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  • Writer's pictureAl Desetta

How to Write a Memoir (or avoiding common mistakes in writing about yourself)

Updated: Mar 20

One of the main reasons to hire a memoir ghostwriter is to avoid common mistakes in memoir writing.


--Focusing too much on the past. It’s easy to get lost in the vivid details of childhood and youth, and neglect the story that you're trying to tell.  Vivid details are not enough—what do they mean?  How did the author experience them at the time?  What is the drama in these details?  How is that past experienced now?


A memoir isn’t a chronological recitation of past events, but rather a reflection on those events and how they've shaped the author's life.  That shaping is the “plot” of the memoir.  As Vivian Gornick has said, “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”


--Omitting important material.  I give a questionnaire to all clients at the beginning of the process.  Part of it requires them to fill in important events for each year of their lives.  One client returned the questionnaire her teenage years left blank.  I thought this highly unusual, given what most of us go through during adolescence.


It turned out that the client had a very fraught relationship with her mother, suffering physical abuse at her hands for most of her teen years.  The mother also adamantly opposed the client’s career choice.  I understood why the client didn’t want to revisit these events.  But writing about them and understanding them brought an added depth and complexity to the book.


A skilled ghostwriter brings this kind of objectivity and expertise to your project, pushing you in ways you might not have expected.


--Being too self-revealing, self-pitying, or angry.  I recall a review in the New York Times by Dani Shapiro of the memoir Blow Your House Down by Gina Frangello.  Shapiro criticized Frangello for “two big no-no’s” in memoir writing: writing out of revenge while adapting a position of justification bordering on self-congratulation, never “deepening her inquiry” beyond these two poles. 


A good memoir can be raw and full of rage, but it should also show balance and a sense of perspective.  As Shapiro said in her review: “To be clear, memoir — good memoir — is not a public striptease.”  It’s not a tell-all or an act of revenge.  A good ghostwriter can not only help you express anger, but reflect on it and analyze it and understand it, in a universal way, to move and engage a reader.



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