Caveats when writing memoir

Memoir means, memory, so, with that in mind, there are a few caveats to mention when writing memoir.

Sitting as it does on the bridge between pure fiction – novels – and fact, narrative non-fiction (as it is known in the trade) – memoir – has to tread a very careful line between what we reveal of our own lives, and what we borrow from other lives.

Bearing that in mind, tread carefully.

  • Stick to your own path, and do not trespass on the paths of others, except where the details you borrow are unexceptionable – no one will care whether the dress that Aunt Jane was wearing at your fifth birthday party was pink or blue. That said, if you are writing about your fifth birthday party, there is always the possibility that you actually remember the dress in question.


  • Continuity fictions should also be unexceptionable. In blending what you remember with what is likely to have happened but is in point of fact imagined, stick to benevolent details such as the time of day, school timetables, ordinary conversations and everyday situations. Your parents may have got divorced when you were twelve, and it may have cast a catastrophic blight over your adolescence, but you can only write about how that made you feel or act, not about the reasons for your parents’ divorce. Readers will not necessarily understand this nice distinction.


  • On the other hand, you can write about the reasons for your parents’ divorce if you genuinely believe(d) that it was because of you, and have some interesting anecdotes to support that belief. You will be wrong – many children blame themselves for their parents’ divorce, and it is never the fault of the child, but the situation can offer interesting psychological slants.


  • You do not have to tell the truth, when you write your memoirs. Memory is frequently mistaken. But if you are going to get it wrong, try, again, to explain that error in the context of juvenile misunderstanding, perhaps; or gird it round with the honesty of your belief. I honestly thought that Jake the gardener was Mum’s boyfriend, I saw them kissing once; is excusable, even if wrong. Mum and Dad got divorced because Mum had an affair with the gardener is not excusable. Generally, misunderstandings crop up because we are too young to understand the bigger picture. That kind of naivety is excusable so long as it is obvious from the tone and tenor of our writing.

Thanks for reading!

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