The Power of Memoir: Finding Your Stories

The Power of Memoir: Finding Your Stories

Writing a memoir is a powerful act. That is why my book is called The Power of Memoir. The act of remembering, writing, and exploring the deepest reaches of the heart takes courage, and it will change you. Writing a memoir is a way to value yourself and your story, to honor those you have loved and who have loved you. It’s a way to heal, to come to terms with your life, and to leave a tale that others can appreciate.

Most memoir writers struggle with reasons for writing their memoir. Their inner critic pops up with, “What a waste of time, who would want to read this,” and other nonsense. Write for yourself, write the stories that fill your mind, heart, and dreams. Find the stories that have meaning to you, stories that give you pleasure to remember. You will be rewarded beyond measure, and your family might thank you too.

I like to share on this blog what I’ve learned from writing my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother and what I learned from publishing it and sharing it with others, but it was a long journey. I began by writing in my journal, and then “translating” those rough drafts into the computer where they began to form chapters.


Stories—they beckon us to tell them, we pull up a chair and turn our ear to listen. We connect with others and parts of ourselves through stories. Before birth, we’re woven into other people’s stories. Our own spark of life begins at a turning point in our family—that of our own birth. We enter the world at the beginning of our family’s story and become one of the main characters in its drama. We’re woven into the tapestry of family, friends and community from the beginning.

As in a fairy tale, on our journey we encounter wizards, witches, dark forests, and good fairies; we experience joy and challenges, heartache and hope. Through our struggles, failures, and successes, we discover our own unique story. We learn who we are and where we’re going.

Writing a memoir is like taking a journey without an itinerary. We begin at a certain point and stop at certain stations, only to hop on another train going somewhere else. As long as we are courageous about the journey, and keep track of where we visit, we learn from the process. We will be changed by this journey.

Some reasons why you might want to write the stories about your life

  1. To gain a deeper understanding of yourself and the life you’ve lived.
  2. To heal the past, and create hope for the future.
  3. To create a legacy for your family, a family history.
  4. To expose injustice or abuse.
  5. To settle emotional scores—from anger and revenge to acceptance and forgiveness.
  6. To present a point of view about a controversial issue.
  7. To share with the world your unique experiences with travel, education, illness and recovery, family, or your spiritual quest.
  8. To taste again the joys of friends, acquaintances, and fellow travelers.
  9. To honor those we have loved.
  10. To capture another time and place, now gone.

There are so many reasons to write a memoir. You can begin by writing in your journal so you don’t feel pressure to make it “perfect.” Allow yourself to write fast, and let the words flow. After you feel ready to share some of your stories, you can blog them to have them online where you can read them more objectively as a reader would who doesn’t know you. You can practice being published long before your book is done. Most people feel the need first “just to write,” to discover the stories they have been thinking and dreaming about all their lives. They need to write freely and without pressure. We need to enjoy the process of remembering.

Make your own list of why you want to write your memoir. Share it with your friends, writing buddies, Facebook friends. Gather support as you begin. It takes a community to write a memoir!

Keep your journal by your bed, be ready to write down dreams and little flashes of memory. Give yourself full permission to explore. All creative activities begin with desire and permission—and keeping that inner critic at bay.

Start today—write a story about the happiest moment in your life.

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!

Celebrating the Motherland–and Happy 4th!


I just returned from England—you know the country we rebelled from over 200 years ago—and they seem to like us. Every time I spoke, my accent gave me away. “Where are you from in America?” they would ask.


“Oh, I want to go to San Francisco, I’ve always wanted to see it.” They would tell me about the time they came to America and how they loved it here. The waitresses and shopkeepers would sweetly tease me about the American terms I used and I soon got used to “lift” instead of “elevator,” “boot” instead of “trunk,” “queue” instead of “line.” It amazed me how friendly everyone was, looking me in the eye as I ordered my tea, asking how my day was as if they really cared. Lovely.

London was all decked out with flags celebrating the 60 years of Queen Elizabeth II, and anticipating the Olympics in a couple of weeks. The city was vibrant with sun, leafy green trees, cute red double decker buses, polished statues of Victoria, and lots of smiling tourists and Londoners, all polite and queuing like they are supposed to.

