The perils of writing memoir

Word count: 338 words

Reading time: About 2.5 minutes

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help writers. Today I link to an article about writing memoir by Alexander Stille from The New York Times.

When I worked as a journalist, I was instructed — no, make that, ordered — never to show my stories to sources before the stories were published. The idea, I assumed, was to avoid the back-and-forth arguments that would likely ensue. You know: “I didn’t say that/ That’s not what I meant/ It would sound better to say…” etc.

When I moved to corporate communications, the rule became the inverse: I always had to show my stories to anyone quoted in them — and frequently, to their bosses as well. The idea, I assumed, was to keep everyone happy and to ensure that the corporate line was being toed.

In truth, I could see the benefits of both totally contradictory rules. People like to change their quotes to make themselves sound smarter but in so doing, they frequently take the “spoken word” and alter it to its more leaden “written” cousin. Checking stories (known in the business as “getting approval”), however, has the advantage of correcting any errors before they appear in print or on screen.

Which do I prefer? My jury is still deliberating.

Alexander Stille (pictured above) presents an interesting parsing of this problem in his New York Times article, “The Body Under The Rug.” But he has a bigger issue to dissect. He writes about the challenge of memoir. It’s one thing to argue with sources but quite another to have to deal with family. After all, how do you persuade elderly Aunt Lally that her sister was both plain and matronly?

Stille’s analysis is both interesting and nuanced and I agree with his conclusion that, “the characters in a memoir are not real people, but inevitably feed on the blood of the living like vampires.”

If you ever hope to write memoir, be sure to read his essay.

Scroll to Top