I hope you have a wonderful and creative year! I’m looking forward to teaching three sets of memoir workshops this winter quarter, and I’m excited about meeting new students and learning about their work and their lives—there’s nothing like a memoir to get to know someone deeply.
As I read the stories in the memoir workshops to give helpful feedback, I look for what drives the “engine” of the story—and the writer. What motivates the writer, and what are the compelling themes that weave through the story?
- Why are you writing this story? What motivates you, what is the fire in your belly that drives you to get it written?
- Where do you get stuck? Where do you stop writing and start worrying about whether it’s a good enough story, if anyone will care.
- What do you need to keep writing? What will help you to keep that fire alive and work until you have the last page of your memoir done?
Writing from Love
Most people are writing from love—exploring treasured memories, sharing with readers those people who’ve made a difference in their lives. Love may mean a feeling of gratitude, blessings, or appreciation; it might mean some kind of transformation, from holding grudges to finding forgiveness. You might be writing about how find compassion for someone who once was misunderstood or who misunderstood you. A huge part of the satisfaction of writing a memoir can be that it’s a path to finding compassion and forgiveness for ourselves too. This “love” –a healthy kind of love and self-esteem—helps us to develop our strengths, helping us to rise above the moment-by-moment struggles of life to having a bigger overview. Through writing, we discover new perspectives about our lives, our relationships, and our future. In the fifteen years I’ve been teaching memoir writing, I’ve seen transformations again and again, and I love celebrating the power of writing to help create a new view of life, and to heal the past.
Layers of Truth
Writing a memoir means that we need to find a way to present our truths in story form, and this leads us to wrestle with what “truth” means. In “real life,” of course, things—situations, people, events, and memories—aren’t always clear, they’re not etched in black and white. The fact that life holds many shades of grey, and our ambivalent feelings force us to struggle with how to present our story. It’s obvious that people see things differently—in a family and in society. We gaze upon the same scene through different eyes. We need to allow ourselves to have our truth.
Many memoirists struggle to give themselves permission to have their own truths, to hold them not matter what others say. At the same time, it can be helpful to be open to learning new ways of hearing and understanding the family stories. Doing research and interviewing others offer different angles that can enhance our memoir. At the National Association of Memoir writers Teleseummit a couple of years ago, we presented a day-long teleconference about writing the truth, and how to decided whether to write these truths in fiction or in memoir. Truth or Lie: On the Cusp of Memoir and Fiction. This conference is available for purchase at the NAMW store.
The Care and Feeding of You, the Artist
As you begin the new year writing your memoir—adding new chapters, starting a new book, or re-writing chapters you want to revise, keep in mind some suggestions.
- Ask yourself if you are pulling the threads of your themes through all the chapters. If your book is about cooking, you will be telling some stories that aren’t about cooking, but food and cooking should be a theme that enters into, even if briefly, each chapter. That way the reader feels the power of your focus as you establish a foundation for your book.
- Do you feed the writer within enough? Julia Cameron talks about the Artist’s Date in her book The Artist’s Way. She says to take yourself out for a special day just to feed yourself creatively. Writers may refuel by going to a museum to take in the paintings, walks along the seashore, or by watching a favorite movie. When we unplug from an intense focus and open out to other creative paths, we make room for new ideas and energy to come to us.
- Hang out with other writers. Now with the Internet, it’s easy to find other people who have the same questions and struggles as we do—with a click.
- Here are a few locations on Facebook and some websites that offer writers great information and even lively interaction.
www.blockbusterplots.com – Block Buster Plots, an award winning website by Martha Alderson. Read her great posts about learning plot.
www.ninaamir.com — Nina Amir is the author of several books, and specializes in nonfiction writing. She offers many kinds of helpful programs and courses.
www.writeyourmemoirinsixmonths.com — Linda Joy Myers and Brooke Warner teach a course in memoir writing with the goal to get a first draft completed in six months.
http://www.krpooler.com — Kathy Pooler’s inspiring blog Memoir Writers Journey.
http://memorywritersnetwork.com/blog — Memory Writers Network blog by Jerry Waxler—reviews many memoirs on his blog.
http://heartandcraft.blogspot.com — Heart and Craft of Lifewriting is Sharon Lippincott’s blog with many tips for writing, editing, and publishing.
www.namw.org — National Association of Memoir Writers website with resources, programs, newsletters, blog, and audios
https://memoriesandmemoirs.com Linda Joy Myers blog with tips, articles, resources and coaching information.
