A Guide To Writing Your Memoir: Getting in the Dirt

Neil StraussNeil45 Comments

In the last week, I received three offers to ghost-write books: from a rocker, a rapper, and a convict. I also know many of you are interested in writing your own memoirs. So I wanted to take a moment today to discuss writing about yourself.

I’ve received scores more offers to ghost-write books than I’ve accepted. Many of these offers have been from artists and celebrities I’ve greatly admired. And my decision to work with someone has usually come down to just one thing:

Are they willing to get in the dirt?

Go to the memoir or biography section of any bookstore. Pick up the latest celebrity text. And within a few pages, you’ll be able to tell which celebrities were telling the whole story and which celebrities just wanted to rehash fawning press releases.

The deal is: If you are going to write your memoir, then you must be willing to tell the truth. And to do so, you must not be afraid to share things that may make you look bad, cause others to judge you, or even harm relationships you have. Secrets you’ve never told your family or your best friend must be divulged – especially if they are part of what makes you tick – otherwise you’re not being fair to the reader. And a reader can almost always tell when a writer is holding something back.

I remember, when writing Jenna Jameson’s book, she told me things she’d never told anyone before – each of which required many cigarette breaks for her. After some of these stories, she’d go to bed shaken, and wake up in the morning full of doubts about whether they should be shared or not.

But they had to be shared: the bricks that create each of us are not all made of gold. Some are shit. And we’re all a combination of both.

But this is not a bad thing, because it’s the shit that makes us unique. To quote one of the most famous first lines in literature: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Joseph Campbell puts it another way, perhaps even more relevant to writing:

“What distinguishes one person from the other is each person’s deviation from a norm. Nobody’s perfect. So, in describing anybody, what you describe are the faults. Perfection is not lovable…What is lovable about a person is precisely that cute little twist of the nose that doesn’t belong to the Greek tradition. What is lovable is his fault. What is lovable is his humanity….”

“Sometimes life is horrific. Sometimes terrible things take place. Are you still going to say yay to life? The artist has to say yay…and where he says nay is where he has lost his humanity.”

When I wrote Motley Crue’s autobiography, we decided that if we were going to call the book The Dirt, then we were going to have to deliver the dirt. And to ensure the integrity of it, we made a few ground rules. One was that no member of the band could see anything another member wrote prior to the book’s completion. Another rule was that no band member could change something in anyone else’s chapter; if he disagreed, he could instead respond to it in his own chapter.

I didn’t realize just how much bravery it took from these artists until it came time to write my own book. After all, it was easy for me to sit in the green room of Late Night With David Letterman or The Howard Stern Show while Marilyn Manson or Jenna Jameson had to answer for the things I’d coaxed them to confess. Now I’d have to answer for my sins.

So, while writing The Game, I found myself constantly reminding myself of the words about avoiding self-censorship and not fearing judgment I’d told Motley Crue and Jenna Jameson. And in the end, I discovered two interesting things: The first was that it was actually much easier to confess on paper things I’d never told anyone than it was to do so in person. (This may have been due to convincing myself that no one’s actually going to read it when I’m done.)

Thesecond is that the things you think will upset people usually never do. It’s usually a small detail that you may not even think is significant that ends up causing controversy. This has been true in every single book I’ve written. So never try to second-guess how people will react to your secrets. Because, more often that not, it’ll be the things that you find the most ordinary that will shock them the most.

45 Comments on “A Guide To Writing Your Memoir: Getting in the Dirt”

  1. Neil,

    Your blatant honesty, search for the truth (no matter how “tarnished” it may be), and willingness to ‘put it out there’ is inspiring to me. It also makes your writing style pretty unique and addictive.

