Two Deadly Sins of Memoir Writing

You Should Really Write a Book

Today’s post is excerpted from You Should Really Write a Book by Regina Brooks and Brenda Lane Richardson. Copyright © 2012 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin.

In considering memoir writing through the prism of relationships, it’s important to alert you to two deadly sins. From the standpoint of trying to engage readers, these “sinful” behaviors are every bit as offensive as going on a first date and talking ad nauseum about your ex, or texting at the movies.

1. Self-Pity

Invite folks to a pity party, and you will be a lonely host. If you want to avoid sounding sorry for yourself, consider whether you have resolved most of the issues you’re writing about. If you have not, you may want to concentrate on writing strictly for the sake of healing, with plans to undertake a more commercial endeavor later. It’s up to you to decide whether you have triumphed over these difficult circumstances.

2. Vengeance

If you want to sell your memoir, don’t write to air old grievances. Sourcebooks Trade’s editorial manager Peter Lynch explained that he loses interest in manuscripts if the author’s motives feel too personal. “If your goal in publishing a memoir about your custody battle is to let the world know how terrible your ex is, that is of little interest. But if your goal is to show how a parent’s love is complicated and sometimes requires tough decisions, that’s a universal theme.”

In memoir writing, attempts to retaliate will backfire, causing you to portray yourself, the protagonist, in the most flattering light, while your antagonist comes off as one-dimensional and malevolent. Hissable villains only work in dated cartoons. Readers will turn against you when they sense you are trying to manipulate them onto your side.

This anti-vengeance advice also pertains to your parents. If you catch yourself blaming them for your problems, it may be a good time to do genogram work. This therapeutic system allows you to trace familial behaviors, beliefs, and patterns. It can help you better understand your parents and yourself. Instructions for constructing genograms by hand or with software can be found at various websites. You may also choose to seek out a clinician who uses the genogram in therapeutic practice.

Other efforts at healing, which might include working with a therapist or supportive group, may also help you feel more forgiving, which is a self-enhancing process—and facilitative to the writing process. The word “forgiveness” is by no means a suggestion that you forget what happened to you. By its very nature, memoir writing is about remembering. However, if you hope to sell your manuscript, you have to work through the issues you’re writing about, so readers will be more likely to trust you.

Speaking of relationships with parents, you may have noticed that some critics find it “amazing” when an author writes of loving or forgiving the most flawed mothers and fathers. In truth, it’s not unusual to find even adults who were removed from abusive homes longing for their parents. The bond between parent and child is often enduring. How else could humankind survive? Please don’t misinterpret this as a suggestion that you should manufacture emotions, which wouldn’t be healthy for you or your writing. The truth is, though, if you present a parent as the embodiment of evil, it will be a disservice to you and your work.

To read more—including advice on coming-of-age memoirs, addiction memoirs, travel and food memoirs, and religion & spirituality memoirs—visit Amazon to preview and read the first chapter.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

Regina Brooks & Brenda Lane Richardson

View posts by Regina Brooks & Brenda Lane Richardson

Regina Brooks is a literary agent and member of the AAR, and an author, editor, publisher, and member of the guest faculty for MFA programs around the country. Well known on the writer’s conference circuit she is also a faculty member of the Harvard Writers Course. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Brenda Lane Richardson, MSW, is the author of ten books, a recipient of the PEN-Oakland Literary Award, a journalist, and a New York University–trained social worker. She lives in Berkley, California, where she uses memoir writing as a therapeutic tool.

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Great post! Excellent advice which I take to heart as I write a memoir!

Shirley H. Showalter

So true! One of the first things I look for in a memoir is tone. I seek a wise voice. A voice that has suffered and learned from suffering. A voice that is true to self first of all but is not self-serving. A voice that springs from the land or cityscape of its origins. A voice that sings!

Thanks, Regina, Brenda, and Jane, for stating so clearly what NOT to do. This book will help many aspiring memoir writers, I’m sure.

Colleen Walsh Fong

Excellent advice. From a writer’s point of view it’s an easy trap to fall into. From a reader’s point of view I don’t want to read it.

