Memoirists and Plot–Welcome Martha Alderson’s Blog Tour!


Martha, it’s so fabulous that you can join us today. We have talked in the past about the way memoir writers grow a little pale when thinking about plot. They feel constrained about the idea of thinking about plot, they don’t quite understand what it is and why it’s important.

  1. So my first question is to have you define plot, and tell us why a memoir writer needs to understand why they need to grasp the concepts and skills of plot for their memoir.

Let me begin by saying that plot and structure are not constraining. Plot and structure actually give a memoirist the form and function for her memoir and then leave everything else up to her.

In my new book, The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master, I cover in great detail the benefits of identifying your weaknesses and strengths as a writer and how to determine if you have more of a preference for right brain functions versus left brain dominance or are more balanced between the two.

Don’t get me wrong; the book is not a guide to the brain. It is a book about plotting that also functions as a spiritual or an emotional guide to writing. Writing is emotional. You face obstacles that unleash angst, which leads to procrastination.

My intention in shining a light on how the two hemispheres of the brain affect your writing is to allow you to acknowledge and face the difficulties you encounter, difficulties that are reflections of your strengths and weaknesses. In self-knowledge comes the courage to compensate for your weaknesses and the ability to rely on your strengths.

In every memoir something happens (dramatic action plot) to change or transform the memoirist (character emotional plot) overtime and in a meaningful way (thematic significance plot). Whether you understand that as a big picture concept or as a linear, scene-by-scene idea depends heavily on your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

(NOTE: In the remainder of my answers, I refer to the memoirist as the protagonist of the story because doing so gives more distance and supports you in considering the story from the reader’s point of view as well as from your own)

  1. Memoir writers think they know the plot because they already know “what happened.” Can you talk about this issue a bit—is that way of thinking useful or should they revise their attitude toward plot.

Plot embodies quite a bit more than more than just what happens in the memoir or a sum of the events. Plot is how the events in the story of your life directly impact the main character or the protagonist, in other words, you.

Always, in the best-written memoirs, the protagonist is emotionally affected by the events of the story. In great memoirs, the dramatic action transforms the protagonist. This transformation makes a story meaningful.

Keep in mind that, yes, you lived the story and the story comes through you. However, when you decide to write that story down, you turn from the one who experienced the events to that of a writer. Your job, then, is to present what you have lived in a pleasing and meaningful form to the reader. This takes setting yourself aside and means opening your mind to receive the greatest good of the story.

  1. Please talk about the emotional, healing, transformation aspects of what you call “universal story.”

The Universal Story delights me. Just as I teach writers to push aside all the words they have written to see the bigger picture of the entire memoir, I also teach writers and anyone else who is interested how to stand back from the drama in their lives to see what is really at play in their own individual lives.

The Universal Story is about evolution, and change is never easy. However, anytime someone grows and changes overtime on a deep and meaningful level from the challenges they confront and then shares that experience others, the memoirist empowers others to believe that such a transformation is available to them, as well.

  1. Explain to us how memoir writers should think of plotting their story—should they write it first then think about plot, or plan it out from the beginning?  (Some will say that planning will get in the way of creativity.)

The most important part is to write the first draft all the way through to the end by any means available to you. An understanding of whether you prefer pre-plotting or you find that plotting as you go works best for you or you find yourself writing the entire first draft by the seat of your pants teaches you more about your preferences and strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

Once you have written an entire draft you are better able to stand back from the story to see what you are truly attempting to say. At that point the real craft of writing a memoir kicks in and a firm understanding of plot and Universal Story serves you well.

  1. What are some steps a memoir writer can take to create a good scene.

Again, as I stressed in my answer to question #4, the first draft is about getting the story down on paper. As you write this first draft, you may find yourself more comfortable “telling” the story in narrative or internal monologue. Even so, every chance you can, attempt to write moment-by-moment scenes using movement and action to convey or “show” the story rather than simply “tell” the story.

The more you practice writing in scene, the easier and more automatic the task becomes to you. Read great memoirs and compare how much of the story is shown in scene versus told in narrative. Compare a chapter you have written to a chapter in your favorite memoir. What is the same? What is different?

When you have practiced writing scenes and want to evaluate them, track each scene or, at least, track the energetic markers and any other major turning points in your memoir. This shows you which plot elements are missing and which are in the scene in its current condition.

