Writing Memoir: Starting Small

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash

Lots of people start writing memoir as a book length project, but there are benefits to starting small with personal essays and “flash” memoir.

Essays are usually 2,000–8,000 words, while flash or micro-essays are under 2,000 words. The excellent online magazine Brevity, looks for flash nonfiction pieces (or “micro essays”) under 750 words.

One benefit to starting small is getting our work published quickly, whether on Medium or elsewhere. A book-length manuscript can take over a year, or more, to wend its way through a publisher’s many departments.

Having short pieces published can create an audience for our work, and it can help us become “known.” Book publishers and agents are often leery of “unknown” authors, and even when a writer appears to have sprung from nowhere on to a bestsellers list, that writer usually has a history of publishing short work.

In terms of craft, starting small can also be of benefit. It allows, or even forces us to focus on precise details and images. For folks who are unfamiliar with short nonfiction and micr-memoir, the aforementioned Brevity is a good place to get acquainted. Local libraries have anthologies of short creative nonfiction like In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction. These books will often provide observations about the genre and the craft, like this excerpt from In Short.

Zeroing in on a small moment is manageable in a way that a book length manuscript is not. But it also provides excellent practice for writing longer works, which also require attention to physical and emotional details.

In short (hahahaha), the small details can, or perhaps must, be interesting. That doesn’t necessarily mean pretty, although it certainly can. As an Asian history major in college, I came across this curse from Imperial China: May you live in interesting times. As in times of famine, flood, political upheaval, drought, and all the plagues suffered by the people of that vast country.

If you’ve read any of my personal essays, you know I and my family have had interesting lives, which has been both a blessing and a curse. Last year, I had a micro-memoir published (originally in Grist and then on Medium’s HumanParts) about a selfie posted by one of my beloved nieces.

As mentioned in another post, we like to get to know characters in fiction or memoir in the same way we get to know people in real life: by an accumulation of details.

My niece’s selfie included details that made me fear she was using drugs. Those details sent me back to her childhood when she had a scab below one eye that she picked at nervously. The scab looked like one of those teardrop tattoos you see on guys who’ve spent time in prison.

A scab is not a pretty detail, but in this situation it was interesting, and it revealed something about my niece’s character. The micro-memoir about the selfie and the scab doesn’t end happily. But a year after it was published, my niece read it aloud to her cohort as she graduated from a drug treatment program.

And that’s another benefit of starting small — kids these days! And adults. We’re all influenced by online interactions to read short works.

Write on. And read on, too.

Writing Memoir: Flashbacks and Braiding

Person standing still in front of a mural of a sneaker while cars zoom past. Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

Real life happens chronologically, but memoirs and personal essays don’t have to. In fact, sometimes they shouldn’t if there’s some suspense or wisdom to be gained by juxtaposing events from various points in the past.

This technique is sometimes called using flashbacks. A more complex form of juxtaposing multiple times and threads is often called braiding.

Writers use several methods to alert readers to time changes in stories. The first involves simple signalling in phrases like “But ten years ago, I thought differently,” or “Two years before this event.”

A second method is to switch settings once you’ve already established a primary setting. An example might be found in a memoir about serving in the military in Vietnam. Whenever the writer flashes back to high school in America, we the readers will know that time has shifted too and that the high school is not in Vietnam.

Strong images or memorable characters associated with particular time periods can also serve as signals to the reader. A memoir that covers two marriages is one type of story that can use this technique, toggling back and forth between the two spouses or between two strong images like a granite fireplace in one marriage and a concrete swimming pool in another.

I’ve written a number of braided essays, and ironically that has made it difficult to compile them in my current memoir project, which is chronological. Maybe I should re-think that. But currently what I’m doing is chopping those essays up into their discrete times and threads in order to weave them back together in a chronological timeline.

One example of a braided essay that I’m currently chopping up is “Maternity Cave,” included in the March 2017 issue of Hippocampus. Like most of my publications, I worked on writing this piece for several years, and worked for even more years trying to figure out what the events in the story meant.

I don’t usually intend to braid different time periods, but it happens a lot. Every so often, a phrase or an image or a small event in daily life captures my attention as being connected to a phrase or image or event from the past. Those little a-ha moments are often the beginnings of my stories.

