The Survey’s Over

Clear Winter Afternoon

Thanks to all of you who participated in the quiz about your writing! Your answers will help make this site more responsive to you and writers like you.

The results will be posted here soon. And I’ll keep you updated on the changes I’ll be making to the site.

In the meantime, take yourself on a little tour of the site as it is now. I’m sure you’ll find writing tips you can use.

Again, thank you!

-Lynette

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A Memoir is More Than Just Facts

A version of this essay originally appeared as my guest post on DeliberateInk, the blog of writer Shikarah Dawud.

Orchid in Winter

Remembering the past so that we can record it might not be the greatest challenge we memoirists face.

In a memoir, precision isn’t everything.

If we’re unsure of a date, we can dip into our diaries or refer to old letters and recent emails. But in a memoir, precision isn’t everything. In most instances, an exact date—November 19, for example—isn’t necessary. Usually, “late November,” or even “late that year,” is good enough.

We can contact a cousin if we’ve forgotten the name of Aunt Gertrude’s first husband. We can check military records to be sure Dad really was honorably discharged after “that incident” relatives still whisper about twenty years after the event. To establish who was who among their ancestors, where they hailed from, and what they did, genealogists can introduce themselves to living relatives, previously unknown to them, interview old family friends, and visit town halls and libraries to look up long dead family members. They can examine gravestones and cemetery records. (And in nosing around, they often uncover startling family secrets and scandals).

Mere facts don’t make a memoir.

The point of memoir is to evoke and share experience. In memoirs, we are concerned not just with what happened, but with how what happened felt. Memoirs are fueled by emotion and sensory detail, at least as much as by memory. It’s the emotions and physical sensations surrounding events that linger in our minds and our lives.

My eighty-eight year old student remembered the World War II Allied Forces tossing candy bars to the starving prisoners after smashing their tanks through the gates of the POW camp where he was incarcerated. Another elderly student recollected staring, frozen when he was 19 years old, as his Greek girlfriend’s parents shouted that they didn’t want their daughter to mix with him because he was Irish.

These stories engage readers (even if those readers are “just” family members), because they are powered by the emotions and physical sensations that accompanied them.

Add fuel to your memoir
Tell your readers how you felt. What joy, hope, sadness, or shock surrounded your personal victories or seeming defeats?
Appeal to readers’ senses. Could you feel the hook and ladder’s shuddering vibrations the night fire trucks arrived to douse a neighbor’s burning house? What were the distinctive odors escaping from the school cafeteria just before you got suspended?
Be specific. Telling readers that you climbed a hill and looked over the fields doesn’t give them a true sense of place or your frame of mind. Were you swatting at mosquitoes as you strode to the top of the hill? Did your fear of what you might find render you nearly as breathless as the climb itself?
Share the “flavor” of the times you’re writing about. Did your family always sit down to pot roast and potatoes at Sunday dinner? Do you remember the smell of Vicks VapoRub your grandmother applied to your chest when you had a cold?

Capture the feeling of your experiences

Capturing the feeling of experiences is as important as the experiences themselves. Plumb the emotional and sensual details of your past when you write. Those, rather than a list of facts, are the kinds of memories readers will relate to.

These are the techniques and guidelines I used in my memoir, My Mother’s Money, that made an excerpt from it a finalist in the memoir writing contest sponsored by She Writes Press and Serendipity Literary Agency. My essay describing my experiences writing that memoir won first place in the Magic of Memoir Essay Contest and is included in the anthology, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey.

Resources
Memoir Writing: One Important Element
Evoke Emotions in Your Readers
Writing the Memoir, by Judith Barrington, Chapter 7: Using Your Senses

Need help adding interest and intensity to your life story or family history writing? Check out my Testimonials, and use the Contact tab to get in touch. We’ll see how I can help you.

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How to Write What Matters

Add Intensity to Your Life Writing

I urge my creative writing students not to bother putting on paper all the joys and none of the pain of their lives. That approach is boring, un-instructive, and anyway, I won’t believe it. Nobody’s existence is unblemished.

I’m not suggesting you write bitter, carping litanies of accusations and complaints (though penning these can be terrific stress relievers if you write them for your eyes only). But why not probe your life and experiences, those incidents or even moments, that had enough of an impact to make you what and who you are? Or those moments when you surprised yourself?

Get Inspiration for Your Memoir, Family History or Personal Essay Writing

I like Abigail Thomas’s Thinking About Memoir, and the book is perfect for personal essays, as well.

In this book, Thomas offers prompts that encourage you look over your past, and even your present.

