Storytelling in Memoir

Storytelling in Memoir

We all have a story to tell, but ah–how to tell it, that’s what keeps us at our desk, scribbling in our notebooks, looking for the scenes and moments that we carry in our hearts. Our job as memoirists is to translate what we know and remember to the page, to put images and wispy memories into language and story. Memoirists sometimes feel they have a story that ought to be easy to tell. After all, we know what happened in our lives and why we want to write about it. But this is where memoir writers struggle. A well-written story is more than “what happened.” And a reader of memoir looks for much more than “what happened to you.” The reader wants to be transported into your world, and needs to see how your story helps them, or inspires them in some way. There needs to be a universal connection.

Elements of a Story

There is a plot in memoir—the “what happened when” part; there’s character development, which means understanding the arc of the ways that each major character—including yourself as a protagonist—changes and grows during the story. The craft of writing a story means stepping back from our subjective relationship with ourselves and our memories and offering images and feelings that bring the reader into the world we portray through story. To do this we need to write in scenes.

In a scene you have: action, characters, place, time, a significant moment, vivid descriptions and sensual details. These sensual details are the key to bringing your reader into your world. Taste, vivid colors and description, smell, sound—all these are specifics that tune the reader’s brain into your own brain’s wavelength and make it hard to stop reading. They fall into the world of the story—which is what you want. There are some very interesting studies that show how the brain of the reader merges with the story being told because of these sensual details.

The other thing important in your scene is that you, the protagonist, have a desire, a need, something that’s important to you that drives through the story. The reader identifies with you and your quest, your journey through the memoir and through your eyes, they learn something new. This is why we read—out of curiosity, out of the need to have a new experience and learn something about the world we didn’t know before. I think this is why memoir is so popular now—our need to connect with the experience and life wisdom of others. Our need to feel connected to a larger community.

This week at the NAMW Telesummit on November 11, we’re excited to have a session with our story guru, Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story and her new book Story Genius. Lisa makes learning story essentials so easy that we wonder why we haven’t been using these tools all along. She’s going to talk about story making in terms of the brain and how we process information. Understanding this will help make you a better writer, and give you new skills that can help your book to become a success. A good story is what agents and editors are looking for. I hope you join us for this informative and inspiring Telesummit. Read more about all the presenters here.

Tips To Defeat the Inner Critic as you Write Your Memoir

Tips To Defeat the Inner Critic as you Write Your Memoir

The idea that you can get stuck in the “Muddy Middle” of writing your memoir came up in teaching Write Your Memoir in Six Months with Brooke Warner. We were talking about the place where suddenly there’s a lag in energy, where the forward motion of the writing slows to a stop. As soon as I said it, we both laughed with recognition. All writers experience some kind of breakdown/slowdown as part of the writing process, but it’s a challenge to figure out what is happening and how to move forward again. Naming the problem is the beginning of figuring out how to solve it. And it often involves that pesky inner critic.

How do you know you’re in the “Muddy Middle” of your memoir?

You start off with a bang, you’re excited and can’t wait to get to your writing, but suddenly something happens. Your energy level shifts when you have gotten into the story but there is so much more to write—and this might happen as early as chapter 2. Your writing doesn’t feel fun anymore and you’re slogging through each paragraph instead of feeling excited and ready to move forward in your story. Your writing feels like a burden instead of a joy. You start to hear voices of doubt, you worry about how revealing yourself the way you have to in a memoir will affect your life. You stop writing, and worrying takes up a lot more time, as does house cleaning and gardening.

It’s important to maintain a positive mind-set when we write our memoir, which means we have to manage the voices of doubt that start to plague us. Mostly we need to not believe them. As you may have discovered, there’s a powerful psychological element to writing a memoir. We’re exposing ourselves, sharing personal details that have been held as private until we put them on the page. Or try to. To write a memoir, we have to pull open the curtains that reveal subjects and information about ourselves and our family and friends that may never have been talked about before. We are faced with whether we should reveal these previously held secrets, we worry about how much we dare tell the private stories. While we think about all this, we re-arrange the spices and clean out the closet.

Like explorers, we venture into dangerous emotional territory when we write memoir. Beyond this place, there be dragons used to be written on maps to show the edges of the known world. This signifies a boundary of risk and danger. For writers, this is where we encounter protective scouts at these edges who come in the form of your inner critic voices.