The maternity cave story begins in 2006 on a visit to a bat cave in Central Florida with my teenage niece Candi, where we saw thousands of little brown bats swirling up into the dusk, then it wiggles around in the 1990’s between my first marriage, my experience of infertility, and finding my birth family, and then it shoots ahead to a family picnic in 2016, when Candi is a grown woman with two children of her own. There was a moment at that picnic that lit up the past for me.

A bat hanging upside down in a cave. Photo credit http://www.hippocampusmagazine.com/2017/03/maternity-cave-by-michele-leavitt/
The story doesn’t follow linear time, and I’ve been thinking lately that’s one of the benefits of being a reader of personal essays: we get to experience hard-earned wisdom in a way that isn’t tied to chronology. We get to look back, be in the present, and jump ahead to the future in less time than it takes to bake a cake. There’s no undo or do-over button because truth doesn’t change, but at least we get to see truth’s trail.

Memoirs and personal essays are time capsules, freezing us in a series of moments. But they can be time machines, too, taking us forward and backward, allowing us to grab on to the hindsight and foresight in someone else’s experiences, even when that sort of wisdom escapes us in our own lives.

Writing Memoir: Finding (Making?) Time

“A large heap of broken antique watches and clocks” by Heather Zabriskieon Unsplash

How do creative people find the time to write? Or do they “make” the time?

Years ago, someone asked me how I managed to do so much. “It’s easy,” I said. “I don’t have kids!” The people who amazed me with their productivity — and who still amaze me — were the ones who parented young children.

Writing a memoir, or even a stand-alone personal essay, requires a huge investment of time, especially for slow writers like me. If it took me less than 40 hours to write a ten page story, I’d be very surprised. This month, I’ve committed to finishing a coherent draft of my 80,000-word, rough memoir draft. How will I manage my time to insure I meet that goal?

Strategy 1: Getting on a Schedule

This was effective for me when I worked a full-time, 8:30 am to 4:30 pm job. I was already on a schedule, so creating another one for writing made sense. Off and on, for months at a time, I got up at 5:30 am and wrote for about 90 minutes.

Scheduled writing has been famously successful for authors like J.K. Rowling, who also had a day job when she began the Harry Potter series. If you are subject to an external schedule, whether it’s related to school or work or family responsibilities, a writing schedule may do the trick for you.

But once I resigned from the day job to work for myself, the external schedule that kept me on track disappeared and I found myself floundering.

Strategy 2: Figuring Out When You Write Best and Write Most

Although I’m not trying to lose weight because that ship has sailed, I know that food journals are an effective way for people to track calories. So I decided to keep a time tracker to see where I was spending my time.

Like many people, I squander time on social media, mindless eating, and passive entertainment. When I’ve squandered enough, I get resentful when those I love interrupt my thoughts about writing or the writing itself. As if those people (and dogs) are the cause of my fribbling.

Decades of working day jobs created a habit of writing at odd hours: early mornings, nights, and weekends. Breaking from that pattern has not been easy, even though I expected to have nights and weekends free once I was “just” writing. But I’ve been writing at odd hours still, and not making enough headway on the memoir to satisfy myself.

Data is powerful. The time tracker showed me I was working on my memoir early in the morning and late at night, for about 90 minutes at a time. Ugh. Old habits are hard to break. It also showed me that I was working on paying writing projects during the day, like that was a day job. Ugh, again.

3. State Your Writing Goals Publicly

This month, I’m writing about writing memoir every day. And I put it on my Medium profile.

Two popular month-long writing marathons, NANOWRIMO and NAPOWRIMO inspire many people to successfully find or make time to write novels and poetry, respectively. I participated in NAPOWRIMO this year in April. Thirty poems later, I think 4 or 5 of them are actually worthwhile.

But, I’m convinced that 30 days in a row of writing a poem, or at least a wannabe poem, was helpful exercise for the poetry part of my brain. I even continued the process through the first week of May. Now, I’m slacking off again.

I heard that you’re more likely to meet your goals if you announce them publicly. Oh wait, I also heard that announcing your goals publicly makes itless likely that you’ll meet those goals.

4. Going on a Writing Retreat

A retreat doesn’t have to be anywhere but your own home; it’s a big chunk of time (a day or more, preferably) devoted to writing. I’ve done stay-home retreats, and cheap motel retreats. Some writers go on organized writing retreats.

