As a memoir coach, I observe how memoirists struggle with how to begin, what to include, and how to deal with family and friends. People are inspired to write a memoir because they have something significant they want to share.–a memoir is a story written to be shared with others.
I compiled the top six questions that memoir writers ask, questions that all memoir writers must solve as they write their life stories.
- “Where do I start?”
- “What do I include?”
- “Should I just copy my journals?”
- “What makes my life interesting to other people?”
- “Do I have to write a whole book?” (Gasp.)
- “What will my family say?”
Where to start? List the significant turning points, or moments of change, in your life. It might include the death of your grandfather or the day you fell in love. Perhaps it’s the moment you found out you were adopted or the day you discovered you were pregnant. We have many of these moments in our lives. Ask this question: when did my life take a turn from the direction it was going? When were the moments of profound change?
Make lists of these turning points and begin writing. Choose one that grabs you emotionally and go with it. You do NOT have to write in any kind of chronological order. Let the “hot” stories guide you to your next scene.
- What do I include? This is a big question. To craft a memoir you must choose from the overwhelming details in your life. If you begin with turning points, include only what is necessary to give the reader an experience in scene of what happened. You need to interleaf action and feeling, and use sensual details such as taste, sound, texture and description to create a world the reader can enter.
- Should I just copy my journals? A journal is not a story, unless the journal was written with a reader in mind—but that’s not what a journal is for. A journal is meant to be private and invites random writing that does not include details because the writer already knows them, nor is it planned or shaped.
A memoir is an artistic combining of significant moments to construct a story that brings a reader into your world. Through your writing, they identify with you and have an emotional experience.
- What makes my life interesting to other people? People who read memoirs want to understand themselves better by entering into someone else’s story to find out how they lived and worked things out. Stop worrying about whether your life will be interesting to others, and go about your business of finding the turning points that are significant to you. Writing a memoir is a way for you to learn about yourself and to see your life in new ways. Stay in the flow of writing. Trust it to lead you into the heart of your story, and that story will vibrate with life and be interesting to others.
- “Write a book? Gasp.” Yes, that is how I felt every time I thought of writing a memoir. Feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of my task stalled me for a long time, until one of my mentors said, “Just write one vignette, small story at a time. Keep it small, focused, and about something important to you.”
That gave me permission to stop being so grandiose in my expectations about writing a book that I was scared into silence. I began writing one scene at a time for a few months. When I had several, I could see how I might fill in the blanks of my timeline. I didn’t know where my story ended—I was still living my story as I wrote it! As I saw the themes emerge as I wrote, I discovered the arc of my book and the ending.
After you capture some turning point stories, you may find yourself with several personal essays that you can send out for publication. Each vignette or chapter is a story, with a desire, conflict, and resolution. Shape your memories and your stories so they have dramatic form. You will find out that you have many small jewels of your life that can be shared.
- What will your family do when they find out you are writing a memoir? It depends on your family! Some family members get rattled and defensive, wondering if they will be portrayed fairly. They don’t want their secrets to be revealed and claim you don’t have the “correct” version of the family history. If you share your memoir with family may censor yourself, or try to please everyone–which is impossible. Remember this is YOUR story, and it has to be written from your point of view with your feelings and reactions.
I tell memoir writers to create a “safe sacred space” while they create the first draft. It’s important to guard your creativity from prying eyes. Our early sketches are fragile like small sprouts, and need to be protected .
The most important thing is to begin writing your memoir today! Select your turning points and write 500 words! Write 500 words-2 pages three times a week and you will be amazed at how quickly you get your memoir written.
This last weekend I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at the Write and Publish your Book in 2012 conference held in Oakland, California, organized by Beth Barany. It was an intimate room full of people who attended all of the sessions—no breakout sessions, so we all learned, shared, and laughed together. From Catharine Bramkamp we learned about the publishing world, from traditional and agented work to the “old” form of self-publishing and then into the modern new world of Print on Demand through Create Space and Lightning Source, and the really brave—and successful—new world of eBooks. Whew—it’s dizzying but a lot of information indeed, and all of it was accurate and useful.
From Ezra Barany, we learned about how to optimize your book titles and website for SEO—which means Search Engine Optimization—which means: making yourself searchable by the little bots inside all those search engines.
On the second day, Beth Barany regaled us with inspirational moments and a presentation on how to enter the Social Media world and stay sane! There is so much to learn, but the way she puts it is like this. “I think of social media the way I do about going to a party—I hang out, get acquainted, exchange small talk and just learn about who’s there.” That makes it sound easy and friendly, doesn’t it.
The reason we need to go to that party is so that we can get found, known and seen. You DO want people to read your book, don’t you?
I talked about—guess what—memoir writing of course—How to Make your Book Irresistible to Readers—which is what we all want—readers to dive into our book and our message and be happy that they have been invited into our world. Most memoirs are inspirational and informative in some way. The way to think about your memoir is to ask:
What is my message, and who is the audience that really needs to know what I have to share?
The different elements of the conference worked together, so when we think about the message in our book, we begin to see how the keywords for the SEO will start to line up and we can imagine our audience on Twitter and Facebook.
5 Tips that Will Help You Get Your Book Written in 2012
The weekend included 20 minute complimentary coaching sessions, so I got to meet a lot of people who wanted to know how to get their book done.
- Create a list of significant turning points that will help you organize the important stories.
- Use this list to clarify your theme and message: Your theme will answer the question—what is this book about? What is the message that I’m delivering my readers?
- Write in any order your turning points—just freewrite quickly and get the first draft of these stories done. You can quilt them together later.
