Three Tips for Writing Memoirs

When I was a kid in school, memoirs were a kind of guilty pleasure for me. While I was excited and proud to talk about Harry Potter with my friends, I couldn’t really bring myself to get too pumped about memoirs. Even now, when someone gives me a book recommendation and starts by saying it’s a memoir, I internally groan a little.

I’m a bit of a freak for experiencing this initial hesitation; memoirs are actually kind of awesome. I’ve always had a soft spot for international memoirs because I’ve always been deeply curious about how people in other cultures go about their daily lives.

Anyway, I was surprised when I grew up to find that memoirs are actually a pretty popular genre for many new writers these days. What’s also interesting is the disdain many book critics have for memoirs, generally considering them narcissistic and unreliable, a form of literary navel-gazing. And in many cases–at least, in my opinion–they’re often right.

But what sets apart the good from the bad? It’s hard to be prescriptive about good memoirs–Joan Didion and Amy Poehler have pretty different styles and subjects–but it’s a lot easier for me to articulate exactly what doesn’t work in memoirs. I can’t dictate how you live your life, but hopefully I can help you write about it.

  1. Be honest. Not only do you incur the risk of ridicule and pity from the people who know you if you lie, you also likely don’t realize how obvious your fabrications are to the average reader. I’ll certainly go back to this piece of advice in future posts, but it’s imperative you remember that your reader isn’t stupid, and he or she will notice right away and feel insulted if you don’t.
  2. Be critical of yourself. Don’t aggrandize, especially not right off the bat. I get the impression that some writers want their readers to consider them trustworthy or successful to make the book worth reading, especially at the beginning. Usually, when I come across books in which the writers start off by talking about how great they are, I assume that I’m starting down a lovely road of “me, me, me.” Instead, present yourself as human. Talk about your mistakes. Fess up about what you learned from a situation. If you’re writing a memoir with a self-help slant, focus on the “help” instead of how amazing you are. It’s obnoxious.
  3. Be careful when writing about real people. If you’re talking about people who aren’t public figures, you could really get yourself into some hot water in this aspect. Do some research, and possibly even hire a libel lawyer to review what you’ve written before you go on to publish your book, especially if you present people in a negative light. Oh, and you should always use fake names in place of the names of real people in your life.

Given the popularity of memoirs as a genre, I doubt this will be the last time I write about  them. I’m really just scratching the surface of things to keep in mind as you plan your memoir, and my hope is that in the future I can offer some advice about structure and themes. Please reach out if you have any questions or suggestions, and as always, good luck!


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