One of my staff editors just pointed out that a lot of our editing and publishing work is done with authors of memoirs. I thought we published business, how-to, leadership, and brand-building books. We do, but it turns out that I have helped more first-time authors to get clear about their purpose in writing about their own life. Most writers need help to discover and stay focused on their message in order to write a book worthy of wide appreciation by readers (not just their favorite relative). 

Let’s look at what a memoir is—and is not. Well, it is not an autobiography, which is more like a chronological account of your entire life. A memoir is also not simply your personal musings. I love coaching people to write reflective essays, which could lead into a memoir, but personal essays and memoirs are not the same. Memoir comes from the French word “memoire,” literally meaning memory. A memoir is written about a person’s memories and experiences. A reflective or personal essay can be about whatever the writer wishes to discuss, including future plans or current happenings.

Memoirs and personal essays are both written from the first person point of view. A reflective or personal essay can be a simple reflection on what the writer sees as she takes a morning walk. A memoir is written about one or more events in a person’s life that has held great significance or made a large impact on him and/or history. Many memoirs are written by people who have lived through an important time period. 

A great example is Lee Tran’s memoir, I Did Not Miss the Boat. When the communists took over Saigon in 1975, Tran’s world turned upside down. Together with five hundred others, she and her family left everything they knew. As “boat people” in hopes of a better future, they were a small part of the mass exodus of refugees from post-war Vietnam.  Read the full article here: 

A memoir is written to share an event from the writer’s life that has shaped or changed him. In a memoir, the writer usually discusses the implications of the event or events and seeks deeper meaning through her writing. 

Here are just a few of the memoirs I’ve had the privilege of editing and publishing: 


Most of my authors have given speeches, TEDx talks, or at least media interviews on their topic. The following is from a talk that Susan Garbett gave by invitation of the nonprofit Chordoma Foundation. This is the part where she specifically mentions what inspired her to write her memoir:  

“…While undergoing radiation treatment, my husband, Chuck, and I often stopped by the 8th floor of the Yawkey Cancer Center at MGH, while waiting for the shuttle back to the Hope Lodge. It was a place to unwind, get information, use their computers, take a class, or relax through artwork. They had an entire wall of books and DVDs about every kind of cancer you could think of, but not even a printout about chordoma. It was then I decided if I ever got through all of this, I would attempt to write a book, since there wasn’t much out there about chordoma. In 2014, Confronting Chordoma Cancer: An Uncommon Journey was published. On the back cover I wrote:

When you hear ‘very rare cancer…’ and you find yourself in a place you never thought you would be, when the fear sets in, when unwelcomed challenges are directly in your path, when obstacles and burdens become harsh…we still have the ability to regain control, and fight to help ourselves through all that lies ahead by focusing on the power of the human spirit and hope.

A reader wrote:

“We’ve all read your book since Mom’s diagnosis and found it to be warm and informative. You did a great job of humanizing everything and the book really shined a light into the darkness for me personally.”

Susan’s example is exceptional, but not unique. When you’ve lived through something and found life’s lessons, humor, creative solutions, or an empowering perspective, it is natural to want to share it with others. People love to read true stories, especially ones with a meaningful point that they personally can relate to. 

In a memoir class I teach, my motto is, “You lived to tell it!”  Are you ready to write about something from your life? Don’t think you must commit to writing an entire book. I promise that you will find it interesting and rewarding to write about even just one scene from your memory (and please don’t worry about recreating anything perfectly). Here are five memoir writing prompts to help you get started. See if you can write about 250 words on one or two of them. Notice what question and direction pull you, and where you feel most emotionally connected. I hope you’ll share yours with me!

Use These Memoir Writing Prompts to Get Started

  • You’ve traveled through time and encounter a younger version of yourself (choose one of the following ages: seven, fifteen, seventeen, twenty-three, or thirty-one). What life lesson or piece of wisdom would you share with younger yourself? Tell yourself the story of how you learned that.
  • What is one amazing adventure you’ve had that it’s almost hard to believe you were really that bold? Write it out (you may have grandchildren some day that would be amazed!).
  • Recall an experience where you lost someone, either the death of a loved one, animal, or stranger. Write about your encounter with that loss and how you experienced it.
  • Some moments in life are transformational. Things are like this…and then, in the blink of an eye, things are like that—a profoundly different way. Choose one of those transformational moments and write about it, the before and after. 
  • Have you stood on the edge of life or death, had a near-miss experience, or tragic accident? Write about one time it could have been the end…how was it a beginning, instead?


For personal feedback on one of these writing exercises, send a copy of your writing to

Find out how Barbara Dee can help you write and publish your book:

Screen Shot

Enter your details below to get your free eBook!

You have Successfully Subscribed!