Writing Your Family Memoirs? 10 Mistakes to Avoid 

These memoir writing tips and mistakes to avoid will protect you and your family from unnecessary pain and suffering. Memoirists tell the truth as they know it, which can set them free. The truth can also be hard to write about, and even harder to hear.

“How do you write your family memoirs?” is an oft-asked question for people in the second half of life. A Midlife Blossoms reader in her early 70s inspired me to write this article.

She said:

“I would like to write my memoirs but I think if I revealed my deepest anguishes it would cause nothing but pain – which I would never want to do,” says Roberta on Retired & Bored? 7 Tips to Keep You Happily Busy. “But having said that my daughter said write a book. My thoughts are if I wrote what I really experienced with my husband then my daughter would be unhappy. She does not know what went on behind closed doors in my marriage. I don’t want to crush her or destroy her children’s memories of their grandfather. I would never want that!”

“Not even adult children understand how serious family secrets can get and how writing family memoirs can be damaging. I could write my memoirs under a pen name to protect myself but that won’t my daughter and her kids will still learn the truth about my husband. What do you think? How do I write my memoirs without hurting family members?”

Most if not all families have an unpleasant underbelly or even serious problems, secrets or a history of crime. Even if they are out in the open, the relatives may not want them openly discussed. Revisiting the past can be painful and even traumatic.

All families have unpleasantness, embarrassments, and even scandals! How do memoir writers find the balance between sharing their story, and not hurting their family members? And, how much responsibility do writers have to protect people – especially at the cost of squelching their own creative urges?

It’s never easy for midlife or older writers to know what to include in their memoirs, even if you’re not trying to get your family history published. That’s a whole other story! For instance, my mom was hurt by the back cover blurb of my first traditionally published book, Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back.

She was so hurt, in fact, that she couldn’t read the book. She thought it would upset her. What did I write on the back cover? I referred to the fact that I grew up with a schizophrenic mother.

I told the truth, and it hurt my mom. This leads to my first tip.

1. Not expecting family to be hurt by the memoir

Avoid the mistake of expecting everyone to be happy about what you wrote in the family history. No matter what you write, relatives will find ways to be upset. Even if you write about how perfect your family was, some relative will be mad that you aren’t being honest.

tips for writing family memoirs in midlife and older age
Laurie & her book Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back

Write the truth as you experienced and know it, and allow your memoirs to disrupt or upset family members.

Not only was my mother hurt by the back cover blurb of my book, my mother-in-law was upset that I disclosed the reason my husband and I never had children. He has azoospermia, which means his body doesn’t produce sperm. I’d written about our infertility struggles on my blogs, but my mother-in-law figured nobody she knew would read my online writing. She worried that her friends and acquaintances would read my book, and the family “secret” would be discovered.

2. Waiting for certain relatives to die

Avoid the mistake of waiting too long, especially if you’re no longer in midlife. If you’re older than 70 and facing health issues, you might kick the bucket before anyone else in your family does.

Some memoirists encourage waiting until the family members involved in unpleasantness have died before writing the history. This can protect the relative’s ego and self-image, and avoid family conflict.

I think waiting for family members to die or give you their permission infringes on your rights as a writer of your own family’s history. Also, waiting until a family member dies doesn’t mean that his or her extended living relatives won’t be insulted or hurt by your memories and family memoir.

I could’ve waited for my mom to die before writing about her in my memoirs. That would’ve guaranteed that she wouldn’t be hurt by what I wrote about her. However, even if I had waited, I had no idea my mother-in-law would’ve been so upset.

So even if you wait until all the involved family members have passed away, you may still unknowingly hurt relatives by writing the family’s memoir. Another problem is that you’ll forget why you wanted to be a family memoirist.

Waiting for the right moment can be a form of procrastination that might prevent you from writing a single word. Both my mom and my mom-in-law are still alive, which means my book still wouldn’t be written. I’m a young midlifer, but I’ll be too old to write my memoirs when they pass.

3. Writing out of revenge or moral outrage

Are your writing your memoirs to punish your unsavory family members, or perhaps teach them a lesson? This is a mistake to avoid.

First, your relatives won’t “read between the lines” and understand what you’re really saying. Second, if they did realize what they did to hurt you or others, they’ll have reasons, excuses and justifications. Third, it’s not your place to write publicly about the transgressions of relatives.

Teaching lessons, exacting revenge, or exposing the bad behavior of a family member are the worst reasons to write your memoir.

If you’re outraged because a relative borrowed money, you should’ve read this blog post before getting financially entangled with kin: Should You Lend Money to Family Members?

4. Not knowing why you’re writing the family’s memoir

The fourth mistake memoirists commonly make is writing for the wrong reasons. Besides the reasons above, another poor reason to write your family history is because you think it’s fascinating. This isn’t a good reason because all families have fascinating members and memories, and most memoirs aren’t interesting to the average reader.

It takes a great deal of self-awareness to identify your real reason for writing memoirs, especially if they include your family’s crimes and misdemeanors. As a midlife writer, one of the most important life lessons is to “know thyself.” If you aren’t sure of your true motivations for writing your family memoirs, take time to explore yourself.

Write in your private journal and reflect on your reasons for writing family memoirs at this stage of your life. You might even join a Memoir Writing Group, or read books by memoirists who can guide you to making good choices for you and your family.

it’s important to know why you’re writing your memoirs. As long as you’re not writing your story to punish or expose family members, you have every right to share your experiences. Writing your memoirs is about you.

5. Not setting boundaries with your family members

Avoid the mistake of pandering to your relatives – especially ones who behaved poorly.

“You own everything that happened to you,” writes Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

mistakes to avoid when writing family history memoirs

While I’m not in 100% agreement with Anne Lamott’s statement that family members should have behaved better if they want to be written nicely about in your memoirs, I do believe you own your experiences and responses.

