Bad Advice Wednesday: Memoir, Don’t Do It!

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


My father and mother

People keep asking.  “I’ve been writing about my parents and I don’t see how I can publish.”  “My daughter has always been sooo sensitive about this stuff—she’s going to kill me.”  “The good news is a contract from Scribner.  The bad news is that I just realized my PASTOR is going to read this.  I mean, ANYONE can read it.”  “One of my friends here in [an assisted living facility] has read my book and loved it, but she says no way can I publish it.  I’ll be shunned [by the community].  She says all the regular affairs are bad enough but the lesbian stuff.  Oy.”

I guess the best advice about writing about people you love or writing the truth about your life if it’s in any way unconventional is: don’t do it.

The second best advice is, okay, do it, but don’t do it out of anger.

The third best (I’m working my way toward the Bad Advice), well, do it, but make a point of protecting yourself and others.

The fourth best: write for people who like you.  Anyone who shuns you in assisted living because of what you did fifty and eighty years ago you can do without.  Your book, in fact, was just a handy shortcut for getting rid of them!

And the Bad Advice?   Well, here it is:  Fuck it, it’s your life, too, write what you want.

At least in the early going.  No one has to see your drafts but you and your trusted friends, or maybe agent and editor.  The drafting phase is your chance to write freely with no thought of a hostile audience or an audience that happens to be your mom.  Write your story, write it true and complete, and then put it away, never to be seen again till everyone is long dead.

Or, write your story, write it true and complete, and then revise it so as to not cause pain to people who don’t deserve pain.  Lots of ways to do this.  One is to read what you’ve written as if you were the person you most feared reading it.  That’ll freeze you up fast.  But it may point out that only two or three passages in a whole book are really trouble.  What can you do to de-trouble those passages?  Some can be altered, fudged.  Some can be cut with no real detriment to the whole book.  Some can be cut and actually leave an atmosphere of the truth that once was there, useful.  Other passages turn out to be, well, the whole heart of the book, and leave such a hole when cut that there’s no point.  Hey.  That’s good material!  How brave do you want to be?

Disguises are great.  That’s why people use to write autobiographical novels.  Your fat family from Des Moines could be depicted as skinny Roma in Hungary, with all the genders reversed yet the basic storyline of whatever horrors and abuse the same as in your actual life.

In  a memoir, you can change names, shift geography, make composite characters.  But if you’re writing about family, well, it’s hard to disguise your mother.  Like, “My mother was a very tall, thin, Chinese man from Soo Chow.”  I mean, your mom’s your mom.

And how about writing about your children?  Fascinating.  Especially those that end up in jail or worse.  But how do you do it?  You make angels of them, that’s how.  Everyone will understand.  And that one flaw can be slipped in as a compliment of sorts.  “Riley was a genius with firearms, the best in his class, and the most tattooed.  Even without teeth his smile was winning.”

Oh jeez, my son’s going to kill me on that one.  Sorry Riley.

Often, when newer writers ask me about this, or say, “I’m so worried what my brother will think.” I catch a funny whiff of guilt, and hear what they’re saying as “I am still not capable of being honest about my role in this troublesome episode and/or relationship I propose to write about.”  Fine—often in the drafting they see themselves, and sometimes that’s when a book gets interesting.

Or when the newer writer says, “I really don’t harbor any ill will, it’s just a story that must be told.”  I hear, “I want revenge—this person I propose to write about has won in some way, beaten me out in the game of life, and deep inside I know I’m being petty (or worse) and that makes me even madder, so needing a victim who isn’t me, I need your teacherly permission to build me a little predator drone and blast a couple of black jeeps off the sands of the desert of my emotional life.”

Predator drones are so expensive, and often kill the wrong person.

One further strategy, not always recommended (note the passive voice—I’m scared here) is to give the draft to the person in question, saying, “This is going to be published.”  Or more flexibly, “I’m thinking of publishing this.”  Or more yet: “I need your help with this thing I’m writing.” (Hopefully not having to add: “I know we haven’t talked for forty years.”  Though that’s interesting, too.)  Sometimes—and I’ve seen this happen—your subject will come back after reading and surprise you: they’ll love it, no matter how negative, adore it, feel flattered, seen, understood, cared about, loved.  Because the truth is the truth.  Sometimes, your subject will come with all those feelings, but also some corrections and a bruise or two to discuss.  Sometimes, on the other hand, it’s all bruises and a lawsuit will be threatened.  Because the truth is relative.  Especially among relatives.

