Are All Memoirs Written in the “First Person”? Not Necessarily.

Are all memoirs written in first person? Not necessarily. When it comes to writing a memoir, why bother discussing point of view? After all, aren’t all memoirs written from the first person point of view?

Not necessarily.

In most cases, yes — memoir does tend to be written from the first person point of view.  This is the POV of “I”.  “I climbed onto the motorcycle.  I put my arms around Joe’s waist.  I gulped as the bike lurched forward.”  First person is all about the person telling the story – the narrator.

Here’s an example of a memoir written in first person.  This is the opening of The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White by Shrilee Taylor Haizlip:

Sometimes I look at people and wonder if they are related to me.  I do this in public places and private spaces.  There I am, in airport terminals, and train stations, on ballroom floors and sandy beaches, studying people who might be my relatives. 

Not only does first person make sense for memoir, but it makes for the most intimate possible experience for the reader.  When you write in first person, you have the best chance of making your reader feel like they’re in the room with you – or sitting next to you in the cockpit, or huddled against you in the storm cellar.

Compare that to a story told from the third person point of view: “April climbed onto the motorcycle.  She put her arms around Joe’s waist.  She gulped as the bike lurched forward.”

With the third person point of view, you’re describing to the reader what’s happening in a scene.  You and the reader are watching events together, from the outside.  This point of view feels a degree or two removed from the action, and as a result, it can come across as less “personal” than first person.

It might seem like the third person point of view has no place in a memoir, but actually, some memoirists have used it creatively and with success.  I’ll give you an example.  In one scene in The Men in My Country by Marilyn Abildskov, she uses the third person point of view to recall a memory of herself as though she is watching a stranger in action.  Here’s a passage:

One night he is supposed to call at 6 P.M., which he does, but she doesn’t get the message until an hour later when she is immersed in a class at the ABC School, filling in for a teacher who failed to show.

            When she calls him at seven, there’s no answer at his place.  So she calls again at eight, then at nine, and again at ten.  Finally, before midnight, he answers his phone, sounding angry and maybe a little drunk.

            So you don’t want to get together? the woman asks, disappointed that he’s not as eager to see her as he is to see him.  All she wanted that night was to hear his voice.  Now that she has his voice, his voice in her ear, it isn’t enough.  Whatever she has, she will always want more.  The stakes go up.  This is her way of life.  Her way of love.  She wants to see him, even if it’s only for a few minutes, just to say goodnight.  And if she sees him?  She will want to touch him.  And then?

It’s important to note that most of Abildskov’s memoir is written in the first person, which is typical.  However, in this particular scene, she uses the third person.  Why?  It’s an act of artistry.  In my opinion, she’s doing it to help us sense how she now feels about that woman she’s remembering – as if she’s a different person.  Haven’t you ever looked back on something you did or said as a younger person and thought, Who was that girl/guy?  An earlier, less wise version of yourself can feel like a stranger.  If you’ve changed significantly in your life, recalling something you did in the past can almost feel like watching a play or a movie.  I believe Abildskov was using the third person as a device to help us understand how distanced she feels from that once desperate woman.

Then, there’s the god-like omniscient point of view.  I say “god-like” because it’s the only point of view that knows all and sees all, as only a god could.

If you’re writing in the omniscient point of view, you can describe what April was thinking as she sped away on the motorcycle.  You can also tell us what Joe was thinking when April put her arms around him. You know how the weather’s going to change a mile down the road, and you can hint at it to the reader using foreshadowing – even if the characters have no idea they’re headed for rain.

Writing in the omniscient point of view can feel empowering.  It can feel magical.  There are no limits.

wtmrn4On the downside, however, a reader of the omniscient point of view can sometimes struggle to make an emotional connection with any one character.  It’s a lonely business, being a god.  And when you share with your reader all that god-like knowledge, you risk imparting a sense of loneliness – a separateness from your characters.

Finally, there’s something called the second person point of view.  I’ve saved it for last because it’s the least commonly used POV – probably because it’s so difficult to pull off.  Second person is what I call the point of view of “you”.  Let me show you the second person in action first before I explain it:

You start the first day of school with such high expectations.  You think this’ll be the year when you finally break out, make your mark, achieve popularity.  You never set out to have the most miserable year of your life.

