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How to Write a Memoir on a Difficult Topic: Putting Pain to Paper



"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader."

Robert Frost, The Figure a Poem Makes, Preface to Collected Poems. [1939]

Many compelling memoirs have storylines where the narrator triumphs over unpleasant or painful experiences. Redemption stories are especially poignant because they illustrate the range of the human experience. In other words, readers see a little of themselves in these stories.

Additionally, many memoirists put pain to paper in order to make sense of difficult life events.

If writing a memoir weren’t challenging enough, the stress of sharing difficult memories only makes the task more daunting. Plus, how do you find the right balance so that your readers remain engaged and interested? Below are a few tips to keep in mind as you approach your memoir:

  1. Assess your tone. Get readers on your side. That means making sure you don’t fall into the whiny, oh-woe-is-me trap. For example, “Growing up, I wish we weren’t so poor and hungry all the time," comes across as petulant. Instead, consider describing the poverty that defined your childhood: “Ma sent us out every afternoon to scavenge for scraps from the dumpsters that served the fancy high-rise apartment buildings nearby. Dinner was always à la carte: moldy cheese rinds, wilted greens on the verge of turning to slime, and sometimes, bits of meat miraculously overlooked by the street cats who always got first pick. Many nights, however, our meager rations hardly fed our growling bellies, and as we drifted off to sleep we dreamed of four course meals served on fine white linens.” Don’t say you were poor, show it—it’s far more powerful.

  2. Seek the truth. The best memoirists are honest about themselves and the characters they portray. No one is 100 percent evil or stupid, and showing the various traits of your characters will make them more believable. Not to worry, your wicked stepmother will still come across as such even when you write about the three times she took you for ice cream. Also—and this is very important—do not make stuff up. Then your memoir becomes fiction. If something did happen, share it. Otherwise, making up stories degrades the quality of the memoir and what you’re trying to achieve. Which leads to...

  3. Remember why you’re writing this memoir in the first place. It’s great to find personal satisfaction and catharsis in your writing, but you may hope readers learn something from your ordeal as well.

Need someone to tell you how your memoir reads? We offer coaching, editing, and writing services. Email writing@ininkghostwriting.com and let's get started!