For example, I’d been agonizing over some jewelry I wanted, fetchingly displayed on glass shelves in a boutique. As a result of Thomas’s prompt: “Write two pages about what you had to have,” I wrote a nifty little essay called “Retail Anxiety.” (That reminds me, I need to submit it for publication somewhere. Here’s a link to a list of lots of outlets that publish personal essays. 19 Websites and Magazines That Want to Publish Your Personal Essays. View the Comments to see even more outlets supplied by visitors to the post.

Need More Ideas?

A quick sampling of other prompts you’ll find in Thinking About Memoir:

– Write two pages of when you knew you were in trouble.
– Write two pages of what you wish you could still do.
– Write two pages of when you failed to rise to the occasion.

If you want more ideas for putting depth into your life writing of any length, visit: Supercharge Your Life Story with These Ideas.

And for assistance writing your essays, memoir, or family history, just click on the Contact tab to see how I can help. While you’re at it, check out my Testimonials, too.

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Another Must-Have Memoir Writing Resource

It’s true that my own essay, “No More Secrets and Silence,” appears in the recently released The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey anthology, and that this essay won first prize in the Magic of Memoir contest. But if you write memoir or family history, I’d be urging you to get this book even if that weren’t so.

Why do I think you need this volume? Because it contains essays that shine a light on the processes, angsts, supports, and resources—both human and literary—that other memoirists and family history writers use.

Have you been shying away from writing your memoir?

Unable to do more than just write about the “nice little things” in your life as if your whole life consisted of just those “nice little things?” To write the truth, you’ve got to assemble your strongest inner resources. In her essay, Jill Kandel asserts, “Writing is not for the faint of heart.”

I couldn’t agree with her more.

This is a book for serious writers, who are ready to tackle memoirs or family histories they’ve been putting off or downright avoiding for years. This book will help you get serious if you aren’t already. Kelly Kittel quotes a refrigerator magnet in her essay in The Magic of Memoir. That magnet urges, “be brave and do hard things.”

You won’t find distracting, time-wasting tips in this book.

Or even useful lists of how-to’s. The memoirists whose essays appear in The Magic of Memoir describe how they managed to write about the tragedies in their lives, their relationships with their families (so much of memoir addresses family relationships), their efforts to create meaning out of the tumult of daily existence, and the success of their work, despite their many doubts. Reading about how others coaxed forth their memoirs can have an inspirational effect.

The writers look at whether or not creating memoir heals the memoirist. (In her essay in this volume, Jill Smolowe writes, “I do not find the writing of a memoir cathartic.” What’s your opinion?) And they describe the need to shout demons down in order to tell the truth. In short, they let us see how to kick butt to get our memories of ourselves and/or our families down on paper.

Interviews with Famous Contemporary Memoirists

In addition to the essays, The Magic of Memoir includes interviews with some of the most renowned memoirists of our time, including:

– Cheryl Strayed
– Mary Karr
– Elizabeth Gilbert, and
– Dani Shapiro, to name a few.

This book is so good that even the Introduction, written by the anthology’s editors, Linda Joy Myers and Brooke Warner, is eye opening and instructive.

Let this book be your companion on your memoir-writing journey. It will make a great holiday gift for a memoirist you know—even if that memoirist is yourself.

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Write That Memoir, Life Story, or Family History. Now.

That's me, Lynette Benton

That’s me, Lynette Benton

Know you should start or finish your memoir, stories from your life, or family history, but can’t seem to get up enough steam for the task?

Ease over to Bookcoaching.com to see the tips I offer in my guest post. They can get you going.

– Lynette

Advertisement Disclosure This website contains Amazon.com affiliate links. That means that Amazon.com purchases that originate on Tools and Tactics for Writers will help offset the expenses associated with this site. Your support is deeply appreciated!

Talking Memoir with Writing Instructor, Coach, and Publisher Brooke Warner, Part 1

As a memoir writer, as well as a memoir coach myself, I’ve followed Brooke Warner’s work on behalf of memoir and memoir writers for years. It’s a pleasure to welcome her here so you can learn more about her varied work, including publishing.
– Lynette

Instructor, Coach, Publisher Brooke Warner

Instructor, Coach, Publisher Brooke Warner

You’re a writing instructor, coach, and publisher. Can you distinguish among those roles?
BW: I teach memoir classes mostly, and sometimes classes on publishing, either online or in-person. As a coach I work with authors one-on-one, both on their writing and the emotional challenges that go along with writing. I’m a teacher, editor, champion, and midwife.

As publisher of She Writes Press, I’m more of a book shepherd than a coach. I still champion our authors, but my role is more directive, because I’m helping them with their books’ covers and positioning. I sometimes feel like more of a bossy older sister than a mother hen in this role.

You have experience in traditional publishing; you’ve been a speaker at writing and publishing conferences, and have expertise particularly in memoir, but also in other genres. What do you tell audiences about publishing?

