Memoir and The Legacy of Mental Illness


I spoke with Victoria Costello, author of A Lethal Inheritance at the National Association of Memoir Writers member teleseminar. about the legacy of mental illness.

Those of us who come from families with hidden or diagnosed mental illness feel “Other,” the ghosts of our legacies chasing us in our dreams, making us shrink down in our waking life.

In my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, I talk about beautiful women who have a pattern of leaving their children behind, beautiful women who scream and rage irrationally, but who are just thought of as eccentric or different. As a child, of course this is “just the way it is.” After my mother’s terminal diagnosis of cancer, she tormented the nurses so much that her doctor ordered a psychiatric evaluation. That’s when she was diagnosed as Bi-Polar, that’s when behavior that was cruel, irrational, and off-the-wall finally got a name.

In her informative and teeth-clenching memoir, Victoria does a brave thing: she combines her considerable scientific research about the causes and treatments of mental illness—the history of and the current state of treatment—with her own family’s case study—the story of herself and her children. She makes an excellent point with this book—that no matter how much we know or how smart we are, there are mysterious forces in life that blindside us, that bring us to our knees. Mental illness does that to families, and worse—it’s often a hidden illness shrouded in ignorance, guilt, and shame, and often a secret even from the sufferers themselves.

As ubiquitous as mental illness is in our society, too often diagnoses are incorrect or non-existent when, if properly understood, lives could be saved and immense suffering prevented. Since funding has consistently been cut for programs that include treatment for the mentally ill, too often treatment even for adolescents is non-existent, leaving people to fall upon impossible conditions—living on the street and/or families trying to help someone who is beyond their help or expertise. And for families like Victoria’s, once the child is of age, the parents no longer have any power to insist on medication or treatment, even if it were available. Since the teen years are when children are more vulnerable to the onset of mental illness, it stands to reason that the child might not be out of danger when they become of age and have to make their own decisions. One of the frustrating aspects of trying to deal with the mentally ill is that they believe that they are either fine or all-powerful, when in fact their thinking and perceiving are distorted. What a nightmare for any family member.

A Lethal Inheritance also points us toward the need to understand and research the genetic and genealogical backgrounds in our own families. In her family as in mine, mental illness, mostly undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, has planted seeds in later generations, the societal, biological, genetic, and psychological factors all aligned for a perfect storm. Victoria’s book is easy to read, despite the intensity of the material. Perhaps it’s because she weaves the cool-headed research in with her often painful story. It’s a success story too—told by someone who knows the journey and can help you on yours.

Is this subject part of your story in some way?

Have you ever looked into your family legacy and found secrets that explain things? What was that like for you?


Celebrate Writing–NaNoWriMo, National Lifewriting Month, the National Association of Memoir Writers Telesummit


Writing in November!

What a great month for writers! We writers are being invited from all kinds of sites, programs, blogs, and presentations to attend to our writing this month! Get this: it’s NaNoWriMo–the National Novel Writing Month challenge. Write 50,000 words of a novel in one month and get a certificate. You are supposed to write a novel, but you can use this month to challenge yourself to write  your memoir. It’s a way to get that “shitty first draft” out and on the page for future editing and revision. That is the hardest part–getting out the initial “download” of the stories and memories you have in your head.

All month long it’s National Lifewriting Month, and my long term colleague and friend Denis LeDoux, owner of Soleil Lifestory Network, is offering some terrific classes and workshops this month. Check out the details at the bottom of the post.

And, at the National Association of Memoir Writers, we kick off the month with our FREE premier event the NAMW Telesummit where we invite experts to speak about story writing, publishing, blogging, and social media. NAMW is my baby, so I’m so excited to spend 6 hours on  the phone talking with people I respect, and LOVE talking to.

I’ll be sharing time with Mike O’Mary, owner of Dream of Things, a small publisher of memoir, who will talk about how to present your work to a small publisher. 

Lisa Cron, author of Wired on Story, will discuss the brain science behind story writing, and what our brains crave through story.

Nina Amir, who has her own amazing blog month all November: Write Nonfiction in November–a whole month of blog posts and articles about writing nonfiction–is going to speak about How to Blog your Book to help it sell.

Frances Caballo, author of the new book Social Media Just for Writers is going to educate us on social media–and make it simple and easy to use for us right brain writers who tend to not want to learn about social media. But as a reformed cynic, I can say I’ve learned how to make it easy and fun–so you can too!

