Writing a memoir can be an extremely exciting project for any writer. However, it’s often a lot harder than you think!
Just because you are writing something personal, recalling things that have happened to you and telling your life story, it doesn’t mean that the writing will automatically flow, be captivating or that you’ll instinctively know what to do.
Writing a memoir requires you to be bold, truthful and compelling - you might have all the material you need but just because the story is already there doesn’t mean you’ll be able to write it in a captivating way.
If you are writing a memoir that you want to reach a wide audience you must truly understand how non-fiction storytelling works and seek that perfect balance between being truthful and entertaining, yet not offending your nearest and dearest or boring your readers with details that are of no interest to them.
So if you are thinking of writing a memoir, take a look at these common mistakes and make sure that you avoid them!
Writing too much
Your memoir shouldn’t be a daily journal of your life since you were 4 years old! You need to be able to condense, to pick those moments, those stories and experiences that changed you, that will have your readers in stitches or tears. Think carefully about what to include and what to leave out. Remember you aren’t writing an autobiography or a diary - a memoir should capture those important, life changing moments, those poignant memories, and funny stories or observations about life mixed alongside them.
This is one thing I have been trying to avoid. Just an aside, I'm not sure I really remember what I did when I was four! LOL! My mom recently told me how I'd taught myself to read and how I was drawing perspective at a young age. This I would not have recalled on my own. But I felt it was good to know and to include.
Not having a theme
Your memoir should have a point, it should include lessons or universal truths that resonate with your readers, that help them, that make them think about something differently or comfort them - feeling that have found someone who understands just how they feel. Memoirs should be about accepting changes, adjusting, dealing with death or breakups or loss of some kind, showing sympathy and compassion, friendship, work, perseverance and determination, having to start over, making difficult decisions and learning from your mistakes.
I knew exactly what my theme was going be. It's been a popular memoir topic. I'd read one that resonated with me on some points, now I'm trying to do the same for others. Accepting I have depression and not feeling ashamed to tell others about it is what I have learned when begging to write about it.
Not preparing properly
Just because you are writing a book about your own life doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put in the same amount of research and preparation as you would do with a fiction book. Talk to friends or relatives, get different perspectives, read old diaries, read old newspapers, write down everything you know about a certain event, everything you felt and then revisit it to make sure that’s truly the way that you feel. Make sure you have a thorough and comprehensive outline of your memoir before you start, otherwise you could easily find yourself getting stuck or confused halfway through and not knowing how to take it forwards.
I recently dug out from storage some old journals I was required to write the first time I'd gone to the mental health center (I left and retuned more than a decade later). There were some things in the journals I wanted to include that I could recall but wanted to get more detail on.
As I said above, I learned some things from my mom that I would not have recalled on my own. I've also been looking up info on subjects such as Prozac and dysthymia to include, contrasting previous with current information. I didn't do any of this when I first began writing, but have been doing so recently. It's one of those things I realized I needed to do as I went along. It's been part of the process of learning and deciding what to include.
Forgetting your reader
It can be so easy to get too self-involved when you are writing a memoir. You may well be revisiting tough memories and experiences after all. But if you don’t remember that you are writing for an audience then you can’t expect your book to appeal to them. As with any piece of writing, it is important to keep your reader in mind at all times and always ask yourself - if I didn’t know this person, is this something that I would want to read?
I've been seeing this in the memoirs that I have read, trying to either find something that resonates with me when reading memoirs of mental illness. When reading one on a topic that I have no knowledge of, I try to understand what is happening to that person by reading. Two memoirs I've recently read were written by two different men who battled locked-in syndrome. I was not aware of this condition until I saw this book at the library. I then learned of this one and read it as well. I learned a lot about this condition from both these books. What I learned about depression from Prozac Nation and other depression memoirs has helped me understand my own depression better, and now I want to make others see more from my point of view.
Not consulting your friends and relatives
If you are going to write about friends and relatives, businesses, or old bosses, you might want to talk to them first. A memoir should be personal and exposing to some degree and if you involve other people you want to make sure you are prepared to have difficult discussions with them or indeed ruin those relationships, and also protect yourself against any lawsuits!
This was something I was apprehensive over, so I used fake names. Many of the people I have mentioned in my story already know that I am writing it. But there are some who don't know about it, simply because I have no idea where any of them are today.
I was especially apprehensive of a former boss with whom I had a bad job experience. I have not seen him since I was fired by him in 2001. I now wonder, should my book ever see the light of day, if he would even pick it up knowing what he and I went through that awful summer.
And there are some college mates I have no clue about today and, in most cases, do not care one bit. However, I now wonder if they will know I mean them, should my story ever be published. Or if they will even remember me when see the see the book for sale.
My one hope is that people don't have enough money for a lawsuit! The boss no longer runs the restaurant, which wasn't a big business to begin with.
I can't help thinking how my aunt, who died nine years ago next month, would have reacted to me even starting this book. Some of the things I said would likely have triggered her sensitivity tendencies.
Writing a memoir can be a truly cathartic and profound experience and, done right, can be a great success too. Just make sure you avoid these common mistakes, use your common sense, and really plan what you want to say. Then just go for it!
I've been trying to avoid these mistakes, but am not sure if I really have done so according to what I have read here. But I have been careful in some instances.