How to Write a Memoir

Excerpt: Originally published in Writer’s Digest magazine

“What are you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay . . . Whether I could remember the rest of the poem or not was immaterial. The truth of the statement was like a wadded-up handkerchief, sopping wet in my fists, and the sooner they accepted it the quicker I could let me hands open and the air would cool my palms.”

So begins I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of six volumes of memoirs written by poet Maya Angelou. Using powerful imagery—“the dress . . . sounded like crepe paper on the back of hearses”—Angelou, immerses readers in the culture of pre-Civil Rights Arkansas, her own personal losses, and the hopes that survived even in the darkest of days.

The enormous popularity of memoirs such as Angelou’s—and more recently Angela’s Ashes—speaks volumes about our love of riveting tales, even though some pull readers into the darkest corners of human experience.

But what defines this genre, and how does it differ from other, extraordinarily similar, formats? Here’s what memories—and the books they inspire—are made of.