I spend time in the far past of history, reading a book on life in 14th  century England—that was rough living—people were starving, and society was built on a slave system. At the exhibit at the British library “Writing Britain,” I viewed 1,000 years of literature; saw original manuscripts of Charlotte Bronte and her sister Emily. No edits on the pages — just a beautiful flowing hand written by ink and quill. The exhibit displayed many other author’s original works—which makes you believe in editing. The pages were crossed out and scrawled on by hand, with margin notes. If George Orwell, JRR Tolkein, John Lennon, JK Rowling, and Charles Dickens need to edit to create their literature, then we writers need to be okay with it too! A high point: listening to John Lennon sing “In My Life” while looking at his original verses, captured while he was on a bus from his home town to Liverpool. Yes, it’s an autobiographical song, as is Penny Lane, scribbled on the same piece of paper.


History is alive in England, in St. Paul’s Cathedral which miraculously escaped the huge fire during WWII that destroyed the City of London, is rising from the smoke in the famous photograph that assured London that at least something of value remained—one of the most beautiful cathedrals ever built.

I heard Evensong there, the voices lifted to the huge dome, gilded angels everywhere in this amazing church designed by Christopher Wren. People from all over the world visit a place that has been a sacred place for 1400 years. There’s Stonehenge and its mysteries in the Salisbury plains; everywhere there are stones, rocks, ruins, castles–history in the landscape.

Everywhere there is a story…the written and unwritten history of the land and the people, even in the Hard Rock Café where you can enjoy American hamburgers and an English pint all at once, to the rock tunes of the last 40 years. Nelson’s column at Trafalgar Square, hundreds of years of paintings in the National Gallery. Big Ben booming out the quarter hours while the Thames, witness to all the changes of the people, flows on silently, bearing its secrets.



It was a quintessential England summer day when I went to Kent to see Sissinghurst, a castle purchased by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson where they laid out the  famous white garden. It was unfortunately closed that day, but there was a beautiful emerald green world, an Elizabethan house, gardens and trees graceful and green, green, green. I wandered in Scotney Castle, built in the 1300s as a defense against the French, and then a family home for centuries. A new home was built just above the castle which is picturesque and tucked amidst the trees.



History, as I said was everywhere. While today Americans celebrate our independence, but in England, I saw a lot of love for Americans. I guess they have forgiven us. History lives and is trumped by the Present. Happy 4th!



Memoir Writers: Write and Build Your Platform Too


We hear this term “platform” so often—and many of us are still trying to figure out what it means. It’s actually simple—it means “audience.” The concept of “platform” means that we build our audience in various ways—in person, with friends, community, colleagues, our network of other writers, people with whom we have a lot in common, and those are who are interested in our topic.

This network, which has the potential to grow outward and upward—creates a launch pad for us when our book is finally done. Bit by bit, over time and with care, we create an audience who will cheer us on when our book comes out—and even more than that—they will buy our book and tell their friends about it!


Dan Blank is a social media guru and founder of

Dan spoke to us at the National Association of Memoir Writers 2012 Telesummit Writing in the Digital Age a couple of weeks ago about how to make social media outreach easy to understand.


I had a few ahas during the Telesummit:

  • We don’t have to grow huge numbers on Facebook and Twitter. What matters is the message that we are passionate to share, and communicating it in a meaningful ways.
  • We need to be authentic about crafting our message and be real about who we are. After all, our book, our writing, and our presence online needs to match up with who we really are, not some fake persona that we don’t live up to.
  • The best thing we can do is to write, write, write, first and only do the social media activities that we feel comfortable doing. If we hate what we are doing, that will slow us down in creating our platform.
  • Because writers tend to be more inwardly focused, we need to learn how to do outreach at our own pace. It will get easier over time. I have found this to be true.


I’m learning a lot from Dan through one of his online courses. I’ll be sure to tune you into my new insights as they come. In the meantime, I set a goal to write two hours a day. No, I don’t always get the full two hours in, but it’s something to aim for. That is how we get the writing done—one day at a time.

What did you write today? How many words did you get on the page? How do you plan to begin tomorrow? Some writers edit to begin their writing day, while others get out the pen and paper and write longhand. Others write morning pages or a poem. What is your best method?


