Salon’s guide to writing a memoir

Authors behind "Jarhead," "The Kiss" and other classics help you avoid embarrassing yourself (but not your family)

Topics: Memoir, Writers and Writing, Autobiography, Darin Strauss, Anne Lamott, Sallie Tisdale, Meghan Daum, Anthony Swofford, Betsy Lerner, Avi Steinberg, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kathryn Harrison, Lauren Slater, Editor's Picks, ,

Salon's guide to writing a memoirClockwise from top left: Anthony Swofford, Meghan Daum, Darin Strauss, Ta-Nehisi Coates

It’s a genre that critics love to bag on, and readers love to devour. But we like to think that it’s not bad to write a memoir, it’s just very hard to write a good one. So we asked 10 of our favorite first-person authors for their best advice on the form. Get ready to take notes, gaze at your navel — and learn from the masters.


Anne Lamott (“Operating Instructions,” “Grace, Eventually,” “Help, Thanks, Wow”):

The most important advice I could give to aspiring memoir writers is that it’s pretty much all hopeless. There is very little chance that you will get your memoir published by a mainstream publisher (or, for that matter, your novel). Also, if you do get published, the process will make you way more mental than you already are. Plus, almost no one makes a great living as a writer. You have to be willing to take a real job, to finance your writing life. I cleaned houses and taught tennis lessons on the one court in Bolinas, Calif., for most of my 20s. Before that, I worked as a clerk typist at Bechtel, and as an assistant at a magazine.

But I got to write for a few hours every day — which was, and remains, The Prize: so keep your eye on it. Figure out a way to have the best possible life, with as much integrity and good company as you can manage, so you can write after dinner a couple nights a week, and on weekends.

Then just do it. No one cares if you write or not, so you have to.

Your early work will probably be too earnest and overwrought and snarky, and you’ll try too hard to sound ironic and erudite, but if you keep at it, you will get better and better. I promise you this. And you will get to have the writer’s life, of writing, reading memoirs and journals of writers you admire, talking to other writers about process and discouragement and small victories, sharing your work at open mikes, traveling the world for material, learning to pay attention, trying and failing to get published, working as hard as you can at your craft, at honing your voice, at learning to tell your version of things in your truest voice … and you’ll get to be a writer. Maybe you’ll make a living at it, maybe you’ll always have to have a so-called real job. But no one knows if or why it will happen for you. So never give up.


Ta-Nehisi Coates (“The Beautiful Struggle”):

Don’t fucking lie. Seriously, don’t fucking lie. Don’t claim to have been the only white girl gang-banging in South Central. Don’t claim to have been raised by wolves. Don’t claim that you took a root canal without pain killers. You are not a bad ass. You are a writer. The first step is to accept this and not fucking lie.

Accept the limitations and boredom of your life as the challenge of writing. Accept your profound lameness as the wages of your craft. The problem is never that your life isn’t interesting enough, it’s that you aren’t looking (or writing) hard enough. Don’t lie. Not to your readers. And not to yourself. Be a skeptic of your own recollections. Ask your family and friends how they remember things. And don’t fucking lie. Don’t pretend that you are a victim while you are, in fact, holding the great power of print. Most of the people who will appear in your book (assuming they are real because you haven’t fucking lied) will never have a chance to defend themselves. You have the power. Don’t lie to yourself and pretend you don’t.

Great memoir requires great courage and an appetite for sincere self-skepticism. To do this, you cannot fucking lie.


Meghan Daum (“My Misspent Youth,” “Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House”):

The same derisive adjectives come up again and again around this kind of writing: solipsistic, navel-gazing, indulgent, narcissist. They’re often deserved. Memoir gets a bad rap because many of its practitioners treat it sloppily and without respect. They forget about their audience. They forget that they have a mandate to shape the material into something beyond a diary entry or a rant. They also confuse honesty and confession.

Honesty is not the same as confession. “Be honest” (often “brutally honest”) is a fundamental tenet of memoir writing. But that does not mean you include every detail, play out every emotional drama, chronicle everything you did during the span of time over which the book or essay takes place. Honesty means not skirting uncomfortable truths and not pulling punches when it comes to recounting situations and feelings. Confession means blurting out a bunch of stuff and just leaving it there for shock value rather than doing the hard work of organizing it and pruning it and deciphering its relevance to the larger picture. Confessing means asking the reader for something — for forgiveness, for punishment, for some kind of response that makes you feel less alone. Honesty means offering something to the reader — a piece of yourself or a set of suggestions. Honesty means making the reader feel less alone. Honesty is inherently generous. Confession is inherently needy and intrusive.


Kathryn Harrison (“The Kiss,” “The Mother Knot”):

Know thyself. Lean toward discomfort.


Betsy Lerner (“Food and Loathing”):

I think the most successful memoirs keep a very tight focus on one aspect or time period of the writer’s life. The story is told through a particular lens and as a result it yields a powerful truth about something larger than the writer’s individual story and thereby renders it universal. For instance, Katherine Harrison’s memoir (“The Kiss”) about her incestuous relationship with her father was ultimately about survival by looking so unblinkingly at herself. Lucy Grealy’s memoir (“Autobiography of a Face”) about disfigurement as a result of childhood cancer was about the quest for beauty and wholeness. Ann Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy (“Truth and Beauty”) was about love and loyalty. Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” was about her youthful friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe and the quest for love and art. Kay Redfield Jamison writes so unflinchingly about bipolar illness and suicide in “An Unquiet Mind” as to hold a mirror up to the self.

