How to Write a Memoir

Kanitha Heng '09

Fuck(1). The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word in many ways and forms. As a noun, it is “an act of copulation.” As a verb, it means “to copulate,” but also it can be used “profanely in imprecations and exclamations.” In Ulysses, James Joyce exclaims: “God fuck old Bennett!” If James Joyce can use the word, what lends him the authority to do so and denies you the use? Nothing. In writing a memoir, you must convince the reader that you are being honest. If you are holding back on, for example, saying “fuck,” the reader may sense this. And if this should happen, then you are also fucked. Credibility is held in the highest regard for a memoir, and it is your voice that will gain the reader’s trust.

Beware, however, of disregarding the context in which you choose to employ certain words, and you must take into consideration your piece as a whole when making these choices. If you are writing a serious piece that carries a rather sentimental tone about the first time you fell in love, saying “He fucked me, and I was so in love” (2) may be an instance when “fuck” may not convey what you were feeling at that moment. But if you are writing from the voice of a forty-year-old woman who has just found out that her partner of eight years has cheated on her with a younger twenty-something girl, opting to write “Fuck that bastard” could possibly work.

You determine your own voice and the effect of this voice. In this piece, I am assuming a voice of authority in some sense (3) and attempting to use “fuck” in the correct context of the piece. I am not establishing rules about using “fuck” (4) in writing because I do not claim such authority, and those who do have authority to create such rules must be experts in using “fuck” extensively in their writing, for there are always exceptions to the rule. Given this, ask yourself questions like: Does this word fit? Does it sound right? Does it seem forced? Does it seem random? Will your reader look at it, and say “What the fuck?” Such questions are important to think about when writing your memoir.

Subject matter and intended audience are also important factors to consider, especially because the two are so closely connected. There is nothing wrong with writing about fucking, for example, if you wish to do so. Are you hesitant to write about it because you are afraid perhaps that your mother will read the piece? This is simply not a good reason not to write it. If you intend to get it published, then you can publish it in some obscure journal. If you are afraid it will be overly vulgar for readers, don’t be; some audience will take pleasure in it. What if you write a piece about fucking that is so damn good that it would be a shame not to send it into publication? Then publish it. Your mother can get over the fact that you have some sort of experience with fucking (5).

The OED defines memoir as “records of events or history written from the perspective of the personal knowledge or experience of the writer.” Writing a memoir is not for your mother, your dog, or your goldfish. A memoir is an account of your personal experience. Why not portray it precisely through your own eyes? A memoir is your connection to your experience. Just fucking write it (6).

1. Yes, you CAN say this.

2. Like “fuck,” “love” has an over usage problem and should be used sparingly and with precision.

3. (But you, as the reader, determine whether my authority is credible or not. If you think that I am writing bullshit, then I have failed in trying to establish my intended voice to you.)

4. However, I did consider using “fuck” in many more instances and abusing the word, and thus, annoy you. I thought this would convey the necessity of not overusing words (not just fuck, but really most words should not be excessively used within a piece. Redundancy is boring.)

5. But then again, I may be being insensitive.

6. This is probably an annoying end to my piece. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.