For me, these chunks of dedicated time seem to work best when I have a specific goal to meet. That’s especially true if I go somewhere besides my home, where I may be tempted to check out a new ice cream parlor. For this reason, I advise going on a retreat in a place that’s not very appealing to your interests.

But even on a stay-home retreat, I can be distracted by chores that suddenly must be done. I’m not talking about walking the dogs or watering the plants, which really must be done to keep everyone alive. I know I’ve hit rock bottom when I find myself scrubbing a toilet instead of writing.

The best piece of advice about finding or making time to write is to experiment to find out what works best for you. We’re all different, thankfully.

And if you’re wondering about the right time to begin a memoir, that’s something I’ve thought about this week because two former students got in touch to say they are thinking of writing memoir. They were both curious about “the right time” to start.

My response was “Now is the time.” When an idea about doing something creative pops up, that’s a hint from the part of yourself that’s smarter than the rest of you. Go with it.

Writing Memoir: Using Journals and Diaries

Two of my old journals

Old journals and diaries kept during a time in your life you want to write about can provide raw material for more formal, refined writing. But even if you weren’t in the habit of spilling your guts out on the page when you kept a journal, a journal can still be useful for detecting certain elements about the character you were in the past, and the settings you inhabited.

“Never throw away anything you’ve written” is advice I’ve given elsewhere. It’s good advice for journals, too, even though they may be an embarrassment.

When I was in my twenties, I destroyed part of a journal written at seventeen.

It embarrassed me. Not because of actions or emotions I confessed in the journal. Because of the voice. I remember thinking it arrogant and overwrought. But I can’t know for sure if the voice was arrogant and overwrought, and I can’t reproduce that voice now because those pages no longer exist.

The most obvious use of a journal or diary for a memoir writer is that a journal can help you fill the blank spots in your memory with details, the sights and sounds of past events in your life. Physical artifacts — the notebooks we used to record our doings — can also spark memories of details. Look at your old handwriting on an old page, feel the smooth paper with your fingertips, and open your mind to memory.

But even for those of us whose old journals are boring and repetitive, finding value in them for a memoir is still possible. An old journal can give you a sense of your voice during the time in question. Were you using youthful slang or professional jargon that you no longer use? Longer or shorter sentences? Odd punctuation like a row of exclamation points or, heaven forbid, a little heart in place of a dot over your “i”? Did you scratch things out, or underline? All these can be keys to your character in the past, and your voice.

The style of the notebook you used can also be telling. It may say something about style or popular colors during the period in question, or it may say something about your personal style back in the day. As an artifact, it can provide a cultural context for your past life.

The two journals in the photo above are from the 1980’s, a time of shoulder pads and cinched waists for women, mullets and Jheri curls for men, glass skyscrapers, glass-top tables, and lots of teal and pink. But these two journals are very plain. In this case, plain didn’t mean cheap; I remember buying the journals at a bookstore near Harvard University. They were quite expensive, and I’ve always been, well, “frugal.” Those two journals-as-artifacts say something about who I was back then, and they also give me a cultural context, even if it’s really an anti-context.

Finally, a third use for old journals and diaries is to find a sensory door in to a larger story. Why did I want that pair of sneakers so badly? Why did my friend and I construct piles of ketchup and salt to dip our french fries in? When that person held my hand too tightly, how did I react?

You may find mysteries, too, like events you wrote about but cannot recall. Yet there they are, in black and white. Or purple and ivory if you had an individual aesthetic.

Being unsure of reality every so often is refreshing. Every mystery is a lesson in human fallibility, something we writers and artists can’t be reminded of too often as we create and re-create reality.

Writing Memoir: Saving Your Life

“A fountain pen on an open journal” by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

You’ve heard it before: Writing saved my life.

If you’ve wondered about the truth of that, I’m happy to report that there’s a boatload of science behind that saying.

In 2005, for example, British researchers found that short periods of “expressive writing” resulted in better physical and psychological health.

Writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events has been found to result in improvements in both physical and psychological health, in non-clinical and clinical populations.

It makes intuitive sense to me that writing about our tragedies and triumphs can improve our emotional health or bring us peace of mind. But I was surprised at the number of studies showing an impact on physical conditions including rheumatoid arthritisEpstein-Barr virus, and hypertension.