Jane Friedman also writes great stuff about platform. Check out her blog. Find others who blog about the topics you want to learn more about and sign up for their blog posts. Bit by bit, you will learn from others about how to write, blog, and create your desired audience.












Memoir Writing — A Creative Path to Self Awareness


Writing stories heals body and soul, and is a powerful way to change our perspective about the past. Not only that, it’s a creative way to learn about yourself. Dr. James Pennebaker and Joshua Smith published the first research on writing as a way to heal and recover from past injuries in the Journal of the American Medicine Association in 1999. Pennebaker states that writing stories is even more healing than journaling, and helps to heal asthma, arthritis, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Dr. Pennebaker’s site has a lot of articles about writing, healing, and the benefits of using certain language as a means for healing. Though we all have sensed that writing allows self expression and opens up awareness about our life, the research is a powerful testament to the power of words and story to create change.

For most of us, it’s easy and fun to write good memories, but most people have negative memories that linger and need release–the death of a loved one, depression, illness, or  anxieties because of family dysfunction or various kinds of abuse. Society seems to try to get us to forget the past, but traumatic memories do not go away by will power alone, or even years of therapy. The ways we try to escape–through alcohol or addictions, for instance–only makes us more alienated from ourselves. Traumatic images and reactions disappear underground for a time, only to reappear when triggered by an event in current time–often called flashbacks. But these incidents can be healed through writing–and rewriting. Sometimes the same event needs to be written about many times in order to be released.

Traumatic memories are stored in the brain in a different way than regular memories, but research continues to show that writing allows a new kind of processing to occur.

When you integrate the memories into your regular memory, you can move into a present and future renewed and with more energy–the pain of the past is put into perspective–perhaps not forgotten, but no longer seeming like an immediate and current injury.

Writing a story is different from journaling. When we journal, we spill out whatever we are feeling in a random way, and it doesn’t matter how we write it. Writing a story requires that we  choose its shape and focus. This structuring and choice about scenes, dialogue, and characters opens up a creative space where writing can work its magic, where something new is created. Where we encounter the unknown. Pennebaker says, “Story is a way of knowledge.” We learn about ourselves throught writing story.

And there’s another exciting aspect to story writing in memoir: you are both the narrator and a “character” in the story. The narrator choosing what to write as an objective observer helps us to witness our younger self, and reveals a new perspective on the past. We weave a new place in the “now.”

In my book The Power of Memoir, I present an 8 step pathway to write a memoir–from researching your past to character studies, using turning points and the timeline to sort through your memories, and techniques of story structure. The research by Pennebaker and others is presented–and it’s quite exciting stuff. Writing really does help to heal physically–several writers I know with arthritis have improved functioning after writing for a few months, telling their truths, freeing themselves from the past.

The upcoming webinar at Writer’s Digest I’ll be offering a whole course in memoir writing in 90 minutes–which includes a recording, the live webinar, Q&A, and free critique. It will include techniques for writing freely and quickly, taming the inner critic, creating the arc of the narrative, writing powerful scenes, and much more.

Tips for writing a memoir:

  1. Make a list of the ten most important turning points in your life. Then choose a story from each one and write a new story each week.
  2. Write a list of the critic voices –either your inner critic or the voices of family or friends.
  3. Put the worry-critic list aside and begin writing using the turning point list.
  4. Capture your stories in vignette form without worrying about chronological order.
  5. Use photos to spark your memories. Think about what happened before and after each picture and describe the photo in detail.
  6. Create a sacred-space around you while you are writing. Don’t share your stories with anyone for a while. Protect them as if they were tiny plants in your garden.
  7. Write in the “I” voice in present tense for maximum intensity and immediacy.
  8. If you write in the past tense, you can easily move back and forth through time–using reflection as a way to create perspective.
  9. Think about your themes–asking “what is this about? What important message to I want to share with others?”
  10. List 5 things a reader will take away when they read your memoir.
  11. Create a writing schedule –writing 500 words–two pages–per day gives you a whole book in six months.
  12. Meditate on a mountain pool in France–see the above photograph. Linger in the reflections and start writing!