One First-Draft Mistake that Hurts Your Memoir

getting started memoirs writing tips Nov 27, 2023
Step into pain

One mistake I consistently see memoir writers make is being guarded in their first draft. Likely, they're following the commonly accepted advice to "write from your scars, not your wounds." Instead of telling their story unfiltered, they get in their heads and clean up their thoughts. 

What would Aunt Mary say if she read this?

How would Mom react if she knew I felt this way?

I can’t say that; it’d hurt my husband too much.

Writers, I implore you, let your first draft be for you.

It’s critical that your first draft be a place for you to write about your life as you experienced it. This is where you get to let it rip. Say all the things you need to say — the raw, unfiltered, unvarnished truth about what happened and how you feel about it. Your job is to get your story onto the page. 

No one needs to read it. You get to tell it as raw as you want without fearing that one of the phantom readers in your head will ever see a single word of it. Give yourself permission to write — even bleed on the page.

If you’re infuriated at your ex-husband for how he wronged you, say it. Say it as open-wounded as you need to. Unless you get in touch with the depth and pain of your wounds, your writing will always feel guarded and restrained.

What wounds can teach us

Writing from your wounds also helps reveal places where you’re not yet healed. For instance, let’s say you write about a friend who betrayed you and when you re-read the passage, you discover that you’ve painted yourself as a victim and your friend as a villain. As you reflect on the harm you experienced from this person, you might ask yourself:

  • What does the particular wound they inflicted tell you about yourself?

  • What was vulnerable in you that they were able to harm you?

  • Why has your wound hurt for so long?

  • How has nursing this wound served you?

  • What would healing from this wound require of you?

In asking these kinds of questions, I’m not suggesting you need to shift the blame for any harm you may have experienced from the perpetrator to yourself. What I am suggesting is that wounds have a lot to teach us.

If we stop at simply naming ourselves as the victim and the perpetrator as the villain, we miss out on the deeper truths that can be revealed, both for us as writers and for our readers. This is where the gold is — the universal, resonant truths that are revealed when we dive into the complexity and nuance of what it means to be human. This is what makes memoir writing so illuminating for a broader audience. 

Themes like betrayal, rejection, loss, grief, neglect, and all forms of abuse provide a way to paint with words in shades of gray. Pain is never one-dimensional. And the reasons people harm us are never black and white. As humans, we’re complex and nuanced. Memoir writing offers a way to describe and untangle the multifaceted nature of what it means to be both victim and villain.

This is the magic of memoir writing. It both reveals traits about ourselves and about the people in our lives. The first draft especially offers us a chance to feel the pain of our wounds and assess which ones are still oozing. 

You might need a therapist

Memoir writing can be a powerful pathway to healing and can lead to transformative revelations for your life. But writing itself is not a substitute for good therapy. If you discover unresolved trauma, anger, grief, hopelessness, or any other feelings that may be negatively affecting your mindset, your relationships, or the way you’re operating in life, it may be time to call a therapist.

Case in point: About ten years ago, my life was unraveling. I couldn’t ignore the fraying edges and splits in the seams anymore. Though I had been journaling my whole life and had always processed life through writing, simply writing my thoughts wasn’t changing anything for me. I needed help.

It was then that I discovered narrative trauma therapy. Once a week, a group of women and I would gather in our therapist’s office (or on Zoom during Covid). One or two of us would read a slice of life story — a snapshot that described a moment in time when our sense of self was deeply shattered. Sometimes the incidents were dramatic and jaw-dropping, especially in stories of sexual abuse. Other times the trauma was more subtle but no less damaging, like getting teased throughout childhood for being overweight.

As we stepped into these past pains, we wrote from our wounds, recounting incidents that had shaped our personal narratives. We were able to extend to one another the empathy and care we needed but never received when those experiences originally occurred.

Doing this therapy in the context of a group was a healing, transformative experience. In fact, it was this group story work that led me to write my first memoir.

My first draft, which was a series of my therapy group stories (I call them micro-memoirs) stitched together into one narrative. It was as bloody and messy as could be. However, writing my story raw first was a necessary step to healing and understanding the narrative arc of my life. Over time and as emotional wounds healed, my memoir drafts were less raw and allowed the deeper truths of my story to shine through.

First, write to understand

I share this to encourage you to consider outside counseling to address deep wounds you may still be suffering from. As you continue to work through your own internal healing, you’ll be able to apply your new understandings to your memoir writing, which will add depth and reflective richness to your writing.

Irish-English poet C. Day Lewis famously said, “We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.”

Memoir writing is one of the most life-changing types of writing because of the self-reflection it requires. And your first draft, in all its messy, oozy woundedness, is the perfect portal to discovering new understandings about yourself.


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