With more and more life-changing memoirs hitting the shelves, emerging writers are feeling themselves increasingly drawn to the creative nonfiction genre. But embarking on any book-length project can be intimidating… even when the subject is your own life.
To warm up your writer’s muscles and get some practice crafting a narrative, why not try challenging yourself with a 100-word memoir? These snapshot stories may not take up much space on the page, but they can pack a substantial punch.
We’ll take you through everything you need to know to start writing your own miniature masterpieces.
What is a memoir?
First, let’s clarify: what exactly is a memoir? And is that the same as an autobiography or personal essay?
A memoir is an exploration of a memory or series of memories—often the ones that shaped the person you are today. Unlike an autobiography or biography, it isn’t a landscape of your entire life. Instead, a memoir will usually just focus on a period of a few years.
Some memoirs combine other types of nonfiction, too. For example, many cookbooks are hybrid memoirs—they feature recipes alongside anecdotes about the writer’s personal experiences. Our lives are rich in engaging stories, and these moments can make traditional nonfiction feel more accessible.
To learn more, you can check out the link to our detailed lesson on memoirs and autobiographies here.
Why write a 100-word memoir?
Writing a 100-word memoir—or a series of them—is fantastic training for emerging writers and students at any stage of their journey. It forces you to focus on your word choice and figurative language in a precise, crystalline way; it develops your ability to create a big impact through small moments in time—a good thing even in longer works of writing.
Through the writing process, you’ll learn to make every single word fight for its place on the page. These are skills that you can take with you into other types of writing—whether it’s a longer short story, a personal essay, a poem, an academic paper, a teaching lesson, or your breakout debut novel.
Does your memoir need to be exactly 100 words?
Really, any short story should be as minuscule or as sprawling as it needs to be—whether that’s 50 words or 5,000. But consider your 100-word memoir as a personal challenge, or an exercise for the mind. If your memoir ends up being 103 words, which of those three words can you live without? If it’s 80 words, which moment can you give a bit more depth?
Your mini-memoir doesn’t need to be exactly 100 words, but you’ll find the practice more beneficial for your journey as a writer if you push yourself to hit your target dead centre. Plus, publication outlets often set strict word limits and won’t accept submissions that are too short or too long.
We’ll look closer at ways to send your 100-word memoir out into the world below.
To get an idea of how to create small stories of your life, take a look at these excerpts from honest, thought-provoking literature.
Reasons to Stay Alive, by Matt Haig
My mum and dad were at the airport. They stood there looking tired and happy and worried all at once. We hugged. We drove back.
Mum turned around in the passenger seat and looked at me and smiled and the smile had a slightly crumpled quality, her eyes glazed with tears. I felt it. The weight of Mum. The weight of being a son that had gone wrong. The weight of being loved. The weight of being a disappointment. The weight of being a hope that hadn’t happened the way it should have.
This example, an excerpt from a longer memoir and guide to understanding mental illness, creates a big picture in a very small space. It doesn’t waste time setting up the writer’s challenges, but instead lets them come through naturally in the actions of the characters.
This snapshot makes a point of focusing closely on one small moment in time, and the experience of the narrator as they struggle to understand what they’re feeling.
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
My grandfather and I had a standing joke. He was the head waiter at a country club near my hometown, and every Sunday my grandmother drove in to bring him home for his Monday off. My brother and I alternated going with her, and my grandfather always served Sunday super to my grandmother and whichever of us was along as if we were regular club guests. He loved introducing me to special titbits, and by the age of nine I had developed a passionate taste for cold vichyssoise and caviar and anchovy paste.
Sylvia Plath’s iconic work of autofiction takes this moment to reach back into the protagonist’s life and visit a happier time. This vignette creates a clear relationship between the narrator and their grandfather, as well as framing the person the narrator goes on to become.
With only a few words the reader can see an entire childhood.
“Crush,” by Brenda Miller
Years ago, on the island of Santorini, I walked the village at sunrise, gazing at vineyards that grow differently there—close to the ground, like mounded beans, rather than the upright regiments I knew in California. In Greece, the grapes sprawl in leisure, indifferent to the future. Or not indifferent, but plump with it, glad to be turned to a greater purpose. I always want to be there, in that village at dawn; I want to be those grapes beholden to the wine, born to a pleasure that comes only after the crush.
