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How to Undermine Your Memoir

The following is based largely on a response I wrote in March 2013 to a comment on a post called But is it a Memoir? Rereading my comment, I realized it is of value to all the new readers to this blog since then—and to longer readers who may have forgotten or never read it. You would do well to read the original blog post.

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A Memoir Serves as a Guide to the Reader

Liberties with facts ultimately, I believe, undermine the authority of a memoirist to present his/her life experience as a lived (vs. fictionalized) version of the mythic journey. The lived hero’s tale must figure at the center of every memoir if the story is to rise above a chronology, a dirge or an encomium. In the nameless book I quoted in But is it a Memoir?, too many paragraphs erode confidence in the memoirist’s fidelity to what happened (the lived experience) and create a sense of fictionalization–of choices to nurture the drama of the story (by making things up) over decisions to explore only what happened in view of arriving at an understanding/appreciation of the lived experience.

If one accepts that fiction begins with feeling/insight (what we might call “theme”–“life is hard”) and ends up with plot line, characters and setting which will hold the writer’s insight for the reader, then one can grasp that fiction is based a priori on the author’s “take.” In a very real and different way, memoir begins with plot, characters and setting and proceeds to theme (“wow, that life as it was lived was hard”).

Details can through the reader off.

The erosion of confidence in the writer’s assertion that she is writing memoir is generated by dozens and dozens of images such as saying of a character who is about to hear of her father’s death, that she “adjusts her hem before stepping into the waxy corridor.” The detail of adjusting a hem at the  moment of stepping out is too particular be included as a credible memory of what was still an ordinary day. (It ceased to be ordinary only later.) Had the author written, “She remembers being in love with another teacher and she so would always adjust her hem before leaving the privacy of her classroom,” then the memory is plausible because the tiny “hem” detail (essentially not any more memorable in itself than what you did at 8:15 PM the day before yesterday!) is now connected to a big, memorable “love” emotion. Of course, she would remember that. Had the author written “After hearing our father had died, Anne desperately adjusted the hem of her skirt. She remembers wanting the day to return to an ordinary day” the memory is again plausible because the tiny “hem” detail is now connected to a big “death” emotion. Without these big connections, the “hem” detail, for me, erodes the authority of the memorist.

I believe this is an appropriate paragraph to cite as the erosion of authority is not due to one writing faux pas but to a number of fiction-based images, dialogues, settings, etc. that one has a nagging feeling could have been chosen for drama rather than authenticity. Eventually, little by little, one senses that one is reading an autobiographical fiction.


Here is a mini-course which discusses fiction and drama and the need to remain within the lived experience:

1. Which to Write: Memoir or Autobiographical Fiction?

2. But Is It a Memoir?

Action Step

An writers group early on can help you to write better. When you share your story with other writers you can get valuable feedback from their reactions. Have they entered into the world of your story? Does it come across as real to them? It makes no difference what you intended to do. What you did is what counts—and a group can help you with being clear.

  • Your local library may host a meeting space for a writers’ group. Check the bulletin board or ask the librarian.

Two requests

1. Tell us below how you will incorporate the ideas above into your writing.

2. Click on at least one of the social-media icons below to share this post with your lists. Help spread the word about memoir writing—we can do it one click at a time.

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