July 11, 2019

Oh, the Mistakes We’ve Seen!: Memoirs (Part 1)

By Kiana Marsan

“Oh, the Mistakes We’ve Seen!” is part of a series of BlueInk Review blogs offering advice and insight into self-published writers’ most common errors, as seen in the more than 6,000 reviews of self-published books that we have provided since our inception in 2011.  Below, we have compiled excerpts from our more unfortunate reviews, each of which expose common writing blunders.

So what makes the bad review rear its dreaded, beastly head?  Here are some traps you should avoid at all costs when writing a memoir:

Using it as an opportunity to settle scores:

Every story is driven by conflict. The ups and downs of what transpires between people is the stuff of narrative. But when these events are played up to an extreme extent, the author’s bias and personal stake becomes transparent. Ranting and raving about a perceived injustice, particularly in a memoir, becomes tedious to readers.

Arguments are hardly one-sided. Let readers understand where both sides are coming from, and do it with honesty. While it may be tempting to use your writing as a way to settle scores, keep your impulses in check and steer clear from this at all costs.

Here are some examples:

“The question is, how interesting would this story (which often reads like an awkwardly written treatment for a soap opera) be to someone who did not know [the author] or her family?  The probable answer is: not very.  The experience of reading the book is akin to listening to a friend with an obsessive hatred rehash her relatives’ evil doings unremittingly.  After a while, you tune out.”

“The narrative only vaguely describes settings with no solid proof of a hoax. While the author is clearly distraught, her anger undermines her credibility, with comments such as: ‘When I finally caught the GAL on the phone, she was swollen with arrogance and dripped with spite.’”

“[The author] bristles when being told she can’t have more days than are usually allotted for outside education. She elects to use her personal time to take more classes, and her manager questions the decision, then signs the forms. Problem solved, it would seem, but Lee is still angry enough to devote a chapter to this perceived slight.”

A lack of self-awareness or skewed self-perception:

Writing a memoir can be a daunting task, as there isn’t any alias you can hide behind. The story comes from your own experiences, thoughts and feelings, and truth. Some writers want to portray themselves in the best possible light. After all, they know that their friends, family, and co-workers may be reading. But, readers appreciate seeing the messy parts of people. Sanitized versions of a person’s life come across an inauthentic.

This is also true of those who seem unaware of how they come across to others. They write as if they are the hero of the story, when readers see flaws in their thinking and actions. If writers lack insight into themselves, readers won’t trust their narrative.

The beauty of memoir is that it allows you to reflect and come to revelations about yourself that you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered.

Here are some examples of writers who don’t present themselves accurately:

“[The author’s] tone is often offputting. With self-deprecating humor, the author insists that dumb luck is behind his good fortune and frequently uses self-references, such as a ‘numbnuts,’  ‘screwup,’ or ‘schmuck like me’— a tack that feels like false modesty considering its juxtaposition with the author’s obvious pleasure at his many accomplishments. His continuous referral to what he sees as his lack of skills in the art of female seduction is equally distracting.”

 “In one passage, [the author] compares those who may have a different opinion about [the sexualization of] massage to stroke victims…The irony is that sexual release is, in fact, one of the author’s primary goals when visiting massage parlors in places such as Taiwan, Thailand, etc.”

Passing over seemingly important events or not fully elaborating on them:

As they drive down the highway of their lives, some writers mention every little moment along the way: what they ate for breakfast on a certain day, what type of car they drove or haircut they had in a certain year. But when it comes to bigger events, they speed right by with nary a nod. Divorces, sexual assault and other stunning revelations are presented as if they were mere bumps on the road to the next meal. This is jarring to readers – to say the least. Being vulnerable is scary, but brushing over parts of your life that have ripe storytelling opportunities will only frustrate readers. It’s like telling a friend you have a secret you can’t reveal. In a memoir, readers will resent you for piquing their interest and then failing to follow through.

Here are some examples of writers missing major opportunities in their memoirs:

“Numerous misspellings and misused words distract, as do editorial inconsistencies and omissions. [The author] doesn’t mention having a three-year-old son until halfway through the book. The book mentions three different girlfriends without ever noting a breakup or again acknowledging the child.”

“Unfortunately, the writing is a series of missed opportunities to fully describe the events in [the author’s] life and explain how she learned and grew through them. For instance, one major event is summed up with the single heading: ‘Divorce in 1999.’”

“[The author] describes the [abusive] teacher’s actions as an ‘unfortunate weakness,’ and his journal entries stop abruptly. Ultimately, what could have been a provocative exploration of an innovative teaching philosophy gone wrong and the kind of sexual abuse that has rocked the Catholic Church and crystallized in the #MeToo movement becomes merely a mildly interesting journal covering long-ago travels.”


Kiana Marsan is a second-year undergraduate student majoring in English & Literary Arts at the University of Denver. She is an intern at BlueInk Review.

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