The memoir is a popular type of nonfiction writing that's often associated with celebrities, business leaders, and politicians. However, you don't need to be any of the above to write a good memoir.
Most people develop, over the course of their life, interesting experiences, expertise, or hardships that could interest others. But how do you know you have a good idea for a memoir? Better yet, how can you come up with a good memoir idea?
Well, read on to find out as we discuss topics for memoirs.
- What sets memoirs apart from other nonfiction.
- Tips for writing a compelling memoir.
- Memoir writing prompts.
Table of contents
What is a Memoir?
Before we go any further, let's get on the same page. A memoir is an exploration of a certain topic or subject with which the author has experience. This sets the memoir apart from the autobiography, which is typically a look at the author's entire life (or at least the interesting parts). A memoir, on the other hand, only explores certain aspects of the author's life that have to do with the topic or theme at hand.
Memoirs also read like fiction books. There's a cast of characters, and the protagonist is almost always the author. They have a similar tone and style to fiction books, as well, which is one reason people read them. In fact, some memoirs have been known to skirt the line between truth and fiction (A Million Little Pieces, anyone?).
That said, you should strive for truth in your memoir. But you'll also probably leave some stuff out by necessity. In other words, you don't need to tell all about the boring stuff.
How to Write a Good Memoir
Memoir writing doesn't have to be hard. In fact, some writers may find it easier than writing a story about fictional characters. After all, the memoir will be about your own life and experiences. Here are a few tips to help you get started.
Open With a Hook
Grabbing the reader from the beginning is essential for any memoir (or novel, for that matter). There are a number of ways to do this, and the type of story you plan to write will often dictate how it’s done. You can start with humor, action, conflict, or strong emotions. Don’t be afraid to combine more than one of these factors.
But no matter how you start the book, you’ll want to ensure you write from the heart and stick to the truth as you remember it. If you write with emotion and keep it compelling, the reader will be happy to go on the journey with you for the rest of the memoir.
Structure it Like a Novel
Thinking of the structure of your memoir as that of a novel is a great way to craft a compelling narrative. Try your best to have the reader identify with you early on, while also setting up the central conflict of the story.
Each scene should advance the story, add character development or depth, or support the overarching theme of your memoir. All the better if a scene does more than one of these things!
Read Many Memoirs
As is the case with writing any other type of book, you'll want to be very familiar with other people's memoirs. You can't expect to know what readers expect from a good memoir if you don't read them yourself. Luckily, there are a ton of different memoir subgenres you can dive into. Some are funny, some are heart-wrenching, and some are informative. Here are some suggestions for excellent memoirs to check out.
Augusten Burroughs has written several successful memoirs. The most notable of these is Running With Scissors, which was even made into a movie. But he has written other memoirs, including Dry and A Wolf at the Table.
David Sedaris is another well-known writer in the memoir genre. Unlike Burroughs, Sedaris typically releases books that comprise a collection of essays on a certain topic. The personal essays in his books are memoirs of a kind.
Alison Bechdel is a cartoonist who has written what is known as graphic memoirs. Similar to a graphic novel, her book Fun Home is a memoir in illustrated form.
Some other memoirs you may have heard of include:
- Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
- Becoming by Michelle Obama
- The Liars' Club by Mary Karr
- Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
- Educated by Tara Westover
- A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
For more practical advice, check out the essay How to Write a Memoir by famed nonfiction writer William Zinsser.
Memoir Writing Prompts
Now that we've covered some broad-strokes writing tips for memoirs, let's dive into some memoir ideas. I've split the following prompts into some overarching memoir categories, but this is not to say that you need to keep any given idea in that category. You can take any prompt that strikes your fancy and apply a different theme to it.
By definition, your memoir will be very personal. It will be uniquely yours, but if done well, it will also give other people entertainment, insight, and value. After all, a memoir is just a long personal essay. Keep this in mind as you read the following ideas.
Inspirational Memoir Ideas
If you have stories that can touch and inspire, then this may be the theme for you. Overcoming challenges makes for great reading.
1. Think of the hardest thing you've ever had to do in your life. How did you overcome the challenge? Did you do it by yourself or with the help of friends, family members, a spouse, your kids, etc.?
