Sunday, April 22, 2012

Writing Memoir, Feeling Naked

Someone mentioned how "self-conscious" she felt as she began penning her memoir.  I told her that I think it's more like taking a swan dive off a cliff.  You feel naked. You hope you don't hit the rocks below.  You hope you slip into the water with barely a ripple.

People talk about writing memoir "primarily for their family because they deserve the best quality." 

Fear is a terrible thing.  It cripples a person.  I wonder if Matthew, Mark, Luke and John worried about offending when they wrote their "memoirs"?  Did they worry what their parents might think when they learned their sons had given up everything to follow a fisherman and self-proclaimed messiah? 

Did Hemingway couch his stories in "fiction" because it was easier that way?  Was he worried his mother might learn he had become infatuated with an older woman, a nurse named "Agnes"?

Another person suggested that the best way to get  started on writing memoir is to pretend  "you are talking to an old friend."  Good.  As long as the "old friend" is you.

Another suggested memoir is best told by "someone who has a reputation for good conversation and a wealth of anecdotes around the dinner table."

Are you Larry David writing another "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episode?

As writers we second-guess ourselves.  We ask: "Why would anyone want to read my story?   Who am I?"

 Some answer their own question.  "Nobody."

This resonates with fear.  If you become "somebody," then others might have to pay attention. When they pay attention, you have to pay attention too.

In the silence of the millions, how many have had the courage to write?  Are you ready and willing to dive naked off that cliff?


Ian Mathie said...

I don't see how being naked ensures you'll slip into the water any more smoothly than if you're wearing a bathing costume, but I like the image. If you are going to write memoir it is to share events, associations and feeling that you recall and feel might be of interest to others who are not not in your immediate circle - you can just tell those who are. It also leaves your memories for posterity.

Then comes the tricky question of how much to write and how much detail to include. Too much detail can detract from the story and bore people, but equally, the inclusion of some detail can be a little like opening a window on your soul, especially if you're willing to describe how events affected you rather than just giving a historical chronology. It all depends on how personal you want to make it, how much of yourself you're willing to share. The scale for this is infinitely flexible and all writers' choices are acceptable. It's just that some self exposure makes the memoir more worth reading than none.
Have a look at my African Memoir series if you want to know more about this. You can find out about them at

Susan G. Weidener said...


I agree it can be "tricky" to decide what to include. The key is sticking to the story. Memoir is not autobiography and losing the "thread" of your story is a slippery slope. I agree that self-exposure definitely makes the memoir more worth reading. Readers want to know the writer and the writer wants to be known.

It's when the writer starts writing a memoir for others instead of herself that it begins to lose value. At the same time, self-exposure or soul-searching can leave one feeling naked, but this is the fate of a good memoirist. I guess the key is not to "purge" in the memoir.