Writing a memoir means that your inner critic(s) will inevitably show up. Some of you may have a “mild” inner critic, but others—and I’m one of them—have a deadly shaming inner critic. My critic comes from being criticized a lot when I was younger, and I’ve had to do a lot of work to get it to speak more softly and/or show up less often as I developed my voice as a writer. I had to learn how to separate that voice from the “reality” of what I wanted to write, my truth. My story. To help me not just run away from these scary voices, I’d write down what they said, argue with them, and reclaim my intentions to keep writing no matter how uncomfortable I felt. Each time I practiced writing past my nasty inner critic, I made more room for my own voice.

The inner critic makes you wonder if what you’re writing is important or if anyone will care about your story. The inner critics tells you all the reasons you shouldn’t be wasting your time. Whatever voice hinders your writing is your inner critic. Sometimes it’s nice and teases you to not stress yourself, to sit down and have a glass of wine. “You don’t need to write today,” it says. That may be tempting, but if you are not writing, your seductive inner critic is getting in the way. Many people don’t realize their “nice” inner critic is keeping them from writing—they’re on the lookout for the nasty one.

An aspect of the inner critic voices are what I call the “outer critics.” Those are the very real voices of family, friends—people who may indeed be afraid of what you are writing or critical that you are writing a memoir. These voices whisper, “How dare you write that. Your grandmother will roll over in her grave if you she knew you were sharing things like that. You’re shaming our family.” Or “this was my life too. I don’t want you to write about me.” I am not going to get into the legal and ethical decisions you may have to make before you publish, but in the early stages the voices that try to stop you are your critic. You don’t need to deal with family or being published until you write your book. We suggest that you use the first draft to get everything out, and decide what to share and publish later.

These are the kinds of things that I hear people say who are worrying in the Muddy Middle.
1. I’m afraid of hurting someone I love by writing my truth.
2. I know my xxx—fill in the blanks: ex-husband, friends, siblings, mother—will not agree with what I’m writing.
3. Some of my memories are traumatic—I know my family would be shocked.

Sometimes memoirists are tempted to leave out all the difficult parts, yet they know that the traumas and challenges are part of the core of their story.

Follow this tip: the more you want to leave something out, the more likely it’s something important. You need to write the stories you want to hide—they are calling to you to bring the light of day into the darker places. Writing the truth is a very powerful antidote to shame, to staying small, to hiding.

Here are some “anti-getting-stuck-in-the-muddy-middle tips:
• Write your first draft all the way. Put everything in. If the inner critic voices start, write them down, argue with them, and write what you are tempted to leave out.
• Tell yourself it’s your first draft, that you are practicing having a voice, that you will decide later what to publish. No one’s first draft is their final draft—EVER.
• Give yourself permission to say it all. With permission comes freedom, and the doors of your creativity will open once again.
• It’s important to offer yourself support during these tough writing challenges, and also to reach out to other memoirists. To create a memoir community, or join one. I have started the National Association of Memoir Writers as a way to offer something to memoirists they may not get in “real life.”

The upcoming Magic of Memoir conference in Berkeley October 17-18 is another opportunity to join a community of people who are struggling with their Muddy Middle, Beginnings, Writing the Truth, and all the things that memoir writers go through.

Stand strong with your memories and your stories. Defeat the inner critic, and write all the way to the end!

Your Memoir as a Movie

Your Memoir as a Movie

Your Memoir As A MovieDo you love movies? To me, there’s nothing so satisfying as sitting down to immerse myself in a new story. The first few moments need to capture my attention so I can’t look away. I make sure my tea is nearby, and that my kitties are ready to settle down on my lap. Once the kitties are there, I won’t be getting up for at least an hour or more as the story weaves its magic around me. It grabs me with a scene, in a moment where I’m drawn into a world not my own. I’m inside the scene, inside the beginning moments of a delicious new story. Whether it’s the first moments of Downton Abbey or Star Wars, you know that you are being taken on a journey to another world.

Brooke Warner and I use the “write your story as a movie” metaphor frequently in our Write Your Memoir in Six Months workshops to make our point about how important scenes are in writing a compelling story. We have the writers we coach do a “scene check” to see if they are including the important elements necessary to weave the magic a good story needs.

Necessary element #1.
A scene is set in a particular moment in time presented by the narrator-protagonist—you.
Necessary element #2
A scene exists to immerse the reader in a significant moment where something important happens that creates change—a moment of dramatic significance that includes conflict or a challenge.
Necessary element #3
The scene is connected to the theme(s) in the book.

