One day I was thinking about the best and worst things about writing memoirs. God knows why. I was probably feeling some of the negative repercussions of writing Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality, which is a memoir where I reveal more about myself than I wanted or intended to, and I was probably trying to remind myself of the good that came out of it – like the emails I’ve received thanking me for the book.

“I struggled with so much of what you relayed in your book in regards to my Christian beliefs and Southern Baptist upbringing, and I applaud and thank you for your honesty and bravery in telling your story.  It touched me so much …”

But the pain of the writing the book, though lessening, still lingers. So I emailed a few of my writer friends and asked who do we know who writes memoirs? Together we compiled a short list of memoirists, I emailed them and asked them to give me a few sentences on the best and worst things about writing memoirs, and to my great shock, almost all of them said yes.

One of my favorite answers was from Donna M. Johnson, author of the award-winning Holy Ghost Girl, because Donna didn’t just answer my best and worst questions. She talked about writing, too.

It’s a paradox, this act of writing,” she wrote. “I read once that Hemingway referred to writing as putting black on white. Simple. Just put the words on the page. He made it look easy with his taut masculine prose, all of the emotion coiled beneath the words. So why then did he train like an athlete before each book?

“It takes enormous energy to wrestle human experience onto the page. Fiction or nonfiction, it’s the same process and it’s all changing, all of the time.”

I hope readers who love memoirs and writers who visit this page, be they self-published, traditionally published, or dreaming of being published, will remember Donna’s words, as well as those of our sister memoirists who so willingly train and sweat and bleed and cry tears of defeat and victory as they struggle to touch your hearts.

And now, I give you their best and worst things about writing memoirs …

Donna M. Johnson

As a memoirist I think I know the story, until I begin to write. The act of holding a memory up to the light and turning it over and over, of choosing this word, then that one, reveals new shapes and texture. A once familiar landscape transforms. What was perceived as a tragedy can now be seen to contain elements of farce. It was there all along, but my determination to reduce the narrative to a chain of known events blinded me to the inherent complexity.

So what does this mean for the self who emerged from this history? This is the real story. Finding it is the best part of writing memoir. The worst part? Reliving the past and not finding it. But none of it happens without first putting black on white…and forgetting everything I think I know.

Donna Johnson planned to be a journalist, but her career was hijacked by marketing and advertising.

Through the writing of Holy Ghost Girl Donna found a way to connect the disparate parts of herself. The sight of a gospel tent stretched against an evening sky leaves an ache in her heart, but she no longer flees at the sound of a tambourine. She has been known to tell people she’ll pray for them. And she does.

Donna has written about matters of faith for the Dallas Morning News and the Austin American-Statesman. She lives and writes in Austin, Texas, where with the help of family and friends, she works at becoming a regular person.

“What a life! Holy Ghost Girl takes you inside a world where God and sin and miracles and deceit and love are so jumbled together you can’t tell them apart. Donna Johnson sorts through her story with great insight, compassion and humor, giving us an indelible portrait of a charismatic preacher and the faithful who so desperately believed in him.”  — Jeannette Walls, author of New York Times bestsellers The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses

Marion Winik

Marion Winik is the author of six books of creative nonfiction, including Telling, First Comes Love, The Lunch-Box Chronicles, and The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and two volumes of poetry. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Sun, Salon, More, and Newsday. Her commentaries for All Things Considered are collected at npr.org. She is a professor at the University of Baltimore.

Best – The potential for healing and transcending the past, of turning hurt into laughter, of taking control of events that got out of control, and for this effect somehow extending to the readers as well.

Worst – The possibility of causing other people, mentioned in the book, trouble or embarrassment.

In my forthcoming memoir, Highs in the Low Fifties, I tell fairly intimate stories about dates — i.e. people I’d met only once or twice, and though I change their names, I was worried about doing this without letting them know. Fortunately I still had their emails—so I could contact them to solicit feedback, which I did. Those were some of the scariest emails I ever wrote! “Do you remember me? … Well, I’ve written a book about you!”

 “Highs in the Low Fifties hits the bull’s eye—funny, sharp, poignant, wise. Sometimes, I think Marion Winik is simply selfless enough to live the life that most of us are too scared to try, then generously shares the results. Her latest memoir has her trademark candor and poetic cadences. But there’s something new here, too—happiness. Rueful, cautious, but happiness nonetheless. It’s like finding the Rough Planet Guide to Middle-Age.” —Laura Lippman, author of And When She Was Good

Highs in the Low Fifties comes out June 2013 and is available for preorder.

Kaya Oakes

Kaya Oakes is an award-winning poet and author. Her latest book, Radical Reinvention, is a memoir about being a skeptical, anti-dogmatic feminist who falls back in love with the Catholic faith after leaving it behind as a teenager. But it’s not just a memoir; it’s also a profile of the many people, and groups of people, who are working to make the church a more welcoming and inclusive place.

The book involved three years of research and writing, including travels to Rome and Assisi, two of the oldest homes of the Catholic Church. It’s a big evolution from Kaya’s previous book, Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture, but it still shares some of the spirit of that book. DIY Catholicism!

After years of doing reporting, I had permission to use an “I” narrator as much as I wanted. And secretly, I believed that writing this book would help me meet other people who also struggled with belief and religion. It was my 250 page version of a personal ad. It worked.