[…] out today’s blog by Jane Freeman.  Her post today gives advice to memoirs writers about what turns their readers off.  I’m […]

Anne R. Allen

Thanks for this! I stopped working as a freelance editor because pretty much 90% of the people who wanted to hire me had written memoirs–mostly for these two reasons. There is nothing an editor can do to make such a book readable.

Ellen Roddick

Very sound advice. I give more tips on memoir writing in my new posting at http://woman-of-experience, “Memoir Begins with Me,”

Heather Marsten

This is so true, both would kill the interest of the reader. A reader needs to find something relevant to their life or some inspiration. Sometimes life has to happen and healing has to occur before a writer thinks of memoir. The first time I tried to tell my story I bled all over the page in raw pain, but didn’t have the skills to share my story. I’m attempting twenty years later to write it again. The details are the same but healing and perspective has changed the tone of my memoir. My goal is now to help others… Read more »

Liz Raptis Picco

Amen! Also time and distance is key, so is humor and compassion. Write the first draft for yourself and get all the anger, vengeance, nasty stuff out, then write and revise, revise, revise. My memoir, Stretch Marks took years to craft and chronicles how I became a mother, please visit–

Grace Peterson

Great post. I wonder though about the fine line between authenticity and self pity. Where do you draw that line? As a memoir reader, I enjoy the book that shows feeling. I want to understand how the protagonist felt and how s/he overcame conflict. As a memoir writer, I assume my readers will feel the same way. I want to be honest and candid with both the circumstances and my emotions surrounding them. Is it a matter of pacing? Not droning on too long about how I’ve been wronged or not delving too deeply into the grieving process? All of… Read more »

Jane Friedman

Adequate instruction on this likely requires a book! And I have the perfect one to recommend, aside from the one excerpted: It has many examples that will be useful to you. As far as the quick answer: If the book itself is a form of self-pity, that’s not workable. If you’re trying to write a scene in which you show yourself in a moment of self-pity, or a moment of intense grieving, that’s something very different. Here’s an essay which strikes a fine balance—that doesn’t get “gross” because it is, in part, meant to explore grief and suffering:… Read more »


Jane, Aleksandar’s Hemon’s story about his precious baby was our family’s story of love and loss. Our child was 18 when diagnosed with a brain tumor but she lived for 10 more years through many of the same protocols that Mr. Hemon’s little baby experienced. I felt so connected to him. As I read his stunningly beautiful and heartbreaking article I hoped against hope that this little angel would make it. Word-by-word catapulted me back in time where I often live even in the now because that is how the real story goes when one has lost a child. Mary… Read more »

Richard Gilbert

Thanks for the great post and these links. Hemon’s piece interested me so much when it appeared because it’s a memoir essay and he’s had such harsh things to say about the memoir genre. Maybe only books count for him?

Lori Sailiata

Thank you, Jane, for the additional resources. I’ve been blogging about my memoir attempt one day a week (Memoir Mondays). So many layers go into a memoir. What I’m finding is that my hard work in this genre is making my other writing all the richer.


Grace, You’re questions are spot-on … how to be honest and candid, without overwhelming the reader with deep insights into the grieving process. For me, it’s writing style, specifically tone. Can the writer draw a witty conclusion? Be self-deprecating? Pull herself up by the bootstraps, put on some lipstick and get on with her day? That, for me, is the answer to pity-parties. You can wallow, but show then you have to show your protagonist “getting on with her life,” even if it’s as small a gesture as squaring her shoulders and telling the rude barista to f-off. That’s my… Read more »


I am a big believer in leaving the pity parties and soul-searching locked safely in one’s journal. Even under traumatic circumstances, I want to see the main character showing some fight, some grit, or at least some humor and understanding in undergoing the difficult times. I think the key is the writer’s voice, and tone, as others mentioned. While describing my manic descent into a delusion that I was a spy for the Illuminati who had perpetrated 9/11, I tried to lighten the mood by making fun of myself. Or, by doing the literary version of a wink at the… Read more »

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