Woman with books 

A handful of mistakes—pretty common ones, actually—can cause an otherwise amazing memoir to crash and burn. Following are six things you should avoid when writing yours.

Don’t use your memoir like therapy.

Woman at windowThis book isn’t your journal. It’s your work. Remember that if you’re writing a memoir to publish, then you’re writing for an audience—other people will be reading it, and most of them will be strangers. Don’t include things that really should be kept private, and don’t focus on details that matter only to you. That will create a story that doesn’t make sense to your readers or convey the message that you’re trying to share.

Instead, focus on the lessons you learned through the experiences about which you’re writing. Think about the main point you want to make by sharing your story. How can you best express your point to your audience, so that they can apply it to their own experiences? Once you’ve nailed that down, fill in the story.

In Four Funerals and a Wedding, Jill Smolowe wrote  about what kept her going as she cared for, then devastatingly lost four loved ones—her husband, sister, mother, and mother-in-law—in a span of seventeen months. People often asked her if she found writing the book cathartic.

Woman on suitcaseIn response, Jill wrote, “I confess I find the question odd. For me, the memoir form has two valuable purposes. As a writer, it affords me the opportunity to reflect on an experience in a mindful manner that helps me to unearth meaning and extract lessons from a period of chaos. As a communicator, it enables me to share an experience through a focused narrative that aims to offer reassurance and insight to not only those who are going through similar turbulence, but their loved ones, who often feel uncertain what to say or how best to help. But before I can make the commitment to breaching my own privacy and spending considerable time revisiting a painful chapter in my life, I need clarity on two points: What is the lens through which I will tell my story? What is my message, the bit of hard-earned wisdom that I aim to share? For me, finding the answers to those questions requires detachment and emotional distance from the events.

“As a result, I do not find the writing of a memoir cathartic. Nor do I approach the task with a hope or expectation that the process will heal me. Instead, what propels me is my belief that there is a book missing from the shelves—one that would have been helpful to me in my time of turmoil, one that I hope may now be of use to others. . . . For me, the work of memoir writing is selecting, culling, honing, shaping, rewriting. Rewriting. Ruthlessly chopping. Rewriting once more. The driver is my intellect, not my emotions. Catharsis? For that, my journal will have to suffice.”


Hurt womanDon’t worry too much about hurting people.

Be nice, but don’t water things down to the point that it’s detrimental to the story. If there are people who don’t want to be part of the book, change their names, tweak events, and rearrange details to keep from exposing them.

Remember that while a few people in your family, in your group of friends, or in your hometown might recognize a character in your book, the majority of your readers have no idea who that person is. If you’re serious about sharing a good story, don’t get too caught up trying to keep everybody comfortable.

Don’t ignore a good story just because it might be potentially sensitive. Instead, be open and honest with the people around you about your intentions. Some may still balk at being in your book. But once you’ve explained what you’re writing and why, some may decide that they’re okay with what you’re writing and don’t mind being part of the story.


SupermanDon’t make yourself the hero.

The characters in your memoir should be as dynamic as the ones you would create in fiction. That’s one of the things that will keep people reading. But when it comes to you as a character, you need to be careful.

As you develop your characters, you might naturally be tempted to paint yourself the victim or the hero of every situation. Instead, expose your weaknesses alongside your strengths. After all, you’re writing about a real person, and all real people have complex personalities. That includes you.

Sometimes, you have to make yourself the villain. Show where you fail, explain where you fall short, and your readers will appreciate your candor.


Don’t try to appeal to everyone.

Don’t make your memoir generic because you want to draw in the most readers possible. It’s a mistake to try to market to too broad an audience. Chances are, your experience is very specific, and if you try to write it for too many different kinds of people, the true point of it will be lost.

Instead, target a specific audience. Your writing will have a much stronger impact on readers who feel they can relate. That’s not all: Pinpointing your target audience will give you a leg up when you pitch it for publication, because one of the first things agents and publishers will want to know is your target audience.


Boy holding babyDon’t wait for the right time.

Don’t hesitate to write your memoir because you think you haven’t lived enough yet or you might have some better experiences down the road or you’re just not introspective enough yet. Instead, start documenting your life right now.  There are stories everywhere. Write a journal, keep a blog, take notes about the life around you. Write autobiographical short stories as they happen; when a chapter of your life closes, consider publishing those stories in a memoir.

Don’t get too attached.

If an editor tells you that a scene doesn’t make sense to her—even if it’s something that happened to you in real life—it probably won’t make sense to your readers, either. Don’t ignore vital feedback because you’re too close to the events about which you’re writing.

Instead, step away from the story. Write your memoir with the story in mind and don’t get too hung up on the details. If you’re having a difficult time stepping away—after all, it’s your life you’re talking about here—choose beta readers, reviewers, and editors who have no connection to the people, places, or events in the book. Then listen to their suggestions.

Be an artist. Write your story. But don’t be stubborn.

(Photos: floating woman, pinterest.de; woman at window, Therapy; woman on suitcase, pavbca.com; hurt woman, iheartintelligence.com; Superman, kathryn-jenkins.com; boy holding baby, kathryn-jenkins.com)


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