What Memoirists Worry About

worried writer

As memoirists, we know that writing a memoir can be fraught with all kinds of doubts and silencing, from “I’m not that great a writer” to “what will the family say?” We worry about how much to put in, whether to frame scenes with dialogue or not, or if we should name the people we grew up with. We worry about these things whether they are legal issues or not. We worry about them even if we are starting a first draft that no one else will see but our writer buddies or coach. Let’s face it—we worry!

For the most part, the memoir writers I know are not writing for revenge. Most of them are women who were silenced in various ways as they grew up—from family who wanted to present a certain face to the world to a society who often offered favoritism to more outspoken boys or men. Men and women both can feel silenced in societies where keeping to the standard roles of macho male and submissive women are the norm—there will always be aspects of personality and feelings that are unacceptable.
We internalize these “rules” and don’t want to break them—because we fear losing something in the bargain. Some of us will lose the approval of others, while there are those whose families are so rigid or judgmental they rightfully fear being shunned or disinherited. Honestly, some families really do react this way when they don’t approve of what is written or said that conflicts with the image the family prefers to present to the world.

Memoirists risk exposure when they write anything that goes beyond the agreed upon boundaries set by family, community, or church. As small children, we can feel where we “shouldn’t” speak, and few can bear breaking that rule. When we grow up, we manage these rules, but for the most part can slide by with our opinions kept to ourselves if we prefer—until we start writing a memoir! This genre is based on the writer presented the truth as accurately as possible—and I don’t just mean the facts—which are only one aspect of truth. I mean that the memoirist writes about being a young in a family that lived in a certain town, writes about what happened behind closed doors, writes about the good and the bad—with the faces of real people in their lives explored on the page—for others to read—someday.

This week at the National Association of Memoir Writers member teleseminar, we are going to talk with Linda Watanabe McFerrin about the skills of writing a memoir so that you can go home for the holidays, and at the same time tell a true story. Please join us for this rich discussion between two memoirists—and two Lindas!



Beth Kephart and I in Conversation about Memoir

 Beth Kephart


Linda Joy Myers and Beth Kephart–in conversation about Truth, Life, Memoir, Remembering–and the magic of capturing a moment.

This week at our National Association of Memoir Writers member teleseminar, Beth Kephart and I will continue a conversation in public that we have been having in bits and pieces through emails, phone conversations, and a five minute in-person meeting last week at Book Passage. It’s interesting how the Internet creates the opportunity to “meet” new people that we might not know—thanks to networking, Twitter, and our love of things we hold in common. Beth and I hold in common the allure, and challenge, of writing–and teaching–memoir.

Beth’s lovely new book Handling the Truth–On the Writing of Memoir is a poetic yet incisive look into writing memoir–and viewing “truth” through a different lens that it’s often viewed. Beth speaks to the detail, the verisimilitude, the felt moment of our lived experience–and helps us look at that, at the truth of experience, reflection, memory–as far as it can be determined to be true–however you define “truth.” Her book is a series of explorations of self, of the liminal spaces of consciousness, and for that reason I love it. It’s a book that asks us to make room for ideas and reflections we might otherwise miss.

I asked her to write a blog post and she wrote what I consider nearly a prose poem on our budding relationship and our upcoming discussion on Friday. I introduce you to Beth–and ask you to join us on Friday!

 From Beth:

On Friday of this week I’ll be having a conversation with someone who is very special in the memoir world—someone all of you know well. Linda Joy Myers didn’t just open her heart to me when she heard I’d written a book about the making of memoir, she opened this NAMW world—inviting me into a dialogue, talking with me about stories and how they get made, arranging for our teleconference, and turning anticipatory tweets in the art of haiku. In just a few short days, we will take that conversational leap of faith and talk to each other about the many things that preoccupy us both in the making of memoir. How we capture what we love. How we protect those whom we cherish. Why we cannot write if we do not read, and read widely. What happens when the truth is bruised, when trust is shattered.  

