The Pitfalls of Writing Memoir

People are often surprised that I’m writing a memoir. I’m just barely 37 and many people seem to have the idea that a memoir is something one writes at the end of life. No, it’s not an autobiography. How dull would that be, trying to remember every mundane life event? A memoir is usually much more focused. I’ve read numerous memoirs about periods of addiction or mental illness or childhood. David Sedaris writes funny short essays about specific events from his past. That’s memoir.

The first difficulty with memoir is remembering. I’m writing a childhood memoir about growing up in an eccentric working class family with a schizophrenic mother, and I want to include some events that happened in my infancy that I don’t remember at all. In fiction, you can just make things up. In memoir, there’s a bit more pressure to adhere to what really happened, and I’ve found that even people who remember the same event often remember it differently. So, honestly, a lot of memoir writing is making things up. Especially conversations and other explicit details. I mean, who remembers verbatim conversations that happened 25 years ago? No one, that’s who.

And of course there’s the fact that your characters are in fact real people who are very likely to read this if it ever gets published. People get sensitive about the funniest things, and as I write about my relatives I have to admit some of the facts of their lives are not incredibly flattering. I would never try to magnify someone’s shortcomings, but in writing the truth those shortcomings become apparent. The question is, to what lengths should I go to protect them? Changing names is easy, but of course anyone who knows my family will know who I’m talking about anyway.

Perhaps the most difficult part is getting over the feeling that no one wants to read this stuff, and that my life is just as mundane as most, so why do I think it deserves special attention? I keep reminding myself that the most mundane life, if portrayed from the right angle and well-written, can be a good read. And my childhood really was filled with all varieties of oddness. Hopefully it will be worth the energy I’m pouring into it.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. SPH says:

    Sedaris writes about that very issue in several of his pieces. His family is depicted in a realistic, if not flattering, light, and his brother and sisters do sometimes resent such an intrusion into their lives. Not having written anything so personal myself, the only advice I could give would be make sure it’s a best seller when you do finish it, because the only thing that’s going to take away the sting of family disapproval is the notoriety and income that is part and parcel of being a popular writer. Otherwise it may be wiser to write it as you want to write it and then let a good amount of time pass before you shop it around to agents.

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    1. kittyireland says:

      Thanks for the input! I agree, Sedaris’s work is often not exactly flattering. I don’t anticipate that anything I’m writing will be hurtful to anyone, but people can be strangely private. I am going to let my close family read it before it is published, at the very least.

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