Some pretty bad stuff happened to me growing up and I’ve been thinking about writing and publishing a memoir. But I’m worried no one wants to read about the bad stuff.
Putting your experiences on paper, especially the ones related to loss, pain, and grief, is always
helpful to the soul, but also very hard to do.
Let’s start by looking at the memoir genre.
It’s important to differentiate between an autobiography and a memoir.
An autobiography is the telling of your life story in a chronological and factual way.
A memoir is the telling of a critical time in your life, not your entire life. It focuses on the parts
of your life that will resonate with readers. It’s not facts and events, it’s intimacy and emotional
truth. Memoirs are theme-based, your readers will be interested in that theme, not necessarily the details of your life.
In a recent interview in the New Yorker, J. R. Moehringer, the ghost writer for Prince Harry’s
memoir, Spare, said, “that’s half the art of memoir, leaving stuff out…strange as it may seem,
memoir isn’t about you. It isn’t even the story of your life. It’s a story carved from your life, a
particular series of events chosen because they have the greatest resonance for the widest range
We all learned a lot from James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, where much of what he
wrote never happened. That revelation resulted in the genre being labeled creative nonfiction.
Focus on nonfiction. What you write about has to have happened to be considered memoir. The
style in which you tell it is up to you.
Writing about an extremely difficult time in your life is going to stir up a lot, so be prepared. You
may need to write several versions in order to get through the feelings — rage, hurt, betrayal,
grief — so that you can write from the heart but not for revenge. Moehringer also talks about
writing the story in an inclusive way, citing how in Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt wrote about
the people in his life, mother, father, siblings, as fallible humans all trying to get through life as
best they can.
Will people want to read about the rough times you’ve been through? It all depends on how you
write it. Jeannette Walls opens her best-selling childhood memoir, The Glass Castle, in the
present day as she’s riding in a limo in New York and sees her mother dumpster diving. Did she
give away the story? Not to me. Instead, she enabled me to read about the rough times because I
knew in the end she persevered.
If you’ve come this far, you must have resiliency. A reader will go along for the ride if they
know up front that you ‘survived.’
I write mystery and when my most recent book, Mystery at Windswept Farm, was released, a
woman reached out to me and said mine was the first book she’d been able to complete in four
years. After battling cancer and losing three of the most important people in her life, she had lost her ability to concentrate long enough to complete a book. I thought about why that may be. My conclusion is she trusted me. Even though I write murder mysteries, she trusted I wouldn’t take her somewhere she wasn’t prepared to go.
That’s how I look at it now. As writers we are engaging in a contract with our readers. I want my
readers to trust from the beginning that I’ll tell a good story, and close with a satisfying ending.
You can do that too.
Mémoire means memory/reminisce in French. Try to take that to heart while writing. You are no
longer in that situation. You made it. Remember, you are the hero of this story, as well as the
author. So reminisce, be the narrator, write from the heart, but with civility and artistry. If you
write that book, your readers will endure the bad stuff right along with you.