The memoir genre has taken off in the past several decades. And between personal essays in online magazines, lifestyle blogs, and even social media, we’re revealing more of ourselves to each other than ever before. Writing about your personal life has become the norm.
Regardless of the medium, knowing what to include and what to leave out when telling stories from your own life is tricky. Those who choose to undertake the challenge must walk a careful tightrope between truth-telling and oversharing.
As someone who spent a large portion of their academic career studying memoir, the question of how personal is too personal is one I’ve thought about quite a bit. Here’s what I’ve learned from my reading, writing, and discussions with others who put their personal lives on paper.
How to Write About Your Personal Life
There’s no set rulebook for writing about your own life. However, there are some best practices that professional writers recommend for strengthening your work and deciding what to share and what to leave off the page. Here are the top tips I keep in mind for writing about your personal life.
1. Determine Why You’re Writing About Yourself
One of the biggest criticisms of the memoir genre is that it’s full of navel gazing writers looking for a chance to complain or to shock people with the drama of their lives. In order to avoid falling into this stereotype, and to prevent yourself from oversharing, it helps to know why you’re writing about your own life.
Do you want to explain how you accomplished a major goal so others can achieve success? Share how you overcame a significant obstacle to inspire others? Inform readers about a unique and important part of your life that most people don’t know much about?
Once your motivation as a writer is clear, you can test every scene and sentence against it. Does sharing that embarrassing story really help your audience understand how you built your business from the ground up, or did you just add it because you thought it was funny? Are you including that bit about your mother because it provides some important information for readers, or because you’re mad at her and you think it would hurt her feelings?
If it’s not actively serving your reason for writing about your personal life in the first place, you can safely assume that you can leave it out.
2. Consider Who Else Will Be in Your Story (and How You’ll Deal With Them)
Speaking of mothers—and fathers and siblings and friends and all kinds of other people in your life—you may want to think about how yours will feature in your writing, if at all.
There is a huge range of opinions on how much say others should have in your story when you’re writing about your real life. Some say that as long as you’re depicting them honestly, your friends and family have no right to complain or push back against what you write about them. Others will recommend letting the people who feature in your work read it before you publish it, and maybe even have the chance to ask you to make changes if they don’t like how you’ve represented them.
Often, the best course of action lies somewhere in between the two extremes. Although you may try to tell your story as truthfully as possible, you’re still human and your memory is flawed. And if you still have relationships with the other people who are in your story, it may be better to talk to them about what you’re writing before it becomes public to avoid putting strain on those relationships.
However, it’s also important not to let someone else rewrite your story just because they want to look better or think it should be told differently. Don’t hesitate to stand up for yourself, but be willing to listen to other perspectives, too.
3. Be Honest With Yourself
Just as your friends and family may ask you to paint them in the best light, it can be tempting to do the same for yourself. If you’re going to write about your personal life, there’s a good chance you’ll have to share the bad parts along with the good.
Again, this tip is all about balance. Chances are you’re not a knight in shining armor, but you’re also probably not a supervillain. Talking to other people who were around during the time you’re writing about can help you find the truth. If you collect multiple perspectives, you may be able to see the situation from a new angle.
Throwing in a bunch of details to try to make yourself seem more sympathetic or heroic than you really are can easily backfire. The currency of creative nonfiction is truth, and authenticity will go a long way toward making your story resonate with readers, even if you come out looking less than spotless.
What to Include When Writing About Your Personal Life
Hopefully the tips above can help you write about your personal life in a way that reveals just the right amount of information. However, here’s a quick list of the types of details it can be especially helpful to include in your work.
- Verifiable Facts. Any details that you can prove are fair game when writing about real events. This might be something as seemingly commonplace as when and where you were born, or more intricate details like where you ate dinner on a particular night. You can use these details to set the scene, strengthen an argument, and more.
- Your Opinions (With Disclosures). It’s completely fine and often expected for you to share your opinions when writing about your personal life. However, it’s best if you make sure you’re clear when you’re stating your personal views. Starting a sentence with “I think…” or “In my opinion…” does the trick, but you can show that you’ve moved away from fact and into speculation in a variety of ways.
- Details That Reveal Your Character. When you’re writing about your personal life, you’re the main character of the story. You want readers to get to know you the same way you would want to know and understand the protagonist in a novel. To that end, including small details that help show who you are as a character can enrich your narrative.
What to Leave Out When Writing About Your Personal Life
Likewise, here are some things you should definitely leave out when writing about your personal life. Not only will these details not improve your writing, but they could actually get you in serious trouble.
- Content That’s for Shock Value. If you’re only including a certain detail or story because you think it will elicit a strong reaction from readers, but it doesn’t really further your story or your argument, you should probably leave it out. Often, such scenes come across as oversharing and can be pretty cringey, too.
- Defamation and Libel. When it comes to writing about other people in your life, there are also legal considerations to keep in mind. Tarnishing someone’s character could actually cost you, so make sure you do your research and consult with a legal expert if you have concerns.
Keeping healthy boundaries when writing about your personal life can be difficult. However, it’s important for your own wellbeing and the good of your story for you to maintain balance between sharing information that’s valuable to readers and keeping certain details private.
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Featured Image: Unsplash.