How to Write a Memoir About a Painful Experience: 6 Tips

How to Write a Memoir About a Painful Experience: 6 Tips

Struggle is universal.

People love reading stories about people triumphing over obstacles, overcoming bad circumstances and abuse, and redeeming themselves. We watch them in movies and read them in books.

And you don’t have to look far to find suffering and loss in the human experience. Lots of people have amazing stories, and unfortunately those stories aren’t always pleasant. If you’re writing a memoir, or thinking about it, then perhaps you’ve got some difficult stories to tell, too.

Writing a memoir is a great way to make sense out of what troubles you the most.

But writing a memoir about your troubled past also means facing uncomfortable memories. And depending on your mindset at the time you sit down to write, the results can be just as ugly.

Writing a memoir requires a careful balance between sharing your truth and sounding whiny or overly self-involved. No one likes to read stories about people like that.

The trick to writing a beautiful memoir is creating art and deeper meaning from your personal experiences that resonate beyond what happened to you. It’s more than your experiences, it’s also about how they made you better as a person.

So how can you accomplish this? Consider the following tips before you put your past on the page.

1. Be a protagonist worth reading

Writing a story about your life means, as far as your readers are concerned, making yourself a character and revealing information about yourself that moves the story forward.

So in the same way a novelist invents a compelling protagonist for their fiction, a memoirist must develop him or herself in a similar way on the page.

You want your reader to care about you and spend 200 or so pages reading about your life. So be conscious of how you create yourself on the page.

What were your goals? What motivated you? How are you flawed? What were your mistakes?

When writing a memoir, be harder on yourself than you are on anyone else you write about.

2. Show all sides of the story

The people you write about in your memoir must be three dimensional.

Not just you, but your heinous parents as well. So maybe your mom rivaled the wicked witch. And maybe your ex-husband was an idiot. You know that, and you want everyone who reads your story to know it too.

But you can’t only focus on the negative aspects of the people who wronged you.

For example, when you write about how your parents neglected you, you can’t completely bash them, no matter how heinous they were or how good it feels to get back at them. If you do, your story will come across as one-dimensional and biased.

When you write about something — no matter how much you don’t like it — put your preconceptions aside and seek to understand.

I learned this rule in journalism school and it definitely works in creative writing. If you can portray your characters as three-dimensional human beings, their true nature will show through regardless. As a result, your story will have more depth.

3. Write from a positive place

Sure, it might feel good to write terrible things about the people who’ve wronged you. But that sort of writing is like therapy: it’s a way to release all your emotions, which is important and perhaps even helpful when writing a memoir.

That emotional material doesn’t belong in your memoir. It belongs in a diary where it won’t ever see the light of day. Once you’ve gotten the raw emotions out, you can hopefully start fresh when you’re ready to write for an audience.

Revenge isn’t good motivation for writing a memoir.

To make sense of your past experiences, you need to have already made peace with your past. If you can’t honestly say you’re over it, then writing in your diary is probably a good place to start.

4. Be honest

Nonfiction, even creative nonfiction like memoir, means the story is factual. You can tell your story in an artful way, but if you’re calling it memoir, it has to be as honest as you can make it.

Don’t blur details or invent scenes for dramatic effect. Don’t make composite characters even if it’s easier that way. Don’t say you went to prison if you didn’t. Don’t say you spent the money to build a school if you used it for travel.

Write your memoir like you’re going to be fact checked, but don’t let that stop you from writing.

Not remembering is okay. You can come right out in your memoir and say you don’t remember something if that’s the case. Even better, if you don’t remember everything, ask someone else who was there.

In fact, you should probably ask even if you think you remember, which leads me to my next tip.

5. Research and report

Memoir is based on memory, but you can add depth and meaning (and accuracy) to your story by looking beyond your own memories.

Research the events you’re writing about. Talk to you siblings and friends about what they remember. And talk to your antagonist and their friends, if they’re still around. Then present the facts you gather. Researching a memoir helps find truth, which is the heart of all successful memoirs.

6. Face the hard truths

If you have a story to tell and are committed to telling it, you should definitely write a memoir.

If you want people to read and enjoy your memoir for the amazing story it is, then you have to avoid writing a one-sided therapy session.

Do your best to get the facts straight, and render everyone in your memoir as a three-dimensional, human character. When you use these tips, you can write a memoir that communicates the deeper meaning and universal truth of your personal history.

Have you thought about writing a memoir about a difficult time in your life?

Filed Under: Craft

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22 comments

  • Thank you for your article on this sensitive subject.

  • deb palmer says:

    Great post. I wish I would have read this prior to writing our book. I kept these rules but not without concern I was doing the right thing. Thank you.

  • Momina Arif says:

    I love this post, its great. There’s just one problem. How can you write from positive place that wouldn’t sound authentic you know.