Another, more journalistic, approach is to interview your people.  Let’s say it’s your sister. Get her side, and make use of her side in your pages.  Just lay the two views out there, let the reader decide.  (Or make it seem that’s what you’re doing.  You’re the writer, you’re in charge of perceptions.)  So, after a hot passage, why not something like, “My sister disagrees.”  And then quote her, even at length, even let her tell the same story over again entirely.  The reader will know whom to trust.  Let’s hope it’s you.

People are very complex, made up of 10,000 facets and traits.  Characters are simple (especially in Shakespeare), made of 100 facets at most, though even two or three can work.  You can pick your way through the 10,000 facets of a real person and deliver the truth in a character made of the 100 facets that do the job you need to do without doing the job you don’t need to do.  That’s been my strategy.  Make a fond portrait.  Use some humor.  Don’t shrink from the story, but find the most loving path through.  Show the clothes folded neatly in the drawer, not the dirty laundry.  Same garments, same message, just a fresher path, and rainwater soft.

And listen, if someone awful isn’t really important to the story, leave ’em out.  An example, just making it up from vague memory, a memoir about a family business: “My brother Jim, a stupid, lying drug addict, never had anything to do with the restaurant.”

Then again, if your grandfather was a sexual predator and evil and accounts for your story, you’ve got the truth on your side.  He didn’t protect you, no need to protect him.

Of course it’s not all family.  You might want to write about your doctor, your priest, your catty baseball buddies, your drunken knitting circle.  In all cases, the reaction of your people is pretty much a moot point until you publish (which is to say, make public—so many ways to do this now).  So don’t let worries about the future dispensation of the work shut you down on the writing end.  If it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing for your eyes only.  If it’s going to be for others, well, all in good time.  Even small adjustments can make all the difference.  And when the time actually comes, you’ll get a legal reading from your publisher.  Let them tell you what to leave out.  And use your own lawyer, too.  Take out insurance.  Don’t publish in England.  And above all, don’t listen to me.

Finally I guess, the truth is your best protection.  Write what you know and can prove, write what you recall when there isn’t proof to the best of your recollection, and do what you can to check up on yourself.  Carefully write from your point of view, and be sure to write about yourself and your reactions and your flaws, not only about others.  Refrain from judgment.  Just tell the stories, make them true, and leave the rest to the reader.

I don’t have a son, by the way.


  1. Barbarann Ayars writes:

    You are now responsible for the hernia I got from laughing as I read and the re-read this blog. The line re grandfather as sexual predator and evil laid me out proper, for that DOES account for my story and is pivotal for the destruction of a whole household of people. Virginia Woolf ( as in, Who’s Afraid of…)is tepid compared to my mother. My takeaway is to find a lawyer first (Why the hell did I marry an engineer when I could have….ooh never mind…it’s only about the fee…) and grapple with the possibilities of a whole genetic line of folks now dead…only a half sister left, and she doesn’t care….and since I am relatively new at this, (read innocent and dumb) it helped to know something as mundane as the publisher’s legal department will tell me what’s what so I can just tell the tale and they can tell me if it’s a tale they want to publish/scramble/chop, whatever. I waited til all the perps were dead, to record events now seventy years old. Most folks don’t care about what happened last week, let alone who violated a youngster prepubescent and challenged by a man with horns and a tail so long ago no one ever talked about it. Just did it. BTW, as I am sure you know, you mean “fourth” and not :forth” best, above. I know. I’m tedious. And perhaps tiresome. But a stickler. Against your first tier of advice, I think I will try to get the memoir published….I should live so long…and not worry about threats to my estate…which is comprised of a little dog and her doghouse. I am in love now with two total strangers: Bill and Dave, but they don’t usurp Sam, sitting on the couch listening to me read this. And laughing along.

  2. Crystal Elerson writes:

    I enjoyed this post of “Bad Advice” and recommended it on my Facebook account. I have a memoir manuscript which I hesitate to submit for publication for two reasons: 1. I’m certain that specific members of my family will be angry about making my story public, and 2. I think it needs more editing before submission.

    When I first wrote the manuscript, the story did not have a real ending because the events in the story were still on-going. I made a decision about two years ago that effectively gave the story an ending (although I didn’t realize it at the time), so now I have an appropriate (both literally and literarily) ending, yet, I still hesitate.

