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  • Writer's pictureAl Desetta

Is a Memoir a Strip Tease? (or how much candor is enough?)

Memoir is a subtle genre. It’s not a tell-all or a strip tease in public. TMI, or the wrong kind of information, can really sink a book


At the same time, a memoir has to reveal enough of yourself to tell a convincing story and to create an emotional bond with the reader. Just the right amount of personal, intimate stuff has to be revealed—not too much, not too little. 


What makes memoir writing difficult is that 1) it’s not always easy to figure out that balance, and 2) you can tell when a memoir writer is hiding something they should be revealing or isn’t fully facing something they should be facing.


In other words, a careful reader can usually sense, in an intuitive and subtle way, the blind spots in the memoirist and in the story. 


I recall reading a memoir some years back by a renowned educator, acclaimed for his work with young people in the south. At one point he leaves the award-winning program he had founded to attend an Ivy League college and earn a graduate degree. But then he abruptly drops out of the graduate program to return to teaching the young people down south. To me this didn’t make sense; there was no satisfying explanation of why he made and then reversed his decision. Such a major life decision would seem to warrant more than minimal explanation. My gut told me something was missing.


Fast forward a few years. The renowned educator falls into headlong disgrace after he’s found to have been sexually abusing the young people in the program.


So, there had been a deeper reason behind his leaving and returning that he was in denial about, which created the sense of something being avoided in the writing.


I taught personal essay writing to young people in foster care for nine years. As you can imagine, the issue of candor was a constant in this work. They had faced every kind of abuse and neglect, and we had to grapple every day with the challenge of what to reveal and how to reveal it, and what to keep hidden.


Thanks to that experience, I developed the skills I use today to help adults write memoirs that create a bond with readers through the author’s vulnerability and humanity, but that do not overstep necessary boundaries or wear out their welcome.


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