20 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Writing a Memoir

Everything I wish I had known before writing a memoir.

Salt Creek, WA at sunset

Everything I wish I had known before writing a memoir.

  1. Real life does not have a plot arc and foreshadowing.

In other words, don’t let your memoir drive you insane. Once I began writing everyday, it felt almost like my mind’s neural pathways were bending into “storyteller mode”. This had unanticipated consequences, like mild paranoia when something happened that would remind me of the chapter that I was writing. What did it mean? In reality, nothing. But this didn’t stop my mind from racing to delusional worries when a coworker’s words reminded me of a violent scene in my memoir’s manuscript. It took therapy sessions, anti-anxiety medication, and talking to friends for me to embrace this reality check. Real life does not have tidy plot arcs. Real life does not have foreshadowing. That’s why one of human history’s oldest professions is The Storyteller. Someone to help make sense of life’s chaos. But in real life, thinking that everything is a scene? That will drive you nuts.

2. You are the protagonist. Are you ready for that scrutiny?

Politics is the only other career path that might require you to expose more of your personal life than writing a memoir. Some people even do both, running for office and writing a memoir!

None of us are perfect. You are the protagonist of your memoir. Are you ready to be vulnerable and expose your imperfections? Your bad choices? Your less-than-perfect moments? Now is as good a time as any, and I have all the faith that you can do it!

3. “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” — Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird

4. Tomorrow’s Problem

Whether it’s concerns about fact checking or upsetting your abusive parents, those are tomorrow’s problems. Focus on just writing uninhibited now. Because if you wait for all the antagonists and “villains” in your memoir to die, you’ll never write your story and you’ll live the rest of your life waiting for permission from the very people who hurt you.

5. Find a good therapist.

Writing a memoir is excavation. It is a brutal pressing of bruises and ripping off of old wounds. It is emotional archaeology and your artifacts will crumble. Know that it can take 12+ first sessions to find the right therapist. You are the CEO of your mental health, and you are interviewing therapists in your initial meeting to see if they are the right fit. Trust your instinct if it does not scream “The One”. This is a professional relationship, and if they are a good therapist, they won’t take it personally that you’ve decided to keep looking. If they do take it personally, then it is a serious red flag. Good job listening to you r instinct and walking away!

Example: The worst therapist I ever saw charged $100 an hour and suggested that I should try homeopathic cocaine to overcome my traumatic relationship with my mother. I could not get out of her marble and gold encrusted office fast enough!

Quality, well-trained, and affordable mental health resources can be very difficult to access in all sorts of ways, depending on language, race, geographical location, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation (including Aces!), financial barriers, insurance coverage, childcare concerns, and timeslot availability. Here are a few resources:

If you live in a rural region or are having other obstacles to finding the right therapist, trying an online app might be a good option. I have not personally used these, but there are many qualified therapists on the service and it opens up your options for finding the right provider who may live hundreds of miles away.

6. diy MFA!

Read, listen, watch, learn. Read non-fiction, read memoirs, read novels, read essays. Watch movies, Ted Talks, listen to podcasts. Find your diy MFA and be inspired.

Some recommendations…

7. “Everything is copy.” — Nora Ephron

Eat, breathe, and live your writing. Sure, sitting down and writing is half the battle, but you can be brainstorming and jotting down notes throughout the day. You never know when the muse might decide to stroll by. There are lots of ways to do this, like buying a beautiful new notebook. Personally, I keep a list of notes open in the Google Docs app on my phone 24/7. I’ve been relying on note taking since grade school. It frees up your mind to think of other, new ideas. And taking notes whenever you get a new thought will generate a list of go-to prompts for chapters or essays whenever you’re feeling less inspired or have writer’s block.

8. What time of day do you feel the most tired?

My life changed when I recognized what time of day I always feel the most fatigued. Some are “morning people” and some people are “night owls”. Whatever the case, if you think about it, there is probably a 2–3 hour window of time in which you have always felt the most tired. I remember in kindergarten, hitting my wall from 3pm-5pm. Three decades later, I am still hard-wired to need a nap at 3:00. Adult life doesn’t always allow for a scheduled naptime, but I do try to keep this in mind when I schedule meetings, presentations, classes, or if I am asked what time works best for an interview. I try to be kind to my future self, knowing that no matter how optimistic I am, I will not be able to perform at 100% between 3:00–5:00 in the afternoon.

9. Be a writer’s writer.

Lift each other up. Don’t operate from a perception of scarcity. I want to manifest abundant jobs and pay for writers!