Facebook pages: Please “like” these pages. It helps the traffic for writers and authors if you “like” them.
https://www.facebook.com/nationalassociationofmemoirwriters — Facebook page for NAMW
https://www.facebook.com/groups/11446501213 — National Association of Memoir Writers non-member FB page
https://www.facebook.com/LindaJoyMyersAuthor — Linda Joy Myers Author Page—please “like!”
https://www.facebook.com/groups/GutsyIndiePublishers — group host Sonia Marsh
Read books about writing, read great memoirs and juicy fiction.
Read best sellers to see why they are best sellers.
Here are 12 books on memoir writing and skills to inspire you and help you to develop your skills. You can find other lists at writers’ websites and in Oprah’s newsletter.
The Liar’s Club—Mary Karr
Angela’s Ashes—Frank McCourt
This Boy’s Life—Tobias Wolff
The Truth Book—Joy Castro
Writing the Truth—Judith Barrington
Make a Scene—Jordan Rosenfeld
If You Want to Write—Brenda Ueland
Scene and Structure—Jack Bickham
The Power of Memoir—Linda Joy Myers
Wired for Story—Lisa Crohn
The holidays are the season of gratitude—a time when we reach out to family and friends to celebrate all the ways we appreciate them, a time when we count our blessings. During the holidays we make a priority to gather and share joy and stories, though for some people, it can be a time of stress and loneliness. If that is the case, then use your journal to write out how you feel and what you remember.
If you are planning to visit with your family, it can be an opportunity to dig out the photo albums and tell stories around the fireplace: “Remember when, see what you looked like then?” as you pass around the album—or share the photos on your computer.
I advise memoir writers that the holidays is a good time to do some “research” about family stories. As you write your memoir you discover your memories through writing prompts and digging into your memories as best you can, but it’s amazing what immersing yourself in family can bring up. Being “at home” brings you into the family circle in two ways—as a family member and as a memoir writer. Not only are you with the people you are writing about—which can feel like a strange situation at times!—you’re also in the settings, the houses, towns and landscapes of your past that trigger evocative memories.
You might wonder at these gatherings if your family members will share more of their stories—or will they try to keep them closer to the vest if they know you are writing a memoir?
Doing research about family stories requires a decision tree
- If you have told your family that you’re writing a memoir, your research may need to be subtle—especially if some people are feeling sensitive or worried about being exposed, or if there are secrets in the family that some people want to protect. These techniques include talking innocently over the family photo album and finding innocuous ways to ask questions. See if some of the questions mentioned in point number 4 below are helpful to you.
- If your family does not know you are writing a memoir, you need to gather data, dates, and stories carefully—again depending on how open your family is about talking about the past. You can disguise your research as you seek family stories about the holidays or about the far past, or about people they used to know. Sometimes these stories lead to them being more willing to share more personal and private stories.
- If your family is open about talking about the past, you could prepare questions about the family history ahead of time for them to think about, or ask them beforehand if they would consider being audiotaped when are all talking together about family stories. If a family gets along and is supportive of the memoir, this can be very helpful. Think of the questions you have never asked before, or points that you feel are tender, and probe gently from your now-adult perspective. You might be surprised at how willing people are to revisit the past, especially if you are accepting and gentle about creating a positive “remembering” atmosphere.
- In a situation with a closed family dynamic, you can gently ask leading questions:
- When you were young, what is your favorite memory?
- What did people used to say about Uncle Joe (substitute the person you want to ask about here) back then?
- What were the best and worse stories you remember about me?
- Tell me about the best holiday you remember. Why was it so special?
- What was the most challenging thing you had to do when you were younger?
- Questions about weather and how personal history intersected with public events can be fruitful.
- What new items were the most shocking to them?
- Who were their favorite family members?
- What were their favorite books and movies and why.
- Think of other favorite topics like sports, politics, or possibly religion—that they are willing to talk about. Sometimes this can lead to inroads to what you want to know more about.
Gentle leading questions can open doors to more questions, if your relatives and friends are cooperative and curious. Your own curiosity, especially if you don’t have a grudge, can be contagious and help to open up the conversation.