More necessary elements:
Sensual Details
To create a powerful scene you need to paint a picture and offer sensual details that trigger a response in the reader’s brain. Include smell, sound, texture, colors, body language.
Dialogue—dialogue helps to create distinctive characters and advances the plot.
Vivid descriptions create the movie in the mind of the reader, in Technicolor.

More about Scenes
A scene is a building block of your memoir. At the beginning of your story, you’ll be introducing people, including yourself, as characters. You need to include action-there’s movement in a scene that propels the story forward. Sensual details such as smell, sound, taste, and colors create a picture in the reader’s mind and stimulate an emotional response. Include a kinesthetic sense, such as the difference between the way snow feels and the way a hot, humid day feels.

You can have a full scene that is narrated and without dialogue or interaction, but you know it’s a scene because it occurs in a particular moment in time and something important is happening. Cheryl Strayed uses this technique in Wild. The “now” narrative takes place when she’s mostly alone on a trail, but it’s full of scenes. In some scenes, she moves in and out of time and in others she’s still in the wilderness. She’s not interacting with anyone, but something meaningful is happening.

Weaving Narration and Reflection in your story

In a reflection, you’re musing about the situation just presented in your scene. Narration includes reflection, and it may also include action. Narration reveals something about the scene or the characters that show us how to experience or understand the scene. The narrative voice guides the reader into and out of specific scenes, and includes reflection.

There are two “I” points of view in a memoir. In one, the specific scene, let’s say you are five years old—you’re the character in the scene and see the unfolding moments through the eyes of who you were then.
And in a memoir, you’re also the narrator, reflecting on what happened and guiding the reader through time. “I remember, I thought that I would recover somehow…” There’s always the “I” character and the “I” narrator moving through time.

Reflection includes moments between scenes where the memoirist reflects upon what just happened and tries to make sense of it, or freaks out, or gets a new insight. These are internal moments where you tell the reader how you feel or what you wish had happened differently. Be sure to notice if your reflection is taking place in the point of view of your “I” character or you as the narrator reflecting now.

A reflection offers what’s called a “takeaway” for the reader—a universal connection that reaches beyond your individual story and connects with your reader. The takeaway a nugget for the reader of self-understanding. Takeaways are smaller moments within the narrative when you tap into something bigger than yourself, you reveal a universal human truth. In a takeaway, you’re and trying to connect to your reader in a way that’s bigger than your book.

from Wild by Cheryl Strayed—a takeaway:
“I was three weeks into my hike, but everything in me felt altered. I lay in the water as long as I could without breathing, alone in a strange new land, while the actual world around me hummed on.”
That’s a universal connection, how she’s changed. She’s already being changed by something and many of us have had that experience. We’ve all been alone in a strange new land, so we can identify with what she’s saying.

A flashback is a full scene—a new time and place where something is happening that takes you away from the time and place moment in the scene where you were. Be clear about: why and where you are going to pick up this other moments in time. The purpose of a flashback is to illuminate the present so the reader better understands the situation.

To learn more about memoir writing skills, sign up for the Write Your Memoir in Six Months newsletter, and join us at our first in-person Magic of Memoir conference October 17-18. Sign up now for the Early Bird rate and lots of bonuses!

Writing a Memoir: Balancing Craft and Vulnerability on Your Journey to “The End”



I’ve often said jokingly to my students, “Writing a memoir is like taking your clothes off in public.” True, but it doesn’t go far enough. It’s like taking your clothes off and reading your journal in public. You’re vulnerable when you write as you think of others reading your work, and you feel overwhelmed—there are so many stories to choose from! Where to start? Which to choose?

There’s an endless chatter that many beginning writers find hard to deal with. You can’t just silence the voices in your head—the questions posed are important. They’re the questions you need to answer. They go like this: “Today, which story can I write? It’s not in order of my outline? Should I write a story, any story I can manage, or wait until my brain clears? Maybe I need to work on my outline some more.” Etc. Etc.

For most people, their memoir is their first book. So you are doing two things at once: you’re taking off your clothes, AND you’re learning how to write a book. Yikes! Don’t despair. Lots of people do it, but you need to try to keep balancing your feelings, your emotional temperature, and your energy to learn the craft of writing, and also how a book is written. It’s a long slow boat to the end of the story, and you also need patience. Oh, and a sense of humor helps too!
Memoir is still a popular subject—for those who want to explore their lives through story, and for readers. There seems to be a hunger to learn from our fellow humans how to manage life, how to live it better, how to create something worthwhile out of life experiences both for the writer and the reader.

