Perils, Pitfalls and Pleasures of Writing Memoir

Writing about your own life is like walking through murky water. On one hand, you are employing some of the techniques of fiction. Dialogue. Description. Setting. Character Development. Theme. Symbolism. Story arc and plot. Scene, scene, scene. Internal monologue. All of these come into play. And then there are the smaller, detail-oriented things like cadence, sentence variation, and playing with language in an artful way that expresses what you want to say.

And yet, it’s not fiction.  There are limits on all of the above elements (except perhaps the language and sentence levels). Your dialog has to match, more or less, the dialogue as you remember it from real life. Your character development is limited to how much you’ve developed your insights and observations about the people around you, how closely and in how many dimensions you’ve paid attention.

Your story arc often won’t fit the more linear traditional arc. That can be one of the trickier things to work with. I think you do need a fair amount of crafting to make the raw material of your life into a story worth telling. You can’t just vomit out exactly as you remember it happening because life is so messy that your story would end up that way too. At the same time, I think it’s dangerous to control the messiness too much, to work too hard to fit things into and expected and accepted story arc. Doing so can push you too far into fiction. There has to be a balance between free-flowing creative energy and craft. And the more you write, the more both come naturally.

One of the tricks in dealing with all of this is to separate you the author from you the person who lived the experience you’re writing about. You have to try to get some distance, but just the right amount. Too much and you lose that specific, personal, immediate feeling of memoir (and many first-person novels) but get too close and you could be going all over the place, so full of little details and tangents and side stories that you lose sight of what you’re writing about. It takes practice and writing groups and reading other memoirs, and most of all, continuing to write, write, write to see what feels right to you.

Some pitfalls I’ve seen other writers fall into:

1. Running from your raw material. I read this one memoir years ago by someone famous. The topic was really intense and intriguing but every time this author got close to talking about the intense, somewhat weird topic, she’d write things like, “Well this is getting too weird, maybe let’s discuss something else for awhile.” Reading it drove me a little crazy because I felt like the author was always skirting around the thing that was the central theme of the book, instead of delving in and exploring it. The whole book was like that. And I think that’s what we as readers most want. We want to be in the thick of it, go deep into the dark places that don’t get talked about in casual conversation, plumb the depths of someone else’s material.

There’s a reason this is first. It’s easy to do. Even though I’ve been writing memoir for a several years, the temptation to dodge what is embarrassing, uncomfortable and raw is always there, but it’s a temptation worth fighting. Even if your material makes you uncomfortable, maybe especially if your material makes you uncomfortable, dive into it, go as deep as you can. You can always cut back later if you need be but if you don’t write it, you can’t work with it. And honestly, those parts that make you feel mortified, or as though you’re scraping at the bottom layer of your soul and offering it up for scrutiny, digging into those corners you yourself don’t even want to see–that’s when you get to the core of your story and what makes it worth telling.

2. Focusing so much on the story that you forget the personal. Another memoir I read several years ago by an established writer had an interesting storyline but almost no personal details. The few personal details that were included  were complaints and without anything to balance that out, it was hard to like the main character, the author. I’m sure the author had much more going on (at least I hope so) but leaving it off the page did a disservice to the story, left it a little flat, without dimensions that would have made it richer. It doesn’t feel like memoir when the narrator is invisible.

3. Boeing too cute. We all love funny writing, and most of us aspire to it, but there can be a danger of being too funny to the point where it no longer feels real. Leave the humor in, for sure, but make sure you’re not cutting out the meat of the story and just leaving the trimmings.

4  Writing that is just one hot mess. This goes back to what I was saying earlier. If you have no filter and everything gets included, it usually leads to chaos, confusion, self-contradiction.. A reader can feel like they are drowning in all these details that aren’t coming together to make a clear picture or a full story.

5. Effusive positive praise. I read one manuscript that described every character as the most beautiful, the most handsome, the sweetest, the nicest and most noble and honorable person ever. Not only does it make you want to hate these perfect unblemished people, the bigger problem is that it makes you distrust the author. For one thing, all the characters are pretty much described in the same way so they don’t feel distinct and developed, more like a chorus of perfection as the backdrop for the author. Also, we know people aren’t like that in real life so it quickly starts to feel like the author is being dishonest, either with the readers or herself.

Like I said up top, memoir writing can be tricky. You don’t have the natural separation from the story that you would in fiction, even fiction that is based on the personal. You don’t get a surrogate main character who shares some qualities of yours but not others. You don’t get to give that main character different memories, which may be tidier or more perfectly symbolic or more beautifully poignant than your own. And you don’t get to get off the hook. If you want your writing to be honest, and you do, you have to get almost uncomfortably honest with yourself–about your flaws, your strengths, how you really felt about certain situations, the times when you were the bad guy or just plain wrong. You have to go back, not to your retelling of a memory or how is was changed with time, but to the memory itself, how it was then and then, sprinkle in some of the knowing and perspective from who you are now. Any thoroughly developed fiction character would offer us the same, but it just gets so much more difficult when that character is yourself.

