The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

By: Marilyn L. Davis 

We’re All Vulnerable When We Tell the Truth


“If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write towards vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life


What’s the Story Behind the Photos?

antique-photoMemoir just means story from the life, not the life story. Memoirs capture in words the story behind the still photos. It is defined by the narrow focus of the writer. However, this focus is broadened by rich details, strong descriptions, and letting readers glimpse your truth – your thoughts, your feelings, and your perceptions, and anyone writing on such a personal level will feel vulnerable. It is that personal approach that isolates the writer and can generate feelings of vulnerability. If the story or lessons are universal, and the writing is powerful, the reader is engaged.
There’s power in presenting those glimpses that don’t come in autobiography. 

Glimpsing the Important Events

A memoir is not the linear progression of the life- at six he got his first baseball, at nine he made All-Star, at 17, he got a full scholarship; by the age of 29, he had played on fifteen championship teams, and at 45 was inducted into the Hall of Fame. We could all see that coming, and perhaps, if we knew the player or liked baseball, we would read along.
His memoir instead relates that at 17 he wanted to be a surgeon but was discouraged by his parents who couldn’t afford college without the athletic scholarship. His father stressed that he shouldn’t squander his talents on books, but to put his energy into baseball and be rich and famous. Because he didn’t have time to be both an All-Star and an A student, he wouldn’t get an academic scholarship. This single story from our fictional person shows us:
  • Conflict
  • Choices
  • Outcomes
  • Pain
  • Pleasure
  • Sacrifices
  • Successes

Then we can relate even without ever playing baseball.

We have all had choices to make in our lives that either at the time or when reflecting on the outcomes, determine our attitude towards our lives. 

In the memoir, we're identifying the defining choices with an eye for detail about them. Click To Tweet ______

Memoir: The Narrow Focus

Memoirs help us put our lives and situations into focus; an added perspective that we didn’t have because we felt isolated, alone or the only one who experienced something. And it’s not just about tragedies in our lives. It’s joy, self-discovery, shared happiness, angst, and writing in a way that envelops the reader in the familiar emotions, thoughts, and situations. It’s isolating your theme and developing it.

William Zinsser advises, “Write about small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you remember them, it’s because they contain a larger truth that your readers will recognize in their own lives. Think small and you’ll wind up finding the big themes in your family saga.”

It is the family saga that is critical in memoirs. Our baseball player for instance. What do we know about the facts of his life?

  • He had desires and dreams of being a surgeon.
  • His parents couldn’t afford to send him to college
  • We know his parents discouraged his dreams as well.
  • We know that he was successful in his baseball career.

Add the Thoughts and Feelings

Merely recording the facts without the emotions and thoughts do not create connections for the reader. But when you consider that each person has had a dream, some were not able to pursue them, or others were discouraged from accomplishing their dreams, then our fictional ball player’s memoir works on many levels.

So what happened on the way to being famous? Surely there were additional conflicts, choices, and realizations.
  1. Did he enjoy his stardom, fame, and money?
  2. What did he feel he sacrificed to satisfy his parents?
  3. Did he regret his decision not to follow his dream of being a surgeon?

Maybe he lets us in on the darker side of fame, thus letting us know that our ordinary lives, while not living in the limelight, are more secure, and we can walk away from his story feeling better.

Memoirs Make Us Vulnerable, too

That’s what memoirs do; they make us think about the lives of others as their story relates to our lives. We can discover that others have made choices with difficult outcomes, or we can be appreciative of the choices we made. Regardless of our thoughts and feelings after reading a powerful memoir, we know that the piece was filtered through:

  • Reflection
  • Redemption
  • Remorse
  • Renewal

The reflections in the memoir are much like the moon on water; it is not the moon, but a slightly altered version of the moon. Click To Tweet

Each writer will try to make sense of the moon through their writing. It’s descriptive of emotions, thoughts, and actions that closely resemble the moon, but are still only the moon in the writer’s eyes. Anyone else living at the time would describe the events from their perspective.

So there’s always the danger of writing the memoir and having family, friends, and associates saying that isn’t how it was. Their perceptions of the events will be filtered through their emotions, thoughts, and perspectives.

Scared to Write Your Truth? Don’t Be

 __“How do we deal with all the people we’ve been? What happens when we have to confront them?”  Rachel Kapelke-Dale, Graduates in Wonderland: The International Misadventures of Two (Almost) Adults

For the past twenty-nine years, I’ve been a different person. I’m someone in recovery from substance abuse. Recovery has forced me to reflect, remember. and review my life. I also opened and ran an award-winning recovery home for women from 1990-2011. Those years fostered an appreciation for the power of reflective writing and memoir. About a year ago, I was encouraged to chronicle my addiction, recovery and opening the women’s house.

As I’m writing, I see the transformations and common appeal, not just for people in recovery, but for anyone who has a dream. It’s the conflicts, discouraging stigmas of society, overcoming obstacles, and finding a purpose.