2. Have you ever had a profound religious or spiritual experience? If so, what prompted it?
3. Have you ever had to deal with a life-or-death situation? Did you keep your cool when others were panicking? What did you learn and how did your life change after the situation was over and you had time to reflect?
4. If you were able to go back in time and talk to your younger self, what would you say?
5. What is the single most important life experience you've had? Why?
6. Write about the one thing that makes you different from everyone else. How has this difference affected your life, and where would you be if you weren't different?
7. Love is something everyone can relate to. Describe meeting your partner or your trials and tribulations in the world of finding and losing love.
8. Have you lived through any specific historical event? If so, how did it change your life or affect your view of the world and the human race?
9. Have you devoted your life to a specific field of expertise? With all your knowledge of your specific industry, start a personal narrative that explores how your expertise has influenced your life.
10. Recount the greatest adventure of your entire life in detail. Why was it so great, and how did it change the course of your life?
Confessional Memoir Ideas
Confessional memoirs intrigue readers because the authors share their dirty little secrets. However, most of the time, there's a light at the end of the tunnel.
11. If you've ever dealt with addiction of any kind, a personal memoir could help other people who are dealing with something similar.
12. Most industries have a dark underside that doesn't often make the news. If you've been in a position to see this underside, it could make for a good memoir.
13. If you've done something interesting — like working with the homeless or at-risk teens — then your experiences could make for a good confessional memoir. Of course, you'd need to get permission to write about specific people first.
14. People who have lived a life of crime are in a unique position to write a compelling memoir. True crime is a popular concept across all media, and a true crime memoir could certainly do well. (Of course, I'm not suggesting you commit any crimes just so you can write about them.)
15. Is there something you've had to deal with, such as a mental or physical illness? Writing about it could be a way to help others with their own struggles.
16. Traumatic encounters can also make for impactful memoirs. Of course, writing about any kind of trauma can be difficult, but if you feel up to it, you may consider this kind of memoir.
17. Growing up is hard. If you had a particularly tough or unique time while shedding your childhood and donning adulthood, it could be of interest to future generations.
18. People are often interested in those who have different experiences from them. Whether you're an African American growing up in the United States or a disabled person navigating through life, try to pinpoint what makes you unique and discuss how it has impacted your life.
19. Confessional memoirs don't need to be as dramatic as crime or trauma. They can be as simple as mistakes you've learned from. Consider writing about a time when you made a mistake or did something that you are not proud of. Reflect on what led up to the event, how it affected those around you, and how you learned from it.
20. Like mistakes, secrets and your reasons for keeping them can also make for a good memoir topic. Write about a secret that you have kept for a long time. Consider the reasons why you felt the need to keep it hidden. How has it affected your life, and what have you learned from the experience of keeping it hidden?
Comedic Memoir Ideas
While confessional memoirs are often serious reads in which the author bares their soul, comedic memoirs often deal with similar issues but with a very different tone. Readers seek these out to laugh and revel in the lives of others.
21. Were you a class clown in middle school, high school, or college? Did you get up to silly hijinks that landed you in the principal's office? If so, a humorous tell-all could be the creative writing project of your dreams.
22. Everyone's family is pretty strange. But some are certainly stranger than others. If you can look back on your formative years and laugh, you might just have the right attitude for a comedic memoir.
23. Some of the best memoirs are about family members. Maybe you had a brother or a sister who was zany or simply uniquely funny in their own quiet way. Writing a memoir about how your close family member kept the dark times light and the light times infused with laughter is a fun undertaking.
24. Sometimes it takes a while to “grow up” and start adulting. And there are certainly potholes along the way. If you have some cringe-worthy stories from living, loving, and learning, then your embarrassment could mean hours of entertainment for your readers.
25. Trying and failing at something can provide some of the best life lessons of all. Maybe you went to LA to become an actor, or you tried your hand at sports with hilarious results. By making light of your failures, you can help people not take their own so seriously.
26. Kids say the darndest things. No, I'm not talking about the show, but it's a good example of the kind of memoir you could write if you have raised or been around kids in any capacity. Not only are they funny, but they can teach us how to retain some magic in our own lives.
27. Humor is certainly a coping mechanism. And while there's a fine line between poking fun and making fun, there's some room in the comedic memoir genre for discussing things like your relationship to food, entertainment, and even exercise. These are the things of life, and with a little creative writing, they can make for fun reading.
