Tag Archives: US memoirists

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?