    Personally it’s been very powerful to realize that, on a macro level, I am no different from any of the billion or so humans who have come before me. They have, and I am currently, experiencing this same strange journey called ‘the human experience’. However, at the same time it’s invigorating to realize that there has never been – and will never be – another me. My gifts, skills, talents, priorities, and perspective are entirely unique to myself; I’m one-of-a-fucking-kind(!) & “not a unique snowflake” concurrently. We all come from varied backgrounds with various life experiences; we are all fucked up in our own way and that’s what makes us unique; that’s what keeps life interesting.

    I’m curious, in terms of seduction or simple ‘daily life’ how open you are about your ‘shitty bricks’? While I certainly don’t go around pronouncing my faults and fuck-ups to people I just meet, I have found that when speaking about my personal experiences in an open and honest way about where I’ve messed up has an extremely powerful effect. On the other extreme, I think this can weird people out at times… Like most things, I’m assuming the correct answer is probably gray and based on proper calibration/context.

    [Dave Eggers has an interesting take on this starting on pg. 214 of his autobiography-of-sorts, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It’s long but I’d be wiling to type it up and post it here if anyone is interested…]

    I posted this in Killing The Enemy Inside but in fear that it will never get read – and because it fits so well here, I’m going to re-post:
    In terms of my bricks of shit, I’ve been struggling to reframe my “Secret Self”. The side of myself which I don’t like is Linus from Charlie Brown; he’s the smelly kid who mopes around with his security blanket feeling defeated; It’s the part of me that constantly feels, “I’m not good enough” / “I don’t have anything to offer.” While this has been beneficial for me to realize and personify, I’m struggling to reframe how this stinky, depressed, snot can possibly help me…. Any ideas?


  2. Very interesting. And pretty radical. Suprisingly radical. I am not sure if audiences recognize if you are completely telling the truth, but maybe, yes, they could be able to. I remember a sentecne in Howard Stern autobiographical movie that said apporximately that you have to go all out, say it all, hold nothing back, something along those lines. Consistent with what you write
    I am slowly and with some hesitation approaching that honesty when I post in a professional message board (sermo) and in my own blog – under an alias.
    Thank you for the encouragement to be honest and straight.
    Your honest remarks in The Game all made you more human, more sympathetic, gave you more texture and made you more believable. My usual reaction was “OMG, he is like me, I would feel that”

  3. Being brutally honest with yourself and having to tell someone about it is the hardest if not the hardest thing to do in life. Especially, if it is real dirt. It sucks! It sometimes feels like being raped from the inside out. However, if you have the courage to do it I believe you are better person for it at the end of the day. Unfortunately, for a lot of people that is a big “IF.”

  4. Thanks for this post Neil. I’ve been a blogger for quite some time now and even though I find the experience theraputic and relaxing most times, I have never really got to the Dirt about what I’m thinking or feeling. I’ve always written in a covert style with implicit messages, as I have family and friends who follow my blog. I guess I’m scared to have the naked truth out there in the open. But I’ll keep your insight in mind for the next time I write and see what happens.

  5. Digging into the dirt can be very grounding. *rimshot*

    I’ve started reading a book called Integral Life Practice. Practically the first thing they get into is shadow-work. They have developed something called the 3-2-1 process to provide a methodology for working w/ ones shadow, both positive and negative aspects.

    They go on about how freeing it is to reclaim the energy used to repress and deny aspects of ourself, and how once explored and worked with one can redeploy it in more beneficial, positive ways. (http://lmgtfy.com/?q=321+shadow+process)



    1. Honesty as a last policy, unless your making someone money, then you can afford to tell the truth.

      Truth, no thanks. It stays a whisper in my ear.

        1. Streets are full of homeless who told their inner most secrets. All they got was alienated and outcast. Bad areas of life are full with people who fell down into them.

          Yet when celebrities do it they are worshipped, they survive because they are making someone money.

          There are two worlds and until the right time, it pays to keep ya mouth shut.

    2. I’ve often wondered whether creating fictional stories would be as revealing and insightful when they’re heavily influenced by true events. Would it be easier on the reader? By that I mean would they be less critical and judgmental about the author?