28. Do you work in an industry dominated by the opposite sex? Or in an elite industry where only a few “make it”? Exploring anecdotes from your unique point of view can make for awkward, embarrassing, and funny writing.
29. Everyone has experienced some hard times in their life, but not everyone can see those things in a positive light. Using humor, write about the hardest moments you've lived through, giving them a comedic twist from your perspective today.
30. Was there ever a time in your life when a kind word or a silly joke brought you out of a dark place? Write about the power of kindness and laughter in your life.
Nostalgia Memoir Ideas
Nostalgia memoirs are attractive to readers because they often remind them of their own childhood or experiences. Other readers may pick them up to see what the world was like in a certain time and place.
31. Growing up in small-town America — with white picket fences and a mailman who stops to chat — is a rarity these days. If you had this kind of upbringing, your experiences could transport readers back in time for an entertaining and inspiring journey.
32. We relate to the world through stories. And the ones we enjoyed as children often hold a special place in our hearts. If you can relate movies, shows, or books you enjoyed growing up to the person you've become today, it could make for a great memoir.
33. Music is the soundtrack to our lives. And a memoir that ties popular and classic songs to important events in your life has the potential to be a bestseller!
34. Did you attend Woodstock? Were you there for the Million Man March? Events like these — even those as recent as 1995 — can make for great memoirs. Life was different then, and much has changed. But our love for a good story hasn't.
35. Write about a significant event or period of your life, and reflect on how your perspective and feelings about it have changed over time. What do you miss most about that time, and what do you appreciate about your current stage of life?
Travel Memoir Ideas
People like traveling almost as much as they like stories. And these kinds of memoirs combine both. It's a way for readers to experience other parts of the world vicariously through the author's eyes.
36. A year-long trek across Europe. Riding a bike across America in a year. Living in hostels for a year. If you've ever done anything like this, get to writing!
37. Have you ever been injured or stranded in a foreign country? If so, you could write a thrilling memoir that details your experiences, the people you met, and how you managed to get back home.
38. Snow storms, flash floods, or broken limbs. A lot can go wrong out in the wilderness. If you've ever had a close call or a harrowing experience like this, a piece of narrative writing detailing it could be in order.
39. You can learn a lot about the world and about people by traveling. Experiences, both good and bad, can be interesting to the average memoir reader. And any life lessons you've learned along the way will certainly add depth to your memoir.
40. If you've ever been to Antarctica or the Sahara, Everest or Kilimanjaro, your experiences could make for great reading!
Other Memoir Writing Prompts
Many published memoirs are a collection of essays that are all related by theme. So these are the nonfiction equivalent of short story collections. Don't feel like you need to write one long story for your memoir. You can write several stories on different topics and then publish them as a collection. The following writing prompts can help you do just that.
41. Write about an epic journey you took.
42. Write about the time you realized what was really important in life.
43. Explore the topic of love — both platonic and romantic — and how it has influenced your life.
44. What is the one life lesson you wish you had learned earlier? Why?
45. Write about the person who has had the greatest impact on your life.
46. Explore discipline and how your life would be without it.
47. Talk about big changes in life — from childhood to adulthood or middle age to old age — and impart lessons to those who will be going through the same thing.
48. If you've ever been through a divorce, explore its impact on your life.
49. Talk about your hobby and how it has had a positive (or negative) effect on your life.
50. Explore ways you've tried to help others during your life.
Position Your Memoir for Success
When you have your memoir written and ready to publish, you’ll need to think about positioning it for success on the biggest online bookseller out there: Amazon. And the easiest way to do this is with Publisher Rocket.
You can think of the information you get from Publisher Rocket as the foundation for your writing career. You get insights directly from Amazon on:
- Keywords – Metadata to position your memoir on Amazon.
- Competition – Allowing you to see what other memoirs are selling well and how stiff the competition is.
- Categories – Allowing you to position your memoir in the right categories and subcategories to increase your chances of success.
- Amazon Ads – Helping you quickly configure a list of profitable keywords for running ads to your published memoir.
I hope these memoir writing prompts help get your creativity flowing. Don’t forget to check out Publisher Rocket here to use data to sell your finished book!