If you are a writer, here are some tips that can help you balance your skills

• Sketch out the outline—this becomes a map for you to follow.
• Decide what your themes are for your book—knowing your themes helps you to focus. A memoir is a piece of your life, not your whole life.
• Learn about scenes—a scene happens in a certain place and time.
• More specifically: be aware that writing a scene brings you into the world you are painting on the page—you are creating a whole world for your reader.
• Check to see if you have used sensual detail in your scenes—touch, sound, description, character development, dialogue (not in all scenes), smell, textures—so important to create that world.
• List the important scenes in your life—but preferably the important scenes that connect with the themes in your book—this helps you to focus on starting to weave your memoir.
• Find out how to connect scenes with reflection—you weave narration and reflection with your scenes.
• Learn what the narrator does to help keep your book flowing—your narrator guides the reader through the book, through thoughts and reflections, and offers a message or takeaway for the reader.

Questions surrounding vulnerability that arise for most memoir writers:

• Do I have a right to tell others’ stories? (Yes—if it’s your story that’s the focus, and if you’re fair.)
• How do I decide which stories are the most important? (See below.)
• Dare I share/tell the intimate or secret parts of my life? What might happen? (This is the challenge of memoir, this is what we’re doing. Be brave—write your first draft.)
• My stories are emotionally hard to get into. Should I stop writing? (Don’t stop! Write for a short time, then take a break.)
• What about family—these stories will upset them. (Your memoir is your story. Write a first draft that you don’t show to anyone.)
• Some of my stories are very dark. Will I get depressed and stuck if I write them? (Write a dark story for only 10-15 minutes. Balance with a lighter story, or leave and do something fun.)
• I’m stuck. What should I do? (See below.)
• I’m writing mostly for healing, so can I just copy parts of my journal and call it a memoir? (Your memoir is made up of scenes and reflection—both. Don’t just copy your journal.)
• Do I need scenes when my focus is spiritual or reflective? (You need scenes to bring the reader into your world, the world of body and mind. The reader needs to feel your experience.)
• Can I write in third person to protect myself, or use a pseudonym? (No. Write your first draft in your voice using real names. Don’t share it. Just get through it. Then decide what to do.)
Here are some more important things to keep in mind when integrating craft and emotions:

1. You’re writing your story, in a first draft, mostly for you—but that doesn’t mean that you should throw out craft to do it. In fact you’ll be very frustrated if you don’t learn about scene writing, because in the end you’ll have a whole lot of pages that will be hard to follow and messy. You’ll have to figure out where and when to use scenes anyway, if you want to publish your memoir eventually—and most memoir writers want to publish.
2. You can still write your first draft as mostly a healing draft, but I have learned through working with memoir writers for over 15 years that if you write in scene, your work will be more powerful and more healing. Studies have backed this up too: story—with scene, narration, and sensual details—is a powerful transformational agent.
3. Find your important moments of meaning—your True North of your memoir—by listing turning points or moments that are important to you. Make a list, keep it up for a while, and then you’ll have the spine of your memoir. Choose to write your scene from this list, and you can write in any order. Making an outline is helpful too though, because at some point, you’ll want to put those scenes in some kind of order.
4. When in doubt about what to write, select a scene, a significant scene, and write it. The antidote to the left organizing brain is to drop into YOU, and find a scene you feel connected to and write it. That scene, that moment.
5. We need to balance the organizing we need to do to write a book by making space to find ourselves, our voice, and our reason for writing our story. It helps to close your eyes and visualize where you are, when, who’s there with you in the scene, the smells, texture, sights of that moment. Write it without thinking of anything else. Stay present with it.
6. Your memoir is YOUR story, how you experienced the world—with your memories and your thoughts about the moments you capture. You will be showing AND telling in your memoir, creating a world where you invite the reader to join you.


Image courtesy of renjith krishnan /

13 Tips to Bring Your Memories Alive in Your Memoir

If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. Toni Morrison


House and roses in Mendocino

You want to share your life with your readers—the smell of your grandmother’s garden in the spring, how you and your sister struggled with each other, only to leave love notes of apology after. Your mother, father, friends, the geography of your hometown and state—all these and so much more are part of the history you carry inside you. Your memories are a part of your inner life all the time. The challenge is to find a way to bring them to the page so you can share them with others in your memoir. Writers often struggle with memory, asking, “Do I have enough memories to write a memoir? Are my memories ‘correct?’ What if someone disagrees—will I be found out or exposed like James Frye was a few years ago?”