I just made up that passage.  It could’ve been an excerpt from a memoir, written by a real person about their real life; or, it could’ve been the voice of a make-believe character in a novel.  Either way, you’d still call it the second person POV.

Notice the use of “you”?  With second person, the narrator is talking about his or herself, but using the word “you”.  I know, sounds complicated.  Think of it this way: have you ever heard someone use second person in conversation?  At some point, you may have done it yourself.

Imagine you just came from the Department of Motor Vehicles.  You’re meeting your friend Lois for lunch.  You approach Lois who’s sitting waiting for you at a coffee shop table, and you say:

“Y’know, you can call ahead to the DMV and you can ask all the right questions.  You can find out exactly what you need to bring and who to see.  You can even get there early and wait in line at the front door.  But somehow, you always end up getting the run-around.”

You just spoke using the second person point of view.

Sure, you said “you” to Lois – but you were actually talking about your own experience, not hers.

Back to memoir.  Does anyone ever use the second person “you” point of view in memoir?  It’s rare, but it’s been done.  You might be hard-pressed to find an entire memoir written in second person (I can’t think of any), but you will occasionally spot it within a first person memoir.

Let’s open Marilyn Abildskov’s The Men in My Country again.  We’ve already seen how she used the third person point of view to help create a sense of distance between herself as the more experienced narrator, and herself at an earlier time.  Now, here’s an example from the same book in which Abildskov slips in a little second person POV:

At school they write messages on the bottom of composition books, little lost boats you have the urge to keep and save.  KEEP OO JAMMIN in all caps.  Or questions that sail in on paper scraps, tiny letters in bottles that sail across the sea.  Do Marilyn-sensei like Guns and Roses? A little, you lie. You believe in kindness over honesty.

Did you spot it?  The second person point of view?  The point of view of “you”?  It’s in the very last line of the passage:

A little, you lie. You believe in kindness over honesty.

You lie.  You believe in kindness over honesty.

The person who actually did the little-white-lying in this scene is the author.  But she says it conversationally, as if to suggest that this is what anyone would do – what you might do in the same situation.

So while chances are excellent that your memoir will be written in the first person point of view, there are certainly ways that other points of view can be useful.  I recommend starting out in the first person, and see if you lapse into another POV somewhere down the line.  Instead of automatically correcting it, you might step back and ask yourself if a small portion might actually be served by using another point of view in an artistic way.

To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011). 

Featured Author: Deborah L. Parker

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Your journey.  The road you’re on.  Following your chosen path.

Do these metaphors sometimes describe your outlook on life’s evolving Parker Covercircumstances?  And we don’t embark on just one road, path or journey — we travel many, and in multiple directions, each unfolding maps that define our unique stories.

In Navigating Life’s Roadways, Deborah L. Parker segments her life’s roads, journeys and paths into narratives revealing an insightful and inspirational personal odyssey.

Parker’s chronicles begin in her rural hometown in Virginia during the 1960s Civil Rights era.  She steers you through the battles and triumphs of her college years, Army and private sector careers, and current ownership of a leadership training firm.

Parker PhotoIf you’re trying to decide what to do with the debris and gems we tend to pick up along life’s roadways, Parker guides you.  You will relate to the allegories of her treks through headwinds and tailwinds of family, career, fun, health and relationships.  Although your details and dilemmas may differ, Parker encourages you to push on.

Navigating Life’s Roadways is available in print and as an ebook.  Learn more here.

Announcing the Winners: Write That Memoir Right Now Audiobook on CD

Congratulations to Sarah P. and Nena B.!  They’ve each won an audiobook of Write That Memoir Right Now on CD!

Best of luck on your writing projects, ladies.

Another giveaway is coming this month.  Stay tuned — subscribe to the blog!  Follow the instructions at the top of the right-hand sidebar, titled “Follow This Blog Via E-mail”.