Most of these studies focused on short, guided periods of expressive writing or guided, written disclosures of trauma. The writing practices were standardized as much as possible in order to achieve some measure of reliability for the studies.

But what is meant by “expressive writing”? In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. John F Evans provides a definition:

It is personal and emotional writing without regard to form or other writing conventions, like spelling, punctuation, and verb agreement. Expressive writing pays no attention to propriety: it simply expresses what is on your mind and in your heart.

This, to me, sounds a lot like the “free writing” technique put forth by teachers from New Age guru Natalie Goldberg to university professor Peter Elbow . Not to mention the thousands (or more) college writing teachers like me who advocated free writing in their classrooms.

The idea behind free writing is that inexperienced writers, or writers who’ve been criticized harshly for things like spelling errors, can sometimes be paralyzed by fear of making mistakes. They can be so fearful that their writing muscles cramp up, or they feel they have “writer’s block.”

The free writing technique aims to remove those fears by de-valuing mechanics like spelling, punctuation, and grammar. The goal in free writing is only for the writer to move thoughts from the brain to the page. And that, after all, is the goal of all writing: translating our thoughts into words.

For writers of memoir or personal essays, putting aside fears of being judged can be the first challenge to overcome. Many turn to free writing as a way of silencing the internal editor — at least temporarily.

Expressive writing may be beneficial to psychological and health, but is it more beneficial to brain health than other kinds of writing? Is there a neurobiological reason why translating thoughts into words, in a judgment-free zone, has a therapeutic effect?

Maybe, but it’s probably related to writing by hand as opposed to typing. The studies I referred to at the beginning of this post don’t mention whether the writing was done by hand or by keyboard. Other studies have shown, though, that writing by hand improves memory and other cognitive functions.

And, a recent study based in India demonstrated that adults learning to read and write (by hand) rewired their brains.

By the end of the study, the team saw significant changes in the brains of the people who had learned to read and write. These individuals showed an increase in brain activity in the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain, which is involved in learning.

Learning to read also seemed to change brain regions that aren’t typically involved in reading, writing or learning. Two regions deep in the brain, in particular, appeared more active after training — portions of the thalamus and the brainstem.

These two regions are known to coordinate information from our senses and our movement, among other things. Both areas made stronger connections to the part of the brain that processes vision after learning to read. The most dramatic changes were seen in those people who progressed the most in their reading and writing skills.

I’ve heard many writers say that writing has saved their lives. Maybe it’s even saved mine. But one thing is certain: our brains need exercise to be healthy, and writing provides it.

Writing Memoir: Self-Revelation

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash
“ What compels the writer of memoir to bare her soul to unknown readers. Or does she, really? Is the process of strategy and selection in the nature of a matador’s cloak?” This question was asked by Tom Gregg in a recent response to one of my posts.

An excellent question — what does compel us memoirists to share our stories with strangers? And is the self we share our real self, or a mask?

Another, related question, is whether memoirists have any responsibility to communicate some purpose or wisdom through their writing.

Judith Barrington, in her book Writing the Memoir, claims that memoirists have a responsibility to pursue meaning:

“If the charm of memoir is that we, the readers, see the author struggling to understand her past, then we must also see the author trying out opinions she may later shoot down, only to try out others as she takes a position about the meaning of her story. The memoirist need not necessarily know what she thinks about her subject but she must be trying to find out; she may never arrive at a definitive verdict, but she must be willing to share her intellectual and emotional quest for answers. Without this attempt to make a judgment, the voice lacks interest, the stories, becalmed in the doldrums of neutrality, become neither fiction nor memoir, and the reader loses respect for the writer who claims the privilege of being the hero in her own story without meeting her responsibility to pursue meaning. Self revelation without analysis or understanding becomes merely an embarrassment to both reader and writer.”

In some memoirs, the writer’s purpose is clear, as is the meaning he is pursuing. Stephen King could have written a memoir about growing up in Maine, or about getting sober. But instead, he wrote a memoir about his writing life. His purpose, I think, was to inspire new writers and to help them become better writers.

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
― Stephen KingOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

“Two people holding up an old map with directions and X marks drawn with a marker” by N. on Unsplash

Many recovery memoirs — no matter what the author is recovering from — are written to provide other people with a road map: these are the steps I followed, this is what worked for me. My first memoir, Walk Away, is about recovering from family and intimate partner violence. And I did intend it, in part, as a road map for other people who’d suffered violence at the hands of those they loved.

