Writing Memoir Is Risky Business

Last fall I finished revising my memoir manuscript, BRAVADO AND A SKETCHY VISION LED ME HERE, and I shared it with several friends and family members before I started seeking a publisher. All of them were familiar with the basic premise of the book: it’s a coming-of-age-in-the-workplace story that takes place in 1979-1980. As a young woman, I was unsure about how to apply my feminist principles to my own life—What did I believe? How far was I prepared to go in pursuit of a career? How much did having a relationship and a family matter to me? If I wanted all three, how would that really work day-to-day?

Sharing the manuscript is scary. I’m exposing my personal life. To judgment – (Your life is boring. Your experiences don’t matter.) To criticism – (The writing is amateurish. The book is poorly written.)

Writing about my own life means I’m also writing about friends and family in my life. Real risky business. They didn’t ask to be in my book or become part of my creative project. They may resent the intrusion. Hate how I’ve characterized them. Even if I don’t intend to, my words can hurt people.

There’s a risk that my family won’t like what I’ve written. A risk that goes beyond embarrassment or irritation about the portrayals. More like – “I don’t care for memoirs—all that emotional stuff. I’d rather read a spy novel.” OK, I can handle that. Tastes vary. Vampire novels may be great stories, but they don’t appeal to me.

But if someone dear to me said, “I’m worried that although I love you, I might not like your writing,” that would be hard. I’d have difficulty separating my relationship from my craft, which is my passion and my life’s work.

I’m exposing my innermost thoughts. Often they’re innermost for a reason—sometimes because they’re painful. Embarrassing. Unworthy. Or stupid. As a writer, I’ve learned that the painful and embarrassing moments are most worth exploring—they’re most likely to yield the material that others really connect with.

The story I’m telling is only as good as my craft. As a memoirist, I use my writerly skills to shape the stories I tell. I decide which incidents, feelings and insights will create a story arc and which are extraneous details and better omitted. I use my powers of description, write dialog, and mine my memory for details. I’ve learned to check facts instead of trusting my memory (The lecture happened in February, not November as I recalled) so I can present a scene as accurately as possible. My skills or shortcomings as a writer determine the value placed on my memoir.

Why take that risk? Some memoirists write in hopes that they can teach others. That’s not what motivates me. Instead, I hope others will recognize something about themselves – “That frustrates me, too.” They’ll enjoy a moment of reminiscence – “OMG, that happened to me!” Or they’ll realize that they’re not the only one – “Wow, I’ve thought that, too.”

Despite the inherent risks, I examine certain periods of my life to find and share meaning. My experiences are worth writing about, not because they’re mine, but because they’re human and other people will see themselves in some of the central truths of my life, even if the particulars differ. For example, other working women have worried about pay and workplace politics. Today, some young women still wonder about how to balance a relationship with a career, just as I did. Other middle-aged women are looking back and considering their legacy.

If you write memoir—what makes it worth the risk?

If you read memoirs—why do they appeal to you?

10 thoughts on “Writing Memoir Is Risky Business

  1. I’m with Luanne. I love experiencing other lives. I also find comfort in the shared experiences. I write memoir because, in the words of Scott Russell Sanders, I see my life experiences as “a door through which others might pass.”

    • That’s a great quote from Scott Russell Sanders–thanks for reminding me of it. Isn’t it amazing (and wonderful) how much other people’s experiences can mean to us?

  2. I love the feeling of living many lives, so I can feel like I’m living another life when I read a memoir. I write memoir because I’m learning about myself and how to put pieces together instead of keep going over the same old thing in the same old way.

    • I love reading about other lives and living them as I read. That’s what draws me to storytelling –both fiction and memoir. I learn so much and love the journey. Thanks for reading WordSisters! I hope you enjoy the stories Elizabeth and I share. She’s nearly finished with a memoir, too–HOUSE OF FIRE. Stay tuned!

  3. I also have this new hunger to know the details of others inner lives, but not all others. At the moment I’m really interested in my daughters.

    • I know what you mean. Although I’m curious about other people’s lives and enjoy reading about them, some memoirs tell stories that are so painful and sad that I have to limit how much I can read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Memoir is my favorite genre, both to read and to write. I think it may have something to do with what an introvert I am. I only rarely get into conversations with people that really allow both of us to share who we are, what we think and what we feel. And even when I do, I feel like I’m not very good at expressing myself, though I think I make a pretty good listener. On the other hand, I think my hunger to know the details of others’ inner lives, and to give artful form to my own, would outrun any number of occasions I had for conversation. The written word offers something special. A special depth. And a kind of considered intimacy that also leaves room for imagination.

    • Memoir is my favorite genre, too. Perhaps I should have said that I love it despite the risks. Like you, I enjoy learning the details of other people’s lives and writing distills the events and observations. Your statements “A special depth. And a kind of considered intimacy that also leaves room for imagination.” are right on! Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Thanks for the tips and for sharing. I decided to blog my memories anonymously until a more suitable time when I can tell my story and not be judged by family members. It is difficult to expose ones thoughts and behavior to the world, but I’m hoping others will learn from my experiences.

    • Thanks for your comments. You make a good point–WHEN you share your memoir with family matters. In order to write honestly and not censor myself, I have to pretend like my family will never see my writing. After spending years on the book (several complete revisions), I was finally ready to let family see it . . . and mine doesn’t even talk about my family that much. I sympathize with your dilemma, but keep writing–see where it take you!

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