And there are great rewards. You get to live your life twice. You get to submerge yourself back in older times (and not just the retelling of those old times but the raw memory), briefly hold onto time and make it stop before it slides through your hands like water. You will remember things you think you forgot forever. You find the humor in things that once had none. You get to see things in a new light. Sometimes you get a great catharsis. Sometimes you connect dots you didn’t even know you were supposed to. You get a different, better, more rounded feel for your life. You hone your craft relentlessly.

Sometimes people come back to you. I remember writing about someone I hadn’t heard from in years, and then getting an email from her a day or two later. I remember feeling like writing memoir could summon people, but never if I set out with that intention.

And when you do really allow yourself to delve in, it’s rewarding in a way that is hard to describe. Even writing the most painful scenes somehow feels really…satisfying. There’s something rewarding about just getting through it and out the other side. Your life and your memories take on a new vibrancy, deeper richness, and yet they lose their hold over you. A lot of times once I write something, I’ll almost forget about it, like a dream once you write it down, and there’s something so quietly and profoundly transformative about that.

I feel like I’m not quite describing it right, but that living twice is really something else. It’s like you go beyond nostalgia to inhabit old memories, almost like a ghost haunting old scenes, and you get to briefly enter them as if they’re real again. It’s a little like time travel. It’s maybe the least tangible pleasure of memoir writing, but at least for me, it’s also the best.

~Emilia J

9 thoughts on “Perils, Pitfalls and Pleasures of Writing Memoir

  1. Great post! Lots of chew on here, and even though I do not write memoir (except in small doses), much applies to fiction writers, too.

    On #5–the opposite also can be problematic, where all characters are described as uniformly evil.

    And my own #6–there must be some universality in the memoir. There has to be something for readers to cling to that makes them NOT say “so what”. And that means creating an empathetic narrator with a unique story who also happens to deal with universal issues.

    I am overdosed on memoirs that focus on child abuse, mental illness, and drugging. Give me something that makes me think “hmmm, that’s a different take.”


    • Grrr I replied to these comments days ago but WordPress seems to have gobbled it up.

      FMA/Kevin – it’s so funny you should mention that because I just recently learned all about “Bless your heart,” and all its undertones from two friends from Georgia. I don’t thinkt he particular writer I’m thinking of was actually being facetious at all. I almost wish there had been that backhanded nature to some of it because at least that would’ve given it another layer, but I really don’t think there was any of that.

      drwasy – I completely agree that painting everyone as blandly evil would be just as bad. Either way, the author is not paying attention or caring about individual people and painting them all as a backdrop of either wonderful goodness or as you put it, uniform evil. Either way would make me feel the author is unaware of others, uncaring or a terrible observer because no one person is like that, let alone everyone in a person’s life.

      I too have gotten in certain reading ruts. A few years ago, I just could not handle reading one more refugee/repressive government story. It’s not that I didn’t think these stories were important–quite the contrary–but I just got burned out on book after book on the topic, and it was really heavy and I just needed some variation in my queue. I think it can happen that way with any kind of books, or movies, TV shows, music, etc. Sometimes you really need to change up or lighten up the playlist for awhile.

      I seriously considered this when crafting my Netflix queue. I was just clicking on movies, putting in recommendations from my earlier post, and all of a sudden I realized I had like twenty crime movies in a row and thought, okay let’s throw in some different topics, some girlie guilty pleasure movies and spread these other ones out and just keep it diverse.

      If you look at the pingbacks in the comment section on this post, there is one called 100 Memoirs… and I looked at the list, and while a few touched upon the subjects you’re sick of, most of them were different so you may want to check it out!

      • I actually knew one person who used “bless her heart” in a benevolent, non-passive-aggressive way. She was a sweet Pentacostal nurse I worked with who never had a bad word to say about anyone.

        I complained about a fellow orderly being two hours late without calling in an explanation, and Michelle said “Bless her heart!” I responded “Bless her heart my ass! I’m dying here!”

        • Hahaha how did she reply to that?

          The writer I’m talking about it probably a lot like Michelle. It was like that, but beyond not having a bad word to say about anyone, she would just be overflowing with (identical) praise for everyone. There were a few exceptions in her story but they were few and far between.

          I seriously never heard that “bless her heart” expression until about two weeks ago, or if I did, it never registered in any way. I guess that’s what happens when you spend your life in the New England/NY/NJ area and the Pacific Northwest.

  2. Pingback: Books: Over 100 Must Read Memoirs To Whet Your Appetite… | Mirth and Motivation

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