What Makes a Memoir so Painful to Read?

My son is in a military college where he is part of the Army Corps of Cadets. Whenever he comes home, he tells me stories about the movies that he and his fellow classmates watch, things like Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, and most recently, Lone Survivor.

I typically don’t read (or watch) the “war” genre but because I want to know what’s getting my son so fired up, I picked up a copy of Lone Survivor.

I’ve had a few people tell me not to read it.

Wendy, if your son is deployed or may deploy this book might not be a good choice for you to read.

I get it, I do. It’s a painful story. (For the record, like it or not, I’m going to continue to read it.)

But what I want to do in this post is to step back from the story line and take a look at what makes a memoir so real and so painful that people warn you not to read it because they think you will get (emotionally) hurt.

In essence, what is it that makes a great memoir?

Janet Reid, in her blog today posted this in reply to a question about memoirs:

Bottom line for a memoir: you need to tell me there is evidence supporting the story, and where to find it, but more important you need to tell me why the story is important now.

While I certainly agree with Janet, there are also other aspects to a memoir that make it so, well utterly memorable to the reader.

Voice –

The voice has (HAS) to be consistent throughout the entire piece. You can’t start off all serious and then start adding parenthetical snide remarks or even worse those silly footnotes used to make jokes – (can I just say that I HATE, HATE that technique?.)

The Voice also has to be real. There is a disturbing trend where people are using sloppy “speak-write’ (am I right, girlfriend?) Don’t get me wrong, using casual language and personal style is terrific but with some of these memoirs (usually the ones that get put down) you get the feeling that someone didn’t write the piece as much as they dictated it. Minor point? Perhaps but let’s face it, good writing is good writing.

Story line –

The problem with memoir is that in real life there is no real plot. The best memoirs take a situation and then work backwards to create a plot from the events. To do that takes skill. One of the best compliments you can ever give to any memoir author (well, except James Frey) is that the book “reads like fiction.”

To do that you have to use a sharp literary knife, if a scene does not enhance the story line *and* lead to the eventual ending then it must be removed. Brutal? Yup, but that’s what will get you noticed.


Any good writer can write about a scene, but it’s the excellent ones that know how to insert a detail so subtly that you didn’t even realize you held your breath when you read it.

“I tried to get a hold of myself. But again in my mind I heard that terrible, terrible scream, the same one that awakens me, bullying its way into my solitary dreams, night, after night, the confirmation of guilt. The endless guilt of the survivor.

“Help me, Marcus! Please help me!” “

Do you see what Luttrell (admittedly with a co-writer) did in that passage? He clearly and painfully laid out his confession for all to hear and feel to the point where we can hear that nightmarish scream along with him.

As writers we are all told to show and not tell, but memoirists have the added challenge of making you feel. Some do it better than others and those that do end up with the books that you can never forget.


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

13 thoughts on “What Makes a Memoir so Painful to Read?

  1. This is the best article I’ve read in a while. You helped me pose the question to myself: “why is my story important Now?” I’m better equipped now that I’ve answered that simple question. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. I enjoyed “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls, but it was so farfetched (how can a three year old have such detailed memories?), it made me doubt the veracity of her story. I think a lot of memoirs are more “based on a true story” or “based on actual events”.

  3. Pingback: What Makes a Memoir so Painful to Read? | Born to Write

  4. This is a thought-provoking post regarding the important elements of a well written memoir. I appreciated your advise regarding the “use a sharp literary knife.” It gave me a lot to think about for one of my projects.

  5. Pingback: The Heart Of A Kid, A Survivor, But A Little Kid Nonetheless - The Good Mother Project

  6. Pingback: A Survivor, But A Little Kid Nonetheless - Parenting And Mental Health

  7. Pingback: Advice for memoir writers (5) – Memoir resources

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