Interview with Stephanie Schroeder, author of Beautiful Wreck: Sex, Lies & Suicide

Stephanie Schroeder is a queer feminist writer based in Brooklyn, New York.  She is an independent mental illness awareness activist and advocate for social and economic justice. Her political essays have been anthologized in the classic queer anthology That’s Revolting: Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation as well as Here Come the Brides: Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage. Schroeder is a Contributing Editor at Curve Magazine. Her memoir, Beautiful Wreck: Sex, Lies & Suicide, is her first book.

beautiful wreck coverOne of the things I’m really interested in as a memoirist myself is the process and documentation of memory. Did you have any of the clarity and self-reflection with which you write when you were actually experiencing particular situations, or only afterward when drafting of the book?

On the occasion I had a glimpse, a second, or maybe a minute, to reflect on a specific situation and think to myself “this is wrong” or “I don’t want to be in this position.” But, it took forever to get out of those terrible situations. Mostly because I didn’t have all the information — or any outside help. I was often isolated by my most intimate relationships, by design of others and for their own purposes. I think what you might be asking is how can memory ever be accurate or even how can any writer recreate the past through memoir.

I kept journals for the entire time span of my book and re-reading that documentation helped a lot in my writing process. I used a sprinkling of entries from one journal to locate folks in my world and in my mind at that time. I don’t think, though, that anyone needs prior documentation to write a memoir. Writers, storytellers and others know what happened to them and can recreate it on the page, including dialogue that actually took place. For me, this stuff was burned into my memory. My memory. It’s likely others I mentioned in Beautiful Wreck have different recollections of some of the same circumstances.

Your book is an autobiographical account. One of the things I know a lot of writers wrestle with is whether or not to fictionalize their stories. What made you choose memoir as the genre in which to tell your story?

I cannot imagine fictionalizing my life. With Beautiful Wreck, mainstream agents and publishers were already skeptical that my content was actually true. “All of this really happened to you?” they would ask incredulously. What charmed lives they must lead!

Meanwhile, I wanted my story to be what it was: raw, brutal, and darkly humorous, and I felt I could only do that with memoir. Plus, I hardly ever read fiction, so it’s not a genre I am at all familiar with. And, it paid off, the memoir part. I have received great reader feedback, folks write to me several time a week to let me know how much they enjoyed my book or how it has helped them rethink their own lives, relationships and health.

I received a particularly great review from Velvetpark editorial director, Marcie Bianco: Beautiful Wreck was one of the most compelling, smoothly written books I’ve read this year. And it is arguably one of the better queer autobio-memoirs out there. Period.”


Author Stephanie Schroeder. Photo by Maeghan Donohue.

Positive response from both readers and reviewers is the stuff that makes it worth opening myself up and putting my story out into the world.

Since you choose memoir as the genre in which to tell your story, were you at all afraid about what might happen with those whom you write about in your book?

I changed everyone’s name except for one — a public figure who has blurbed my book. I didn’t really think beyond the fact that I needed to change names only to avoid a hassle, and to protect the person in the story who is still a minor.

Since you mention the minor, Michael, the child you raised with your former partner and left when you left the relationship with her, how has reaction to that part of your story been, either in the media or in responses from readers?

Actually no one has ever said anything about him or the situation. No press has asked me about it and readers have said little, maybe something such as “how dare that bitch force you into parenthood,” but that’s it. However, that is the part I worried about most. Because women who don’t want children or “abandon” them–for lack of a better term–are seen as monsters.

Though, when Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, author of Hiroshima in the Morning, admitted that she “didn’t want to mother anymore” and gave custody of her kids to her ex-husband, it made headlines everywhere and she sold a ton of books!

I never wanted to parent, I was under the influence of an abusive person and was also mentally ill without a diagnosis or assistance to stabilize my moods or my life. And, I haven’t sold a ton of books because of it, by the way!

Were you ever afraid to tell people you were bipolar and when you did, how did they react? What are people’s reactions to you when you disclose now?

Of course, it’s terrifying to come out as mentally ill, especially in the workplace. I’ve had some bad workplace experiences where I was discriminated against in ways that I could not prove legally, but I know to be the case. I’m out as a feminist, I’ve been out as a lesbian since I was 19, but coming out as bipolar is another beast altogether.