But because both types of violence have been deep dark secrets, I also wanted to bring those secrets out into the light. Brutality flourishes in silence and darkness, as we’ve all learned recently from the #MeToo movement. Bringing the stories out into the light can give courage to others and, perhaps, even prevent future brutalities.

Writing a memoir can also be an integral part of the process of recovery from loss or trauma. The task of writing focuses us on organizing our memories and that can help us to make sense of what happened.

The author Diana Raab wrote an article for Psychology Today in answer to the question “Why should you write your memoir?” She details a number of reasons why people might want to do so:

The memoirists whom I interviewed for my research claimed they had a story to tell and felt they were the only ones who could tell it. Others might have secrets to share, or maybe they want to study or understand certain situations. Additional reasons to write a memoir include preserving a family’s legacy, learning more about one’s ancestors, a search for personal identity, gaining insight into the past, or healing from a traumatic experience. Writer André Aciman believes that people write memoirs because they want a second chance to create another version of their lives.

But I think Tom’s question is more about what compels people to reveal themselves to others.

That, to me, seems a matter of temperament, or maybe even genetics. For some people, diet soda tastes bitter and nasty; for others, it tastes sweet. When I used to teach college writing classes, I always mentioned that different people have different levels of comfort when it comes to self-revelation — not a good or bad difference, just a difference. And like all differences, it needs to be respected.

My best friend (since we were six years old!) is a naturally reserved person. She would no more write a memoir than I would volunteer at a pre-school (the noise!). She’s not comfortable revealing personal details to strangers. Although we’re both introverts, when I meet new people, I’m very open about my checkered past.

Even in casual conversation, telling our stories can be a road map for others in big or small ways. As a teacher, I always revealed that I was a high school dropout, and one reason I did that was to reassure anyone in the class who might have struggled in high school, to tell them in a private way that high school dropouts can become anything, even college professors.

Are the selves in essays and memoirs the writers’ “real” selves? I’d say no. Writing is an art, and while art imitates life, it’s not the same thing. The memoir and essay forms provide us with a scaffolding on which to build stories and meaning.

The scaffolding becomes a part of the voice, and that voice, that self becomes different from the self that meets a friend for coffee. Not a good or bad difference, or even less true. Just a difference. And like all differences, the distinction between the day-to-day self and the self that appears in writing needs to be respected.

Why do you write memoir, or poetry? Why do you reveal your secrets? Or why do you keep them to yourself? Are you the same person on the page as you are in your dreams? I would love to know. And Tom probably would, too.

Writing Memoir: Raising the Stakes

Photo by Mounzer Awad on Unsplash

Memoirs are already written in stone because they are about “what really happened,” right?

Wrong. “What really happened” can be written about in an infinite number of ways.

Art is all about selection, or framing. Think of photography. The photographer selects or frames the view. And by doing so, they deselect other views.

As a memoirist, you are not obligated to present all the views or all the scenes. You are in charge of selection.

And, you have control over how you arrange, and rearrange, the scenes you do select.

If you want your readers to keep reading, you can select and arrange for suspense once you know what is at stake, and how you can raise the stakes through the organization of your story.

I’ve quoted writer Chuck Wendig before. In his craft book Damn Fine Story, Chuck tells us:

The stakes of the story are that which can be won, lost, or otherwise protected. What can be won arguably amounts to the character solving the problem. What would be lost is that the character has failed to solve the problem and must reap the harvest of his failure.:

What are the challenges you are writing about in your memoir? What are you trying to win, or trying not to lose? Are you writing about recovering from an injury or disease in spite of the odds stacked against you, or about succeeding as an artist, a parent, a worker in spite of the roadblocks thrown in your path, or about finding peace or wisdom or identity in spite of your own stubbornness?

It’s the “in spite of” parts that can help you raise the stakes in your memoir manuscript. Consider pacing the memoir so that the odds, the roadblocks, the stubbornness, and other complications appear one at a time. Each time you reveal one of these challenges, you raise the stakes.

You raise the stakes, too, when you reveal what you have to gain on your quest in a piece by piece way. That’s usually how life goes — we start off looking for one thing, thinking there’s one obstacle to overcome, and we end up finding out that there are other things we need to fulfill our quest, other barriers to jump over, other fences to climb.