    I hesitate because my role in my family (and even in the memoir) has always been as a protector, and even though those whom I have protected over the years have either died or grown to adulthood and can protect themselves, I find stepping out of the role of protector to be an uncomfortable position.

    I found your words, “The forth best: write for people who like you. Anyone who shuns you in assisted living because of what you did fifty and eighty years ago you can do without. Your book, in fact, was just a handy shortcut for getting rid of them!
    And the Bad Advice? Well, here it is: Fuck it, it’s your life, too, write what you want” to be both helpful and inspiring. I’m not nearly old enough to be in assisted living, but the thought still rings true.

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks Crystal. The wonderful thing is that we can say absolutely anything at all we want in a first and second and third draft–anything–knowing that it can all be adjusted later. But getting the facts and the emotion articulated even if only privately can make a huge difference in the atmosphere and ultimately the quality of the finished work, even if it does have to be toned down. The next step after the pure first drafts, when you’re showing your pages around, is also fairly safe. But things get scarier when it’s time to publish. A good editor will help you think through possible repercussions (though a good editor likes things juicy, too), and the presence of an audience tends to disassemble family mythologies and other rationalizations. Finally, the truth is the truth. I’d say protect the innocent, and let the guilty be angry. Just make sure the facts are on your side. One student many years ago published a book that wasn’t entirely about her father, but he wrote her and her publisher a vicious letter of complaint. She wrote back one line on a postcard: I can understand that you’re angry you abused us, because I am angry about it too.

      • Crystal Elerson writes:

        Before and after nonfiction writing sessions, I struggle with my internal critic–that voice that whispers about grammar, spelling, punctuation and then screams about the potential reaction of others. During the writing sessions, I seem able to tune out the critic for periods of time. One of the things I have to remind myself is that the writing is all potential. Nothing is stone until it’s published, and even then, published is never the whole story of a life, or even a topic–it’s all perspective.

        Thank you for the one-line postcard example. That’s an excellent anecdote and one which I intend to pass along. Sam Snoek-Brown once showed me a terrific Far Side comic which depicted a couple standing in front of an author who was signing books. The caption read: If we had know you were going to be an author, we would have been better parents.

  3. Barbara S. Knox writes:

    Bill wrote: Try again. We don’t censor. So I tried again and my post is now right there after his ‘bad advice’ to post again.

  4. Barbara S. Knox writes:

    I posted again a version of the post that vanished when I clicked on submit. I put the new post right after Bills suggestion that I try again, above.

  5. Barbara S. Knox writes:

    Last night i wrote a comment here and clicked on submit. It seems to have dissapeared. Why? Was it censored?

    • Bill writes:

      Hi Barbara–No, we don’t censor, except for spam. Try again?

      • Barbara S. Knox writes:

        In writing my memoir I decided to be honest and open, not get anyone else in real trouble, and not worry about my own reputation too much. I heard a long time ago that “open confession is good for the soul, but it’s mighty hard on the reputation.” I decided for my soul. It took my daughters and granddaughter a bit of getting used to the idea that Mom was a sexual being, but they ended up liking my book so well that they keep buying copies to give to their friends. If people are scandalized or shocked, they have been polite enough not to say so. I’ve gotten a lot of praise, except for one nephew who wrote me that he was ashamed of me and would send my book back to me with a jar of vasoline! I decided to “unfriend him” and just cut him off. I erased his snotty post off my facebook page. So you can’t please everyone.

        • Bill writes:

          Barbara, your book, “Tempered with Fire,” (which Jimmy Carter called “a beautifully written account of an interesting career,”) is so much more than your clever nephew seems to think! It starts with a fiery car crash and then gives us the fullness of a life–nearly ninety years, at last reckoning. I found it inspiring. Let us know how to get a copy when they’re available!

  6. Dave writes:

    This is a great thread. Good work, Super Bill.

  7. Bill writes:

    Dave asks, in the narrowing stream below, why I put the disclaimer about my composite characters at the end of Temple Stream instead of the beginning. Really, it was just because that’s where the acknowledgments were. I think now I’d actually separate the acknowledgments from the disclaimer, and put the disclaimer in an “Author’s Note” at the beginning. But neither placement ensures a reader’s going to see it. And that doesn’t bother me. The whole idea of literary pleasure (as opposed to the written transfer of information), is the willing suspension of disbelief, as Coleridge put it. I’m happy to be held the poet’s standards when it comes to narrative, the scientist’s standards when imparting information. And doing it that way I’ve survived fact checkers at Harpers, The New York TImes Magazine, and The Atlantic, also the formidable legal departments at Houghton MIfflin and Random House, and with those folks with me, I guess I’m willing to go to court! My defense: I operate within rules that I clearly define, and one of these is that it’s okay to use fiction in the service of nonfiction, no matter where I put the disclaimer. For Cocktail Hour, this is Bave Gessbach, a massive fellow.