~        ~       ~         ~

moon-in-eyeSo, a self-serving notice: Finding North: A Woman’s Journey from Addict to Advocate will be finished. 
There’s the commitment to get it edited, proofed and published. Hopefully, my vulnerabilities in writing this will be the cathartic experience that so many other memoir writers experienced.
My hope is that the reader finds themselves in each memoir they read, whether it’s encouraging them to change, supporting their dreams, or realizing that they share commonality with the writer. 
Stay tuned. . .
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  1. Wow, amazing what even a year can do for ones writing skills.

    I haven’t been here in ages! I’ve been working on my memoir. Ha! This wonderful article came my way again through my email today and it was so enlightening to reread it after all this time. I learn something each time, and reading the new comments, too. It’s insightful to see my own and see how far I’ve come. Amazing.

    I’ve rewritten my book more than five times over. I’ve struggled with what to leave in, take out, etc., as it is extremely candid of the awful things I endured with both my family and all the sexual abuse (among other things). When I leave it all in there, then I struggle with whether or not I even want to publish it. Catherine makes a nail-on-the-head point about healing though. It has to be first and foremost. I took a four month break and came back to it fresh and realized I could not think about the readers or the publishers. I had to approach it the way I did the very first draft, which was many years ago. I had no intention of publishing. It was a therapy thing. I later turned it into a story. It’s a hard balance to write something strictly for yourself and be a writer at the same time. But I found, the more you write, the more you ARE a writer. Expressing yourself comes naturally.

    It is a risk to put yourself out there. Very scary. I’ve been called, “brave.” I’m learning to accept that badge — or at least that I have courage. It wouldn’t be courage if it wasn’t a scary thing to do, right?

  2. An amazing article Marilyn as this speaks to what Vance and I just spoke about of writing his memoir together. He was having reservations about some of the events with his parents and sharing the dysfunctional problems in his family of domestic violence and addictions. I told him it is about HIM and Healing, not about them.

    And that in recovery, you need to tell the truth as those events did get carried into your adult life and then YOU turned to addictions. Such a great post!


    • Hi, Cat. It can be difficult to write about our dysfunctional family situations. As I said, family, friends, and even extended family will remember “it” differently, and then argue the point. We just have to be brave and tell our truth.

    • Hi Lisa. Thank you for the kind words. Beyond the, “I need to get this written” feeling as we write the memoir, is the other voice saying, “Don’t you need to just leave this alone”? Or at least it’s been that way for me.

  3. Thank you for this. I needed the encouragement and definition of memoir. I have published one and am working on my next one but was concerned I was doing it wrong. I will be visiting many of your resources on this subject to help me on my next project as well as in my blogging. Thank you again Marilyn!

    • Hi, Danielle. Thank you. Memoir is so personal and I think we all wonder if we’re doing it wrong. Writing about ourselves is difficult. Are we being authentic? Are we being too kind or hard on ourselves? Are we treating the situation and the people fairly? Are we writing well. I think those questions are why so many stumble with the genre.

      Good for you that you’ve done one, and I would encourage your efforts on the next!

      Let me know how it’s going.

  4. Hi Marilyn

    I really enjoyed your thought-provoking article. I am not attempting a memoir at the moment as I am too busy writing the fiction I love.

    However if I ever do, I will consult this article for it’s great tips, insight, explanation and advice.

    Best of luck with your book. If it’s as well written and honest as this article I am sure it will do well.


    • Hi, Grace. I appreciate the encouragement. When that novel is finished, think about a memoir. Every life becomes a how-to for someone else. And of course, that can go both ways, as is my case. She smiles.

  5. What a great article. If we don’t believe in our own stories and mine content from our life experiences, what we end up writing is passionless and can not be believed by our readers. Is there any writer who has found his/her characters authenticity without paying the price of personal reflection and introspection?

    • Hi, Jon. What great insight. I like your question, “Is there any writer who has found his/her character’s authenticity without paying the price of personal reflection and introspection?” I would have to say no. And personal reflection and introspection do extract a price – often times to the ego. Ah, she lectures, but it’s from personal experience so that’s okay, right?

      In many ways, you’ve already defined the theme. When I looked at your site, this jumped out at me. From your site: “creating personal narratives and has used past experiences as the fuel for her subject matter – transforming a broken history into a positive and spiritual resolve.”

      Well said, Carolesart.

      • Great article! Thank you. Lots of food for thought, as I am working on my memoir. Or is it an autobiography? You know, I really can’t be sure even after reading your article and many others like it (although, frankly, none were nearly as good as yours). Is there something in between the two genres? And isn’t it important to know what genre you are working in?

