Why I Don’t Write Memoir

Earlier this week, I went hunting in my closet for something from my youth (another post for another time).

I didn’t find it, but what I found stunned me.

A big box filled with my past.

There were old newspaper clippings, journals, my diary, and letters.

The topmost letter was in a hand I didn’t readily recognize. Nor did I remember the address.

As I opened it and started to read, it dawned on me who it was from — an old boyfriend from college.

One who’d broken up with me for reasons I didn’t understand then (and don’t recall now).

I read the next letter — also from him — then a poem I’d printed lamenting the demise of us.

Two thoughts immediately came to mind:

  1. Why did I save this stuff?
  2. Who else in my family had seen it?

Feelings engulfed me and once again, I was 21. A very young 21. Who thought knew she was in love.


I read his words, silly words, funny words, and I remembered his face. His eyes. How smart he was.

How good for each other I thought we were.

But he wasn’t ready to settle down. He had a career to begin, money to make, growing up of his own to do.

Sorority sisters all around me were getting pinned or engaged. Planning weddings, choosing silverware and dish patterns. Poring over Brides Magazine for gowns and attendants’ dresses, anticipating honeymoon destinations.

I thought I was missing out. Little did I realize that those things would come to me, too.

In time.

But not with that guy.

One nice thing about this Internet Age is the ability — if you’re somewhat savvy — to look up just about anybody.

To satisfy your curiosity over “What became of old xxxxx?”

I’d rather not do that. I’d rather leave him as I remember him — young of body, charming, witty, boyishly handsome, a good friend. Though nothing more.

Note: And now you all know why I don’t write memoir — it’s too painful. I admire writers like my friend Kathy who dig deep, unearth buried feelings, bring them to the surface, examine them beneath a magnifying glass, and glean something of substance from them. Something that others can learn from.

Not me. Perhaps I’m too private. Or too sensitive. But I’d much rather write suspense/mystery stories where I can “kill” people off, manipulate facts in favor of a good read, create neighborhoods and characters to my heart’s content. And entertain.

Tell me, if you’re a writer, what’s your genre of choice? If you’re a reader, what kind of stories keep you spellbound?

22 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Write Memoir

  1. Memoir can be painful if you really dig deep. Sometimes it can be cathartic and not always something to be shared, but usually a good lesson is learned when doing so.

    • Thanks, Suzi. I think the key for me is “not always something to be shared.” That’s why diaries and journals can be so helpful, provided you don’t have prying eyes who might violate your privacy!

  2. Thanks for the mention and link, Debbie. I admit, memoir writing is tough stuff and one has to be connected to a greater purpose for digging deep and sharing a story to be able to endure the process. I believe memoir does have the power to be transformational both for the writer and the reader as long as the writer invites the reader into their story and keeps them turning the pages (through fiction techniques!).I say write what you love. I love memoirs but I also enjoy fiction, especially historical fiction. Interesting, many memoir writers I know opt to write fiction after they’ve published their memoir. That speaks volumes about how painstaking memoir writing can be. I guess I just can’t help myself!

    • Good for you, Kathy! Yes, I can see that memoirs must follow many of the same rules as fiction. It’s also important to have a compelling story, one the readers can relate to and learn something from. I suppose it comes down to what we want to read when we choose a genre — after all, we’ll be spending hours and hours with it!

  3. I love anything by Susan Vreeland – historical, especially and exclusively art historical fiction, Erica Bauermeister – such a sensual writer – like almost every sentence makes me stop and want to read it again – she writes a lot about food, but in fiction. And Willa Cather. And Anne Morrow Lindbergh. and Sarah Addison Allen – who writes like a magical realism, which usually isn’t my thing – but the way she weaves magic into realistic stories is, well, magic to me.

    I hear you on the no memoir writing. I came across some old journals of mine not long ago and they were almost painful to read. I sort of, kind of, remember being that young, but she’s almost a different person. Maybe a whole lot of life does that to you.

    • I had to laugh, Barb, at your statement, “Maybe a whole lot of life does that to you.” Yes, I think you’re so right! Why do things affect us so deeply at certain points that are barely recognizable years later? Perhaps it’s part of growing up?!

