A Guide To Writing Your Memoir: Getting in the Dirt

Neil StraussNeil

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.