        I have been working on my life’s story, which focuses on too many subjects for it to be a memoir; child abuse, a dysfunctional family, being emancipated at a young age and building a successful music and art career. Then there’s dealing with disability, mental illness and escaping from a dangerous group of people after 15 years of captivity (I’m not making this up, and there’s more). So, all of this makes for a good book, and a long one at that, but it ranges from childhood to age 40. This seems like an autobiography to me. However, the thing reads like a memoir in voice and vulnerability.

        Do you have any suggestions about what I could call this type of book, or whether it should be several books instead? (I don’t want it to be.) I want it to be a tale of survival really. I’m rather confused.

        • Hello Carolesart,
          The thing about writing a memoir is not about what to leave in, or put in, but what to leave out. That is to say, you can make your book a memoir by only touching on the areas that you wish to “leave in” your life story. If you want to make it a complete story, and in chronological order, then call it an autobiography. It’s that simple, really. The tough part is to write it…to get the work done. I hope that helps.

        • Hi, Carolesart, I’ll echo Scott. Childhood to now would be autobiographical. However, you can include childhood incidents that relate to your theme in flashbacks so you could produce a memoir. Do you have your theme yet? From your brief descriptions, it seems that survival and overcoming are two. Not a shameless plug, but there’s a post on finding the theme here. Isolating that can help you understand what to leave in and as Scott tells me about mine, “know what to leave out.” Hope that helps, too.

          • Thank you both for your replies. I do so appreciate it. (You have no idea!) I’ve been working on this – monumental – “thing” for over six years now and it’s like writing into a void, having absolutely no real advice/reaction/reciprocation. I have no idea what I have exactly. I am basically a novice other than a dozen short stories and poetry. I hope it’s okay I am posting a long follow-up reply.

            I will definitely look for the article on finding a theme. Though, I have a feeling that will not be easy in this case. I am on my fifth edit, have cut it down from 308,000 words to 183,000 and I don’t think I can cut another word, so it’s way, way too long for a memoir. I’d have to leave out all the main things I have survived. I’ve already cut out so many important things. It’s an unbelievable, tragic story with dark humor. The only things I can compare it to is Running with Scissors, Push, Bastard Out of Carolina, and maybe A Stone Boat. But it’s non-fiction.

            I see that Augusten Burroughs has written many memoirs however. That’s another thought. No matter which way I turn, I have a dilemma on my hands because I hand it into my editor in November and while she can help cut it down, there’s no way she can cut it in half!

            It’s not completely chronological, but I’d say 88% of it is. And because I am way over 40 now, I am still accounting the past. I sort of skip (wrap up) some years in my 30s because they aren’t prudent to the main narrative. So, like I said before it reads like a memoir, but because of the length and chronology, it should be called an autobiography. Is there any other genre in between?

  6. Hi Marilyn

    I am writing my first memoir. Wow what a struggle!

    I got into this “discussion” with my girlfriend. She was saying that the story has to have some level of drama to engage people who don’t know me. I said that that ordinary lives led by ordinary people have extraordinary moments. Which sounds good in this post, but when you go to make it happen. Huh. Is that all there is?

    Anyway I am determined to continue. Been at for about a year now, and have a rough draft 20k words. I am in the editing of first draft. I seem to have forgotten why I am doing it other than the fact that I like making narrative from the weird moments of my life. My main character is me, a person who stuggles with trying to please too many people, making bad friends and striking out with the girls. Who would read about this? I hope someone who has lived through that themselves.

    thanks for your awesome post. I am going to check out Bird by Bird.

    Dan de Angeli

    • Good morning, Dan; keep up the writing.

      I like to think of little truths, BIG truths, and universal truths in my memoir writing. All of the issues that you mentioned – trying to please too many people, making bad friends, and striking out with girls – they’re all universal truths, so, I’ll disagree with your girlfriend. Your struggles and how, why and when you overcame them would have universal appeal.

      While your back story may differ from others, keep in mind that all of us will understand the emotions and thoughts about those issues. That’s when and how we relate. Hope that encourages you to keep plugging away. Keep me posted as to progress and I’ll keep plugging away, too.

        • Hi, John. Keep plugging along. I think on any given day, that’s what we do best. Rather like the little engine, on some days we labor to make it uphill and then some days, we get to coast. It’s the days of gliding along, words flowing freely and no annoying grammar prompts distracting us from writing our thoughts and feelings that make it worthwhile.

  7. The key words for me were ‘a story of your life, not a life story’ excellent post- I certainly identify with it after writing my memoirs and letting the world see my mistakes and successes. We are human Hannah Arendt was not wrong in many of her ideas 🙂

    • Good morning,Gerald; thank you for the kind words and commenting. We do feel exposed when we’re writing about our mistakes, and I think that is the reason many shy away from writing a memoir. Yet it is the mistakes and lessons learned that can motivate or encourage another. Is your memoir published? Let me know where to find it, if you will. I enjoyed your poetry here and that prompted me to view others. Hope you submit another soon.

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