Seven Plotting Questions

For each scene, ask yourself the seven essential questions of plot:

1. Does the scene establish the date and setting?

2. How does it develop the character’s emotional makeup?

3. Is the scene driven by a specific character goal?

4. What dramatic action is shown?

5. How much conflict, tension, suspense, or curiosity is shown?

6. Does the character show emotional changes and reactions within the scene?

7. Does the scene reveal thematic significance to the overall story?

Evaluate the scene tracker for your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. If you find your scene tracker has lots of dramatic action filled with conflict, tension, and suspense, but little character emotional development, plan in your rewrite to concentrate on developing your weakness.

Thank you, Linda Joy for the chance to write about plot and the Universal Story and share my passion with other writers. I look forward to visiting your blog today and interacting with your followers.

I know that all the memoirists who have worked with you have learned so much from your wisdom about plot. Of course there are always questions.

So I invite visitors to come to ask questions of Martha here on the site. And let’s all stay tuned for what she has to say. You might think of more topics.

 Here is what people are saying about Martha’s book:

“The Plot Whisperer is Martha Alderson is Obi-Wan Kenobi of Story-Plotlines. Whether you’re writing your first book or your tenth, you deserve tools to make your story engaging, from first page to last. Also you deserve to gain such tools from a seasoned teacher who genuinely cares about helping authors. This empowering book helps you acquire secrets of story-structure and gain personal energy in order to survive and thrive the writing journey.

Teresa LeYung Ryan,

The Plot Whisperer is especially helpful with regard to plotting; not just the storyline but how it impacts the main character. Over time, you come to understand how each scene delivers more tension and conflict, building on the story’s depth, and leading you to an exceptional story. Wise writers will take Alderson’s heartfelt advice and turn it into an action plan.” Helen Gallagher,

 Martha has been doing one-on-one writer’s consultations for years and this is what reading The Plot Whisperer feels like—it’s like sitting with her and being coached, psychoanalyzed, pushed, encouraged, and, via all of that, INSPIRED to get down and write. I highly recommend both of Martha’s books, Blockbuster Plots and The Plot Whisperer, to anyone who is actively engaged in writing, or who wants to be.” Shreve Stockton,

I have known Martha and her work for years, and have brought many of my memoir students directly to her studio to spend the day learning about plot. Be sure to ask your own questions here on her tour! We are lucky to have her here with us!!

In October through The National Association of Memoir Writers, we enjoyed having Martha present her techniques at one of our Member Teleseminars. You will get the audio to that program if you join NAMW. To learn more about the benefits of membership, click this link. Linda Joy Myers

Read These Memoirs!

There are so many memoirs to read, and books that help us learn how to write. This is the list of the classic books that I read as I began my memoir journey, and of course so many more books have come out. But here is a great list to choose from. I’ll post some of my favorites along the way–some of my favorites have * next to them.

Enjoy reading!!


Adams, Kathleen        The Write Way to Wellness; Journal to the Self

* Allende, Isabel            Paula

* Allison, Dorothy         Bastard Out of Carolina

* Angelou, Maya           I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings & other works

Ball, Edward               Slaves in the Family

Arenas, Reinaldo        Before Night Falls

* Baker, Russell             Growing Up

* Balakian, Peter            Black Dog of Fate

*Barrington, Judith     Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art; Lifesaving   

Bateson, Catherine      Composing a Life; Through a Daughter’s Eye

* Bragg, Rick                 All Over But the Shoutin’; Ava’s Man

Brande, Dorothea       Becoming a Writer     

Brautigan, Ianthe        You Can’t Catch Death

Brittain, Vera              Testament of Youth

Cameron, Julia            The Artist’s Way

Chandler, Marilyn       A Healing Art: Regeneration Through Autobiography

Chernin, Kim              My Mother’s House & other works

Conroy, Frank             Stop Time

Conway, Jill Kerr        When Memory Speaks ; The Road from Coorain and other books

Day, Dorothy              The Long Loneliness

DeBeauvoir, Simone   Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter  first of three parts

De Caro, Frank           A Boy Named Phyllis

De Salvo, Louise         Writing as a Way of Healing

Eggers, David             A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Elbow Peter                Writing with Power; Writing Without Teachers

*Fox, John                  Poetic Medicine

Fremont, Helen           After Long Silence

Gebler, Carlo               My Father and I

Gates, Henry Louis     Colored People

* Gilmore, Mikal            Shot in the Heart

Goldberg, Natalie       Writing Down the Bones etc.