Unlike the first two examples from larger works, this piece of flash fiction stands alone as it takes the reader to a Grecian island through the eyes of someone seeing it for the first time. The author uses figurative language and personification to bring the setting, and their experience with it, to life.
Art Matters, by Neil Gaiman
I was lucky. I had an excellent library growing up, and met the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders.
They were good librarians. They would help me find other books. They would help. They treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.
This excerpt from Neil Gaiman’s novella-length memoir shows how a storyteller was born in a short, standalone story from the writer’s childhood.
Childhood memories are excellent short story fodder, especially since we can understand their effects on us better in retrospect (we’ll look at more at ideas for 100-word memoirs below).
Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney
Bobbi and I often performed at spoken word events and open mic nights. When we were outside smoking and male performers tried to talk to us, Bobbi would always pointedly exhale and say nothing, so I had to act as our representative. This meant a lot of smiling and remembering details about their work. I enjoyed playing this kind of character, the smiling girl who remembered things. Bobbi told me she thought I didn’t have a “real personality,” but she said she meant it as a compliment.
Although this example is from a work of fiction, the first-person narrative effectively illustrates how evocative a mini-memoir can be. In this excerpt, the narrator focuses on a singular memory in order to explore her relationship with her best friend and co-performer.
Tips for crafting your own 100-word memoir
Now that we know what these micro-memoirs look like in practice, here are a few things to keep in mind as you begin the writing process of crafting your own story.
Choose a small moment in time
As you can see from these examples, the most effective way to create a 100-word memoir is to zoom in on a specific moment or memory and crystallise it for the reader. Instead of trying to tell your entire life story, focus on a pivotal moment that would go on to have a larger impact and shape your onward journey.
This might be something like an eye-opening first date, a family event, the moment you discovered a small fortune behind your house, or a childhood summer memory that stayed with you all your life.
Our existence is a series of these small, interconnected moments; your job is to choose one and show the reader why it made an impact on the person you are now.
Moments that might inspire your memoir:
Here are some more ideas to spark your creativity.
A life-changing minute during a summer holiday
An early memory with your mother or father
A conversation overheard on a bus ride
A moment with your friends that still makes you laugh
A stranger who taught you an unexpected lesson
The moment you met your husband/wife/partner
One of the many adventures you had as a child
The time you learned the truth about a childhood belief
If you’re looking for more ideas, follow this link to some writing prompts to get your creativity flowing!
Consider your theme
Even though you’re only taking up a small amount of space on the page, your 100-word memoir should resonate emotionally with the reader—and you accomplish this by giving it a message.
Think about what you want your short story to convey. Hope for a better future? The importance of intergenerational storytelling? Stranger danger? What key lesson do you want the reader to listen to as they read your story? See if you can condense your 100-word memoir into a single, clear idea.
Themes to explore in your 100-word memoir:
When writing about events in our lives, we want to extend a powerful message to the reader. Here are some more core themes you can touch upon in your short memoirs.
Self respect is worth more than an easy payout
Real friendship means always having your back
Always keep learning, no matter your age
Money can’t buy happiness
Lived experience is the best education
Mean people are mean because they’re afraid
When something seems too good to be true, it probably is
Life is too short for regrets
You don’t have to travel far to find adventures
Teaching is the best way to learn
Found family is more important than blood family
These are just a few ideas. A good way to find your theme is to look at the moment you’re writing about and ask yourself, “What lesson did I learn from this?” “What new perspective did I gain?” “How did this moment in time change me?” Your answer will reveal the story’s true theme.
Instead of wasting valuable words on sprawling description, focus on just a few key details and bring them to life. If your 100-word memoir is about a love affair gone wrong, how can you hint at the broad scope of the story in the space of only a few moments? How can certain elements hint at the past and future of the characters? Consider sight, smell, sound, mood, objects and their meaning.
A great example is this poem by Katie Wilson, which uses the smell of burning to ground a pivotal memory about the writer’s mother.
See if there’s a way you can condense a big story into a single sensory detail—using targeted word choice to convey an entire life in the same amount of space as a few minutes of lived experience.
