A must-read for would-be memoirists

Last week, I mentioned a brand new book edited by Meredith Maran called Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature . I was hoping it might help me develop my thinking about the issue of whether it’s OK to tell your story when in doing so you will almost certainly intrude upon the privacy of those closest to you.

I’m happy to say that it has.


Most of these thoughtful essays about memoir writing address the problem specifically, with many of the authors saying that they send the relevant pages to anyone mentioned by name before they go to publication.

Several say that if the person had any objection to being named they would either disguise their identity or omit the passages concerned altogether. Others say they make the judgement on a case-by-case basis.

I like this approach from Sue Monk Kidd:

Whenever I use someone’s name or reference them, I send them the relevant page or pages of the manuscript before turning the book in. They are usually close friends or family members. I tell them, ‘This is what I’m saying; if you have problems with it, let’s talk about it. I won’t necessarily change the content, but I’ll change your name ~ Sue Monk Kidd

I think a definite upside to sending the manuscript to anyone you’ve mentioned would be that there wouldn’t be any surprises – you’d have had the discussion before you decide how to proceed.

No surprises for the person who is mentioned and none for the author either: several of these essays mention the experience of expecting someone to find a particular thing intrusive and finding they’re fine with that, but have taken serious umbrage about something else the memoirist never dreamed might be problematic.

Related to the question of whether it’s OK to expose other people in telling your own story is the question of why we want to write the memoir at all. The point is made that since memoirs  pretty much always risk hurting people, what could make that a risk worth taking?

The most common reason the writers here give is the desire to help or inspire other people who may be experiencing something similar to what they have lived through. This made me smile, since one of my writing goals for this year is ‘Let go of the drive to be helpful in my writing.’

How can I make my writing better, deeper, truer? Is it true to my voice and my vision? Questions like that often consumed me. They were vital; they still are. But as I got older, the point was not only how I served my work; it was about what my work served ~ Sue Monk Kidd

But I guess this drive to be helpful may be another aspect of my writer self that makes me quite well-suited to memoir writing, besides the mix of fiction and non-fiction I write and the examined life that I mentioned in my last post.

So those are my big takeaways from this book, but there’s so much in it that I’m sure anyone who’s thinking about writing memoir will find the answers to their questions too.

Have you ever considered writing about your own life? Why might you want to, and what holds you back?

6 thoughts on “A must-read for would-be memoirists”

  1. I’ve kept a regular journal since 1983. I still have the masses of thick, spiral-bound notebooks stuffed into boxes. I switched to a digital format (using MS Word) in 2013, after a serious and freak accident damaged my right arm and made hand-writing difficult. I don’t know if I’d want to destroy all that, before I die; not knowing, of course, when I’ll finally expire. I don’t see my life as fascinating – unless you think the ravings of an asexual, Spanish-Mexican Indian-German former alcoholic and recovering Catholic with a penchant for reading, a love for dogs and the tendency to walk around the house in his underwear would make for a compelling read.

    On the other hand, I’m gathering information from my parents about their own lives, which I feel would make for some great stories. They’ve relayed a number of these things to me over the years, but I’m finally getting it all down on video before they pass away. A close friend of mine, an 80-something, Black woman, told me a while back that she was writing down her own life story, but only for the sake of her grandchildren. She doesn’t intend to have her memoirs published. She’s very outgoing, yet equally humble. I told her that someone should published her memoirs because she’s led a fascinating life; breaking down both gender and racial barriers. Her experience of getting into a physical confrontation with a female supervisor in the early 1960s is as uproarious as it is intriguing.

    When it comes to memoirs, I’m reminded of the late U.S. President Gerald Ford who told a would-be biographer, “Write it when I’m gone.” I’m sure you’re familiar with author David Seidler who wrote “The King’s English.” He had conceived of the idea in the 1980s, but promised the Queen Mother he wouldn’t publish it until after she died. He honored her request, and the book became an award-winning 2010 film.

    Whenever I write about people who figured prominently into my life on my blog, I always use pseudonyms with an asterisk indicating ‘Name changed.’ If someone recognizes themselves and doesn’t like what I’ve written, I can always say that I was writing about another person with whom I had a similar experience. In many cases, that’s true, and in a court of law (should it actually come to that), they wouldn’t necessarily be able to prove otherwise.

    Writing about true-life experiences is a tricky task because of that name recognition dilemma. But people can’t seriously expect to go through life without having some kind of impact – positive or negative – on those around them.

    (Here’s an interesting fact. My paternal grandfather had surgery to remove part of his lung on the exact same day as did Britain’s King George VI. My grandfather began smoking around the age of 6 and started drinking alcohol shortly thereafter. Yes, those were different times. Moreover, the doctors who operated on my grandfather attended the same medical school alongside those who operated on King George. They all actually knew each other! While both men survived their initial respective operations, my grandfather died in 1969.)

    1. I think it’s a wonderful idea to get some of your parents’ stories on video, Alejandro – it’s one of the amazing things about this technological age that we can easily and cheaply record our family histories.
      Changing someone’s name might not be enough to protect you from a libel suit, so you still have to proceed cautiously. I don’t actually want to say anything about anyone that might be considered libellous – where I’ve felt stalled is more about not wanting to offend anyone or hurt their feelings. Such an interesting moral dilemma to think about, isn’t it?

  2. The best memoirs are the ones that are open, candid, and brutally honest. They are the ones I like. When I started writing about my life, I wrote things where I wondered if I really wanted people to read this. Then I decided I guess it’s OK if people read this. By the end of writing my story, I wanted people to read it. When I finally get it published, I still want people to read my memoir. If you haven’t started already, boldly go forward with writing your life story..People will applaud your work. And you will look at your life in a new light.

    1. Hi Brian – you’re so right – I’m already finding that just pondering some ideas for a memoir is changing how I look at my life, specifically my younger selves, and sparking lots of very profoundly felt dreams.

  3. A memoir can be helpful in that it’s inspiring, comforting or something like that. It can also do nothing more than bear witness that a life like this was lived.
    So Alenjandro may not find his own life fascinating, but his diaries, in fifty years time, will bear witness that here, once, was ‘an asexual, Spanish-Mexican Indian-German former alcoholic and recovering Catholic with a penchant for reading, a love for dogs and the tendency to walk around the house in his underwear would make for a compelling read.’
    How we would love to know as much about someone from the 6th century or the Stone Age!

    1. What a great point – thank-you Sue. I really enjoyed hearing about the ‘hungry gap’ in the 16th century in North of England on your blog this week. Here’s the link for other readershttp://susanpricesblog.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/the-hungry-gap-and-sterkarm-tryst.html

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