I haven’t even discussed the book or my illness with my boss. She knows I’ve published a book, but I don’t know whether she has read it or what she thinks about me or the book if she has read it. I’m certainly not going to ask her. Everything about me is now hanging out in my book, on my website, on my Facebook page, etc. I cannot avoid people knowing, and don’t want to either, and yet I still do not always disclose to people who don’t already know. It’s just a really, really difficult thing to do because of the stigma surrounding mental illness.

You mention in the book the staggering cost of medication and therapy, and call out the U.S. healthcare system. Can you talk about that?

You ‘d better believe it, sister. All that yakking costs money, but it’s so totally worth it. Seriously, without psychotherapy with an excellent therapist (and there are a lot, and I mean A LOT, of really bad therapists!) I wouldn’t be alive, and I sure as hell wouldn’t be happy! Meds are the same story. I need them, they keep me stable, and I don’t really have many negative side effects like a lot of folks do. But, I also don’t have health insurance and the anti-psychotic I take, Abilify, costs $1,000 a month and that’s down from $1,400 just a few years ago. It’s going off patent soon, but it will take years for the price to drop substantially. I cannot get along without it. I tried for a while and felt myself falling back into the abyss. My psychiatrist used to give me samples, but newer drugs are on the market now and there are no more samples of Abilify for me. I’ve put out a call on social media for people with leftover Abilify to get in touch.  Several people have, and I have a stash, but it’s not going to last forever.

It’s a damn shame that in a rich country like ours we are, for the most part, denied healthcare unless we can afford it. And I can’t afford it most of the time. I am living paycheck-to- paycheck just like most people I know.

What are you working on now?

People keep asking if there is going to be more about me, another memoir, or something similar. I know my book is slim and there is a lot left out of my story, which spans more than 15 years, but the really important stuff is in the book. The rest are anecdotes: funny, horrible, beautiful, painful…. I can talk about hundreds of stories, incidents, scenes.  I wrote exactly what I did to convey the essence of my life specifically, but also to illustrate what severe depression and wild mania feel like and how they manifest. There will be no more books about me. I don’t want to be a “disease author”, I have other fish to fry.

Currently, I’m trying to leverage my book and my work as a mental illness awareness activist into a paid speaking career. I also have another book in mind. It’s about a friend of mine who died a few years ago. He was a noted illustrator who worked at Grove Press in the 50s and only illustrated for progressive publications. He lived for 30+ years as an ex-pat in Holland and I think a biography or appreciation about him would be extremely interesting.

To find out more about Beautiful Wreck: Sex. Lies & Suicide, go to You can buy it in paperback on Amazon as well as for Kindle or on for your Nook.

Don’t Write a Memoir for “Everybody” to Read

wtmrn2Are you planning on writing your memoir, hiding it in a locked drawer, and then burning it on your deathbed?  In that case, your memoir is definitely between you and you, and there’s no reason for you to read this article.

However, if you plan on letting anyone else read your finished memoir – whether it’s family members, or any stranger who happens to buy a copy – then this article is for you.

When you write a memoir (or anything else, for that matter), you’re writing to someone.  No, not in quite the same way you’d write a letter or an e-mail.  But there’s going to be someone on the other end of your message: your reader.

If you’re hoping to make a huge splash with your memoir, then you’ll obviously want your memoir to have many readers.  Those readers, collectively, are your audience.

Regardless of what you’re writing – whether it’s a magazine article, an academic essay, or a memoir —  it’s important to keep your readers in mind.

Write for a Specific Audience

There’s a good chance you’ve written for a specific audience before but didn’t realize it.

Here’s an example.  Say you’re on vacation in Mexico.  You promised postcards to everyone you know.  One day you’re reclining on a cushioned lounge beneath a grass umbrella, just ten feet from a gentle lick of turquoise surf.  You’re leaning your forearms on a book in your lap and shuffling a stack of glossy postcards.  You take the pen out from behind your ear and begin to write:

Dear Mom:

The resort is beautiful.  You’d love the lunch buffet.  It reminds me of the spread on your 60th birthday cruise. Weather has been perfect.  Miss you and can’t wait to see you.  I have a pretty souvenir for you!