  4. I can certainly be thrown back into another time and place, but try to keep my feet firmly planted in the now. It works for me. I won’t watch anything on television or go to a movie with a hint of violence, but I love a good mystery, romance, or comedy. I try to work in a few books that EVERYONE agrees are well written but enjoying the story is the most important thing to me.
    Sounds like you took a thoughtful journey back in time!
    Happy Valentines Day!

    • Hope your Valentines Day was wonderful! I spent some time shopping and got the cutest ND collar for Darling Doggie. Thanks for weighing in on my question. I don’t like raw violence either — I prefer my sleep to be peaceful, instead of filled with nightmares!

  5. It may be your preference not to write memoir, but based on this, I think you’d be pretty good at it.

    I love to read all kinds of stuff… memoirs, biographies, suspense, love stories, historical fiction are my typical choices. But I’ll give most anything a try.

    • Terri, I’m blushing at your compliment — thank you! I read just about anything I can get my hands on, even cereal boxes and dictionaries. Just part of the territory, I guess, when you’re a writer.

    • Good for you, Monica! We need storytellers comfortable enough in their own skin to share with us their life stories. Primitive man passed along all his history in just such a word-of-mouth manner, as you know. I admire you for your bravery!

  6. I’m with you – absolutely no memoir. Shoot, I’ve spent a lifetime burying those memories – why on earth would I go digging in that graveyard? I also avoid thinking too much about the past. I remind myself that certain people are no longer in my life for a reason and just leave it at that. (Checking up on old exes is a bad move, in my opinion…seems like it would be a possible invitation for trouble.)

    I prefer to write mystery/suspense, too. I don’t know what genre the other stuff I write would be, but it’s not memoir!

    • I think we must be related, Janna — you’ve said so well what I, in a roundabout way, tried to say. And you’re right — checking up on old exes sounds like a very bad idea! The past is the past for a reason. We might not uncover that reason in our lifetime, but I, too, prefer to live in the here and now!

  7. Memoir is gut wrenching, but all writing is painful because like any of the arts, you are exposing yourself. I look to Kathy, too, for inspiration. I love reading-period!

    • Pat, I hadn’t thought of it quite like that — that all art is exposing yourself — but it’s true. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard. Perhaps that’s why its appeal can’t be quantified and thus, it doesn’t usually translate to “big bucks” for the creator. Good points, my friend!

    • Well, yes, you have a good point there, Dawn. I imagine finding those letters from your mom were very comforting — unlike finding letters from somebody who dumped you, ha! At least I can take comfort in knowing that one person’s opinion of me doesn’t make me worthless! Enjoy the comfort your mom’s letters provide for you!

  8. For me, its as simple and complex as this: I want my writing to be deeply personal, though not necessarily confessional. I’ve written about my childhood, my parents, my history, but in a way that maintains a certain distance.

    One of the best books on memoir-writing is William Zinsser’s “Writing About Your Life”. For just a taste of his approach, you can listen to this NPR Interview. I knew I bookmarked this for a reason!

    • Personal, yes; confessional, no. I like that. Sums it up just perfectly! I suppose that’s one of the “hazards” of having a writer in your family, the ever-present possibility that you’ll be immortalized on the page (and possibly not in your most flattering light!).

  9. The older I get, the less I enjoy fiction and the more I relish memoir. I guess it’s because I look for people I can relate to…I started keeping a journal at age 14, and by age 28, I’ve decided that writing for myself was just too lonely. So I have started blogging to share my musings with the world–not just to air myself, but to stretch myself and find topics that many others can relate to.

    The transition from writing for the self to writing for others has been interesting and sometimes difficult, but I find that the posts that get the most personal get the best responses. I know I most admire authors who are honest about themselves; they say what everyone else is too scared to say…but at the end of the day, I feel more fulfilled sharing what is real and reading the same. I have connected with others (something I used to not do very well)–so far from writing isolating me, it is actually connecting me to more people. This was a change that needed to happen in my life!

    • Hi, Lindsey, and Welcome! I wholeheartedly appreciate your thoughts and admire you for writing memoir. It’s just not something for me. I never was much of a journaler (perhaps because I didn’t want prying eyes to read my most private thoughts, fears, hopes, and dreams). And as a journalist, I suppose I always wrote for others — to explain things, to paint pictures, to inform on what happened. In fact, my honesty stirred up quite a hullabaloo just weeks into my first job! Best wishes for courage in putting yourself out there and finding your way to connections!

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