Our final presenters will be Kamy Wikoff and Brooke Warner, who created SheWritesPress, a hybrid press that answers the needs of current writers,  especially memoirists in this challenging and changing world of publishing.

To sign up for the free all day event–ask your questions live on the line, or get the free audio downloads afterwards–sign up here.

Resources from Denis LeDoux:

The Soleil Lifestory Network has prepared tele-classes, audios, and handouts–all free for the month of November–to support you in your writing.

Create Characters That “Live” on the Page! In this tele-class, you will learn many simple techniques to enhance the verisimilitude of your memoir characters.  Monday, November 5, 2012, 8-9 PM/ET.

 – Tell the Truth. In this tele-class, you will learn how to avoid sins of omission and commission and how to appreciate the truth–the whole truth. The tele-class will also discuss the pain that can often company telling the truth. Monday, November 19, 2012, 8-9 PM/ET

– Price it Right. This tele-class geared to help Memoir Professionals to assess their product and service pricing and to bring it in line with both their needs and that of the public. Monday, November 26, 2012, 8-9 PM/ET

 Please join me at the National Association of Memoir Writers for a great day, and check out all the other events going on this month. And be sure to write, write, write!!


After the Memoir says “The End” Platform & Your Publishing Paths | Free Discussion with Brooke Warner


I love helping writers find information that helps them become an author, and this week, the Free Roundtable Discussion at the National Association of Writers is going to be invaluable. Sign up by clicking the link above!

October 11, 2012

4 PM PDT   5 PM MDT   6 PM  CDT  7 PM EDT

Brooke Warner, former Executive editor at Seal Press will talk with us about the three choices you have for publishing. In her new book What’s Your Book? Brooke outlines the three paths you need to choose as you consider how to be published: Agents Way; Publishers Row; and Self-Publishing Boulevard.

Brooke is going to discuss in depth the many layers of decision making that are involved in deciding how to become published. As you all know, the publishing world is changing week by week! This three choice model makes it easier for authors to understand how to make informed decisions. You need to know why you might choose your path, and how to manage these important career choices. Your mind-set, goals, and dreams will help determine what fork in thepublishing  road you want to take.

One of the important things Brooke writes about in her book, and we’ll talk about it on the Roundtable, is building platform—which means understanding your audience and your marketing plan–the best ways to get your book out to readers. Platform is important no matter what path to publishing you choose, and you can begin simply and long before your book is done.

More about platform:

  1. You need some kind of blog, with regular posts that cover the themes of your book.
  2. A presence on Facebook—at the minimum. You can begin with just your friends.
  3. Presence on Twitter is recommended—sign up for the free audio to learn more about why.
  4. Add other social media that you enjoy/or are learning to use.
  5. Create a list of ideas for  how and to whom you will market your book.
  6. It’s important to understand the role the author plays in today’s world of publishing.

Many writers stress about these things—platform and publishing—but there are simple ways to make all this work and ways you can enjoy the process. Join us to learn more about how you can be a successful author.

Brooke will be offering a special promotion on this call. Listeners will have an opportunity to win a copy of her new book, What’s Your Book?, in which she details common challenges writers must face on their writing journey; how to build an author platform; a roadmap to getting published; and much more. I have read her book, and though I have had several books published already, and am still building platform, I learned so many new techniques and tips that will help me continue to grow as an author.

Go to this link to sign up for this dynamic and informative free discussion, and have a chance to win a copy of Brooke’s book!

See you at the Roundtable!

So Many Memoir Publishing Choices–What Do I Do? | Free Roundtable with Jonna Ivin & Denise Roessle

I’m so pleased to be in conversation with Jonna Ivin, author of Will Love for Crumbs and Denise Roessle who wrote Second Chance Mother. Each of these authors chose different routes to getting their books published–which will make for a dynamic and interesting discussion. Jonna self-published her book on Kindle while Denise chose the longer path of finding a small publisher.

When we write memoir, we are passionate to get our book out into the world, and we need to find a way that works best for the kind of book that we have and a way that works with our budget, our goals, and our audience. As everyone knows, the publishing industry is exploding with many choices these days, and by next week no doubt there will be more.

We will talk about how they chose their path to publishing and fill you in on the new options out on the market today.

Join us at the National Association of Memoir Writers Thursday, 4 PM PDT! If you sign up here, you will receive the audio download so you can listen at your leisure. Isn’t technology great!!

See you there!

