Just Write

Memoirs As Textbooks

Use a published memoir as a textbook to write your memoir.

Read the memoir. Read it again to examine structure.

Notice where author used narration vs. dialogue to tell the story. Notice the balance between fast-paced action scenes and slower, contemplative scenes. Note when and how backstory is used.

Let’s use Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt as our textbook.

McCourt’s ability to write as if experiencing events as they unfold, pacing, and his strong writing voice made Angela’s Ashes a New York Times beloved best seller.

Angela’s Ashes takes the reader on an emotional journey. There is so much vulnerability in this book. McCourt reaches into our compassionate hearts as he tells his story, moving from childhood to adulthood.

He weaves details into a story, similar to the Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

McCourt taps into universal messages and themes.

Understanding your theme will help to write your memoir.

Possible themes:

Being different                 



Coming of age                  

Alcohol/drug use






Feeling helpless

Not fitting in


McCourt uses a variety of techniques to create intimacy in his themed books of children in poverty in Ireland. He changes his writing voice and tone to match his age progression.

He employs rhythm and repetition, keeping the thread of the theme/plot running throughout the book.

He “shows” situations so that readers understand what is going on. There is a lot that doesn’t get said. For example, when Frank’s sibling dies, and when a friend’s sister dies, there are no death scenes. Rather, there is action and dialogue seen through the lens of children. This is one method of avoiding too much tragedy: Keep it fast paced and use humor where you can. No woe is me, no pity-parties.

When writing about unsavory characters, use compassion and find redemption.

These ideas are based on a webinar by Linda Jo Myers and Brooke Warner, intertwined with my thoughts and observations.

Another example of going deep in writing and willing to be vulnerable about a difficult subject is “Meeting My Father,” which I wrote and published in The Write Spot: Memories. I have written in my journal about my father for over thirty years. After a series of fortunate experiences, I had the epiphany that he was more than a Third Street bum and more than just a sperm donor. I was able to give him the loving tribute I felt he deserved, even though I do not have one good memory of him.

More thoughts about writing memoir:

Write Memoir in Voice of Narrator

Does Your Memoir Have A Theme?

Mini Memoirs Unfold Naturally

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