Next, you choose a fresh card and begin scribbling a note to your best friend and former college roommate:

Hey Barfbag,

Too bad you’re missing this orgy of loose women and free-flowing booze, you loser.  Haven’t been sober since I landed!  See ya for Joe’s Superbowl party on the 12th.

And finally, you write that obligatory postcard to the office, which will inevitably be posted on the break room refrigerator for your boss and all to see:

Hi gang,

Enjoying a break in sunny Mexico.  Thanks to everyone who worked so hard on the Davis deal last month.  Hope you’re all enjoying those normal hours again!  Looking forward to sharing a box of spicy Mexican chocolate when I return. 

You wouldn’t write the same way – or mention all the same things – to everyone you wrote to.

It’s Your Tone

The tone you use in writing to your mother (affectionate, thoughtful) will be vastly different from the tone you use with your college buddy (informal, sarcastic).  That tone will change slightly again when you address your boss and co-workers (friendly, polite).

Likewise, you’ll choose different words to address different people.  For mom: “beautiful”, “perfect”, “pretty”.  For the best friend: “barfbag”, “orgy”, “loser”.  And finally, for the workplace: “enjoying”, “thanks”, “sharing”.

It’s What You Choose to Mention, Too.

Additionally, the content of your story will change to suit the reader.  Regardless of whom you speak to, you’re talking about the same trip to Mexico.  However, you’ll be selective about what you share about that experience, depending on whom you’re addressing.  You told your mom about things that would be important to her: “The resort is beautiful.” “You’d love the lunch buffet.”  “I miss you and can’t wait to see you.”  You leave out the part about the women and drinking.

But when it’s time to address your buddy, you don’t bother mentioning the weather or the lunch buffet – he wouldn’t care about that.  Instead, you mention “loose women” and “free-flowing booze,” plus the upcoming “Superbowl party on the 12th.

Your co-workers hear about “sunny Mexico,” and you promise to bring them some “spicy Mexican chocolate”.  You’re courteous and keep things professional.

That’s how you gear your writing toward a specific audience.

Why You Shouldn’t Write for “Everyone”

Now, if I ask you whom you want the audience for your memoir to be, you might say, “Everybody!  I want everyone in the world to buy my memoir.”  But that’s not going to happen.  You might sell your memoir to a lot of people – but who are they?  Or maybe more importantly, who do you want them to be?

When you write for an audience of “everyone”, you risk writing something dull, watered-down and uninteresting. Your writing will be more engaging if you write to a specific group of people. Knowing your audience has two big benefits.

First, it helps you write better.  Instead of writing a bland manuscript for “everyone,” you’ll feel freer to write in specifics.  Second, having a clear picture of your audience helps you develop a sales and marketing strategy.

Let me also make it clear that even if you have a specific audience in mind, that doesn’t mean someone outside of that audience won’t read and enjoy your book, but having a narrow focus in mind when you’re writing is crucial.

Decide ahead of time exactly to whom you’re writing.  You’ll write a better book.

At a reading/booksigning for Read My Hips at Barnes & Noble.

To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011). 

Featured Author: Belinda Nicoll

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outofsyncIn 2001, when a couple leaves South Africa for a stay abroad, they land at JFK International Airport on September 11th, unprepared for the sight of smoke billowing from the Manhattan skyline, and the horror of a second plane exploding into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

Over the next ten years, as their host country confronts fundamental change of its own, their marriage buckles under the strain of their disparate experiences. With the international economic crisis making it all but impossible for them to return to their country, they relocate from California to the North, the South, and the Midwest searching for a place they can call home.

Against the backdrop of uncertainties in post-apartheid South Africa, Belinda Nicoll unfolds a contemporary and thought-provoking account of post-9/11 America’s tantalizing hopes and unexpected disappointments. Out of Sync is her insightful memoir about marital endurance that promises to enthrall anyone, expatriate or not, who has ever felt at odds with themselves or the world.

