Writing A Memoir | 5 Common Misconceptions

by Marylee MacDonald in For Beginning Writers, For Memoir Writers

So you’ve always dreamed of writing a memoir. Where should you start, and how can you get a handle on the big and small turning points, traumas, and people that constitute your life?

Prismatic Human Confusion 5

Image from Open Clip Art

Several subscribers to this blog are writing memoirs, and I want to help them get started (or finished).

Are You Confused?

Writing a memoir is not simple. The writing itself takes far longer than beginning writers think it will.

Let’s take a hypothetical. Imagine getting a letter with this message.

“You’re about to embark on the most intense four years of your life. Welcome to Med School!”–Best regards, Dean of the Medical College of Grenada

You would be taken aback. “Gosh, I don’t think I even applied!”

On the other hand, if you’ve had a secret hankering to become a doctor, you might welcome such a letter. You would swallow hard, adjust your expectations, and prepare for the long hours that developing medical competency will take.

Plowing through to the end of an 80,000- to 110,000-word manuscript can feel similarly daunting. It can take years to figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it. And, then, you’ll start on revisions. Before you produce a readable and engaging book, your manuscript may go through five, ten, twenty, or thirty revisions.

Writing A Memoir Takes Courage

The act of putting words on the page–words that are but a faint approximation of the lived experience–requires a huge amount of emotional investment on your part. You may have to live in a place of emotional pain every time you sit down at the computer. And, even when you give this story your best, you will believe you have failed to tell it as it should be told.

So much for the hors d’oeuvre. Now for the meat.

Here are five misconceptions about memoirs. Think about them when your work is in the formative stage, and you’ll save yourself some grief.

Myth #1: Recovering From Trauma

Can writing a memoir help you recover from trauma? Possibly, but not necessarily. I’m amazed when folks say, “Oh, you wrote about getting trapped in a mine shaft for 91 days. I guess writing about the experience helped you put it behind you.”

People, there is a huge, huge difference between journaling to “work through the problem” and writing a memoir. If you have stuff to work through, then write faithfully in your journal and hope you can expunge the trauma or loss.

However, ask any vet who has PTSD issues, and you’ll find that memories or experiences are not so easily expunged. From my reading in neuropsychology, I believe the best bet for recovery involves cognitive behavioral therapy, desensitization therapy (talking/reliving the experience until it has lost its power to wound), and hypnosis. (For more about PTSD, check out these resources at the Veterans Administration. Writing a memoir is not therapeutic.

What writing a memoir can do is help you find the deeper truths. It can give you the satisfaction of making art. As memoirist Annie Dillard wrote:

Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer  will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so that we may feel again their majesty and power?

Now, that’s a reason to write a memoir! Are you game?

Myth #2: Writing To Set The Record Straight

All of us feel aggrieved. We are disappointed that life hasn’t turned out the way we thought it would, that our good intentions go unrewarded, or that people who’ve done us an injustice get off scot free.

Those who have suffered childhood trauma–rape, incest, neglect, or abuse–may very well feel that the only way to sort out the lingering effects of that past is to wrestle it into submission via a memoir.

The problem is that any hint of victimhood will doom your book. If you come off as “someone to whom bad things happened,” readers will put the book down.

Life is hard enough for all of us. We want to know that it’s possible to survive, even in the direst circumstances. Readers want to be uplifted.

Ishmael Beah’s memoir, A Long Way Gone, is an example of violence, trauma, and reinvention. The point is that Beah, though showing us the dark place, doesn’t leave us stranded.

Can your memoir show us the resilience that wells up from within the human spirit? Can it offer hope?

Myth #3: Having A Monopoly On The Truth

In geometry we might call Myth #3 a corollary to Myth #2.

One of the most fertile places to look for memoir material is childhood. That’s because children have greater access to their feelings. We haven’t yet learned to shut down or filter out what might be unacceptable if spoken aloud.

Another reason to tap into childhood is that our memories remain vivid with smells, sights, and “firsts” –dates, kisses, and defeats.

But the danger with using material from that portion of our pasts is that we may find ourselves mired in the “Little Matchgirl” (aka “The Poor Little Matchgirl”) syndrome. Read Hans Christian Andersen’s story here, and you’ll see what I mean.

Little Match Girl

Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Match Girl” is an example of a protagonist who is a victim. Though she tries to escape in her imagination, she cannot help freezing to death.

Frank McCourt’s bestseller, Angela’s Ashes, taps into a similar vein. It’s a tearjerker of a childhood in which humor leavens the pathos. What’s so wonderful about this book is that McCourt stands the cliche of victimization on its head. Here’s an excerpt:

Writing a memoir-Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt waited until late in life to publish ANGELA’S ASHES. What makes his work so popular is “voice”–the voice that takes a wry look at a childhood of deprivation.

