Realistic Expectations For Writing a Memoir

Publish date:

Learn what a memoir is and how to create memories with today's tip of the day taken from Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach, with Kristen Keckler.

What is a memoir?

Memoir is rendering of a lived life, as filtered through memory and the wider net of the needs of narrative. Memoir just tells the story, no explicit thesis here. Memoir examines a life, a self, and does so through a period of time, say early childhood or the month you spent with Grandpa in France. Like novels and short stories, memoirs tend to operate in time and space, tend to have a story arc, rising action leading to climax, a balance of scene and summary. A reflective voice might tell the story, might analyze events, but it tends to stay in the background, tends to let the action do the work. Research can support the storytelling, but the point isn’t a display of facts or information. A memoir lays out the evidence of a life, lets the reader make the conclusions. The mode ranges from pure, plain storytelling to reflective storytelling. Some memoirs get so reflective and analytical that they move close to and overlap with the personal essay. A few pages, a book, a few volumes, memoir is an expansible form. Examples of book-length memoir: The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison; The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls; Minor Characters, by Joyce Johnson.

Realistic Ways to Achieve Good Writing

Good writing is, among other things, an illusion. The primary illusion is of ease. We read a beautifully constructed book with pleasure and admiration, forgetting that the writer had to sit down day after day for a year or two years or more (often many more) to do the job. We forget—because it’s the writer’s job to make us forget—all the drafting, all the false starts, all the seamlessly incorporated suggestions and corrections of editors and other readers, all the self-doubt, all the projects started and never finished, all the manuscripts in drawers, all the learning, all the patience, all the study, all the practice: the apprenticeship. So, we read the book and feel cowed. How’d she do this? And worse, we get the idea that we ought to be able to sit down and write a beauty on the first try.

Good writing occurs not in bursts of inspiration (although inspiration can’t hurt) but in time so slow it feels like geologic time. Ten thousand years is nothing, a moment. A million years is but a day. That some good writers write terrific drafts fast is a function of experience, of many years’ hard work in preparation, and rarely of raw talent.

Polishing Your Memoir

Polishing is insidious. You polish up your essay—put a finish on it—and the surface gets so bright you can’t (and don’t want to) delve beneath the surface. Your prose becomes reflective, a mirror. You see yourself in it. You actually begin to confuse the writing with yourself. And now there’s no way to cut into that writing, no way to smash that veneer, no way to see clearly beneath it.

Polishing is a form of tinkering, and tinkering--for too many new writers--is what revision amounts to. You can spend days adjusting sentences in a first paragraph that ought to be cut altogether. You can spend months moving paragraphs around in a piece that out to be shelved forever—honorably, of course—perhaps seen as a study for work to come.

Real revision—it’s right there in the word—is re-seeing.

Did you enjoy this post? If so, read other writing tips and posts on memoir writing.

Buy Writing Life Stories now!

Camille Aubray: Understanding the Nuances of Human Nature

Camille Aubray: Understanding the Nuances of Human Nature

Author Camille Aubray discusses her recent novel The Godmothers, including what prompted the book, why writers should write everything down, the importance of understanding the nuances of human nature, and more.

How Personal Writing and Journaling Is Good for the Soul and Why Your Journal Is Your Soul Mate

How Personal Writing and Journaling Is Good for the Soul and Why Your Journal Is Your Soulmate

Bestselling author Laura Munson shares how journaling lead to a breakthrough in her fiction writing and how you can use journaling to do the same.

From Script

A Fond Farewell to Netflix’s Lucifer, Writing Video Games, and Do Experts Stand in the Way of Your Writing Goals?: From Script

In this week’s round up brought to us by, exclusive interviews with Lucifer TV writer Chris Rafferty and video game writer Ian Ryan. Plus, learn about screenwriting trailblazer France Goodrich Hacket, who co-wrote It’s a Wonderful Life, and advice on when and when not to approach a writing expert to reach your writing goals.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Misusing Dialogue Tags

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Misusing Dialogue Tags

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake writers make is misusing dialogue tags.

Poetic Forms

Boketto: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, Walter J. Wojtanik shares his relatively new form, the boketto.

Paul Neilan: On Implementing Dark Humor

Paul Neilan: On Implementing Dark Humor

In this article, author Paul Neilan explains how he came up with the idea for his mystery and dark comedy novel The Hollywood Spiral.


Deborah Hall, 2020 Writer's Digest Poetry Awards Winner

The winner of the 2020 Writer’s Digest Poetry Awards discusses the inspiration behind her first-place poem, “The Loneliest Whale."

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Split Up

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Split Up

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have your characters split up.

Kerry Winfrey: On Writing a Romance that's Cozy and Comforting

Kerry Winfrey: On Writing a Romance that's Cozy and Comforting

Author Kerry Winfrey wrote her latest romance, Very Sincerely Yours, during the 2020 pandemic to comfort herself. Here, she's explaining why that tone is important for readers.