Belinda Nicoll is originally from South Africa. She expatriated to the United States in 2001, became a resident in 2004, and has held dual citizenship since 2010. She and her husband, Bruce, love traveling and share a keen interest in cultural diversity. Their journeys and careers have taken them through large parts of Southern Africa and America, Europe, Ireland, Canada, the Middle East, Mexico, and to exotic islands such as Mauritius, Phuket, The Comores, St. Thomas, and St. John. Belinda holds a BA degree in the social sciences and an MFA in Creative Writing. She was a talent agent and drama coach before venturing into the advertising world as copywriter and client service director. These days, she works as a teacher of creative writing and will soon complete her first novel, an epic mystery set in South Africa and the U.S., spanning four generations and exploring concepts of shamanism, archaeology, and intergenerational shame.

Out of Sync is available from Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Kalahari (S.A.) and of course, from Amazon.

Win the 5-CD Audiobook: Write That Memoir Right Now!

wtmrncdNeed some guidance writing your memoir?  Write That Memoir Right Now is available as an audiobook — and TWO lucky winners are going to receive it in this handy 5-CD set.

Here’s how to enter:

Go to our Contact page and send us a message using the form provided.  Be sure to send us your full name and e-mail address.  In the message box, please write “CD giveaway“. Deadline to enter is 12:00 midnight on Sunday, February 24, 2013.

TWO winners will be randomly chosen and contacted via e-mail.  Winners must provide a shipping address no later than 12:00 midnight, Sunday, March 3, 2013.  If we don’t hear from you by then, an alternate winner will be randomly chosen.

Good luck!

Featured Author: Sheila Hageman

wtmrn featured author logoSheila Hageman is a 41-year-old mother of three from Stratford, Connecticut who has defied all odds. A former stripper and nude model, she later became a college valedictorian and wrote Stripping Down: A Memoir (2012, Pink Fish Press).  Here’s what Sheila has to say about her debut memoir:

At twelve years old, everything changed for me with the discovery of my estranged father’s porn collection. Found locked away in a corner of the basement, the glossy images ignited in me an unrehagemanlenting desire for attention and adoration. I lost sight of my dream of being a writer and became obsessed with exercise, working out every day for hours and barely eating. I became that which I thought men adored—a stripper and a nude model.

Many years later when I discovered my mother had breast cancer, I was faced with who I had become and what I had used my body for. I quit stripping and returned to college to graduate as valedictorian; I also became a yoga teacher through which I learned how to take good care of my body and not be obsessive in my looks. I began writing again and then went to graduate school for my MFA in Creative Writing. At that time, reflections on my past as a stripper permeated my thoughts as I took on the new roles of mother, caregiver and wife. While helping my baby daughter take her first steps, I nursed my mother through the final stages of breast cancer and truly faced who I had become and who I had been. The resulting memoir, Stripping Down, was finally published in February of 2012. I am living my dream of writing everyday and helping other women to reach their own dream through exploring their lives in words.

Stripping Down can be purchased here.

How to Be a Happy Memoirist: Surviving Emotionally-Charged Writing

emoHow do you stay happy while you’re writing about unhappy things?  Is there one concrete thing we can do to develop a sort of “memoirist’s Teflon”, a state wherein we can write about our most gut-wrenching memories in stinging detail — but be able to step away from the desk with every hair in place?

To get more insight into the psychological ramifications of writing a memoir, I decided to pick the brains of a few other writers who’ve gotten through the big bad memoir-writing process and lived to tell about it.

girlbomb“Well, it was obviously no fun to dwell on painful memories – I got angry, I got sad, I got sentimental, and I got angry some more,” Janice Erlbaum, author of Girlbomb told me. “But out of all the painful memories I had to re-encounter, it was especially hard for me to write about doing hard drugs, because I had to remember and recreate mental and physical sensations that I really didn’t want to experience anymore. I’d find my heart pounding uncomfortably hard when I wrote about being on cocaine, or I’d get a paranoid, dissociated feeling when writing about taking acid. One night I was writing about doing coke, and I freaked out and called a friend and went straight to her apartment, because I didn’t feel like I could stand to be alone right then. It was a very desperate, coked-up feeling.”