When you write your memoir, you must set the bar high, both in terms of objective truth and of what I call “truth of intention.” Consider the other people in your story. Note that McCourt sees his alcoholic father and long-suffering mother as “characters” crushed by poverty, religion, colonialism, and tradition. He pities them.

Can you find it in your heart to forgive?

Myth #4: Writing the Whole Life, Not Just Part

The instant you embark on a memoir, you will discover one of its biggest myths–the illusion that the book must cover your whole life, not just part of it. You don’t have to emulate Frank McCourt, looking back on a long life. (If you’re young you haven’t lived it yet!) The easier path in this memoir-writing endeavor is to write about part of your life.

Pie chart for writing a memoir

When you’re writing a memoir, think about which slice of the pie will be the most interesting for the reader. Focus on one event, theme, or subject, and let the remainder of your life stay in the background.

Pin the above visual above your writing desk. Narrow your focus. Find and read memoirs that start in medias res–in the middle of the action. Put readers there with you, and you’ll win their loyalty.

The excerpt below comes from Tobias Wolff’s In Pharoah’s Army: Memories of the Lost War. Wolff would rather show than tell. He allows us make up our own minds about Vietnam.

In Pharoah's Army-Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff selected one slice of life to write about–the Vietnam war. His memoir, IN PHAROAH’S ARMY, has been called one of the finest books ever written about armed conflict, and yet it’s told through the lens of one man’s war experience. What makes memoirs so compelling is that they are particular stories (of one individual); but, in the particular, readers find universal truths.

Myth #5: You Are Writing A Memoir Only For Family Members

My granddaughters are always bugging me to write about my life. “Grandma, you were a carpenter. That’s awesome!” Or “Grandma, you were a single mom. How did you do it?”

But, what they actually want, and what I would love to provide, is a document that will help them make up for the time we didn’t know each other. My young mommy years, when I made my kids eat five bites. And to take that back further, my teenage years, when the hormones raged and decades of either/or choices lay before me.

When we are young we have all the time in the world. And, yet, I know that if I penned even a short memoir about the days before cell phones and social media, my eager admirers would grow bored.

No one can bear to read a book that has no tension. A straight, chronological retelling of the past will bore readers and remind them of how they feel on a long plane flight with a seatmate who yammers in their ear.

If you want to write a memoir, learn from others who have written them.

Two Resources to Make Your Memoir a Success

Mary Karr has just published The Art of the Memoir. It’s a funny and thoughtful book that will give you the benefit of her wisdom. If you aspire to “become a writer,” read it. (Karr is the author of several bestselling memoirs, one of which is The Liar’s Club.)

Another resource you might explore is the National Association of Memoir Writers, founded by Linda Joy Myers, herself a memoirist and author of Don’t Call Me MotherThis site is especially good for beginning writers. NAMW’s podcasts contain a ton of information about writing memoirs and getting them published.

Writing a memoir can be a great way to share what life has taught you about the human condition. If you can find humor in the ordinary and compassion for those who’ve wronged you, you’re halfway to your goal.

I’d love to know whether you’ve attempted a memoir or whether you prefer fiction.


  • Marylee MacDonald

    Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, BODY LANGUAGE, and THE BIG BOOK OF SMALL PRESSES AND INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers' Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, a Wishing Shelf Book Award, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.

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6 Responses to “Writing A Memoir | 5 Common Misconceptions”

  1. Sonni Quick says:

    About 12 years ago, my first seriously (I thought at the time) writing attempt was on my life which was more unconventional than most, but after months of writing I had to stop. I has promised myself to be honest and that honesty was more than I could bear to tell so I stopped writing. To this day I have been the least favorite in my family and I think, even unconsciously, my family has been resentful, scared off, jealous even of their lack of taking a chance of living a life they want rather than what they think is expected of them. But I didn’t stop writing. Creativity was always my strong suit, music being the most important. Lyrics and poetry and improvised piano.

    The last nearly two years I have written another book that now needs editing. I have learned much more about the art of writing and I believe this has potential. It is not my memoir but it is about the life of someone else set in a very relevant background today. Our prison system. What our government and population has done to the black family and the course we have pushed millions of people into taking through the school to prison pipeline and ruining the lives of so many people because of corporate greed. So I am rereading it now, applying more I have learned since I started. It is important that I do the best I can because it can greatly affect the life of the man whose life story I tell. I have written music for the book but I don’t know best to utilise it. The music is the emotion, the heartbreak, the sadness and loss underlying everything that has happened. I am this man’s only connection with the outside as he tells me his story; ignored by family, living with epilepsy, unable to see his only son, born after incarceration.

