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On Writing Memoirs
Rod Haynes ©2001

There are a number of issues memoir writers grapple with, including the complex relationship between human comedy and tragedy. The stories we once laughed at as they were told at the dining room table or at an intimate family reunion, take on a more somber meaning when they are in print, out in the public eye. They are "less safe" and somehow "more permanent." The written word is so final, so revealing, sometimes so threatening.

Memoir writing requires balancing honesty and fairness, leaving out significant portions of the writer's life that won't interest readers, while writing fine detail about specific events that will draw readers in. A memoir can be therapeutic, enlightening, and liberating for the writer. It's a selfish sort of thing. But it requires objectivity when it comes to deciding what stories simply don't fit.

Memoir writers who are not dedicated to truth telling are not entirely dedicated to memoir writing. Writing memoir occasionally hurts because life is sometimes painful. On the other hand, uncontrolled truth telling is not only dangerous, it is unfair, cruel, and inconsiderate. It also may be the result of sloppy fact-finding. And while loose writing might result in lawsuits, exercising too much discretion will result in a boring, uninspiring book. Balanced writing is therefore critical.

A successful memoir writer conveys a painful tale (if that is the intent) without coming off as a whining crybaby in a self-righteous search for validation. I find humor a much easier tool than tragedy to work with, even if the central subject is one of misfortune. If a reader sees the writer wallowing in self-pity, the impact of the story could be lost altogether. We all know life is hard. Get on with it.

When I joined a writers group near where I live I profited immensely from sharing ideas and writing strategies with the other members. Some memoir instructors shy away from offering specific resources to their students, but I think there are several superb "how to" books out there, as well as good web sites and magazine articles to refer to. They are listed on my web site:

A good editor whom you trust implicitly is invaluable. Developing well-written, snappy dialogue, conveying plenty of drama, building multi-dimensional characters, and, finally, employing the old "show don't tell" approach to memoir writing will help the writer minimize common literary errors. Happy writing!

Rod Haynes' first book, ROGUES ISLAND MEMOIR, was published on November 6, 2000. His editor is Robert Wolf, of Free River Press, Lansing, Iowa.
Visit his web site at for more information.

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