    • Sam Snoek-Brown writes:

      Where are the “like” buttons on these comments? (Facebook has utterly ruined me.)

      I have a question though: You write at the end of this comment (and I’ve seen and heard you express this idea before) that “it’s okay to use fiction in the service of nonfiction.” What about using nonfiction in the service of fiction? (I ask knowing you have a new book of fiction coming out soon.)

      It’s something I’ve often wondered about because when people ask me why I don’t write much nonfiction, my usual answer is that when I start telling true stories, my natural inclination is to fictionalize the boring bits, to tell a good story at the expense of reality or, to use language I once learned from Madeleine L’Engle, to tell the truth in spite of the facts. And because I’ve always felt more comfortable just making up the stuff I need to in order to get the story told, I stay away from the scary questions by hiding behind the usual “any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental” line we all love to put in front of our fiction. No one can get mad if it’s fiction. (Not that that helped Sylvia Plath any.)

      But here’s my question: that “any resemblance” line is a crock, and we all know it. Of course the people and situations in our fiction are borrowed from real life. And just because we call it fiction doesn’t mean we get away with using nonfiction in our stuff. Not without getting called out on it, in much the same way some people might want to call you out for using semi-fictional characters in nonfiction.

      I suppose what I’m getting at is that joke you like to tell about how everyone assumes your essays are made up and your fiction really happened. Because in fact, there’s some truth to both those assumptions, yes? At least for me. So as long as we’re talking about the issue of using composite characters in nonfiction, I’m wondering what your thoughts are about not-so-composite characters in fiction.

      But maybe that’s another post altogether.

      • Bill writes:

        I know, those like buttons… I look for them on restaurant menus now…. Chelle Gluch, below in this thread, brings up fiction, too. To me, the two gestures, fiction and nonfiction, are so different that they’re not really related, even when borrowing from one another. A good example of fiction in the service of nonfiction is Maxine Hong Kingston’s great passage in The Woman Warrior, wherein she says something like, My father won’t say how he got here, so I’m just going to have to make it up. And then she goes on to research and thoroughly dramatize all the possible ways a Chinese man of her father’s generation might have come to America. It’s all fiction, but it’s a search for truth, and it’s in the service of her larger purpose, which is to tell the nonfiction story of her own experience of Chinese heritage. She’s clearly stated what she’s up to, and off she goes. As for nonfiction in fiction, give me Moby Dick any day!

  8. eli hastings writes:

    This is fucking brilliant, humble, hilarious, right-on, totally wrong, etc. Thanks so much, Bill. I’m putting you on FB–this should be in Poets and Writers (NO, no……it SHOULD be in Billanddavescocktail hour).

    PS: I’ve got a memoir coming out from ECW Press in 2012, “Clearly Now, the Rain.” Kind of terrified but have had years to work through it. Still, you help.



    • Bill writes:

      Hi Eli–What’s the book about? And why are you terrified?

      • eli hastings writes:

        So you can read a synopsis on my website ( Basically, it’s an elegy for my best friend who died in 2004. There is a cast of about ten people that are still in my life that are rendered there in varying states of youthful indiscretion, but I’m not worried about them……it’s mainly her family that has me twisted up. I KNOW they wouldn’t want this kind of truth out there, but ultimately that wasn’t enough to dissuade me…….I’d say more, but it feels a bit weird here in the comment thread!

        By the way, I’m a friend/mentee of Dave from UNCW…..never had the pleasure to meet you, but am an avid reader now.

  9. Sam Snoek-Brown writes:

    I have yet to read a post by you — or anything by you — that I don’t wind up wanting to quote at some point or another. Because you’re awesome, Bill, in case that wasn’t clear. But this one is a whopper! A while back, I coughed up a list of principles for writers (principles! not laws!) on my website, and while I go back and tweak them now an then, the one that’s always made me sweat is my advice against writing harmful or vindictive work. Actually, I don’t mind it so much in the language I use now, but an early draft of that list actually included the phrase “self-censorship.” I hated that and ditched it in a hurry, but I still believe in writing both honestly and compassionately. Yet those two often butt up against each other in uncomfortable ways, and I’ve been thinking about expanding all those principles into fuller discussions mostly just for the excuse to wrestle with this whole “I want to write this story but don’t want to ruin anyone’s life, especially my own” thing.