    On disability myself awaiting another surgery next week how do I get the money for an editor? Is it really possible to get a publisher? I’ve heard so many pros and cons.

    • Hi Sonni, Thanks for asking a question that will be common to many others. There are no sources of money to help authors have their books professionally edited. None.

      But, let’s say you found the money on your own to hire an editor. Even that will not guarantee the book will ever be publishable. If you read the blog post I did about a talk by agent Jim Donovan, he was very frank in saying that he’d never seen a book that had been “professionally edited” turn into a book that he could sell to a publishing company.

      Why is that? Because a professional editor can only do so much. They can clean up grammar problems and give you a clean manuscript, but the manuscript turns out kind of lifeless. I’m not sure why, but it does. Having it “professionally edited” just squeezes the juice out.

      With fiction, there are many more things than grammar that must be just right.

      You need a sympathetic character. You need someone who can envision a goal. If you have written about a man who is striving against great odds to get out of prison and to make a new life, then, yes, that would probably work. But if you’re showing the reader a character who is physically and psychologically trapped, that will not be a book a reader can endure.

      Readers need someone to root for. We want to watch someone planning, making progress, being blocked, then making a new plan, and trying again. Finally, because of what that person has gone through, they reach the crisis moment and either achieve their goal, or fail and have to decide to suck it up.

      That’s just the way fiction works, even if it’s not the way the world works.

      Reading the description doesn’t make me optimistic about your chances for getting the book published by a mainstream press, meaning a New York press. For that you would need an agent, and you would have to learn to write a compelling query letter and synopsis.

      Your letter hints that there may be a real person on whom this book is based, and that he wants/needs you to tell his story. If that’s so, then the ONLY way your book would get any attention in the book world is to have it published by one of the big 5 New York presses.

      But there’s nothing preventing you from self-publishing the book. You can do that very easily on CreateSpace if you read their tutorials. Or, you could see if an independent press would publish it. They would do the “professional editing” for you, and it wouldn’t cost you anything. If you went that route, you would sign a contract to give them 50% of your royalties (that’s a rough guess). You would then need to learn how to market the book via social media. The book would not be in bookstores. It would be a print on demand book. Most folks who self-publish do not sell many books. Romance writers and authors of detective fiction have the best chance of building a career this way.

      If you can find a local writing group where you can present your work, that will be a good place to see if it’s, at least, readable by others. Meetup.com is a good place other writers near you.

      I wish you all the best with this book and with your memoir, should you decide to work on it again.

  2. Michael Tarulli says:

    Hi Marylee,

    I have commenced my memoir with the main theme (action); attached to it a hint of emotional transformation enough for the reader to dwell deeper and seek answers (I hope that made sense).

    I am approximately 50% through my first draft of my imagined 50th or so.

    The thing I have enjoyed thus far in my writing is the fresh material and voices that give me incentive to continue on – such as yours – despite the doubts, second-thoughts, or fears of writing my memoir.

    Your article has achieved the inspiration I need at this critical time.

    Thank you.

  3. Karen Bobrow says:

    I am not certain if what I wrote would be called a biography or a memoir because it’s not about me. Some people have told me it is a memoir, but I am uncertain.

    It is my father’s story, with letters I wrote to him as I was researching and writing my book. What are your thoughts on this?

    • There are all kinds of “genre-bending” ways to use letters, also called “epistolary material”. Images and letters often serve as springboards. I’ve known several authors who’ve used them: A Boy Thirteen: Reflections on Death by his father, Jerry Irish; Mary Clark’s Tally: An Intuitive Life; the Kindle single My Mother’s Lover; and, though not a book, a very interesting article from Geraldine Brooks, Post Marked. You’re in very good company and following a common impulse, which is to make a coherent story out of someone’s life.

      Biographies often do the same thing–use facts and excerpts from letters to paint a three-dimensional picture of a person or a couple. Autobiography does that, too. Politicians often go back over their notes and reconstruct important events. In some cases there’s an attempt to spin the events in the author’s favor. (I’m thinking of Henry Kissinger’s autobiography.)

      A memoir generally keeps the focus on “me.” It allows a reader to enter the very private thoughts and feelings of the author. Perhaps your readers have been able to pick up that undercurrent of “me-ness” more than you realized.

      Fortunately, we live in a time when authors can feel free to cross boundaries. Your book sounds very meaningful, and I’m sure it is especially so for those in your family. I’ll write more about this subject in post. You’ve inspired me.