Linda has been teaching memoir for a very long time to a wide range of people. I have been teaching to small classrooms of undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania. We have so much we’re eager to share, and we hope you will join us.

Not long ago, I was standing near Fulton Street in New York City, watching the sun go down on the Brooklyn Bridge. Not far from me were these trapeze artists—or beginning trapeze artists—daring themselves to take a leap, trusting another to catch them. That, I thought, is how writing feels. No matter how many books in, no matter how much we think we know.

We’ll talk about that, too, come Friday.

Are you Writing a Memoir—or True Life Fiction?

Truth or Fiction—how do you want to write your life story?

This is a pithy and often difficult question that many memoir writers ponder—and it keeps them from writing. Are you writing—or are you worrying about how to write your story? It’s time to think hard about your choices and get back to your book. You can write—and finish—your book in 2012!


Reasons why you might choose fiction:

  • You want the protection of “the fictional wall.”
  • When your family and friends ask: did that REALLY happen—you can say “This is a novel. Any similarities between persons living and dead are coincidental.” Or whatever disclaimer you decide you use.
  • Your memory isn’t good—and you need to fill in details to make a good story.
  • Your memory isn’t good—and you don’t have enough “truths” to create a memoir, but you have some ideas and experiences that will make a good book.
  • If your story has traumatic truths that “out” someone, you want to be able to create fictional characters to carry the story.

A great book to help you sort out these questions is Robin Hemley’s Turning Life into Fiction.

Reasons to write a memoir:

  • The power of your story comes from the fact that it is true—it really happened.
  • You want to draw upon your real experiences to help others—by claiming your story as true, you will be a better storyteller and deliver a more powerful message.
  • Writing a memoir means exploring memory, meaning, and lived experience, and you enjoy that kind of writing.
  • You believe that writing and publishing a memoir offers a significant legacy or lesson—a takeaway that will change the lives of others.
  • A memoir can be a legacy, testimony, a witnessing of aspects of life that are real and true—and you want to deliver that kind of work to inform and inspire others.

The History of Sex in the Twentieth Century—what a title! It’s one of the memoirs written by Jane Vandenburgh, our guest for our NAMW member teleseminar. I’m so excited to talk with Jane—as she’s an example of someone who has as she puts it, “Put memoir in my fiction and fiction in my memoir.”

Find out more about how she chose the genres for her books. Click here to read more about the upcoming teleseminar.

More of Jane’s books:

The Physics of Sunset—fiction

Failure to Zigzag-fiction

The Architecture of the Novel—a terrific how-to book

Truth or Lie–National Association of Memoir Writers Free Teleconference October 21


I’m so excited today! On October 21, I’m going to be hosting the Free Memoir Writing Telesummit over at The National Association of Memoir Writers. What an opportunity—to talk with these writers, teachers, authors, and bloggers who make such a difference in the creative nonfiction and literary world.

You need to be there! Go right over the National Association of Memoir Writers right now and SIGN UP. You will really enjoy being on the call live, but if you sign up, you also receive the downloadable audio as a resource to keep for yourself.

Take a look at this list: Dinty Moore, Robin Hemley, Jennifer Lauck, and a panel of young memoirists Elisabeth Eaves, Nicole Johns, Anna Mitchael, and our marketing expert Penny Sansevieri.

Think about it—how many times do you wonder if you have the “right” to put some of your personal stories in a book for others to read? How often do you put away your writing and just walk away—thinking it’s time to quit writing, time for a glass of wine and a movie instead.

I’m all for movies and a glass of wine, but memoir writers really do have a challenge—when we write and share our work, we effectively unzip ourselves and run around sort of naked!

What do other memoirists do to solve this? What are the rules of memoir writing—or is it called Creative Nonfiction. Stay tuned for some answers to your problems.

Why is this conference free?

Because I enjoy helping writers find their voice. I want to support memoirists and creative writers—you—on your  journey toward a book, essays, a blog—whatever kind of writing invites us to learn about who you are, how you solved life’s problems. How you loved, faced death, healed trauma, and learned about forgiveness. That’s why I started the National Association of Memoir Writers.

