A Good Memoir Is an Act of Service

Today’s guest post is by Julie Lythcott-Haims (@jlythcotthaims), excerpted from her foreword to Writing Memoir, a new book of writing prompts by the San Francisco collective The Writers’ Grotto.

Memoirists take on the risks associated with telling truths in public, and thus are the bug lighters of the literary world. Critics love to pick on us—they equate the genre to a gathering of nudists whose bodies no one wants to see. Family and friends can be critics, too—they may not like the secrets being revealed or the way they’ve been depicted on the page. But whether memoirists are lauded as heroes or reviled as knaves is beside the point. The truth is worth telling. And sometimes the truth hurts.

Whereas in a novel the reader is aware of three distinct points of view—the author who writes the book, the perspective from which the story is told, and the main character or protagonist who lives the story—in memoir, the author, narrator, and protagonist are one and the same. This requires a bit of psychological sorting, and embedded in the complexity is a critical lesson: A memoirist’s central preoccupation is determining what the self knew (and when) and how the narrator should reveal the protagonist’s journey to the reader, while doing a delicate dance with the changing nature of memory.

Unlike novelists, memoirists choose not to invent a world where anything goes and where the author will have complete deniability. Our oath is to the truth. Yet truth is not as ironclad a concept as it may seem. Think of it as fact versus perception; this seems like a clear distinction, yet is my perception not the pencil that records the facts of my life?

Following Thanksgiving dinner, for example, were you to ask all of your relatives to spend half an hour writing down what happened during the meal, you would get as many versions of that truth as there are relatives. Each of us sees things differently, through the lens of our experiences, biases, fears, and needs. The Thanksgiving scene—who arrived when, who sat where, the food, the conversation, and what caused that clatter in the kitchen—is now part of the past.

The only means we have for resurrecting it are the memories of the humans who were there. Memory, therefore, is a representation (a re-presentation). Even if the whole thing had been recorded and watched on instant replay in the family room, we might know the what of what happened, but we still wouldn’t know the why and the how. Why Uncle Rufus showed up late and how Mom felt when she heard him come through the door. Why Dad had a smirk on his face. Why cousin Iona grew silent. How Emmett felt as he sat there. How, when all was said and done, there was a pile of potatoes on the kitchen floor. Is anyone’s conclusion on these matters more right or wrong than anyone else’s? Not really.

Moreover, we are biased either toward or against ourselves and others; we can’t know what we do not know and often don’t know why we did something, let alone what motivated someone else’s behavior. And what we do know is, by definition, only what our memory has chosen to retain for us. Memoirists aim for accuracy, honesty, and fairness, knowing certainty is impossible to come by.

How to begin summoning the best memories you’ve got

  • Give airtime to the memories that just won’t quit—the ones that form the basis for your impulse to write memoir.
  • Be curious about investigating the deeper story and harvest the best memories from conversations, interactions, events, experiences, inner feelings, and dreams.
  • Press on your joy and moments of triumph and ask yourself why those times were so eventful—they are clues as to what matters most to you.
  • Press on what hurts in order to understand what you fear.

The material you can’t bear to face or write about could ultimately form some of your most impactful writing. See if you can go there. If you don’t, you might make the mistake of telling the story that stands in front of the story that actually wants to be told. Dig up not just what happened to you but what you did to others. Tell yourself you can always take the hard bits out before anyone sees—for that is true—and it will also give you time to get comfortable seeing that stuff on the page.

You have to be okay with your flawed self, and all of the flawed selves in your story. You also have to be fair to everyone else. As my editor told me when I was writing my memoir, “Be the God of all characters,” by which she meant care about everyone equally. Look at every interaction from all angles. Make sure you’re not portraying yourself in rich complexity and everyone else as stereotype. My editor also meant I had to be realistic about myself. She told me, “Readers won’t trust you or root for you unless they know about some of the stupid, shitty, and shameful things you have done.” It felt like a paradox—how are they going to like me if I give them a reason to hate me? But I came to understand her point. All humans are flawed; a willingness to show your own flaws on the page makes you all the more relatable.

