I am running a four-day memoir-writing retreat in southern Spain, and using it as an opportunity to test out my theories. Of the ten participants, nine want to write a book and one is here by accident because she misread the small print. Having thought she would be able to snooze her way through the day and sample the local tapas in the evening, she’s wandered into something resembling an Agatha Christie novel, where a group of strangers, thrown together in an isolated house, are all harbouring murderous thoughts.

Which brings me straight to my first theory: most memoirs, if not loaded guns, are written for the purpose of retribution and revenge. This is by no means a criticism: retribution and revenge are strong reasons for writing a book. You want to put the record straight, to tell your side of things, to correct a wrong. Even the mildest-mannered memoirs have reprisal at their hearts. A memoir of midlife marrow growing may well be a missile directed towards a particular person, such as the teacher who gave you bad marks in English. On the other hand, the memoirist might, like Princess Diana in Her True Story, the autobiography she published in the form of a biography by Andrew Morton, line everyone up against the wall and pop them off, one by one.

My second theory is that it is women who use memoir in this way,while men tend to use it as an extended CV, self-penned obituary, or Who’s Who entry.Take Harriette Wilson, the Regency courtesan who, having entertained the British army, government and peerage, gave her former lovers the chance to buy their way out of her forthcoming memoirs.When the Duke of Wellington, refusing to be blackmailed, told her to ‘publish and be damned’, she wrote him up as a lovesick puppy waiting beneath her window in the rain. It was worse, she knew, for him to appear a fool than a scoundrel. That Wellington remains a hero while Harriette Wilson has been forgotten shows that the kiss-and-tell formula tends to backfire.

One of the participants on an earlier course I ran came up with a spin on Harriette Wilson’s scheme: she would pass the manuscript of her memoir of three failed marriages to her ex-husbands for comment. Their responses could then be included as footnotes or, in some instances, appendices. So should they object to her complaints of tight-fistedness or serial infidelity, each could lay out his defence and let the reader decide.

The best memoirs are written by those with the fewest memories: this is theory number three. ‘I have no childhood memories,’ wrote Georges Perec at the beginning of W, or a Memory of Childhood. Thank God for that. I would rather read about Perec’s absence of memories than wade my way through the six volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, in which he remembers, like Ireneo Funes, the wretched man in Borges’s horror story ‘Funes the Memorius’, every single moment of his life.

Theory number four is that memoirists rarely see self-knowledge as necessary to their task. The usual response to my suggestion that a memoir is a self-portrait and so the author needs to look hard at their lines is amazement. Most people write what I call Botox memoirs, in which the wrinkles are smoothed out and a frozen face is presented to the world. In Botox memoirs, monsters of vanity describe themselves as martyrs (see Paul

frances wilson

Memoirs, She Wrote

Theroux’s In Sir Vidia’s Shadow) and people whose rudeness would empty a room paint themselves as charm personified.

Theory number five is that excessive self-love is the most common flaw when writing about childhood. I have never met anyone who didn’t pity themselves as a child (‘What a strange thing to happen to a little boy!’ wrote George Oppen of old age), just as I have never met a child who wasn’t annoying at least some of the time. Those memoirs in which the writer romanticises his or her childhood self I call Miranda memoirs, after Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest, who likes nothing more than to hear about herself when young. ‘How’, the Miranda memoirist asks, ‘could I have been treated with such monstrous unfairness when I was so innocent and adorable?’

Retrospective self-pity is sent up by Howard Jacobson in Mother’s Boy, where he describes himself as a ‘a failed baby’ whose nappied self was ‘metaphysically at sea, but above all miserable in my body, demeaned by all the appurtenances of … baby-being’. Jacobson jumps a whole host of memoir hurdles when he discusses his misunderstood youth with the ghost of his father.

‘What about how you belittled me?’

‘When did I belittle you?’

‘You slapped my face.’

‘For contradicting your mother.’

‘Not then.’

‘For torturing your brother.’

‘Not then.’

‘For not dancing. For sulking in a corner with your face on the floor.’ ‘I didn’t like dancing.’

‘You didn’t like anything. “What’s wrong with the kid?” people asked me.’

My sixth and final theory is a challenge to the Seven Basic Plots model put forward by Christopher Booker in his book of that name. Booker proposes that all narratives fall into one of the following categories: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. The eighth basic plot, I propose, is the Drama Triangle. The term was devised by the psychiatrist Stephen Karpman to suggest that in conflictual or otherwise dysfunctional relationships the parties involved are allotted one of the following roles: victim, persecutor or rescuer. Because everyone is seen by everyone else as holding one of these positions, the only way out of the triangle is for the participants to recognise the nature of the trap.

All bad memoirs, I suggest, are structured as a drama triangle. The memoirist is (usually) the victim, the family (usually) the persecutor and the rescuer (usually) comes in the form of love, education or rehab. Deborah Orr, who discusses the drama triangle in her memoir Motherwell, also assumes the role of the family victim; in her mother’s version of events, Orr herself – no shrinking violet – would doubtless have been the persecutor. In tomorrow’s class, I will suggest to my students that they cast themselves as the villain of their own story, and then sit back and see what happens to all those murderous thoughts. I am only, I repeat, testing out my theories.