“Macro view of an urban person’s hand on a chain link fence in De Nieuwe Stad” by Mitchel Lensink on Unsplash

For example, I wanted to go to law school because I wanted to represent people who were caught in the criminal justice system. One obstacle in my way was that I was a high school dropout. I got to law school, but then drugging and drinking became another potential obstacle. In law school, I started to see how having power as a lawyer could help me heal from my own past abuse. But then, it became clear I wasn’t going to get a job because my grades were bad and I didn’t have connections. So I started my own practice. But then, I ended up representing . . . And so on.

As mentioned in a previous post, you, and the other significant people in your memoir, are characters, and in any story, we expect main characters to grow and change. Readers want to know:

  • who you are when the story begins,
  • who you become when the story’s conflicts arise, and
  • who you are when the story ends.

Raising the stakes means keeping the reader’s attention by revealing goals and obstacles through pacing. How does your quest change with the knowledge you gain from overcoming obstacles? What are the stakes at the beginning of your quest, in the middle, at the end?

The quest you want to write about may have already happened, but you control how that story is told. You select which stakes to reveal, and when.

Write on.

Writing Memoir: The Heroic Archetype

Photo by Ian Froome on Unsplash

You can be the hero of your own memoir. Maybe you already are.

Joseph Campbell, and other analysts of the hero’s journey, tell us that the hero’s job is to accept a quest, go on a journey, and return with something of value to his or her community.

Often, the hero resists the call to action initially. And often, some taboo is broken in the process.

Bonus points, by the way, if you grew up with one or more substitute parents: adoptive parents, step parents, foster parents. Being raised in a single parent home counts too.

All the best heroes in all of our stories share the substitute parent trope. Think Moses, Jesus, Luke Skywalker, Superman, Batman and Robin and Batgirl, Jane Eyre, and Frodo. All the Marvel characters I can think of. All the young characters in The Force Awakens. And then there’s Harry Potter.

By “best” I don’t mean “nicest.” Think Oedipus, Heathcliff, Darth Vader, Hellboy, Dexter, Loki.

Maybe this trope exists because it’s easier to break taboos, to rebel against a script written by your substitute parents, than it is to break away from a script written by your true and loving parents. And rebellion makes for such an interesting story.

But you don’t need to have substitute parents to be the hero of your own memoir. All you need is a journey and a few monsters to overcome, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz or Ulysses in The Odyssey.

Photo by Andrew Dong on Unsplash

The hero’s journey can be external or internal. The most interesting are perhaps both internal and external.

Some recent memoirs that align with the heroic journey archetype are Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.

Similarly, the monsters or obstacles can be internal or external. The late Caroline Knapp’s memoir of recovery from alcoholism, Drinking: A Love Story, is an eloquent inner journey about dealing with internal monsters.

At the end of the heroic journey, the hero comes home — but that can be an internal home. Or it can be a new home if the original home has been blown up, or the story doesn’t take the hero back to his or her original home for another reason.

If you’re looking for a pattern of organization for your memoir, studying the structure of the heroic archetype through careful attention to one or more of your favorite heroic tales might be a fruitful exercise. And, of course, you can Google “Heroic archetype” for much more information.

Meanwhile, here are some writing prompts to help you identify elements of your own heroic memoir:

  • What forces or ideas did you rebel against?
  • What internal or external journeys are part of your story?
  • What thresholds did you cross to begin the journey?
  • What monsters did you face?
  • What barriers did you overcome?
  • Who were your mentors, guides, or allies?
  • What did home look like when you completed your journey?

Write on.

Writing Memoir: Libel and Slander

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

Memoirists sometimes worry about being sued for libel or slander or defamation.

Here’s the good news: you can’t be sued for what you’ve written until you make your work public. You can’t be sued for writing you keep in your notebook or on your laptop. And writing and publishing are two very separate enterprises.


Don’t even think about being sued while writing and revising. Wipe those thoughts from your mind.

Remember that no one sees what you are writing until you take the next step: publication in print or other media, or in a public reading. And this step doesn’t happen by accident or by itself. It comes after the writing, sometimes long after.

So that’s the simple answer to how to write a memoir if you’re worried about being sued: by recognizing that writing and publishing are separate. You can write about love and terror and tenderness and violence. You can blame people, and write bad things about them. No one is seeing it while you’re writing it. Write your best. Don’t worry.