5. Remember, family stories are like slices of a pie—each person has a different angle of view toward the story being told—people remember different aspects of the same event. One might remember colors and clothes, another what happened in vivid detail—from their POV of course—and another who said what to whom. Just listen to the different ways people remember—and marvel at it! Your story can include other people’s versions or not—it’s up to you. The memoir you are writing is ultimately about your memories!
I want to thank you all for joining me in the joy of memoir writing. I wish all of you a happy holiday season, and look forward to seeing you in the New Year.
Be Brave—Write Your Story!
Linda Joy Myers
President of National Association of Memoir Writers
Photo credit: Free digital photos
The night is long, with sparkling stars. On the Solstice, the earth is balancing for a moment between light and dark, a moment when we celebrate the advent of winter and burrowed into darkness where the tendrils of new growth are buried, waiting for the light and warmth of spring.
So it is with our creativity—it is always potential, waiting for us to wake up to its power and gifts. Most writers I know struggle with finding the time or the mind-set needed to focus on their writing. Everyone is so busy working, taking care of the day-to-day in life that time for creativity and writing is pushed down the list. We need to make room so our creative process and new writing has a chance to expand and breathe. We all know some of the tried and true ways of honoring our creative process, but most of us get lost in “The things that must be done.” Let’s look at the basics for enhancing your creative writing spark.
- Set aside a small amount of time each day to write—and journaling counts. In fact, it helps us to write away our daily obsessions and distractions, or it invites us to deepen into reflection. Even 10 minutes is helpful and gives a message to our unconscious mind that we are serious about our creativity.
- Having that special notebook or pen can be helpful too. Most writers are inspired by something beautiful to write with or write in. Your favorite pen and notebook are an invitation to open the treasure chest of your mind.
- To honor the season, make lists of your favorite Holiday memories. Some prompts:
- Describe using sensual details—smells, sounds, textures, and colors the best holiday food memory you have. What was the food, who made it, how was the table decorated, and who was there?
- How did your family decorate the house, select the tree, and shop for presents? Make your family members real on the page.
- Be sure to characterize your family members with action—how do they talk—be sure to include some dialogue—act, and react to other people? Your dialogue is “made up” of how you remember people talking. For instance, what phrases or expressions did they use? I had an uncle who’d say, “Great balls of sheet iron!” Find expressions that fit the moment in the scene.
- Find songs and poetry that inspire you. Many writers I know like to listen to Pandora or their own selection of music while writing.
As the earth turns now, surrender to the cycle of light and darkness and the cycles of our writing lives. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season!
I’m so happy to have Theo Pauline Nestor join us on Friday, November 22 to talk about Five Secrets to Writing an Enduring Memoir
Theo’s new book Writing Is My Drink is an inspiring book about how she claimed herself as a writer—and a whole person who had a right to have a story—and to share it. You must read it! You will find a lot of terrific writing prompts and discover a renewed energy to write from reading her personal story of her life and her search for self. It’s a great book that will address the times you ever doubted yourself and looked for external validation—who hasn’t done that? And show you how she drew upon teachers, moments of silence, and the gifts of unexpected ahas to become a published writer and a great teacher.
Theo says, “Writing a memoir is a complex task that asks us to weave truth, story, craft, and our own vulnerability as writers.” I’m sure all of you who are working on your memoir will relate to this statement, and are familiar with juggling these aspects of writing. We are going to talk about the process of writing and how important it is to find your voice, to be vulnerable. To find ways to encourage that shy part of yourself who might prefer to stay silent—and yet you want to write! Writing is about finding voice, and getting support to be courageous in exploring and excavating your stories and yourself.
Everything that Theo writes about in her book I find parts of myself, from a sense of shame and shyness because of growing up in an unconventional family to feeling inadequate around everyone else who surely knew who they were and where they were going—those who exuded knowledge and coolness. But writers need to dig deep into their own secret stories to come up with the gold nuggets that reveal the truth. There are many truths and sure, we wish that the nuggets weren’t connected to deep emotions, shame, or fear, but they are. When we mine these dark places that we have tried to hide from ourselves and others, the brilliance of our truths, our authentic voices, and the real story comes shining through. Read more about how Theo sorts all this out.
If you are not a member yet, you can learn more at the National Association of Memoir Writers Member Benefits page and sign up. Join us!
