September 23, 2020

What to Avoid and Embrace When You Write about YOU in Your Memoir


People often ask me about memoir do’s and don’ts. What makes or breaks memoirs? What do the best memoirs have in common? High on that list is the memoirist’s authenticity, the degree to which the writer understands themselves and can create a nuanced picture of themselves as a whole person.

Speaking of don’ts—memoirists should never portray themselves as all good or all bad. They shouldn’t take all the credit for all the good that’s manifested in their lives, nor should they take all the blame. Of course, that in and of itself is a simplistic way to frame the obvious, right? So let’s get more specific using real-life scenarios I’ve experienced from authors I’ve worked with over the years. Here are a few things to avoid and embrace as you think about how you show up as a character on the page:

AVOID:

•  masking serious moments that call for honest reflection with humor. Too often I see writers trying to deflect the examination a moment requires by trying to be funny. This rarely works, and humor is not an easy thing to translate onto the page, especially in an otherwise serious scene.

• too much self-deprecation, which is the flip side of trying to make yourself look too good. Memoirists often land in this territory, and the impact for the reader is having to slog through a whole book where the writer is just beating themselves up. It’s not an enjoyable reading experience, and if the reader stays with you, they might feel like they’re having to stand up for you against you. Not a good dynamic to foster in your book!

• underexploring pivotal occurrences in your book, which means breezing past them or imagining they’re too hard and so it’s best to just rush through them. Pivotal moments require the attention of the author, and oftentimes these are the life experiences upon which the entire memoir is built. Breathe space into the big moments of your life.  

EMBRACE:

• your messiness and trust that your readers will appreciate that you are a human being who’s far from perfect. Any time I read a memoir where the author seems just a little too together, a bit too perfect, I wonder to myself who they’re writing for. Is the purpose of the memoir to be honest, or to rewrite history in a way that you come out looking a little more glowing?

• the unpacking of your hardest moments. Yes, these are hard to write, and so please do so incrementally and with care. And if you’re worried about your memoir being too dark, bring in moments of levity (which doesn’t necessarily mean humor). Let your hard moments live on the page; you can always choose to take them out of the book before you publish.

• things you consider to be “bad” or “embarrassing.” This is tough, too, because some memoirists are culpable. I’ve read books by a mother who were complicit in the sexual abuse their exes perpetrated against their own children, by a woman who gave up her baby for adoption, a man who had a kinky sexual fetish he was ashamed of, and much much more. There’s always a question of what needs to be in your memoir, and maybe eventually these things get removed. But you let air out of the balloon by doing the writing, so set the shameful stuff free and see how that loosens up some of the other parts of your story that might feel similarly constricting.


Want to learn more about likeability and culpability? If so, we invite you to our 6-consecutive-week ELEVATE YOUR MEMOIR BOOT CAMP starting on September 22, 2020.

In Week 2, our guest teacher Terese Marie Mailhot, author of Heart Berries, will talk you through how to portray yourself—the highlights and the lowlights of your life—is what makes you relatable, and how that is what supports readers to understand your actions and motivations.

Also, please listen to Brooke in conversation with Terese Mailhot speaking about breaking silence on Brooke’s podcast, “Write-minded,” earlier this year HERE.

Check out our BOOT CAMP (September 22-October 27). We hope you’ll join us for this topic and more—and discover new ways to ELEVATE YOUR MEMOIR.   

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