        1. Agreed. I chose to do the same in the opening chapter of my own first work. It relates the episode of meeting my ex and her new husband ten years later. I was obese and looked like hell. She was a model, he an ex Olympic swimmer and a medical doctor. It wasn’t my finest moment— but it marked a beginning on a journey that lead there.

          My book is available since last Friday in the iBookstore.

  6. Neil, Will you someday publish your books for amazon’s Kindle? I wanted to buy Emergency, ELWYD and “How to make Love like a pornstar” but they are not available for kindle which is more convenient for me since I’m not living in the USA.

    1. Hey Neil

      I just want to tell you how much I have learned about so many different aspects of life since the Inner Circle started. You are inspiring, and it is great to be a part of this thing.


      1. Pingback: The Real Truth « Werewolves and Shotglasses

    2. I wonder who will be the first politician or sports star to take this attitude to their biographies? I don’t think any politician ever will.

  7. ” The first was that it was actually much easier to confess on paper things I’d never told anyone than it was to do so in person. (This may have been due to convincing myself that no one’s actually going to read it when I’m done.)”

    lol…Thank God you couldn’t predict that this book was going to be the most successful book in the seduction comunity!!

  8. Hey Neil, I’m always having trouble finding good book to read…

    I hate how books are rated on the term “Best Seller”

    That term is such a misconception… It’s been my experience that most of the time that the term “best seller” is just saying that they have the best marketing…and most cases the book is a bunch of crappy writing.

    Do you have any tips on how to find the “Best writers” when looking for book?

  9. I find when people display a raw image of themselves in such a way, it creates a very human connection across the medium. They are no longer projected as some godly idealistic figure, but as a blood and bone brethren. We feel closer to the person we are reading about, and it becomes very hard to criticize and judge them when we feel our own skeletons knocking on our closet door.

  10. Neil,

    Censorship on the internet? What the fuck is wrong with you? You really are a PUSSY.

    When you delete a reply to your post about DIRT, because it mentioned Lisa Leveridge, that makes you an outrageous HYPOCRITE.


    JohnPaul Adamovsky

    PS – This fucking chode censors his web-site. It is time to stop taking him seriously. Neil Strauss is NOT a man, he is a COWARD.

    PPS – Enjoy your decline into the misery of fictional eternal youth.

    PPPS – You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found WANTING.

  11. Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge, Lisa Leveridge,

    Deal With NOW.

  12. when you put yourself out there with all the cards on the table it can feel both liberating and terrifying. Liberating in that you have nothing left to hide. Terrifying in that you may have shared things that didn’t need to be said, and with that people will hypocritically judge and condemn you, while you hope you have the confidence and strength to laugh it off and not let them destroy you.

    Then again, some people lead pretty boring lives and have nothing much to fear.
    Seems the longer I’m around, the more dangerouly interesting my story gets.

  13. Where, oh where (praytell) are the women in this joint? Especially the female writers (who need to be reading this particular post).

    From my own experience as a lippy broad on the web, here’s what I’ll add: people identify with people. Writing is just an exercise that puts words on a screen or page until you breathe something into them – whatever it might be – that grabs your audience by the piercings in their naughty bits and compels them to stay. It’s dirt. Hurt. Discovery. Joy. Those things that create memories. When I look back at life and those things that are memorable to me, they’re a delightful mixture of the things that make me want to spoon a fifth of vodka and pull the shades down tight and the unexpected moments of joy that couldn’t be recreated by a crack squad out of Hollywood.

    So, you have a choice. You can tell stories. I always think of stories as being about other people. Fuck that noise. Let them tell their own tales.

    Or, you can stand naked on your front porch in a snowstorm/shit storm/whatever storm and invite people inside to share. We all have what Neil’s dubbed “dirt.” And what I love about sharing it? The people worth having in your life and audience will stick around even after it’s out there. Everyone else can go…well, they can simply go.

  14. I lost count how many times your writing made me really think what’s important in life. You’re great!
    Thank you.

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