    And now I don’t have to. I’ll just refer everyone to your advice. Which I usually wind up doing sooner or later for most issues about writing.

    So, that’s a ridiculously long way of saying thanks, Bill, for the great bad advice. 🙂

  10. heidi heitzler writes:

    simply, I thank you

  11. nina writes:

    I’m just sad that I don’t have a drunken knitting circle.

  12. Dinty writes:

    Composite characters are just fine, no questions asked? When did that law pass? Lots of us are steadfastly against this practice, Bill, just for the record.

    Oh, and despite your glib claim, we still love you down here.

    • Bill writes:

      Oh, no. When we start talking about art in terms of legislation, you know we’re in trouble! Composite characters are fine with me if they protect the writer and the composite members, too… Especially if you the writer says it in his acknowledgements or in his text. I don’t think I implied no questions asked–I asked all the questions before I suggested such a course. Composites are common in nonfiction of all kinds, especially journalism (All the President’s Men, for one booklength example), and made it possible for me to tell my whole story in Temple Stream without fear of bodily injury and without outing an awful, violent person or violating his privacy, poor guy. I made it clear in acknowledgments that he was a composite, and made him so obviously iconic and archetypical in the text that his provenance was clear. I don’t see the slightest thing wrong with using (acknowledged) fiction in the service of nonfiction. Otherwise we could never write about anyone and call it true, as words aren’t people. We need more tools to get to the truth, not fewer. But I still love you, Dinty. Have I ever shown you my piece starring Minty Doore? He’s a great dancer!

      • dinty writes:

        Ok Bill,, I’ve taken my B.P. meds and completed my morning meditation, and i am much calmer. This statement works fine, and I will insert it into the draft legislation as soon as I hear back from Lopate, Didion, Gutkind, and Montaigne:

        “In a memoir, you can change names, shift geography, make composite characters, but the reader needs to know that you have done this, and the reasons that compelled you to do so.”

        I think i can get the votes to pass this one. You on board?

        PS — How do we get this past Gessner? He’s going to filibuster, I fear.

        • Bill writes:

          Senator Gessner will do anything for a large campaign contribution. Here’s the squib from the acknowledgments page of Temple Stream, quoting my actual self: “To protect the privacy of some of the people in this book, I’ve taken the liberty of changing a few names and otherwise creating disguises that I mean to be impenetrable, including the construction of composite characters like Earl Pomeroy and Ms. Bollocks.” Using that name Bollocks was a signal, too, of course. Can we table the motion? I kinda like anarchy!

          • dinty writes:

            I’m leaking to the media even as we speak.

            • Anderson Cooper writes:

              Roorbach, what’s this about composite characters? You use them? You advocate for them? Mayor Bloomberg’s threatening to dismantle and clear out your studio. Comments?

              • Bill writes:

                Thanks a pantload, Dinty.

              • Dave writes:

                Senator Gessner may pass the legislation, but he does have a question for his esteemed colleague from Maine. Since we are touching on sticky issues here…..I have always wondered about the decision to print those comments at the end of Temple Stream, not the beginning. This coming from someone who loves the book itself (and has said so in print).

  13. Mardi Link writes:

    Ok, ok, so no Predator drones. How about a little itty bitty remote-controlled bumble bee?

  14. Chelle G writes:

    Bill, as always, excellent advice. This is a sticky subject that I have had to deal with mulitple times, and most often I adopt your “F&^%$ It” attitude. But, when it comes to my immediate family I ask permission. Why? Because I have to sleep sometime!

    • Bill writes:

      There are lots of ways to ask permission–how do you do it? And of course, in the case of tales of abuse or the dead, permission isn’t going to be available. Does that make your story impossible?

      • Chelle G writes:

        Well, after I’ve completed a piece that involves immediate family members I share it with them. Sometimes, there are objections, which if possible I will try to rectify if I am able to do so without ruining the story. But, there have been times when those changes weren’t possible so I run with it anyway. My poor son… But, when I desire to write something that I know will offend (tales of abuse) I take a very simple road and publish it under the label of “fiction.” After all, writers have been doing it for ages.