Erin Vincent wrote her memoir Grief Girl about her parents being in a road accident when she was 14.

griefgirl“I decided to write it in my teenage voice, so forced myself to relive everything,” she said. “I realize now that I retraumatized myself. Some days as I wrote, my body would be covered in hives. I went to the hospital one night with internal bleeding, felt exhausted most of the time…I became depressed for a while. Some days I could only write for 15 minutes before needing a nap!”

Janice suffered some similar exhaustion and psychosomatic phenomena:

“I experienced a period of intense exhaustion, where I thought I had narcolepsy or leukemia or multiple sclerosis or something, because I’d be working on the book, and I’d get so dizzy and tired that I’d have to lay down on the floor by my desk and shut my eyes for a while.”

But, Janice also says, “It got easier with each draft. The first draft was the hardest, and then I had to go deeper for the second draft. But I’d already had some practice in confronting the material, so at least none of it was a surprise anymore. By the third draft, I could see it as a story with characters, and not so much as real people and events. And now it’s like someone else wrote it; it feels so distant from my current life.”

David Matthews, author of Ace of Spades, had a completely different experience.

aceofspades“I didn’t find the process of writing about painful things to be inherently painful. I think that for me, I was cushioned a bit in that I was a writer who decided to write a memoir, rather than an individual who just wanted to tell my story. Being a writer enabled me to approach the subject matter as a work, rather than something that had happened ‘to’ me.”

So there may be some hope of a painless process yet! But what if your memoir-writing experience does end up being as visceral as Janice or Erin’s? Will that really be such a bad thing?

“I had to revisit some very painful experiences, and own up to things I’d done that I really wasn’t proud of,” Janice admits. “But now that I’ve been honest about those things, I’m glad – writing the book helped me put a lot of old demons to rest.”

Aside from getting some kind of personal pay-off from surviving an emotional writing journey, perhaps the trip will be more bearable if we can get over ourselves and think of how the final product might serve someone else. Wade Rouse, author of three memoirs including Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler, points out:

americasboy“(Writing a memoir is) not for the weak of heart, and there is great risk, not the least of which is emotionally. But you know by writing your truth you are helping someone else reach his. You also know that people will, undoubtedly, be hurt in some way, big or small, by what you are sharing. Still, the very best memoirs force us to hold up a collective mirror to our faces and take a good, long, hard look at our lives, even though they reflect someone else’s.”

In order to write her memoir My One-Night Stand With Cancer, Tania Katan got visceral with her memories on purpose.

“In order to access all of the feelings around cancer, chemotherapy, toxic relationships and unsavory phlebotomists, I had to go back and experience all of those things in my body. I would sit with a stack of journals and start reading about being in the oncologist’s office awaiting treatment, and that would trigger a vivid image of me in that space, and soon I was feeling the prick of the needle in my vein and tasting the bleach-like chemicals in my mouth. That’s the only way for me to write an accurate description of what I went through and by doing so, I allow my audience to experience these things as if they’re going through it, too.”

onenightWade told me, “It’s impossible to pen a memoir—about any piece of your life—by distancing yourself from your life. You must laugh, and cry, and scream, and writhe, just like you did the first time. That’s when you know you’re getting it right … and real.”

I asked Erin: Do you think one sacrifices an intensity of writing by attempting to keep past emotions at a distance?

“Absolutely! That’s why I immersed myself in my past. I wanted ‘Grief Girl’ to be raw and immediate. I wanted the reader to feel they are there with me.”

Janice agreed. “Unfortunately, I think you have to be a ‘method writer’ – you have to use your emotions in the same way actors do in order to perform well. You have to dredge up the ugly stuff and use it, or your writing will be flat.”

So I guess we all just have to batten down the hatches and hold on tight. If you’re determined to write a memoir, you’ll want to bring forth the most remarkable work you have in you. Be willing to dig deep, to sob and pummel pillows. Surely, though, there are SOME things we can do to minimize the trauma and stay positive.

