Six Tough Rules For Memoir Writing

 The First Rule of Memoir Writing
Your memoir is not about you!

I’m not usually bossy. In fact I tell my workshop participants that rules are an anathema because they can be very inhibiting.  A rule is quite different to a discipline. For instance  I know that I get some of my best writing done if I get up at 5.00am because my brain is always more alert at that time. So my  personal rule is to try and discipline myself to always get up early.  This ‘rule’ works for me but it won’t necessarily work for you because you might write your best stuff at the midnight.. The most important rule is to focus on what really works for you.

Having said I hate rules I’m now about to break my own rule by setting this list for you.

My Six Most Important Rules for Writing Memoir

 Rule 1.
Your memoir is not about you

Never play for sympathy. Readers don’t care about you personally. They’re only interested in story, and universal themes such as abandonment or betrayal. What they really want to find out is how you dealt with whatever it was that was dished up to you.

Rule 2.
Tell the truth

Don’t make stuff up after the event to make yourself look good. The Germans call it Treppenwitz – ‘staircase wit’. Come clean about your failures and weaknesses. It will be much more interesting than trying to show your readers how clever you might have been at the time.

Joan Didion said in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, “The willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs.”

Rule 3.
It’s not your job to judge

Relationships are very complex. There are very few all bad or all good characters, even in your family. Saints have their flaws, and devils their soft spots.  Let your reader decide whether to love or hate the people you are writing about. Your job is to describe them as honestly as you can with all their complexities.

Rule 4.
Your memoir is not your psychotherapist

If you’re really serious about being published don’t treat your writing as a treatment for your emotional wounds. Some people won’t agree, but believe me, if this is your ultimate goal you’ll lose your perspective. Make sure you write from a distance, which is probably the best therapy anyway.

Annie Dillard said in her book A Writing Life  “This is not a meditation… but a despatch from the desk.”

Rule 5.
You don’t have to start at the beginning

Even experienced writers get bogged down when they try to write chronologically. Start with a scene that really excites you. Then you can work forward and backwards from this point.

Rule 6.
Do mountains of research 

Unless you’re a writing genius you should leave no stone unturned. The more you know before you start putting your story down, the better your writing will be.

American writer, David McCullough says, “Marinate your head.”


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2 Responses to “Six Tough Rules For Memoir Writing”

  • Charmian:

    This is very helpful advice for me Eileen! Many thanks – Charms

  • Thanks for this post, Eileen. As a literary agent who has written a memoir, I see a lot of memoir manuscripts. The vast majority of them try to tell the reader everything (Rules #1, #5) without realising that the reader neither wants or cares to know everything. The author’s job is to understand what her memoir is really about, then figure out the best way to tell the story. It should not be a winding or repetitive path. It needs to be succinct, dramatic, and surprising. As a writer who is working on her second nonfiction book, I’m delighting in the serendipities of my research (Rule #6). The biggest challenge for me now is transitioning between the research and the personal in an effort to reveal the universal.

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About Eileen Naseby


In 2006 Murdoch Books published ‘Ursula- A Voyage of Love and Danger’, my mother’s memoir. I am now in the process of completing a work of fiction.

Email me at: en(at)eileennaseby(dot)com

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