The worst thing about writing a memoir:

I went from being a closet pro-choice, LGBTQ equality loving, feminist Catholic to being an out pro-choice, LGBTQ equality loving feminist Catholic. You haven’t lived until conservative male Catholic bloggers call your work Satanic.

“Turns the typical conceit of the conversion memoir on its head…a fascinating window into the world of belief that doesn’t lead the reader to a foregone conclusion about the nature of God or Christianity.” — Zyzzyva Magazine

Nina Godiwalla

Nina Godiwalla is the bestselling author of Suits: A Woman on Wall Street, an insider’s perspective on her experience at Morgan Stanley from the outsider’s point of view of a second-generation Indian woman. The New York Times described her internationally acclaimed book as The Devil Wears Prada of investment banking. 

She also is sought out as a leadership expert by prominent institutions including The White House, Harvard Business School, NASA, Smithsonian, The Wall Street Journal Executive Task Force, and TED Conference and is frequently featured in major media including USA Today, Forbes Magazine, Elle Magazine, NPR, ABC News, and CNN

Best: Since my book has launched me into a speaking career, I love that I get to help others avoid making some of the same professional mistakes I’ve made. Helping them navigate various corporate cultures has been incredibly rewarding!

Worst: At times it can feel weird when you just meet someone and they feel like they already know everything about you from reading your book.

“…told with alarming detail and considerable humility–it’s a tale that will help the reader hone his or her ambition down to a finer, more human point.” — Los Angeles Times

Erika Rae

Erika Rae is the author of Devangelical, a funny and irreverent memoir about her experience growing up in — and out of — the Evangelical church in the American Bible Belt. As an adolescent who is expected to be hot for God, and not boys, Erika dreads that the Rapture will come before she gets to have sex. All the while she survives exorcisms, radical taboos, satanic back-masking on records, muscle men for Jesus, and cool, mulleted youth group leaders. Devangelical is a political and personal exploration of how the Evangelical church affects us all. For Erika Rae, it means a smart and honest shedding of baggage. A lot of heavy, scuffed-up, duct-taped baggage . . . with clowns inside.

The Best Thing about writing a memoir:

In writing a memoir about reliving an exorcism, Christian muscle men bashing blocks of ice with their heads, and preachers handing out color-coded cards detailing how far I was allowed to go with my boyfriend, I was able to get a grip on the demons from my past.

The Worst Thing about writing a memoir:

I still had to deal with the demons from my past.

“Erika Rae would have gotten me in trouble in as a teen. Devangelical is the ultimate hysterical note passed down the church pew, eliciting uncontrolled, out-loud laughs in the face of propriety.”—Slade Ham, comedian, The Whiskey Brothers comedy group

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And now I have to interrupt and say that I promise you, I kept the best for last. Kim Barnes blew me away with her insightful answers.

* * * 

Kim Barnes

Kim Barnes is the author of In the Kingdom of Men, the story of a young American couple living in 1960s Saudi Arabia, as well as two memoirs and two previous novels, including A Country Called Home, which received the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction and was named a best book of 2008 by The Washington Post, Kansas City Star, and The Oregonian (Northwest). She is a recipient of the PEN/Jerard Fund Award for an emerging woman writer of nonfiction, and her first memoir, In the Wilderness, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and received a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award. Her work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including the New York Times, MORE Magazine, WSJ online, O Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Fourth Genre, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. She is a professor of writing at the University of Idaho.

The best thing about writing memoir is that you don’t have to invent content out of thin air. You already know what happened, you just don’t know why, which is where the true story in memoir resides.

The worst thing is that you only think you know what happened and that much of what you remember is wrong. Why you remember what you do is, again, wherein the true story lies–not in the memory but in your struggle with the meaning of what you recollect. I find this “wrestling with the angel of memory” to be exhilarating and exhausting.

Finally, what is best about writing memoir is also what is worst. It is a process of self-discovery that terrifies me, but nothing I write in any genre is ever more gratifying.

“With its spirit and themes, [In the Wilderness] recalls the classic Norman Maclean autobiographical novella A River Runs Through It …” – Detroit Free Press

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Please, visit these authors’ websites so that you can read more about the writers and their books, buy their memoirs, talk about them, support them. I know we’d all appreciate that.

Suzy Spencer is a New York Times best-selling author and journalist.
  1. Angela Reply
    I wrote a short short story one time called The City. The premise of the story is that upon initial arrival into the city it appears like every perfect town depicted on the screen or in those junk food novels of romance found in the grocery aisle. However as one travels deeper into the heart of the city the facade of perfection is stripped away and the rot and flaws and overall ickiness appear. Each house and building has a plaque attached to it and each plaque depicts a lie. At the epicenter of The City is the most wretched place of all. The lie for this house is "I never lie to myself". We are all guilty of lying to ourselves. Some of us it do it occasionally and some of us are immersed in self lying. A memoir, if done correctly, strips away those self lies and finessed memories and, most importantly, flawed self perceptions that live within each of us. That kind of courage is exhausting and terrifying and echoes within our psyches forever. To acknowledge that our self story, our concept of self might need some adjusting is never easy and frequently leaves us worrying at the newly exposed areas of our hearts like at a piece of debris stuck in our teeth. Damned uncomfortable and always demanding attention.

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