Inspired? Scared? Good. Give over to the inner plea: “Something happened to me and I think others should know about it.” If this plea comes with the wild scream of ego needing attention, you might want to check yourself. (Memoir writing can be a wonderful catharsis, but do you need to inflict it on others? Maybe you just need to spend a lot of time writing in your journal.) Yet if the plea comes with quiet certainty that this topic bridges your human experience to that of others—sharpen your pencil. Humans yearn for connection, community, and meaning, and can find it in the well-told stories of others. Hold your primary readers close to your heart. If they know how tamales are made or how black hair should be handled, don’t overexplain it; let those who don’t get it look it up. Put differently, a good memoir is an act of service. The human condition in its alienation, pain, and joy yearns for a faithful scribe. Memoir offers readers that ultimate safe harbor: the knowledge that they are not alone.

Image: Writing Memoir by San Francisco Writers Grotto

3 memoir writing prompts to get you started

  • Make a list of lies you’ve told, from the small innocuous ones to whoppers that changed the lives of others.
  • List twenty things you’ve wanted to accomplish in life. (Learn Spanish? Travel to Machu Picchu? Get a dog?) Now cross off those things you’ve already achieved.
  • List physical characteristics that define you, and how you and others have commented on them.

Note from Jane: if you enjoyed today’s post, be sure to check out The Writers’ Grotto’s entire Lit Starts series: writing prompts for memoir, dialog, character, action, humor, and sci-fi/fantasy.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

Julie Lythcott-Haims is the New York Times–bestselling author of How to Raise an Adult. Her second book is the critically acclaimed
and award-winning prose poetry memoir Real American. She holds a BA from Stanford, a JD from Harvard, and an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.

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Yvonne Hertzberger

I began my memoir a few years back but eventually put it aside. The cost to me, going through all that again, was greater than the good I felt it might do. I may go back to it at some point, but not yet.

PJ Reece

Much of what is discussed here relates to fiction writing as well. Dig into the fear, for example — where do I fear to go with my protagonist? Aren’t my fic protagonists in some way … me? Isn’t writing fun!

Thank you for sharing your experience with the “delicate dance” of writing the memoir and it’s painful truths that we, the writer live through. I have never heard it put that way before, “Act of Service”. As a flawed person, yet inspired writer, struggling with what to write in and what to re-write or leave out. Now, that gives food for thought.

DeBonis Karen

“A good memoir is an act of service.” That’s exactly how I feel about my memoir. I hope by sharing how my compulsive people-pleasing led to such dire consequences when my son was ill–something that fills me with shame–others may wake up and avoid their own crisis. I don’t relish telling my story to the world, but it’s for a greater good. Thanks for the validation.

Karen L. Sullivan

One of the best articles I’ve seen on memoir–thanks Julie for your insights, and thanks Jane, for your literary citizenship. The previous comments are right, it’s about tackling fear and trying to figure out why the writer is doing it, because that figures into the story, too. As you so aptly put it, memoir can be perceived as a gathering of nudists whose bodies no one wants to see (yikes). My fear didn’t stop upon completion of my memoir. Titled “Notes From Under Water,” it’s out on submission, yet now I find the fear morphing into new forms. This web… Read more »

Elle Mott

Thank you, Julie, great points here. By sticking to the principles you lay out here, I believe it can serve as a roadmap for a well-layered (true) story that will, no matter what the facts are, will be uplifting for readers. Being fair to everyone, all my supporting characters, is likely the hardest for me. ‘Working on my next memoir, now. My first memoir got a review of “[she] cuts herself no slack in sharing her mistakes along with her achievements…” – that I believe, is one of the points you are making here.

David Michael Rice

Thank you. I wish I had read many of these resources when I started my memoir, as it might have saved me a noticeable amount of work. My memoir has sold only ~550 copies so far, which is disappointing to me, but I learned from the project.

I worked very hard to make my memoir a learning experience for the reader, as well as entertaining.