I mostly swore off workshopping after an arrogant jerk mansplained that my dialogue had a lot of run-on sentences. He offered no further nuance. And the rule was that I was not supposed to respond to criticism. That was so unhelpful that I pretty much stopped attending writing workshop groups. Who speaks with perfect grammar?! Certainly not my characters!

Know that you do not have to take all advice given as feedback. A good trick is to tally how many times different readers have told you that “X paragraph isn’t working.” If 2–3 people independently say the same thing about my draft, I know that I need to listen up and consider scrapping it.

If you do participate in a workshop or writing group, consider…

  • Is the feedback that you’re giving constructive?

  • Are you tearing the other person down?

  • What are your motives for giving this criticism? Do you have any ulterior motive?

  • Are you jealous? Be honest with yourself about your jealousies. However subtle, there are inherent envies that we all harbor. That’s okay. It’s a part of being human. Accept it. Acknowledge it. Don’t use it as an excuse to say disparaging things unless you are damn sure that you’re right. And make sure that you’re ready to accept being wrong. It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to let other people convince you that your worldview was skewed and prejudice in ways you couldn’t see before. It’s okay to apologize.

There are five authors that I disagree with very vehemently. One of them, I reached out to. I discussed with him why I was angry and hurt by his novel about an abused young girl. I told him that I felt like he had written critically acclaimed gore porn. We had a good conversation. He disagreed with my assessment. I still think that his novel is gore porn and harmful to the voices that he believes he has said he wanted to build a platform for. Don’t do this. Don’t build platforms for others. Lift them. Help them tell their own stories. The Own Voices Movement is beautiful. Promote the voices of other authors and explore new works and genres that you have never heard of. Grow and expand your world so that we may all live among storytellers in a richer, warmer universe.

10. Be brave and run at it.

I write about addiction. I write about survivor’s guilt. I survived a family with many violent addiction issues. My vice of choice is workaholism which is no less harmful, but it is not a vice that will land me a jail sentence and it is a behavior that our capitalist society rewards with tokens of insobriety with each paycheck. What I’m trying to say is that writing memoir is hard.

11. Tense

Because of the way that our minds are wired to recall and process memories, the act of writing a memoir can be challenging to consistently write in past tense, for example. This can be especially difficult if you choose to structure your memoir in a non-linear framework. Roxane Gay’s book Hunger is an excellent example for a more woven structure. There is no wrong way to write your story, but there are more difficult ways.

12. And then and then and then and then. The End

A memoir is not a chronology of events. That’s a biography, or autobiography. A memoir is a snapshot. A “life novella”. It is one theme or one fraction of your life, usually framed around a life-changing event or choice. Read lots of memoirs and watch the movies based on those memoirs to see how memoirs can be constructed.

13. How to Handle Condescending Jerks

Do not listen to people who condescendingly smirk:

  • “You’re too young.”

  • “How could you write a memoir?”

  • “What could have possibly happened to you that makes you qualified to write a memoir?”

Respond with any combination of the following:

  • “I contain multitudes.”

  • “You’ll have to buy my book when it comes out to find out!”

  • “Why thank you! I’m 83 years old today! It’s my birthday. I look young for my age.”

  • Use this as an opportunity to practice your elevator pitch. Summarize your memoir’s pitch in 1–2 sentences. See which pitch works best on your dissenters and use that one to sell your book proposal.

  • “Thank you for your feedback. Please pay me $5. That’s my fee for listening to unsolicited advice.”

  • “Yes, you’re right. That’s why I’m publishing under the pen name Tom Cotton.”

14. Editing

If at all possible, don’t edit the same day that you write. Writing and editing use two very different parts of your brain and it’s best to keep your editor’s hat and your writer’s hat far apart in separate hat closets. Because in this fantasy, you’re so successful that Carrie Bradshaw envies your 5 hat closets. You can even name your editor alter ego. My editor alter ego is named Maude, after my childhood cat. (This might be the most ridiculously writerly thing I have ever admitted)

15. Writing memoir is like oil painting

Oil painting requires a lot of time, a variety of brushes, turpentine, grapeseed oil… there’s just a lot that goes in to each layer. Writing memoir is exactly like this for me when I’m working on an upsetting scene. Sometimes, all I can do is write a list of items for an outline or a timeline of events in the scene. The next day, or the next week, when I’m feeling up to it again, I’ll go through and add details that I remember, slowly building the scene. It might take another week of ruminating for me to feel ready to make another pass and splash some color. I might even feel up to free writing. A few days later, if I am feeling ready, I will add more detail to the paragraphs that I wrote. Or I might have an idea for how the chapter should end. The point is that writing a scene can be like layers of paint and color. Be patient with yourself. Give the “paint” time to dry. Take a nap afterwards because what you’re doing is burning a lot of calories and is emotionally fatiguing, especially if you’re writing about trauma that you’ve survived.