-Linda Joy

Memoir Writing: Skills and Tools for your Craft


I was thinking about the word “craft.” A craft is a boat, a craft sails down roiling waters, a craft keeps us dry and safe–we hope! How is a memoir like a boat–does our craft keep us dry and safe? Does it protect us in any way? As I prepare to give my webinar for Writer’s Digest March 8–on International Women’s Day, I began to muse on these questions.

Craft is also a verb–to craft something is to create it. We craft our memoir, and we draw upon skills for the craft of memoir writing. It all comes full circle, and such is the magic of words.

Here is a list of some of the skills you need when you write-craft- your memoir–I’m going to talk about all of them during the 90 minute webinar:

  • How to create a hook and theme—in other words: how to make your story stand out from other memoirs that editors and agents review.
  • Ways to think about truth and memory, family, and legal issues that block your writing; how to find your theme and focus your story for your audience.
  • Create a timeline, write vignettes, and choose the most important part of your story—the turning points.
  • The reasons why you need scenes and a narrative arc.
  • Why you need to draw upon fictional techniques, such as sensual details, point of view, scenic structure, and vivid descriptions to craft a great story.
  • How to research the parts of your story that you’re not sure about.

I like talking about craft, and I urge my students not to feel overwhelmed by what they need to learn, to put their memoir boat out in the waters and build it strong so it can carry the story they are telling through the rapids and the dark places, and be able to bring in the light and the insight to their story. Most memoir writers are sorting something out as they write, they’re knitting together threads of the past, they’re looking in closets for skeletons, they’re confronting family myths. It’s a lot to juggle, and so worthwhile.

Most memoirists get stuck on some aspect of the memoir—like truth—is my truth right? Will the family get angry at me? Will my words cause a rift in the family?

Or plot—how can I organize so many memories, what should I write about first? How do I make transitions between time frames?

Some memoirists think they can copy their journal and have a memoir. A memoir is a crafted story made up like a quilt from many areas of your life, with a guiding narrator to help the reader make sense of it. Some post-modernists don’t care about making sense, but most readers want to understand what your story is about, they want to apply it to their own lives.

To find out more about the webinar, go to Writers Digest.

I’m also doing the Roundtable Discussion at National Association of Memoir Writers with Brooke Warner on March 8–4 PM PST. We’re going to talk about techniques to help you commit to writing your memoir, focus on your story, and get your memoir done!



Writing a Memoir—Your Journey Into Memory

Writing a memoir means exploring who we are and where we came from, entering the unknown on our journey and discovering ourselves. We strike out for the gold of truth and honesty, as we explore the spiritual journey that leads us away from known territory deeper into who we are. We use the tools of memory, creativity, and writing.

To find the road and have a focus I use the technique called “turning points.” These are the most important moments of your life, when nothing remained the same after the event. It might be meeting a new person, moving away from your home town, encountering danger, an accident, an illness, or receiving an award or a scholarship, losing a loved one to death, a natural disaster, a birth. Falling in love.

Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina, says to write “Where the fear is, where the heat is.” That invited us to delve into the heart of our stories, of the high and low points in our lives. Emotion and memory guide us into our journey toward truth and honesty. Judith Barrington says that the memoirist, “Whispers into the ear of the reader.” When we read a memoir, we feel that we are being invited into the secret heart of a person, a family, a time and a place.

When I was little, my great grandmother and my great aunts were busy. They’d wash and hanging clothes on the line to dry in the sun, or cooking—my great grandmother still used a wood cook stove—even in the summer! They’d can the bounty from the garden, or were busy with their needlework. They belonged to quilting bees, and would sit around the quilting frame, chattering and stitching by hand. They cut out designs and patterns using pieces of old clothes, creating ripples of colors as the separate patches came together in a design. As we gather our turning point stories from our memories, we write vignettes in any order. Later they will be quilted together into a work of art.

Another guide on the journey is creating a timeline. After you list your turning point stories, plot them on a timeline that you create out of an 18×24 inch piece of paper. Your memoir will be composed of a couple of major themes from your life but you will no doubt want to write more stories than will end up in your memoir. Look at how your turning points cluster on the timeline –you might find new insights into your life as more memories surface. You can Xerox photos that go with the various turning points, and create a vision board, where you weave the colors and the images.

The more you write, the more you develop your turning points and the sensual details of your life, the more you will remember. And you will weave magic as you write your memoir.

The stuff of memories will be explored today on the Free National Association of Memoir Writers Free Roundtable with Sharon Lippincott, author and advisory board member. Sign up to get the audio!