I tell them that it’s really hard to get a traditional publishing deal these days. I hope I paint a mostly optimistic picture, however, because opportunities abound in the current publishing climate. But the book publishing world looks a lot different than it did even 15 years ago.

I educate aspiring authors about their options and what the different publishing paths might look like. I try to give them a dose of reality without squashing their dreams, because I’m strongly invested in the dream of authorship. I just believe that some authors need to reframe how that’s going to happen.

Please tell us about SheWrites.com and She Writes Press. What is the connection between them?

SheWrites.com is an online community for women writers worldwide. On the site, writers can connect with one another, post articles, and join groups. SheWrites.com was around for a few years before I contacted the cofounder, Kamy Wicoff, about starting She Writes Press. We built the press to complement the online platform. Authors don’t need to be a member of SheWrites.com to publish with us, but the two companies are inextricably linked in terms of their brand and their messaging—which is that they both exist as platforms for women’s voices.

This year’s theme for your collaboration with Linda Joy Myers, President of the National Association of Memoir Writers, seems to be the Magic of Memoir. You’ve sponsored an essay contest, there’s the conference of the same name this month (October, 2016); and you’ve got the Magic of Memoir Anthology coming out in November. How do they fit together?

The contest was for The Magic of Memoir anthology, so those are one and the same. We did an open call for submissions for the anthology, for which you took home first place, Lynette. Congratulations!

Our second annual Magic of Memoir Conference, which took place October 15 – 16, in Oakland, California, makes Magic of Memoir more than a theme for this year. We’re making Magic of Memoir part of our brand.

We have a class called Write Your Memoir in Six Months, but we want to do a lot more around memoir than just our six-month course. The Magic of Memoir conference and website and book are allowing us to move into some more exciting content and ideas beyond our six-month course.

Please describe the Write Your Memoir in Six Months course.

This is our six-month online memoir intensive, which we run twice a year, with one class starting in January and one in June. (The next one begins in January 2017.) It’s blossomed into a lot more than just our six-month course.

Notably we also teach a Best-selling Memoir course each spring and summer. We’ve taught Wild, by Cheryl Strayed; Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert; Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt; The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr; and others. These short courses give writers an opportunity to learn what makes these memoirs work. They’re really fun.

Finally, we’ve been teaching a Mastering Memoir course once a year, which is a ten-week online course that’s faster-paced than Write Your Memoir in Six Months and exclusively focused on craft. The next one is starting in February 2017. So we feel that Write Your Memoir Six Months is the foundation for lots of other work we’re doing in memoir.

Note from Lynette:
Be sure you don’t miss Part 2 of this informative interview for all writers interested in starting, improving, or publishing their manuscripts.

See the list of authors who will be included in the Magic of Memoir anthology, which is available for pre-order on Amazon.com. The anthology will also feature interviews with best selling memoirists. Find out who they are here.
__________________

Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of Green-light Your Book, What’s Your Book?, How to Sell Your Memoir, co-author of Breaking Ground on Your Memoir, and co-editor of The Magic of Memoir Anthology. Brooke’s expertise is in traditional and new publishing. She is the former Executive Editor of Seal Press and currently sits on the boards of the Independent Book Publishers Association, the Bay Area Book Festival, and the National Association of Memoir Writers. She blogs actively on Huffington Post Books and SheWrites.com. Brooke lives and works in Berkeley, California.

Visit Brooke at www.brookewarner.com

Connect with Brooke on Social Media:
http://twitter.com/brooke_warner
http://facebook.com/warnercoaching
https://www.linkedin.com/in/warnercoaching
https://www.pinterest.com/warnercoaching
https://www.youtube.com/warnercoaching

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I’m 1st Place Winner of the Magic of Memoir Essay Contest!

Sure, I’m grinning all over myself.

My essay, “No More Secrets and Silence,” was awarded 1st place in the Magic of Memoir Essay Contest, chosen from 185 submissions. My prize is $400, which has already arrived. And the essay will also be included in the forthcoming Magic of Memoir Anthology. That’s expected out in November 2016.

Here are the names of all the memoirists whose essays will appear in the anthology. You can also scroll down to see the bestselling memoirists whose interviews appear in the book.

I hope you’ll pick up a copy of the collection (you can pre-order it now, as I have) and enjoy the essays written by all the memoirists included in it. We share the approaches we took to writing our memoirs, including obstacles we encountered and overcame—and we offer solutions that can help you in your writing, as well.

Please spread the word about the upcoming Magic of Memoir Anthology!

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How Do You Like Your Memoirs?

Are you having trouble figuring out how to approach writing your memoir, or if you’ve started it, are you baffled about how to make it “take off?”

