space of the weeks or months they work with you… There have been times in my working life as a memoir writer when I’ve had to remind clients of some of the facts of their life! We will have worked together so closely that I’ll feel as if I know them (almost) as well as I know myself.
When you’re working with a memoir writer you really trust, you’ll feel able to open up and answer all their questions. While their attention will be focused on issues that are relevant to the story you’re telling, it does help if they’ve got carte blanche to push you – just a little bit – to address some tougher questions too.
Your memoir writer wants to know all about the people, places and events that made you, of course. But they may also want to uncover the emotional heart of your story. Or they might push you for some more revealing insights into what you really thought about certain people or events in your life; whatever it takes to make your story stronger.
Basically, your memoir writer’s questions will be designed to help your readers feel some of what you felt, so they can get a more vivid taste of the events you’re describing.
I’m not going to give you a tick list of questions here; every book comes with different requirements and different kinds of questions. But I can give you a guide to what memoir writers really want from you…
This isn’t a moral imperative; honesty just makes better memoirs.
If you’ve ever failed, your memoir writer is going to want to know what that did to you. If you’ve struggled, they’re going to want to know what that felt like. If you’ve loved and lost etc…
Your warts-and-all story will almost certainly be more relatable, more compelling, and more inspiring than a bland, varnished version.
Your emotional truth
I know that might sound a bit new-agey, so let me give you an example:
I worked with a gentleman on a lovely business memoir. He leaned into the hi-jinks and the humour of his working life, and I liked that. But… I wanted a little bit more. He spoke about so many of the people that he used to work with in such wistful terms, but kept holding himself back from giving into the emotion.
I didn’t pursue it at first. I waited until we’d had a few interviews and I knew he trusted me enough to have a more heartfelt conversation about some of the people he’d lost in his life. It didn’t come easily at first, but having an opportunity to talk about loss and love gave his book more weight, and it made him feel as if he’d respected those people in print. He even went on to make a contribution from every book sold to Marie Curie, in honour of one of the people he spoke about in his memoir.
Your openness to uncovering the stories behind the stories
One of the best things about writing a memoir or a broader story about your life is the chance it gives us to reassess things.
Sometimes, we get so used to our version of past events. They get solidified through years of telling the same old stories in the same old way. But revisiting key moments with an objective mentor writer can help cast old events in a new light.
People often experience little moments of revelation during the process when they suddenly see how one event led to another, or how one little mistake led them on an exciting new path.
How to hire a memoir writer
As well as finding a writer who’s a good fit for you, here are some other considerations to keep in mind when you’re hiring a memoir writer:
Memoir writers may offer different book packages of different lengths, making it easy for you to choose the kind of memoir writing service you want. If it helps, don’t be afraid to ask if you can pay for your book in installments.
It helps both parties to nail down some dates and timescales. See if you can schedule your interview slots in advance. Ask for a timescale for completion of the various stages of your book. Find a way of working that fits your needs and availability.
It’s always good to get a sense of your memoir writer’s other work. (And most memoir writers will be only too pleased to send a few links and samples to some of their published and self-published work.)
Publishing and self-publishing advice
Once your memoir has been written, will you be looking to self-publish it? Could it be of interest to a mainstream publishers? It’s a good idea to ask your memoir writer how they can help in either eventuality.
Terms and conditions
Make sure you understand exactly what you’re paying for, how your memoir writer will invoice you, and what happens if something goes wrong…
Ticking all these boxes should make it easy for you to pick a memoir writer who will do your story proud.
So you want to write a story about your life, but you’d like a little help…
If that has helped to demystify the process of working with a memoir writer a little bit, and you’d like to find out more about working with this memoir writer, let’s have a chat. You can book a half-hour ghostwriting consultation, so I can find out more about your story…