There is no such thing as “correct” memories. We all interpret what we have perceived, which is why people see the same events differently. Each person who sees a single event is like a slice of pie—each section looks toward the middle from a different angle. Everyone in a family could write a different memoir—if they dared—and some family members have done just that like Augusten Burroughs in Running with Scissors and his mother Margaret Robison’s The Long Journey Home. Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff’s book Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines show different sides of the same story. So decide on your point of view, the memories that are important to you, and write.

There are many ways to capture your memories. Memories exist as wisps of perfume, snippets of images, stories that haunt our dreams, fragments that wait for us to breathe full life into them so they can unfold on the screen of our story.

Streams of memory arise when we hear a song, or when smells and sounds remind us of certain moments. You can look for these streams by doing research:  visit your home town where there is history and meaning, memories around every corner.  When I first started exploring my past, I took the long trek to visit the town where I grew up in Oklahoma. As the familiar lay of the land, the rise of the wheat elevators, the smells of earth rose up, I was shocked and amazed at the rush of images, like a movie in fast motion, as I drove down familiar roads. My body knew this as home, and triggered more memories than I could have imagined—fueling my need to capture them before they just as easily flew away.  

To remember more details and find new memories, look at old family photographs, listen to songs that were popular when you grew up, explore your town on Google Earth. Research is a great way to get started. Then place your fingers over the keyboard and invite images and snippets to flow from your fingers. You can begin with a piece of story, an image, a sensual experience — listen to your body/mind as the story takes shape and take dictation!

Begin with a scene—put yourself in a specific time and a place in the scene. This helps you to write directly from sensual experience.  Write from who you were at a specific age, and freewrite what flows.

Dreams help us get into our stories and memories. Write down your dreams, and then keep writing, free associating, exploring. Sometimes insights and connections happen when we aren’t trying.

Dive into the tough memories, into the stories that scare you, the stories you don’t want to write. It is here where the gold is found, the moments in your life that you need to understand, your secrets and regrets. What are the life lessons that haunt you, that come back to you on soft feet in the middle of the night? These contain some of the important points of your life, the times that tug at your heart and soul. There are riches in these moments for you to explore.

Memoir writing is about capturing who we are and were. We need to be honest, to write our truths as best we can, not worrying about a publisher, the public, an agent or even the family. We have to be true to ourselves in our first draft. The best stories are the deepest truths that we can share as we dig into what it means to be human, what it’s like to travel our own unique path. In the current marketplace, if and when you’re interested in publishing, people are eager to learn from others—a memoir invites people into their own living room, even their hearts—and in this we all become deeply intertwined in the shared stories of human experience.  


Tips for Capturing Significant Memories

  1. Write down memories on envelopes at the market, in the car—parked of course, or taking a walk. Call yourself and leave a message. Text it to someone. Take a note on your cell phone. If you don’t write it down, it disappears.
  2. Get out photo albums. Use photos as a trigger to write. Write about what you were feeling. Write about what happened before and after the photo was taken.
  3. Describe the photo in detail, and muse about its meaning, what’s hidden that the viewer can’t see. If it’s a photo of long dead relatives that fascinates you, write what you imagine happened on that day. Weave in the  family stories.
  4. Talk with friends, and write down what you remember together.
  5. Family events can be triggers for your memoir file. Write things down or put them on tape.
  6. If you have a computer, surf the web for memoir writing sites, memory preservation sites, war stories. It’s all out there.
  7. Write for 10 minutes, a short vignette.
  8. Next time, write for 20 minutes. Notice that the more you write, the more you write!
  9. Basic rule: do not throw away anything. Do not hit the delete key. The Make a file called “saved early drafts.” Don’t listen to that inner critic. It doesn’t yet know what you are about. Fear and shame are friends of the inner critic. If these are parts of you, then beware of any little voice that tells you to throw your writing away. It’s most often wrong. Besides, computer files don’t take up much room. Keep your stories—they are part of your research and your journey.
  10. Invite dreams, favorite memories and unforgettable moments. Allow them to flow through you in a freewrite—writing for 15 minutes without taking your fingers off the keys or your hand from the page. Get into the flow—it helps develop your writing stamina.
  11. Don’t worry about where to start or what you will write about. Write short vignettes to quilt together later.
  12. Remember, you have your own story. Don’t let the point of view of family members interfere with writing YOUR story.
  13. Childhood can be a treasure of all kind of memories, both good and bad. Allow yourself to be in the body and in the sensory experience of the child and take dictation. Notice voice, details, and language and write in the flow of what you remember.


