Why you should reveal embarrassing details in memoir

December 22, 2009

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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    18 Replies to “Why you should reveal embarrassing details in memoir”

    • Megan Hill says:

      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.

      • Alexis Grant says:

        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!

    • Karen Walker says:

      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

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

    • Ami says:

      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!!!

    • jessiecarty says:

      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!

    • Hadley says:

      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.

    • Ally says:

      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

    • amartino says:

      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

    • Pauline says:

      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!

    • krpooler says:

      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[press.com

    • Abbie says:

      Makes people relate to you on a personal level… lol

    • Dana Brown says:

      I’ve been told I am very transparent when I write and speak. At first I thought it would make people uncomfortable to know some of the craziness of my life, but they tell me it makes them love me more. When writers share the embarrassing stuff, it makes people that don’t actually know them feel like they do because they can relate. It makes the writer real.

      I’m loving you and your blog. I can’t wait to read your book.

    • Alexis, I can totally relate on the, ‘should I vs. shouldn’t I,’ issue when it comes to putting yourself out there with personal experiences. I write a weekly column for the newspaper I run. We live in a town where everyone knows everyone and I have four kids. I have an easy time laughing at myself, but still squirm when I reveal, what I feel, are soft spots in my life.

      Generally though, I have someone approach me throughout the week with a kind word or who might share a similar story in which they can relate to my experience. We laugh together, know we’ve found a kindred spirit (we aren’t alone) and I move on feeling better about the weekly revelation.

      I have drawn the line however at only embarassing myself….my family is off limits in my columns unless they cannot be identified in the story or I need some really great blackmail material!

    • I know revealing yourself is important, so I’m edging myself along the ledge, building the confidence to jump and tell things as they are. It’s funny because I hadn’t realised I present an idealised, more dilute version of myself to the world at large. Getting more and more accepting of your own quirks makes it easier to laugh and share them. Great blog and comments 🙂

    • Anna Martin says:

      Hey Alexis,

      I’m new. This is the first section of your blog I read. I am a fan of telling the embarrassing. It makes us human, shows we can laugh at ourselves and allow others to connect with us. I love Al Roker even more now that I know he sharted in the White House Press Room. HUMAN!

      Thanks! I can’t wait to read more.
      Anna

    • Dahlia says:

      Hi Alexis,

      Great article! But what about those really really embarrassing things that no one ever talks about in public such as incontinence? Should a writer add it in? Or would it turn people off?

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