Tell your story through a particular lens; hew closely.


Lauren Slater (“Prozac Diary,” Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir,” “The $60,000 Dog”):

It occurs to me that if I gave my honest advice it might incriminate me. For instance, I believe that when writing a memoir, that is, a piece of AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL WRITING ABOUT YOUR OWN LIFE, you should feel free to invent when memory fails you. You should allow memory and imagination to merge. I have learned over the years that memory and imagination are in fact very similar cognitive functions and I’ll bet if I looked into it, I’d find that they involve the same neural circuits in the brain.

You can’t invent other people’s lives, but you can invent your own. You do it every day, of course, as you are living it. Your life is a series of enacted acts that come to crescendos and conclusions, minute by minute, day by day. So when you are writing a memoir you are really reinventing what you have already invented, and, in the process of reinvention/revision, you find angles and screws and coils and cogs that you missed the first time around; I say, put them in now, for god’s sake.

Memoir is the only second chance you ever get at life. It is a willful turning back of the clock, a logical impossibility, and yet you do it, because your mind exists outside of time. If your memoir is really good, really honest, really from the roots of your heart, you yourself will not even know what is invention/reinvention and what is “really real” because the act of remembering imaginatively blurs those distinctions for you, forever.


Anthony Swofford (“Jarhead,” “Hotels, Hospitals and Jails”):

Right now in American writing there is no genre as exciting as memoir — the writer can do anything, as long as it works. It’s like the 1920s up in this joint. So, I’d say, experiment with how you tell the story. In the best memoir it’s not the what, it’s how the writer tells the what — meaning and effect through form.

A secret about memoir writing no one wants to admit: the genre has a built-in crutch. I, for one, love a crutch. Like most writers I know, I’m lazy. Anything to make the job easier.

Here’s your crutch: So you’ve got this story, and before you even write the first paragraph you should write down the beginning and end point of the major through-narrative of the book: A happened on Aug. 3, 1993, and Z occurred on Jan. 20, 2008. Do this on an index card and pin it to the wall above your desk. There is your beginning and end. A bunch of crazy shit happened in between A and Z. Or, many normal things — that I care about and that I can make a reader care about — happened between A and Z. There is your story. Go tell it to the world. And, for Christ’s sake, have some fun.


Avi Steinberg (“Running the Books”):

Give therapy a shot. A weekly session will be a filter for your worst, most tedious “memoir material.” Talking to a shrink will give you a regular time and place to do the whole therapy thing so that your writing does NOT turn into that. If you’re not sure about the difference between publishing a story and therapy, you especially should find a good shrink.

Read widely and with purpose; read stories of all kinds; read with a writing implement in hand and use it often; read memoirs but mostly read fiction and personal essays. Read at least one poem a day and at least three times that day. Occasionally read an epic.

Also: Do research. Bring in other eyes, other voices. Interview other people who saw what you saw, or who have some perspective on your story, and listen closely to how they tell their version of things. This deepens your account. Stories based on facts are more interesting and truthful and beautiful when placed within a prism of facts. Be a student of your subject. If you’re writing about an experience in a sober house, learn the history of rehab, the history of the specific sober house in which you lived, the chemical composition of benzodiazepine, etc. Everything has a history. Your personal story always intersects with larger subjects and may benefit by weaving them together, even if only by a fine thread. You may choose not to include research material in your story, but it should be at your fingertips.


Darin Strauss (“Half a Life”):

By design the story will be close to you (duh), so it’ll be hard really to see it — to make out the shapes and tilts that outline an artful narrative. Show it to friends whom you can trust to be honest. After my first draft I was even more lost than I usually am. I couldn’t see the structure. But I was twice-lucky: first, to have a friend as talented as David Lipsky, and second, that David was willing to help me. I don’t know what the book would have looked like otherwise.

Also, since the details will be so perspective-wreckingly close, work hard to increase that distance. Here’s how. Change your narrator from “I” to “she” (or “he”). Write the whole thing in that third-person voice, and then — after typing your final period — do a word-replace to get yourself back in there. You’ll be amazed at how freeing that is.


Sallie Tisdale (“The Best Thing I Ever Tasted,” “Stepping Westward”):

There are layers of being in a memoir. It begins with you, the felt identity. But this is not the writer or the narrator. You have to know the difference. The identified self (“me”) is not really involved here, except as a buzzing annoyance. (“What if Dad reads this?”) The narrator takes a journey — learns, doesn’t learn, suffers, recovers, doesn’t recover — and the writer allows the narrator to tell that particular story. You may feel yourself to be an imposter, a fraud or a bore, but these are the writer’s problems. The narrator is just living through it.

I think it’s useful to ask yourself if there is anyone you hope doesn’t read your memoir — Dad, Aunt Mary, the parish priest — and get that out of the way at the beginning. Write as though you were never going to show it to anyone. Write it with the liberation of complete privacy. You can always change your mind later.

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