Kate Mayfield: How Not To Write A Memoir

24th Oct 2014

Kate Mayfield is the author of The Undertaker's Daughter, a memoir about how growing up for her meant the business of death became life itself! Colour us intrigued. We could've asked Kate for a 'How To' Guide, but - as she shares below - sometimes a more cautionary tale can be more helpful to writers everywhere. Over to Kate...

Want to write a memoir? Then you’ll need to avoid the pitfalls of memoir writing in which you can so easily become trapped. Gather round the campfire of memories and be warned by these tips of woe… 

Number 1 – Expect the unexpected

When I embarked upon the trail backwards into my childhood, I was not aware that I would discover the complex machinations of secret keepers, a thousand pages of court transcripts, or the scribbles of doctors and nurses on pages of my father’s medical records from his time as a soldier in France. Surprise after surprise unfolded. I would wager that this is not unusual and was perhaps a result I should have expected.

I recall a visit to the library in the town featured in my memoir. I found an old article in a small local paper wherein the “writer”, a young man, a boy really, who stood before me now in the library, had labelled my father a swindler. I was absolutely flushed with anger.

My father was a lot of things, but a swindler he was not. I could scarcely keep my voice down when I questioned him. The boy didn’t know who I was and freely informed me about how my father had swindled an old lady.

 These shocks and surprises are emotional roller coasters. Ride them. Take what you can of unexpected discoveries and run with them. 

Number 2 – Don’t underestimate the responsibility you have to the work, yourself and others

This is true of all writing, but more so with memoir writing.

One of my first tasks was to slowly acquaint my family with the idea of their future: interviews, trepidatious trips down memory lane, and midnight phone calls from afar.

I thought it would be a good idea if the four women in our immediate family got together for an initial chat; I made a special trip to Kentucky to this purpose. What a perfect storm.

We were at each other’s throats in five minutes. I was responsible for opening the proverbial can of worms. You cannot be too sensitive, or too thoughtful in your approach to the memories of others.

Number 3 – Beware of tangents

If you want to write a memoir, you must feel you have a special story to tell – at least I hope so. At times you will be tempted to stray from that story because, lo and behold, you’ve discovered another special story within your special story. Be careful.

It’s extremely helpful, if not necessary, to learn everything you can about your “characters”, the history of your era, or eras, and events surrounding your narrative, but only weave in what is absolutely necessary to tell the initial story.

I lost count of the number of train cars I had filled with tangents and pulled along, only then to finally disengage them. Banish your tangents. Your story demands it.

Number 4 – Rely on your instincts (Part 1)

You will make thousands of decisions during the memoir writing process. There will be times when the decisions will be impossibly hard and might involve divulging secrets and uncomfortable truths.

Your instincts will help guide you to determine how far to go down a particular course and what to leave out. When you sense resistance from someone you’re interviewing, and you will, your instincts will inform you when the probing needs to stop.

Writing a memoir does not equate to revealing every secret or private moment you or anyone else has ever had. You are not obligated to do so, but it is your remit to make brave choices.

Number 5 – Rely on your instincts (Part 2)

The strongest instinct I followed when I began to write was my decision to change the names of most people, and to also change the place names.

I did this not only for legal reasons; it was a decision that offered freedom and objectivity. In a strange way this approach became a constant reminder that I was writing a story about people I had known in a specific place, at a specific time, people who were complex. 

By giving these people different names it was a call for me to view them from a fresh perspective and to embrace them more wholly.

A final word about instincts; seek advice, but ultimately trust yourself. Think carefully about the suggestions you take on and incorporate into your work. Discard the rest – including mine.

Kate Mayfield

Kate Mayfield is the author of The Undertaker’s Daughter (Simon & Schuster) and the co-author of Ten Steps to Fashion Freedom, and Ellie Hart Goes to Work.

Kate has lived in New York, LA and now calls London home – you can follow her on Twitter, and check out her Facebook and website too!


Are you writing or researching your memoir currently? Let us know how it’s going in the comments section!

[Image credit: Used with permission from Simon & Shuster UK]