    • Melinda says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I don’t think you should be inauthentic or dishonest about your feelings or experiences. But stories about overcoming bad circumstances are better than ones written only to tell about the bad circumstances.

  • This is a very useful article–I especially appreciate your observation that it’s a terrible idea to try and process your raw emotions in a public memoir, and that such venting belongs in a private journal. More than one project of mine has been derailed by emotional processing unfit for public consumption.

    The notion that we should write positive depictions of people who wronged us is beautiful, because it requires us to look honestly at the trauma and see the good in other people, even if that good wasn’t directed towards us individually.

    This was a very good read. Thank you!

  • Thanks for this insight. I’m working on my memoir about my school days as these are some of the most exciting and memorable times in my life.

  • I like your work its amazing because its very interesting and useful.

  • sambit says:

    Dear editor,

    liked your article very much. Read at least twice. But many times it so happen, truth is so harsh and so bitter that the subject just wants to forget the entire episode. “Just a feeling – not to touch again” type of episode.

  • Ann Coker says:

    Helpful. Since my FB likes are for my memoirs and personal experience posts, that has determined my voice. But I’ve written mostly about good times. Now it’s right to explore deeper in order to for readers to identify.

  • Thanks for a helpful post! I’m approaching a rewrite of memoir because I felt I was missing the mark on something. It was the depiction of my mother and allowing that to become the story. My goal is to go back and write MY story and show both the good and bad sides of my relationship with my mother, which to some extent lies in the fact we are both pretty stubborn women. I appreciate our underscoring these points.

  • Wendy says:

    Yes, we all like reading about David slaying Goliath. But what if–to extend the metaphor–Goliath slayed David because he didn’t have a slingshot, and your purpose in writing is to argue against the slingshot ban?

    • Melinda says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Wendy. I think writing to argue against the slingshot ban still counts as writing from a positive place. And that makes for a better story than writing only with the intention of telling the world how terrible Goliath is.

  • Marlene Martinez says:

    Thank you , so much for your post , it was helpful . I was writing my life story , to help other women who have been abused or neglected in any way , that there is hope to be an overcomer , no matter how deep the pit you have been either thrown or fell into . I thank God he sent angels to rescue me . My life was filled with abuse of every kind . I was married young had 6 beautiful children . I am now a great- grandmother . I am one who is acquainted , with grief and sorrow , I have a husband and a daughter waiting for me in heaven . I also a person who has experienced great joy and comfort from a loving Father. My earthly father was murdered , when I was a child. My question is how do I tell these things without , offending my readers, as they are hard realities .

    • Melinda says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Marlene. Your question is a good one and I recently saw a discussion (I think in a LinkedIn group) about this same topic. People get offended by different things, and I’m not sure you can avoid offending everyone when you write, regardless of what you write about. Maybe don’t worry about it to the point it stops you from writing, and when you’re closer to done with the book, you could have a few people read it and offer their feedback.

  • Sarita Shoemaker says:

    Great points and thank you for teaching them.

  • JOHN says:

    Hello Melinda. Useful thankyou. The writing bit is no the problem, after all I have been working on it all my life What is useful, creative, how to present etc is the challenge. A good place to start. Now I can move on to establishing world peace.

  • Kim says:

    Great to see this article. Thank you! I’ve just started writing a memoir and I’ll certainly take these tips to heart.

  • GailK says:

    I used to be a professional memoirist. My first sample book was my mother’s memoir. She had already started the memoir but was unable to go any further than the day that Hitler’s airforce flew over her house. She wanted to tell of the war years in Nazi occupied Holland, but it was too dark for her to do. So I interviewed her, and it all came out — the bad, the funny, the fearful, the inspirational, and the bizarre. It “naturally” ended on an up-note.

    I also broke it up into segments, with an artistic divider between the segments. Some segments might be a page or longer. Other segments only a sentence or two. I walked some clients through horrifying life memories, and by doing this, helped them see how strong they are.

    So I suggest that the traumatized memoiree find someone who loves or likes them to interview them. Record the interview so that whoever types it up will get it all. I liked to type as the client spoke. I could see images in my mind when I did it that way, and this allowed me to ask more detailed questions.

    I found that this method takes the sting out.

  • Andressa Andrade says:

    Hello, Melinda!

    This post is brilliant!

    I am currently working on two writing projects. One of them is fiction, the other one is a memoir. I am fairly engaged with the fiction one, but everytime I even consider sitting down to work on the memoir, I cringe. It is so difficult to write about ourselves! But I think your tips are going to help me. Some of them, I had never thought about.

    So thank you very much for sharing all of these!

  • Sonal. says:

    This is an excellent article. It reminded me that I alone don’t remember all the facts. My siblings,daughter and mom have a lot of additional information and different points of view. As do friends and naysayers in my story.

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