This has been a hard-won lesson for me because I’ve blogged or made YouTube videos about almost everything I’ve experience in my life. I’ve never created anything with the purpose of hurting friends or family members, but I know people have been upset by my writing. I’m not happy about this, but I can’t allow other people’s opinions to dictate my choices.

This is a personal decision that can get easier or more difficult as you get older, depending on your situation.

“I have been both blessed and bruised by the memoir-writing genre,” Kephart writes. In Handling the Truth she thinks out loud about the form of memoir writing—on how it gets made, on what it means to make it, on the searing language of truth, on the thin line between remembering and imagining, and, finally, on the rights of memoirists.

6. Asking your family members for permission

It’s almost always a mistake to get your family’s permission to write your memoirs, but it depends on your situation. When I wrote Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back, I needed written permission from my mother, former students, and even my husband. My book was published by a conservative Christian publishing house.

If you’re writing your memoirs for your family and friends, then you don’t need anyone’s permission. If you’re hoping to get published as a memoirist – and even build a writing career – then you might consider getting a written (not verbal) legal agreement from the family members implicated in your writing.

The last thing you need – especially if your memoir is published by a traditional publishing house – is a “she said, he said” situation. If your memoir is traditionally published, the editors may have their own in-house disclosure statements. You may have to ask your family members to formally agree that you have their permission to tell your story.

7. Talking about – not writing – your family memoirs

Are you telling friends and relatives that you’re writing your life history? That’s a mistake, unless you need their stories or corroboration.

When writers talk about their work and their ideas aren’t well-received, they lose momentum. They could even give up on writing a memoir because of how family members react. Their ideas could be discouraged, rejected or criticized.

Do yourself a favor. Don’t tell anyone you’re writing a family history or memoir. The only people to confide in are fellow memoirists who will support and encourage you. If you’re serious about writing your memoirs, just write them. What your family doesn’t know won’t hurt them.

8. Thinking that you already know yourself fully

You’re not a know-it-all, but you may be making the mistake of thinking you know yourself better than you actually do. If you’re a middle aged or older memoirist, you’ll be surprised at how much you don’t know about your own motivations, passions, and personality.

“Writing an honest memoir requires self-awareness, and self-awareness is often the result of writing an honest memoir,” writes memoirist Jerry Payne in his blog post Why You Should Write a Memoir (It May Not be Why You Think).

“It might seem like a catch-22, but it’s not. The writing feeds off the honesty, and the honesty, in turn, feeds off the writing. It’s a beautiful symbiosis. And it is in that symbiosis that you can learn something about yourself, something important, something you never knew before.” 

tips on how to write your family memoir

Jerry is the author of Writing Memoir: The Practical Guide to Writing and Publishing the Story of Your Life.

9. Not meeting other memoir writers

Avoid the mistake of trying to be a “lone wolf memoirist.” There is so much expert advice for writing family memoirs, plus professional tips for avoiding the mistakes that published memoirists have made.

  • Take an online or in-person memoir-writing workshop or class. For instance, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver offers a course called Writing a Memoir: Selecting and Connecting Your Life Experiences. Many senior’s organizations or clubs have memoir writing groups or workshops to encourage and support writers.
  • Invest in a subscription to a writing magazine or website. Writer’s Digest Magazine has a wonderful article by Alfred Lakritz called Things I Learned From Writing My Memoir.
  • Listen to podcasts about writing memoirs. J.F. Penn is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers, dark fantasy, crime, and travel memoir. Her most recent podcast episode is called Tips On Writing Memoir With J.F. Penn.
  • Follow writing blogs, even if they don’t focus on memoir writers. Improving your writing skills is crucial for memoirists. Here’s a blog post by Alexandra Amor to get you started: Writing Tips: How To Write A Memoir About A Difficult Subject. It’s a great source of inspiration, encouragement and practical tips.

“Memoir is not the same as autobiography, which is the retelling of someone’s entire life,” writes Alexandra Amor. “Memoir is about a certain time, event, or experience in a person’s life. There is a unifying message, theme or purpose to the telling. A memoir can span several years, but it limits itself to focusing on the subject of the memoir during that time.”

10. Not reading books on how to write family memoirs

Mary Karr is such a well-known memoirist in America, she’s been called a “national treasure.” If you’re not learning from middle to older aged memoir writers like her, you’re missing out.

Karr doesn’t just offer encouragement and motivation for writing a family memoir, she tells the truth about how difficult it can be.

How to write your family memoir- Mary Karr

“None of us can ever know the value of our lives, or how our separate and silent scribbling may add to the amenity of the world, if only by how radically it changes us, one and by one,” writes Karr in The Art of Memoir. “In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right.”

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I encourage you to make time every day to work on your memoir. If you don’t set aside a bit of time daily, you’ll run out of time. And as a midlifer, you know how fast time flies!

As far as I know, those are the biggest mistakes to avoid if you’re writing a family memoir. Your thoughts and questions are welcome below.




  1. I have lead a very full and sometimes complicated life. I have worked in many different vocations and participated in most all of the arts. I have been ask probably 100s of times why I don’t write a book about my life and or experiences. I realize that aspects of my life are things that should maybe written down for prosperity, but when I begin to think about what to write about, or what area to write about, I am bewildered.

    To fully write my life would take me volumes of words. I can remember from the age of two until now and yesterday I turned 76. At times I think of things that I think are important, but then other times I think of dozens of things are important. Many of my learned friends call “The Renaissance Man”. I am at a loss.

  2. I have wanted to write my life story since I was 45 but never had the courage. My family would not approve of me writing about them. Thanks for your blog post. These tips for writing memoirs have helped. I’m past midlife now and need to start or it will be too late.

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