Essay, Memoir & Autobiography

Digging Truthfully Into Your Own Life for Personal Non-Fiction

Getting Personal in Your Writing

By Barbara Abercrombie | Updated 9/8/20

We write personal non-fiction — essays, memoir and autobiography — not to gaze at our belly buttons and muse over how wonderful or awful our lives are, but to put down our own small, individual truth.

This happened to me, these are the specific details and feelings of that time in my life and this is where I ended up. With a personal essay this can be a very short event, a single incident; one traumatic experience that taught you a life lesson, or maybe something trivial that frustrated you and becomes humorous in the writing of it. The memoir, as William Zinsser says, is a window into a life. Writing a memoir gives you the opportunity to explore a unique period in your life, to make order and sense out of it. An autobiography, your entire life up until this moment, can be a transformation of the messiness of daily life into a valuable piece of family history.

One question we all face when writing non-fiction about our life is how creative can you be with the truth? I believe the best way you can answer this question is from your own expectations as a reader. When I read a memoir or personal essay my expectations are far different than when I read fiction. John Gardner once said that when you write fiction you're inviting the reader into a fictional dream; you read fiction with suspended disbelief. You tell me that some guy wakes up as a cockroach and if you have the details down, some kind of emotional truth to that situation, I'll believe it. Just as I believed Kafka. I know it's made up, I know it's a lie to get at a larger truth, so I suspend my disbelief, and enter the writer's dream world.

But when I read personal non-fiction I'm coming at it from another direction: I believe this really happened. There's a kind of vulnerability when you read like that. I invest my belief in this truth, so that if I ever find out it didn't happen that way in the writer's life, there wasn't the fellow in the cowboy boots who made pancakes for supper, or the cat who answered the phone by knocking the receiver off the hook, if the writer invented these details, I feel ripped off. And this is the way I approach it as a writer. If I say I'm writing non-fiction, I'm telling you it's the truth. This really happened and I'm remembering it to the best of my ability, and that's all any of us can do.

When you write memoir, an essay, or your autobiography, your characters are real. It really is your mother, the person you divorced, your partner, your teenager, your best friend. And you worry: what will they think of having some intimate detail of their own life exposed? Every writer needs to come up with his or her own guidelines for how to write truthfully about those closest to you. I figure that my husband married me knowing I was a writer and that he was fair game as my material. On the other hand, my daughters and their families, and my stepchildren, didn't sign up for the role of writer's kid so I try not to reveal anything personal about them that might cause them embarrassment.

Getting personal on the page is different for every writer. My students ask for rules about this and I say there are no rules — except for your own. The pen is mightier than the sword, and I believe that writers, good ones, stab hypocrisy, lies, and bad behavior with their writing, not the egos of those closest to them. When you write deeply and honestly about most people, you see both sides of their behavior, and a good writer reveals not only the truth, but also a generosity toward others.

What is your story? If you're alive and breathing, you've gone through change or loss or hardship or at the very least, crazed frustration. How did you get through it? What did you learn?

Your story, whether earthshaking and dramatic or simple and deep, has something to offer a reader because it's true, this really happened. As C.S. Lewis said, "We read to know we are not alone." And a reader feels this connection when you, the writer, tell the truth of your own life.

Next: Writing Your Own History

©2006 Barbara Abercrombie. All rights reserved.