Theo has created a great conference for January—a great way to start the year! With Anne Lamott as keynote speaker. If you have not listened to Anne Lamott, you owe it to yourself to have this special experience. Her book Bird by Bird has been the go-to book for writing process for writers for many years. The National Association of Memoir Writers is sponsoring this event! Come by and see me in person. We’d both love to meet you!
Here is Theo’s offer for a discounted ticket to the event with Anne Lamott
Get a $40 dollar discount off early bird tickets for Nestor’s event Bird by Bird & Beyond with Anne Lamott until midnight tomorrow (11/16) night when you enter the promotional code word mentor. Info and registration here.
Bird by Bird & Beyond is a day devoted to the craft of personal narrative with classes and a rare opportunity to hear Lamott talk on the topic of writing with her keynote “Almost Every Single Thing I Know About Writing.” 1/18/14, Petaluma, CA.
Truman Capote: To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.
Memoirs are woven from memories, but many memoirists I speak with wonder if they have enough memories, or if their memories are “correct.”
Families share memories around the table and pore over family photo albums, reminiscing and remembering—and these memories are the tools we use to create our stories. Some people feel they don’t have enough memories to write memoir while others are overwhelmed by them. We can evoke and mine our memories, to help coax them from hiding, to invite them to awaken.
There are many ways to capture your memories. Memories exist as wisps of perfume, snippets of images, stories that haunt our dreams, fragments of our lives waiting for us to breathe full life into them so they can unfold on the screen of story.
Streams of memory arise when we hear a song or when smells and sounds remind us of certain moments. Do you start remember more when you visit your home town? To help me remember more details, I would visit the town where I grew up, flooded at times by a river of memory as I made my way down familiar roads and looked at the high school, grade school, and where I was first kissed. In my journal, I captured the rush of images and memories that seemed to arise from the cells of my body.
One way to encourage your memories: simply place your fingers over the keyboard and begin writing. Start with a piece of story, an image, or a sensual experience and listen to your body/mind as it spins out words. Allow it to flow through you, to take its own form. Some of you prefer a pen and paper. Just allow the words and image to follow in a non-linear way. You can sort it out later. Begin with a scene—place yourself in a specific time and a place. Being in a specific setting helps you to ground you as a “character” who is experiencing the moment as you lived it. Your body remembers.
Dreams help to reveal our stories and memories. Write down your dreams, and then keep writing to muse about the meaning of your dream. Write it in detail in the present tense. Your subconscious mind wants to help you!
Dive into the tough memories, the stories that scare you, the stories you don’t want to write. It is here that you will find gold. These are moments in your life you need to understand better, the things you are embarrassed about, the decisions that you regret.
What life lessons haunt you, that come back to you on soft feet in the middle of the night? These contain important points of your life, the times that tug at your heart and soul. These stories can form the emotional core of your memoir.
Remember, writing a memoir invites us to explore the meaning of our lives, the stories of our true selves, not just the superficial moments. Memoir writing is about capturing the essence of an experience. We need to be true to ourselves. We are not writing to justify our lives we are writing to learn about who we are, to explore meaning and make a discovery. The most interesting stories are when readers discover who they are along with you. That means you are writing into the unknown!
Tips for Capturing Memories
- Write down memories on envelopes at the market, in the car—parked of course, or taking a walk. If you don’t write it down, it disappears.
- Record your thoughts on your smartphone or a small recorder.
- Send yourself an email of the ideas that come up on your hike or as you drive—pull over first!
- Get out photo albums and select the images that have the most meaning to you. Use the photo as a trigger to write about what was important for you. Write what you were feeling. Write about what happened before and after the photo was taken.
- Describe the photo in detail. Muse about what is hidden that the viewer can’t see.
- Talk about your memories with friends, and write down what you remember together.
- Family events can be triggers for your memoir file. Write things down or record them.
- If you have a computer, surf the web for memoir writing sites, memory preservation sites, war stories. It’s all out there.
- Write for 5 minutes, a short vignette.
- Next time, write for 10 minutes.
- Basic rule: do not throw away your early efforts. Keep them. The “critic-censor” can be far too critical. Make a file called “saved early drafts.”
- Allow dreams, favorite memories and unforgettable moments to be your writing material. Allow the writing to flow through you without stopping.
- Write short vignettes to quilt together later.
- Remember, you have your own story. Don’t let family or friends interfere with writing YOUR story.
- 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 the voice, details, and language.