16. Redefining “Success”

A month into the COVID pandemic, my dream agent told me that she could not sign me because of everything that was going on and that she needed to focus on her current clients. It was completely understandable. Magazines were losing advertisers and laying off staff writers and editors. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. A year before the pandemic, I had left my job to focus on writing for the first time in my life. At 33 years old, with my first job at 6 months old, this was the first time that I had ever been able to afford to take time off and dedicate myself to finishing a creative project that I had slogged through for a decade. I had worked so hard to reach my lifelong dream of becoming a published author. It felt like I was so close. And then it was gone. I grieved. And I had to examine how I define success.

  • I acknowledged that I had a manuscript.

  • I had gotten an essay published.

  • I had made friends with amazing writer mentors.

  • I wrote everyday.

  • I continued submitting.

  • I continued writing.

  • I recognized that I was proud of my work. It was cathartic to see everything that I had suffered to excavate on the page. I had succeeded in writing my memoir, even if it wasn’t published yet.

17. Rejection is a Badge of Honor

I looked at all the rejection letters I had received and I chose to look at them as badges of honor. The writers with rejection letters are the ones who have submitted. Even the most famous of authors still receive rejection letters. I told myself that the sooner I got used to rejection, the more seasoned I would become. I reminded myself that editors are people too. Editors are writers too. I tried to keep this in mind with every pitch that I sent. I imagined hitting a baseball in a batting cage when I hit the “send” button. And I thanked editors for considering my piece when they declined. I didn’t take it personally. I re-read my draft to see how I could re-write it, submit it elsewhere, or consider starting over altogether. I also kept a detailed spreadsheet to track my submissions and other notes along the way.

18. Saying “no” to my first “yes

I was devastated when I realized that I had to say “no” to my first “yes” after an agent reached out to me with notes about my manuscript that I strongly disagreed with. I was so excited and wanted to agree to whatever conditions she stated, but I had just read Courtney Maum’s Before and After the Book Deal which has so much great advice about finding the agent who is right for you and your book. In the end, I decided that it wasn’t the right fit and thanked the agent for considering.

19. Unwritten Rules

There are so many unwritten rules of the publishing industry and they are changing all the time. In the midst of protests and a pandemic, I hope that the industry will choose to change for the better. But just remember that you are not alone, even though writing is usually a solitary practice. And there is no one single “right way” to your path of becoming a published author.

Below is a list of writers whose paths to publication are inspiring.

  • Toni Morrison

  • Louise Erdrich

  • Regina Louise

  • Myriam Gurba

  • Tara Westover

  • Jeannette Walls

  • Nicole Hardy

  • Lilly Dancyger

  • Loung Ung

  • Courtney Maum

  • Brandon Taylor

  • Terese Marie Mailhot

  • Samantha Irby

  • Ashley C. Ford

  • Elizabeth Gilbert

  • Ocean Vuong

  • Luis Alberto Urrea

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

…and so many others. These are just a few authors whose career paths are inspiring, many of whom write memoir.

20. Building a Platform & Equity in the Publishing Industry

Publishing is very different today than it was 20 years ago. I always think back to David Foster Wallace’s career before Twitter and Instagram could make or break someone’s career with the number of followers. The brutal truth is that authors now need to market their book proposals with metrics showing that they have a built platform to ensure that the publishing company will be able to make a return on investment and sell enough books.

The institutionalized racist reality of this is that writers who are Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Afro-Latinx, Arab, Persian, Asian, or Pacific Islander frequently need to show higher data points for their book’s platform, proving in advance that it will sell. That there is already a built-in fanbase. This is what institutionalized racism in the publishing industry looks like. Because of course the books written by an author that a publishing house invests less money in marketing will sell less. There are outliers to this, but I don’t need an MBA to understand basic ROI principles. And the hurtles faced by LGBTQ authors is another story. This is why the Own Voices Movement is so important. These are important stories for us all. And I hope that someday the publishing houses will realize that siphoning one minority voice at a time is actually hurting their profit margins. They are creating a false bottleneck, thinking that white voices are the default. I am one of those white voices. But I want to read so many stories that have not been published because of institutionalized racism and bigotry.

This #PublishingPaidMe thread by NK Jemisin is a must-read.