Tips for specificity in your micro story:
In prose writing, we’re often told to use all the senses. Because you’re working in such a small space, you may find it more effective to describe just one or two. You can zoom in on something you hear, like the sound of someone’s voice as they tell you some bad news; something you smell, like Katie Wilson’s burning toast; or something you feel, like the sensation of sand caught in a bathing suit.
The more close and detailed you can get to a particular sense or sensation, the more your memoir will come to life for the reader.
It also helps to avoid sprawling across time too much. Instead of writing about an entire music lesson, write about the moment you hit the right note. Instead of writing about the two years you spent in therapy, choose a few minutes in which the therapist said something that opened your eyes.
Limit your characters
While it can be tempting to introduce all your friends and family into your 100-word memoir, you’ll find that your story will be more powerful if you focus on just a couple of people—two or three at most.
Remember, specificity is your secret weapon. 100 words is a small amount of space to get to know these people, so you’ll find the process less challenging if you allow fewer characters more real estate on the page.
Plus, with fewer characters you can focus on the ways these relationships affected you and your growth as a person. How did your experiences with your friend, partner, or parent shape the person you’ve become?
Stories are all about humanity, and the 100-word memoir is a good place to explore these relationships.
Ideas for characters to explore in your memoirs:
There’s no limit to the sort of people you can write about in your 100-word memoir. Your mother, father, sibling, husband, and squad are all rich in writing inspiration. But, consider reaching farther out and discovering people who have impacted you in small ways.
Here are a few ideas.
A stranger who helped you when you were in trouble.
The cashier who made you feel better when you were having a hard day.
An encouraging teacher who changed the course of your life.
Your first childhood crush
A kind stranger whose compliment made you smile for the rest of the week
A child who taught you an unexpected lesson
A writer who encouraged you when you were feeling lost
A tourist you met while on holiday
Use an objective voice
Because you’re expressing a small, precise moment, you may find it helpful to use the objective voice—letting the actions of the story speak for themselves, rather than using a lot of character emotion.
Instead of saying, “My parents hurt my feelings when they missed my graduation,” show the way you reacted and what you did to cope with those feelings (this, by the way, comes from the classic writing rule of “Show, don’t tell”).
When you use objectivity in your 100-word memoir, you don’t lose the emotional impact of your words—you make them even more powerful.
Your title is your last step
While you may want to choose a title at the very beginning, you might find that the right title becomes clearer after you’ve written your 100-word memoir and have a better idea of its core theme. The right title can make your reader laugh, or reveal more nuance in your story.
Next steps for your 100-word memoir
Now that you have an expertly crafted 100-word memoir—or a series of them—how can you get them into the hands of readers?
Unlike a novel, a 100-word memoir isn’t going to sit on the shelves of your local Barnes and Noble. But! There are a few ways you can send these words out into the world.
Seek out journals for miniature stories
There are a number of literary journals that specialize in 100-word stories including the OG 100 Word Story as well as Friday Flash Fiction, The Citron Review, The Drabble, Microfiction Monday, Splonk (through their 100-word branch SplonkMicros), and, for you genre fiction aficionados, Martian Magazine.
All of these journals focus on microfiction and nonfiction of 100 words or less! Plus, they’re a great source of inspiration for how other writers have flourished within the constraints of the 100-word story. (And if there’s one word you just can’t bear to part with, there’s a journal for that too—101 Words.)
Gain international renown
There are also contests devoted to the short-short form, including the internationally respected Fish Flash Fiction Prize and the Bath Flash Fiction Award—both of these have upper limits of 300 words. The Bridport Flash Fiction Prize has a limit of 250 words.
Other contests, like the Oxford Flash Fiction Prize, have higher word counts but welcome small, concise stories.
Use small moments to create a big picture
But sometimes, you may have several 100-word memoirs or stories that fit together to create a larger whole—a mosaic of your life. In this case, a long-form book might be the answer after all. You can link together a string of your 100-word memoirs so that they work to create a complete novella-length memoir. This novella-in-flash story format is becoming increasingly popular, and it’s a good way to reach an audience with your bite-size memories.
Explore your life through the 100-word short story
Our lives are made up of tiny moments—the beautiful, the challenging, the inspiring, and the defining. Using these experiences to create these mini memoirs is a great way to stretch your limitations as a writer, improve your mastery of language and word choice, and convey the story of your life in a fresh new way.