Gordon, Mary             Shadow Man

Gornick, Vivian          Fierce Attachments

* Harrison, Kathryn     The Kiss

Heilbrun, Carolyn       Writing a Woman’s Life

* Hoffman, Eva             Lost in Translation

Hooks, bell                  Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work

Jamison, Kay               An Unquiet Mind

Jung, Carl                    Memories, Dreams, Reflections

* Karr, Mary                  The Liar’s Club; Cherry; Lit

L’Engle, Madeleine    The Summer of the Great-Grandmother

*Lamott, Anne             Traveling Mercies; Bird by Bird

*Lauck, Jennifer         Blackbird; Still Waters

Lawrence, T. E.           Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Ledoux, Denis               Turning Memories into Memoirs

MacDonald, Michael     All Souls: A Family Story from Southie

Mason, Bobbie Ann    Clear Springs

Mairs, Nancy        Remembering the Bone House

Maynard, Isabelle       China Dreams: Growing Up Jewish in Tientsin

Maynard, Joyce           At Home in the World

McBride, James          The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother

McCarthy, Mary         Memories of a Catholic Girlhood

McCourt, Frank           Angela’s Ashes; Tis

Mead, Margaret          Blackberry Winter

*Merton, Thomas        Seven Story Mountain; Diaries and Journals

*Metzger, Deena         Writing for Your Life

Myers, Linda Joy        The Power of Memoir; Don’t Call Me Mother

Neruda, Pablo             Memoirs

Norris, Kathleen          Dakota: A Spiritual Geography; Cloister

* O’Faolin, Nuala          Are You Somebody? My Dream of You

Oppenheimer, Deborah (Ed)   Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport

Pennebaker, James      Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions

Perel, Solomon            Europa, Europa

*Rainer, Tristine          Your Life as Story; The New Diary

Reichl, Ruth                Tender at the Bone

Rhodes, Richard         A Hole in the World

Ryan, Terry                 The Prizewinner of Defiance Ohio

Santos, John Phillip     Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation

Sarton, May                Journal of a Solitude; Plant Dreaming Deep etc

Scott-Maxwell, Florida  The Measure of my Days

See, Carolyn                Dreaming

Stegner, Wallace         Wolf Willow

*Ueland, Brenda         If You Want to Write

Weisel, Elie                 The Night Trilogy

Welty, Eudora             One Writer’s Beginnings

Williams, Terry Tempest         Leap; Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

Wolff, Geoffrey          The Duke of Deception

* Wolff, Tobias              This Boy’s Life

*Woolf, Virginia         Moments of Being; Letters


Writing Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, and Personal Essay–What are they?

This is the kind of conversation I’ve been having with people lately–“I’m writing memoir, I think it’s memoir, but someone else called it Creative Nonfiction. But then I read about personal essays. I’m confused.”

Yes, indeed labels are confusing. In my research for my new book Truth or Lie, I found myself doing a lot of reading about Creative Nonfiction as I investigated these kinds of questions. So far what I’ve found out is this: they are all the same. And they are different.

As you can see, there is no one definition for these genres, but I did notice in some literary magazines, the personal stories that brought in the larger world beyond the author’s very private and personal story were called “Creative Nonfiction.” But other times–and yes, this is confusing, that same kind of writing was called memoir.

So what to do? I blogged about this at the National Association of Memoir Writers today as I was thinking about this Friday’s NAMW Free Telesummit on the subject of Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, and Personal Essay.

No matter what the labels, the first principle of personal writing is to WRITE! We need to not get tangled up in labels. If we are to shape something for publication, we need to have written it from our hearts, we need to put on the page the story we want to tell, the story that wants to be told. Then we can make decisions about how to get the work out into the world.

If you want to read more about that blog post, click the NAMW link. And be sure to sign up for the Telesummit. For 5 hours experts on the topic of personal writing will be talking with me about these interesting questions. You can download all the audios if you sign up and can’t be there.

In the meantime, start writing your next story!

Audio Interview on Today’s World Blog Talk Radio Show Focuses on Writing a Memoir to Heal

I was recently interviewed by Laurie Sanders, host of Today’s World blog talk radio program and veteran radio DJ with KOIT in San Francisco. We discussed the topic of how writing helps to heal and about the special things that memoir writers need to know.

Enjoy the interview and let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below. I truly appreciate your feedback!

MP3 File