Be sure to put October 21st on your calendar. I hope to see you then.

–Linda Joy



The Memoir Police

Okay, the challenge is on, though somewhat tongue in cheek. Ben Yagoda, author of The History of
, has created a way to measure the “truthiness” in published memoirs. He’s interviewed about his “truth” chart in the Christian Science Monitor.  You remember—“truthiness” was the term coined back during the
James Frey fray with Oprah about truth and lie in his memoir A Million Little Pieces. You remember, the dressing down on Oprah’s couch.

Many memoirists put the virtual tail between their legs and got quite nervous about writing memoir. “How much do I have to fact check? Sure, I make up some of the dialogue as best as I can remember, but…”

Others wailed, “These are my memories. I can’t prove them!”

Several memoirists have been caught just before publication presenting entirely falsified accounts–Herman Rosenblat who made up the story of a young girl throwing apples over the fence at a concentration camp he was in, and meeting her again in America where they fell in love and got married. He had people crying and Oprah fooled too, and then it was found out to be false. He wanted to tell an inspiring story, he said. The trouble is, he called it a memoir, and it was not true.

Then there was Margaret Jones, whose memoir Love and Consequences told the gripping story of how she’d lived in an LA gang, but it was pulled before publication. It was all made up too. She had fooled everyone–her agent, the publisher, and left bitterness in her wake.

Then publishers got REALLY nervous. “How many liars are going to cost us money this time?” they cynically began to ask. We will tighten the reins and demand proof–fact-checking, background checking, you name it. Memoirists began to get assailed by journalists–whose stock in trade is to tell the absolute truth, making up nothing, about practices such as dialogue and creative scene making. However, their tradition has become somewhat cloudy with the “New Journalism” that uses fictional tools such as…gasp…dialogue and scenes to go inside the story. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood told a “true” story using fictional means, and other New Journalists have followed suit. Of course, going behind the scenes makes for a good story. Novelists know that, and so do memoirists. We all want to know the inside story, we are curious. Voyeurs, perhaps.

A debate is raging in the creative nonfiction world about whether it’s all right to compress time in a memoir, or to conflate characters. Really, there is a fierce debate between for instance Vivian Gornick, who was called on the carpet of “exact truth” a couple of years ago, and the fierce defenders of exactitude.

Mary Karr’s truthiness is measured in Ben Yagoda’s chart higher than say, Sarah Palin, but Rousseau and St. Augustine rank first as the most truthful. I guess it helps to be male and very dead.

So where does that leave us? The only thing we can do as memoirists is our best to write our memories as honestly as we can. Sure, it might help to research the exact name of the street you lived on when you were ten. After all, the memoir police might fine you for getting it wrong. But who cares?

I don’t care where you lived exactly, I care about who you were, what you dreamed about, and how you spent your days and nights. Were you happy or sad, and what made you that way? I don’t care if the color of the dress your mother wore on June 12, 1983 is “right” or not. Maybe you’ll find a photo that says it was green not red, the way you remember it. Uh-oh–you are a liar!

Not. So do your best to write your story. There’s a huge difference between those who set out to falsify their memoir and those who write their story the best they can, using their memory, their love of writing, and their determination to get the story on the page and invite the reader to stand in their shoes.

That is what our goal should be: to tell the best story we can while being honest with ourselves. Therein lies the rub. Writing with self-honesty is the real work!

For fun, go to the Nieman Storyboard, which is a great resource where you can read about the truth and lie debate, by the way, to see Yagoda’s chart of the truthiness of some well known memoirs.

It’s worth mentioning that you get points off for using dialogue in a memoir! So I guess all teachers of memoir are going to have to reverse their engines? I doubt it–a good story is what we are looking for and what we love.

Keep writing, and get your story on the page–memoir police be damned. (You can edit later.)

I’m going to go back to the black and white photos from my childhood and see if I can figure out the color of my mother’s dress.