Janice confided, “I’ve been in therapy for the last eleven years; my book is dedicated to my shrink, Judith. There’s no way I could have come to a place in my life where I was stable and happy and motivated enough to tackle this project had I not been in therapy. She cheered me through the draft, and held my hand through the really hard parts.”

Therapy was also helpful to Tania, “both creatively and personally. It doesn’t hurt to learn about yourself in-depth when you’re trying to write about yourself in-depth, you know?”

Janice found other ways to keep the more bleak aspects of her memoir from coloring her here-and-now (which may be especially helpful if you can’t afford a therapist):

“I tried to have as much fun in the present as possible. And I tried to treat writing like it was any other job. I set goals, and rewarded myself for working hard.”

“My advice would be to think of the protagonist of your memoir as a character, rather than as a literal (no pun intended) version of yourself,” David suggested. “The protagonist (who only happens to be you) suffers, laughs, loves—the writer (who also only happens to be you) records these events in an exciting, meaningful, and truthful way. You’re the court stenographer.”

Tania had a great idea:

“Keep two journals. One is the Emotional Journal. The other is the Writing Journal. Allow yourself the freedom to write all of the feelings and fucked up thoughts you have in your Emotional Journal without editing. Let the words sit for a bit, then go back and read. See how fucked up you were just a few days ago. Smile and relish in the fact that you have grown. Now get dressed and grab your Writing Journal and start crafting a coherent story. When you feel like you are not being true to the emotional content of your story, go back to your Emotional Journal and access the real, raw stuff. But whatever you do, don’t mistake one journal for the other. Both serve a purpose. One is a soliloquy and the other is a dialogue.”

Since Wade’s first memoir America’s Boy was composed of short chapters and vignettes from his life, he says he “tried to intersperse the difficult parts with big doses of humor, and memories of good times. That helped me come back from the abyss many times.”

Wade’s experience is a reminder that we’re not required to write our first drafts in any prescribed order. We don’t have to write chronologically or linearly. When we get through a rough chapter, we’re free to give ourselves a break by working on a “fun part” before diving into another harrowing event from the past. We’re in control. (Why is that so hard to remember?)

What memoirists like Janice, Tania, David, Erin and Wade have shared with me only reaffirms what I think I already knew. My fellow memoirist-in-the-making Mary Elizabeth said it best:

“…as you’re writing and reliving things, you’re deeply aware that you got through them.”

Hey…that’s right. We got THROUGH our pasts! We made it!

We’ve got everything we need to make the journey back again. We know the terrain. In fact, each of us is the world’s foremost expert on our own pasts! Plus, we’re going back armed with the insight of age and experience. You’ve got my own experience, and the travel tales that “been-there” memoirists have been kind enough to share.

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011). To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone

Featured Author: Katherine “Cookie” Jones

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Katherine “Cookie” Jones wrote and published a memoir titled I Know a Way Out.  She describes it this way:

featured author jones I Know a Way Out is an account of my life’s journey towards a sense of peace and fulfillment, culminating in personal acceptance of a greater power that resides in all of us.  Emphasizing issues relating to family, much of my work centers on my experiences and interactions in the household of my aunt and uncle after the deaths of my parents, six months apart. While I had a connection with my aunt, my relationship with my uncle posed numerous challenges as a result of his pattern of sexual abuse, beginning when I was a young child and lasting through my teen years. As I moved into my twenties, I began to find some measure of independence through my career path, but events took a downward turn when my uncle decided that I should move out of the home in which I was raised.  Later, I describe starting a new life with my husband, Jay, but this association failed to provide the happiness that I desired.  In concluding sections of I Know a Way Out, I portray the events of my present, depicting a new life with my “stranger” as well as the spiritual re-awakening that I experienced at the age of thirty-one. Although grounded on a level of despair and uncertainty, this narrative frequently injects a spirit of hope based on my personal faith. As a whole, I wish to inspire the reader by rendering the notion that spirituality will furnish the power to transcend the relative limitations that life may present.”

You can read I Know a Way Out in paperback, or on your Kindle:

Buy the paperback here.

Buy the Kindle edition here.