Why you should reveal embarrassing details in memoir

Now that I’m revising my travel memoir, I spend a lot of time looking at scenes and paragraphs that make me uncomfortable and asking myself: should I really include this?

That’s because in my first draft, I included everything. I included details that were embarrassing, that I wouldn’t even want my mother to read. I was able to do this because no one was going to read them. It was my only first draft.

But now I’m preparing to share my manuscript with five fabulous friends who have offered to serve as guinea pig readers. Now, if I leave those embarrassing pieces where they are, other people will read them.

And so I’m having a little bit of a panic attack. Every once in a while, I’ll send a paragraph to my best friend from journalism school or my critique partner and ask, “Are you sure I should include this? The reader is not going to think I’m totally lame? You’re absolutely positive you’re laughing with me and not at me?”

This morning, in response to one of my e-mail panics, critique partner Peggy wrote this response. Another reason why she’s awesome:

I know that revealing something so personal makes you uncomfortable, but small things like that help make the reader LIKE you even more. They don’t want to read about a superwoman, they want someone real, with flaws and quirks. That is one of the first things you learn when writing fiction, to give your main character a flaw. Nothing too horrible, of course, but why do you think Hugo gave Quasimodo a hump?

Good for you to be willing to be open. You will be happy you did.

I know she’s right. Nothing that I’m writing about is “too horrible.” When you read the book, you might even pass over those parts without realizing they were embarrassing for me to reveal. But to me, exposing my personal feelings and habits is horrifying. Scary. So scary, in fact, that I vow not to think about it for the rest of the day after I finish this blog post.

But I will tell you this: I have not removed a single embarrassing paragraph. Not one. Why? Because they make the book interesting, and as Peggy pointed out, they’ll help the reader like me.

You’d better not laugh at me when you read this book.

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13 Responses

  1. The more you talk about your book, the more anxious I am to hold it in my hands and read it!

    That’s great advice. I think there’s a fine line, though…you don’t want to be too self-deprecating because I think you risk becoming an annoying character. (I use “you” in the general sense.) Maybe. I really have no idea.

    • You’re totally right, Megan. I think I lean so far on the side of not revealing enough — because it’s hard for me — that I don’t have to worry about that. But for others it might be serious consideration!

  2. Alexis, Peggy is so right. You need to be a rounded character – we are all human and all have out little quirks. I went thru a similar process with my memoir, afraid people would hate me because of the decisions and choices I made. Well, you know what, some may. But it was the truth, so in it went. Try not to worry so much. Trust your readers now to give you some good feedback.
    Blessings,
    karen

  3. i just wanted to say you are among the most productive people i have ever met. godspeed, woman!

  4. Thanks for posting this, Alexis. I went through this when I first started writing personal essays and reading them at open mic sessions. It was one thing to write about very personal, sensitive topics, and another thing entirely to allow others to read them and then read them in front of a room of strangers.

    I’m glad you’ve decided to share those embarrassing moments in your story. Peggy is right…they’ll help readers connect with you and will make you more “real” to us. Looking forward to reading!!!

  5. so glad you decided to leave them in!
    there are still some topics i have a hard time writing poems about but i’m working on it, to really connect with other people you have to BE yourself!

  6. Hey Alex,

    I agree, you should definitely include them. Aside from humanizing you, it gives the reader something to identify with! Whenever I read passages like that (which always come up in my favorite books), I’m comforted to see something of myself in the literature. Cause goodness knows I’ve had some pretty embarrassing moments too! I’m glad you’re keeping them in – they do often end up being the best bits.

  7. Lexi,
    I cant wait to read your book, juicy details included! I was telling a friend of mine who is going to africa to read your blog for educational and entertainment purposes. Thanks for the posts. You’re an inspiration to travel and to tackle the world alone, yet with confidence. Thanks Lexi

    -Ally

  8. I’m so glad I stumbled upon this blog via various travel writers! And what I have to say in response to this post, is “Go you!” I’m constantly struggling with similar questions–should I include this embarrassing moment, or that awkward scene, or even worse, portray someone I love in an unflattering way?–in short pieces I write. I agree that your readers will empathize more if you are vulnerable–it’s a defense mechanism of sorts!

    Very excited to follow your career and book release!
    -Alyssa
    http://thepenandpaper.wordpress.com

  9. I promise not to laugh. Ok, maybe I will laugh…but only with and not AT you. ;)
    Trust me, I know how hard it is to reveal the skeletons, even if their only a teensy bit embarrassing. But I’m sure that all the awkward moments will lead to a great read—and a book that readers will be able to relate to.
    Can’t wait to read it!

  10. Alexis,

    I have found that getting in touch with my greatest vulnerabilities has helped me to find my strengths. This is a great post and I hope you continue to stay true to your story and get this book published!

    Best Wishes!

    Kathy Pooler, another aspiring memoir writer
    http://krpooler.word%5Bpress.com

  11. [...] am reminded of this great post by Alexis Grant on revealing embarrassing details in memoir. Not that my drinking tendencies are [...]

  12. Makes people relate to you on a personal level… lol

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