- Use sensual details to create a world for your reader that they will feel. These are: sight, sounds, smells, textures, and setting. Where are you, what time frame is your scene set in? What is happening with you and other people?
- Create a character list—yes, even though this is a memoir, you need to decide who the main players are, and who might need to be on the sidelines or just have a bit part. List the 5 most important people in your memoir and write character sketches.
- Bonus: Use photographs and research on the internet to help you create the world of your memoir.
Think about these questions and write in your journal: Are your characters fully fleshed out people? Do you use dialogue to convey character styles?
What are the 10 most significant moments in your life? Write them down now and see if that helps to clarify your plot and theme.
Victoria Costello has written an amazing memoir A Lethal Inheritance. She is a mother, a scientist, a veteran of research, and a great writer, with a passion in her belly for uncovering layers of confusion and prejudice. She traces the history of mental illness in her family, exposing layers of secrets, losses, and coverups that do nothing but perpetuate patterns that need to be broken so that current generations can be saved.
Be sure to read her book. But first read the Huffington Post article for February 17–where she highlights the lessons offered by several memoirists–from Stephen King to Adair Lara to me–tips of wisdom about writing, digging into your history, about stirring the pot of complacency to write a memoir that is meaningful, healing, and unforgettable.
“No matter what the secret or hidden tragedy, a memoirist whose story is multi-generational must be prepared to dig through many layers of silence, obfuscation and sometimes outright lies to get at the truth, and tell her story.”
Don’t let the idea that traumas and dark plots need time to grow a perspective stop you from writing! Get out your journal, write scenes, write stories about what bugs you and makes you mad, about things you love, about people you miss, gardens you tend, pets you live with. Write and write, but know that writing is a skill that builds, and perspective is something that takes times. In the meantime, practice your craft.
Thanks to Victoria for including me and a quote from The Power of Memoir. “the verb “re-member” means to bring together different parts of oneself to become whole.” Every writer I know is piecing together the quilt of their lives as they write their memoir–bringing together memories, moments, histories, dreams, hopes, and loved ones into a world of story.
Remember, this is the Year of the Memoir! How’s yours?
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!
In the course of my work as a memoir coach, I have met so many people who have a passion to write. To live that passion, often we have to wrestle with a fierce internal adversary: the critic who says we have to use perfect grammar and eloquent language. It tells us that if we were “real” writers, the writing would flow, we’d write every day, we get published on the first try.
The critical voice says you’re boring, that your words will be a burden to the world. Does this sound familiar? “Why bother, who cares, what makes you think that anything you have to say is important?”
If you have a “writing wound” caused by having had your creative efforts minimized or ridiculed, trying to write may seem like a battle, fought between the part that wants to write and the part that criticizes.
Memoir writers worry about family too: “Don’t write that story, you’ll shame us. We’ll never speak to you again!” We become afraid to unleash our authentic voices and speak our truths.
One woman in a workshop I was leading wrote a about her young son, a beautiful golden boy of eight, the center of her life. She read to us afterward how important he was, coming into her life after she thought she would never have children, the joy he’s given her, the years when she was in despair about having no children. The group witnessed her story and held her in respectful, embracing silence. Kleenex was passed silently from hand to hand. The room was filled with compassion and support. She finally looked at us and wiped her eyes.
“Wow. I took up a lot of time. I’m sorry.”
Everyone began telling her how deeply the story had affected them, reflecting back what she had written and lived. As she was witnessed by the group, she began to relax and smile. “I’ve never told anyone all this. I have never had the space to do this before.”
The healing this student experienced was not only in the writing of her story but in the sharing of what had been private. Later she wrote: “Attending this workshop was my gift to myself. It gave me the opportunity to reach deep inside, draw a circle of words around my heart, and share my deepest feelings with a group of fellow writers who were waiting to receive me and hold me with compassion and acceptance. I left the workshop feeling fuller and more whole.”
You are Talented and Original
Brenda Ueland, in her wonderful classic If You Want to Write, says everyone is talented and original. All of us need to share our ideas with the world; it is part of our right as human beings to express ourselves. Ueland says that criticism destroys creativity. So-called helpful criticism is often the worst kind.
Whenever I got discouraged about writing I’d read and reread Ueland’s book. It’s full of wisdom and a positive spirit about our deep, inner creativity. She says we must write freely, as if to friends who appreciate us and find us interesting. We should write as if they are saying to us, “Tell me more, tell me all you can. I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you. Let more come out.”
If you want to write, think about how you can create space for writing in your life, a time where you can nurture this spark into a roaring blaze. Think of yourself as a listener, a translator. Focus inward and hear the stories that whisper to you in a low key; tune into your desire to capture your grandmothers’ history, your mother’s face, or your father’s character. The creative spark lives in everyone—just feed the flame.
Even after completing two books, I still wrestle with words, phrases, and internal permission to write my truths. We all need to urge the creative self forward, to tune in and listen.
If you are to write your memoir in the coming year, find some regular times, journal and freewrite, and tell yourself, “I’m talented and original.” Positive affirmations go a long way!
1. Name ten reasons you want to write stories from your life.
2. Write about what being a “real” writer means to you.
3. What did you learn about writing, creativity, and artistry as you grew up?
4. What are your favorite stories? List at least ten you grew up with. List the last give books you read and why you liked them.
5. Describe the town, city, landscape you grew up in. Include buildings, weather, your favorite things.
6. How did the place where you grew up shape you into the person you are today?
7. What family stories that you overheard as a child fascinate you? Write some of them down as fast as you can. Don’t stop to correct or edit.