There are only two ways to live your life. One is as if nothing is a miracle, and the other is as if everything is a miracle. – Albert Einstein





Tips for How to Begin your Memoir



As readers, we all have the experience of trying to find our bearings as we begin a story. To get “inside” the story that’s beginning, we readers are curious about who the main characters are, and we’re eager to learn about them—to learn why we are being told this story about these people.

Early in a story, we’re getting grounded in where we are—literally—on the planet, in the world, and in the geography of place.  We need to know the time frame for the story, too. That’s the who, where, and when of the story. These details need to be on the first page, ideally in the first few lines.

From the first sentence, readers are scanning for why the story is being told. If you’re writing memoir, the reader needs to understand not only the why, but where the narrator is in relation to the story—is the narrator telling from the point of view as a child or are we hearing from the “now” narrator who will weave us through time? Or both?

The best way to orient your reader is to start with a scene: a scene is located at a particular time and place—let’s say 1972 in New York City. As soon as we know this information, we begin to orient ourselves as readers into that time and place by bringing in our own frame of reference for that time. Our minds swiftly scan to create order and logic as we read. Images of NYC during the seventies from the news or TV might come to mind: piles of garbage, Mayor Lindsey, the twin towers arising into the landscape, hippies, long hair, big cars, and rebellion. Marches to end the war in Viet Nam, protests about women’s rights and gay rights. A few images or references quickly create context for the story.

More about scene: characters are engaged with each other, and are motivated in some way. You might or might not have dialogue, but one line of dialogue can go a long way to create character and context.

You could say, “the woman was flirtatious and brassy,” or you can have her talk and act. “’Hey buddy, how about it,’” she said as she swiveled her hips in an impossibly red satin dress.”  We call this “showing” rather than “telling.”

In memoir we DO need to have telling—which includes reflection, thinking, and reacting—but some writers do way too much telling and stay in the head of the narrator too much. This is a challenge, of course, for memoirists, because we already know where the scene is—it’s alive in our head! We were there, we are not making up the stories we’re writing, but all the same we need to translate that inner movie into words so the rest of the world can join us in that world.

Don’t Manipulate the Reader

Beginning writers often tease the reader, saying things like “The man came to the door”—not telling us who the man was when it was the narrator’s father. Or the writer withholds what the person looks like, the name, or details that identify because they think if we don’t know, we’ll be curious and keep reading. Teasing and vague references have the opposite effect: they make us stop reading. If you are the narrator, you SEE the person at the door, you know what he looks like, and you know it’s your father, for instance. Withholding this information from the reader only makes us mad! Since you see him and know him, deliver that information so we stay engaged with you in the story. Don’t try to trick the reader.

Check your References

Because your story is living in your head, you know who everyone is—you know that “he” refers to your father, not your uncle or your brother; when you use pronouns as referents, it refers to the person mentioned immediately before. Check to see that your pronouns are correct, and don’t sprinkle too many together. The reader gets lost  when there are several pronouns in a string.

Vague references like “We went there like we always did” needs to refer to a place you mentioned in the previous sentence or two. Where is “there?” Be specific. And what do you mean by “like we always did.” If this is at the beginning of your story, the reader won’t know what it means. Who does “we” refer to? Tell us what you mean by “always”—every day, every month, every year?

Moving through time

Memoir writers are time travelers. We zoom around freely in our memories, but on the page, we have to manage the shifting images of memory and time. Most beginning writers need to highly structure their shifts in time. Experienced writers can flow from one time frame to the next, so you may think you’re modeling your writing after them, but writers who have not worked with juggling different time frames get lost or confuse the reader.

Decide the time frame and the tense of your piece. You might be writing from the now narrator, for instance, in the present, and moving into the past in the past tense? That’s one way to structure your time movements and keep them straight. You can use tenses in a variety of ways, but be sure to keep track of when you are in the past and when you have returned to the present. Note when you are in 1973, for example, and when you speaking from now.

Create what we call a “line break”—a double double spaces which can be peppered with asterisks for clarity, to show that we have shifted from one time frame to another.

 Do this when you shift from the present into the past, and do it again when you return to the present. Notice in this article, each time I shift to another major topic, I use two double spaces to indicate a new section.


Keeping these tips in mind will help you get oriented in your book from the beginning, and when you have built a strong foundation, it’s easier to keep going.