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
Writing a memoir is like finding yourself on a journey: you thought you knew where you were going, but eventually you are lost! We all experience several stages that lead up to your journey: As you pack your suitcase, you think about the thrilling and interesting moments you will encounter. And as you start your journey, you are still excited and moving forward with great energy. Then reality sets in. Life still presents challenges. And it is this way when we write our memoir.
A couple of years ago, I visited France and was thrilled to be in Paris again with its iconic symbols–the Eiffel Tower, the parks and museums. The charming coffee houses. Then I made my way to the southern mountains where Cezanne and Van Gogh used to paint. I encountered the usual challenges–the suitcase was too heavy to lift up stairs, I was crushed in the Metro by sweaty people, and I got lost many dozens of times on tiny country lanes! There were highs and lows, moments of exhaustion and exhilaration. The imaginings of how the journey would be when I packed my suitcase collided with the real journey, and it changed me—for the better. My story changed, and I experienced France in a brand new way.
So it is when we write a memoir. We begin by filling our suitcase with memories of people and events that we are eager to celebrate and share. Even if our story is dark, we’re sure that we can handle it. We have been journaling for a long time, and we think we know what we want to write. Eagerly, we launch into our writing, capturing images and moments, writing and remembering. We even feel brave enough to tell people we’re writing a book!
Then the doubts creep in, “I’m not sure what I wrote is the truth. My sister says I make things up.”
“Gee, I don’t want to reveal x and y and z. It’s too personal. I can’t have people knowing all those things about me.”
Or you read a bunch of famous memoirs and realize that you can’t write all that well. Suddenly it’s really too big a job, this memoir project, even though you love it. You agonize and even try to leave it behind like an overfull suitcase until it begins to take on a life of its own as it tugs at your heart.
There’s another scenario: You’ve started to remember things, memories you thought you’d handled; you begin to reflect on the past in a new way, and start to write about it, but you feel sad, depressed, or angry. You try to put it all aside, but you can’t. The writing doesn’t work. You’re stuck in the middle of your book.
This is all good news. I know, it doesn’t sound like good news to you. You just want to get your memoir done, you want to brush away the doubts.
The good news is that you are in the middle of your memoir journey, and you’re doing fine. This is the way the journey goes! There are three major stages in writing a memoir. The first is the eager beginning, which I call “freewriting.” Then there’s the” muddy middle,” where themes, stories, and memories begin to build into a larger story–you can feel a bit out of control here just as I did when I got lost 10 times. The muddy middle is the biggest part of the journey, and the largest section of the book. Brooke Warner and I talk about this journey model in our course Write Your Memoir in Six Months.
In the last stage you’ve found your stride, the journey has changed you, and you’re grateful for the discoveries and the epiphanies. It is not the same journey-book that you imagined. You are different. The writing becomes your teacher, your mentor. Dr. James Pennebaker, the psychologist who researched the healing power of writing, said, “Story is a way of knowledge.” When you write a memoir, you discover your story. I write about these stages in my book Journey of Memoir–The Three Stages of Memoir Writing.
It’s a journey worth taking. Pack your suitcase now.
Nine tips for your trip:
- Understand that writing your memoir is a longer journey than you imagined. Be patient.
- Take good care of yourself on the journey. Set a schedule, make a map.
- Allow the writing process to guide you; accept the underside of what you planned to write, the darker stories and images, the memories that squeeze in. They have something to teach you.
- Trust in your creative muse and the excitement you felt when you began your journey. Allow this energy to urge you forward.
- Invite your unconscious to help you write and remember. Put your writing under your pillow. Before sleeping, ask your unconscious mind to help you. I did this, and it worked!
- Know that you will write the same story repeatedly but it will shape shift, it will evolve with each version.
- Accept that you will find your muddy middle, and that you’ll get stuck and lost. Keep going anyway. You’ll find your way out of the muddy middle if you just keep writing!
- Writing your life is like entering a labyrinth. You need to find the threads that will lead you out. It’s there somewhere, and you need to stay long enough for it to reveal itself. It’s a little like magic!
- Write, listen, be still, and invite. Your story wants to be found and shared with the world.
To learn more about memoir writing, subscribe to this blog. Join me on the Write Your Memoir in Six Months site where you can download ten free memoir writing lessons. Sign up for our free newsletter at the National Association of Memoir Writers.
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