What makes a piece of writing likely to be the subject of a lawsuit for libel or slander or defamation? Wait a moment while I put my law school hat on.

Libel suits can be brought for false statements published in writing. Slander suits can be brought for false statements made verbally. Defamation is “a false statement presented as a fact that causes injury or damage to the character of the person it is about.

Notice that all three require that the statement be false. If I call someone a murderer in an essay, and the person has been convicted of murder, it doesn’t matter how pissed off he is that I’ve written that about him. He is out of luck because I told the truth.

“Can be brought” is in italics because bringing a lawsuit is not easy to do. Most people want or need to hire lawyers for that. And, believe it or not, lawyers don’t take any case that comes their way; the case has to be both winnable and worth significant dollars, or the client has to pay up front.

Some jurisdictions also require that the false statement was made with an intent to cause harm. In all jurisdictions, harm as a result of the false statement is required for damages to be awarded.

“Harm” is usually monetary harm. Here’s an example: I lie and call Mr. X a thief in my memoir, and he loses his job because of it. As a result of my false statement, he suffered the harm of losing his paychecks, and maybe future paychecks if my memoir is so widely published and read that everyone believes it.

So let’s say I self-publish a memoir and sell 200 copies. In the memoir, I falsely state that my neighbor, Ms. X, poured kerosene on my vegetable garden. Ms. X works as a psychologist. She sues me for libel, claiming that my memoir has ruined her counseling practice.

But my memoir only sold 200 copies, and most of those copies were purchased in another state. Ms. X is not licensed to practice in the other state. The harm she suffered is minimal. The judge finds in her favor, awards her $100 in damages, and orders me to withdraw my memoir from further publication until I delete any references to Ms. X.

On the other hand, if I sold 10,000 copies in my home state and Ms. X owned a landscaping business that went out of business as a result of bad publicity from my book, then her damages would be higher. She might even be able to convince a lawyer to take her case.

And remember, lawyers don’t take on cases that aren’t worth money unless the clients want to pay them a substantial retainer based on a high hourly rate.

So don’t worry about being sued if you are telling the truth. Truth is an absolute defense to these sorts of cases.

Once you feel your memoir is finished, then think about these two questions:

  1. Does your work have a whiny or bitter tone?
  2. Have you told the truth?

Tone is not always evident to the writer. Double-check your tone by asking a friend or writing partner to read with an eye for whining and bitterness. Both tones will dilute — or even destroy — any wisdom or beauty or excitement or analysis you want to share. Also, the market for whiny and bitter writing is teensy-weensy.

If you want to pre-empt whining and bitterness, consider putting some distance (spatial or chronological) between yourself and the events of your story or poem. Distance coats a story with compassion, revealing how external events shape mistakes or even cruelties. Distance makes it possible to see the complexity of events. Distance is a ladder that lets you get down from a high horse or climb up from a slough of self-blame. It’s a lens that lets you see all the love you might have missed.

What about telling the truthLike George Orwell, I believe in an objective truth when it it comes to facts. However, we all remember events in slightly different ways from others. Don’t worry if your memory doesn’t exactly jive with your sister’s about some event from your childhood. But if memories differ significantly, that might be interesting enough to include in your piece.

Publishers may fact-check your nonfiction writing as insurance against libel or slander actions. This happened to me with an essay about my nephew hiding in a suitcase from DEA agents. In both nonfiction and fiction, publishers may fact-check your science, or your assertions about other disciplines. This happened to me with an essay about marriage and bird-watching for O, the Oprah Magazine.

What about the kind of truth that doesn’t rely on facts, sometimes called emotional truth? If it’s not about facts, it’s not slanderous. Writers and critics disagree about the nature of emotional truth. For me as a reader, it happens when I’m so enveloped in the sensory details of a real or imagined character’s joys and sorrows, I empathize with the character. For me as a writer, it happens when I remember to invest my essays and poems with those sensory details, and with plenty of love.

Writers are always trying to get at truth. When we succeed, it’s magic. When we fail, it’s a lesson. And since writing demands learning, those failures are lessons we need.

Don’t let worrying about being sued get in your way while you’re writing. But once you’re ready to send your work out for publication, check your tone and your facts, and aim for truth.