One way to think about possible treatments for your memoir is to take another look at those you’ve enjoyed. (You have been reading memoirs, right? You wouldn’t attempt to write in a genre you weren’t familiar with, would you? Nah. I know you wouldn’t.)

You might have read a number of books and blogs that urge writers to construct their memoirs to read like novels. Some memoirs, like my own (My Mother’s Money), happen lend themselves to a novelistic structure.

But your story might not. It’s best to choose what will work for the life events you want to recount. So, think about what appeals to you in memoirs, regardless of their structure.

You might like:

Descriptions of how things were. The family, the neighborhood, the early joys or problems, the political climate, or financial issues the memoirist experienced.

Stunning surprises. In one of her memoirs, Diana Athill opened with a description of a novelist who came to a dinner party at her house. She took to him immediately, knowing he’d become a dear friend. That section, which is almost merry, ends, “Five years later this man killed himself in my flat.” How’s that for a baldly stated surprise?  In your case, it might be a relationship that unexpectedly collapses, an illness that overtakes someone, or even coming into more money than you know what to do with—anything that upsets the status quo.

A thinking narrator, who isn’t averse to wandering off on tangents to discover and comprehend connections, unravel a conundrum. (Above my desk is a quote, urging writers to “approach their subject for its mystery—as an investigator examining the unfathomable.”)

New knowledge about a lifestyle, religion, era, problem—a sort of “Oh, so that’s how landscapers (or morgue attendants, or hedge fund managers) work, live, and think.”

Admiration for the narrator’s courage and persistence, as she tackles a problem, even if others feel she should “leave well enough alone.”

Having your own ideas about how to write your memoir—what you want it to be—will make it authentic. And if a memoir is nothing else, it should be that.

What do you like in memoirs?

If you need assistance to make your memoir work, use the Contact tab above to see how I can help.

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Include Gestures to Enliven Your Writing

In life, when we talk to one another, we generally don’t declare our lines while standing at attention, our arms pinioned at our sides like exclamation points.

We move around and we position ourselves in various postures, such as slumping, hanging our heads, or if we’re angry, stomping around. When the occasion calls for it, our facial expressions morph into smiles, frowns, smirks, and pouts. Our hands come alive, waving or cutting through space to emphasize our every word—or to dismiss what the other person is saying.

But often in our writing, we entirely overlook these behaviors—gestures—that accompany, emphasize, and define our human interactions. Instead, we might write. “I listened while she told me a long, shocking story.”

What were you doing while she told you this long, shocking story? Did you squirm with discomfort? Raise your eyebrows in surprise? And was she doing anything with her body to underscore this “shocking” story?

Examples of the use of gestures:

  • “That happens all the time,” Samos pointed out, shrugging.
  • The doctor chuckled and ambled out of the examining room to get a fresh cup of coffee.
  • I ended the conversation in disgust, then poked my phone again to make another call.

As a New Yorker, I was surprised on my first visits to New England (where I now live) at what seemed to me the stillness of New Englanders. Where I was from, every conversation, every thought almost, was an occasion for jerking our heads, bellowing out something over our shoulders, or doing little dances when we heard good news. But not in New England. People here seemed well behaved to me. Too well behaved.

Which led me to think more deeply about these physical motions that go along with our speaking and that express our feelings—sometimes even when we’re alone.

I asked my adult memoir and life story writing students in a class I teach to use gestures in their next assignment. Some did; others missed the opportunities their topics offered them, though gestures add depth to all kinds of writing, whether novel, short story, memoir, and sometimes even poetry.

But one woman did not include gestures in her essay. Instead, she wrote about gestures themselves.

She was born and reared in a country, where, as she described it, physical gestures are large. Hugging is common. Emotions are freely expressed and underlined with gestures. A man from from a different country noted that in his culture, few gestures are used.

But even if the gestures are subtle, they still can be included. Someone might simply stammer, nod his head, lean forward, or stare at the floor when downcast. People probably stretch when they’re tired or when their limbs feel cramped. All these motions should be included in the writing so that characters appear alive, rather than robotic.

In your creative writing, do you remember to show your readers what people are doing?

If you want to know more about integrating gestures into your writing to enhance it, take a look at:

Master List of Gestures and Body Language 

Gesture, Revisited

And if you’d like assistance getting gestures into your writing or otherwise strengthening it, use the Contact tab above to get in touch with me. We’ll see how I can help you out.

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Memoir Narrator’s Transformation

I just had the pleasure of having my article, A Memoir Narrator Transformed posted on Women Writers, Women[‘s] Books. I hope you’ll stop by and give it a read, especially if you write or enjoy reading memoir.

 

 

 

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