Written by A Guest Author July 4th, 2024

What People Don’t Tell You About Writing a Memoir

By Liz Alterman

Writing a memoir is a wonderful way to capture your experiences, imbue them with meaning, and share them with others—whether you choose to keep your audience limited to friends and family or pursue a more traditional route, hoping your work reaches the masses.

There’s no shortage of articles about the challenges of publishing a memoir, and many writers come away deflated, believing that unless they’re a prince, a pop star, or have an equally impressive platform, their tale will never find readers. 

But there are several other daunting aspects that go hand-in-hand with writing a memoir that most people don’t openly discuss:

It’s emotional. 

If you want to write a memoir or you’re in the process of drafting one, chances are you’ve survived or overcome something challenging and you’re on the other side of it with wisdom and insight to share. 

Many will tell you writing a memoir is cathartic and perhaps even generous. Consider author Mary Karr’s quote, “Writing is a way of making sense of our own experiences and offering solace to others.”

While that’s absolutely true, what’s less frequently discussed is the emotional toll it may take as writing forces you to relive your experiences, cherry picking poignant and sometimes painful details to show the reader exactly what you endured.  

You may think you have the benefit of time, distance, and a fresh, well-earned perspective, but as you’re writing, editing, and then rereading draft after draft, it’s difficult not to let your words drag you backward. Like a literary undertow, you may find yourself swept up in moments you’ve longed to forget, flooded with the same heartache, fear, and frustration you felt as you were living them.

I began drafting my memoir, Sad Sacked, which chronicles the period after my husband and I lost our jobs within six weeks of each other, nearly a decade ago. Yet as I was rereading it ahead of its June publication, I found myself filled with the familiar dread and anxiety that consumed me while we were jobless. I needed to remind myself we’re in a better place now.

Get ready for some raised eyebrows.

Writing a book in any genre is a major achievement. As you start to share the news that you’re working on a memoir or have one forthcoming, brace for some strange looks.

With cartoon question marks in their eyes, people may study you, and ask, “You wrote a memoir? (Insert surprised chuckle here.) About what?” 

Depending on your relationship with the person you’ve just told, you may get hit with the quick, possibly panicked, follow-up, “Am I in it?” 

Everyone is entitled to tell their story if they choose to, but that doesn’t mean others won’t be surprised you’ve chosen to go for it.

The best response? “You’ll just have to read it to find out!”

You will feel exposed like never before.

It’s one thing to type up your secrets with only your cat skimming along from the comfort of your kitchen table, it’s another to put your work out into the world for anyone and everyone to read.

Whether I’m writing a satire or a short story, I often joke that sharing it with friends and family feels like they’ve opened the door while I’m using the toilet. 

Well, if you’ve penned thousands of words about the most intimate details of your life, it’s more like the world pulling back the shower-curtain while you’re in the middle of rinsing out your shampoo. 

The very act of writing makes you vulnerable, so consider that practice for this

Marketing and promotion may serve up self-doubt. 

Regardless of whether you self-publish or secure a deal with a traditional publisher, you’re going to have to promote your book. Here’s where imposter syndrome may rear its ugly head and whisper, “Who are you that anyone should care about your life? When did you become such a narcissist?”

To silence that voice, think of the reader who needs your story. I wrote my memoir, to paraphrase Toni Morrison, because it was the book I wanted to read that hadn’t been written yet. When I feel like a fraud, I think about a reader who is between jobs, binge-eating her kids’ fruit snacks, and could use a laugh about the absurdity of the job market.  

You may also ask yourself, “Am I really ready to share so much about my life?” And then you realize, “Whoops, too late now!” Embrace it. You’ve been brave before and you can do it again. 

When you’re plugging a thriller or a romance novel and can’t seem to get much traction, it’s easier to shrug off than when reviewers or bookstore owners aren’t interested in a story about your life. 

Similarly, should bad reviews trickle in, they can feel like an indictment of your life choices and character. 

But if everything had always gone perfectly for you, you wouldn’t have a very interesting tale to tell, now would you? 

If you’re working on a memoir, be gentle with yourself. If you’re about to begin marketing one, remember, this is an accomplishment, and before long a reader will probably thank you for sharing your story.

Bio: Liz Alterman is the author of the memoir, Sad Sacked, the young adult thriller, He’ll Be Waiting, and the domestic suspense novels, The Perfect Neighborhood, and The House on Cold Creek Lane. For more, visit lizalterman.com.


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