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 and She Writes Press. What is the connection between them? is an online community for women writers worldwide. On the site, writers can connect with one another, post articles, and join groups. 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 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 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 Brooke lives and works in Berkeley, California.

Visit Brooke at

Connect with Brooke on Social Media:

Examples of Boomers and Seniors Writing About Their Lives

As I’ve written in other posts here, I teach boomers and seniors (and others) to write stories from their lives. Our classes are moving, funny, exciting, suspenseful, and a whole lot of fun—and that describes the stories the students write.

When people tell me they have a pressing urge to write about their lives, but don’t know what to write about, I suggest they take a look at My Legacy is Simply This, a book of short essays by seniors living in various neighborhoods in Boston. The short essays were made possible by Grub Street, a prominent Boston writing institution, and the City of Boston. (Note: I have no affiliation with the publishers or writers of this book.)

No matter what age you are, these are stories you’ll enjoy, and what’s more, they can serve as examples for your own writing.

Among my favorites is the story of his dangerous career, recounted by William Boyle, a former fire fighter. As a young man, he helped quench the big Hotel Vendome fire, which killed nine Boston fire fighters, in 1972. Even after pulling dead coworkers out from the rubble, he still loved his work, especially because that day, he found his boyhood friend, alive in the debris.

Dorothy Parks is a woman who lives each day as if it were her last, as a result of the perils she faced in her travels, whether by train, ship, or air. Her essay is the funniest in the collection, as she recounts an absurd brush with death on an airplane with a wing on fire.

But most of those whose essays appear in the book write about ordinary aspects of their lives: their homes and hometowns, their children, their families, their careers.

If you’re looking for an engaging model for your own writing, consider reading this book. By the way, it’s one of five volumes sponsored by Grub Street and the City of Boston.

If you want to get the stories from your own life down on paper, I hope you’ll find the following posts helpful.

Writing Stories from Your Life
Supercharge Your Life Story with These Ideas
Teaching Creative Writing to Boomers and Seniors, Part 2

You don’t have to be a boomer or senior to join my Memoir Writing or my Writing Stories from Your Life classes. Just keep your eye on the Upcoming Teaching Events tab at the top of this page to see where and when I’ll be holding classes next.

Or, you can work with me privately, as many others have and do. Your choice. Just use the Contact tab at the top of this page to get in touch.

Free Memoir and Family History Writing Talk

Interested in writing memoir, stories from your life, or family history?

I’ll be presenting a free (and lively) talk on Tuesday 7/12 at Robbins Library, in Arlington, Mass. at 1:00. I hope you’ll join us. This talk could help you get started or work your way to the finish line!

Writing Memoir or Family History? Be Afraid. Be Careful.

That's me, Lynette Benton

That’s me, Lynette Benton

When I converted my home office into a writer’s study, one of the first things I did was post on the bulletin board above my desk a card from the National Association of Memoir Writers. It reads:

Be Brave: Write Your Story

That’s what writing memoir and family history takes. Bravery. Cojones. Downright Daring. As Catherine Gildiner writes in “How to Write a Childhood Memoir,” “. . . [W]riting a memoir takes nerves of steel. . .” *

Few of us have steely nerves when it comes to writing honestly about our lives or our families. The stakes are too high. I don’t just mean the possiblity that what you write will fracture family relationships. What you discover as you write might also shatter some of your own fiercely held illusions about your family—and yourself. What you write also forces you to relive less than sanguine experiences, and dredge up old embarrassments, personal regrets, frustrations, and grief.

Of course, you might be one of the lucky few with a history in which every day was sunny and no one ever got sick, cranky, fired, or drunk. You might have no bygones to let be bygones. If you’re like most people, though, your own past and that of your family are peppered with no shortage of secrets, myths (or, let’s face it, lies), or unpleasantness. Or, you might make a fully considered decision to report only the good times, and that’s your right, of course. Some of my memoir and life-writing students state categorically that they do not wish to rake up the sad past.


I would never tell them, as many proponents of the memoir writing process believe, that just writing your story is healing. I know that it actually can leave you in tatters.

Exposing Secrets
A conviction that our story needs to be told can supply the sheer courage that’s required to exhume old memories and write them into art. For me it was a matter of first, knowing I was in possession of two interesting, suspenseful, instructive stories—one centering on money in my family, the other on my work in organizations. Second, I felt compelled to put an end to what felt like collusion. As long as I kept my stories inside me, it seemed as if I was abetting secrecy and suppression of the truth. It was suffocating me.

Our families might have been daredevils, drinkers, cultists, swindlers, and involved us as their unwilling offspring in their activities and deceptions. If their story is unflattering, if they’d rather it not be told, at least not from our point of view, should we suppress it even if it chokes us?

With each of my memoir and family history drafts, I find myself revealing more and more of the truth. That’s partly because with each re-writing, as in a palimpsest of versions placed atop one another, I develop deeper understanding. New insights bubble up. New connections appear. Ah-ha moments seize me during the day and tease me in my sleep, making me wonder how I could have missed them before.

And with each draft, it gets harder and harder for me to justify hiding the truth.

Stick With What You Can Tolerate
I don’t allow myself or encourage my students who are writing about their lives or their families to reveal more truth than they can stand. Instead, I say, tell only the truth, but not every truth. The fallout could be unbearable, in terms not only of how those mentioned in your manuscript might react, but also in terms of your own self-recriminations. What if you find out later that what you wrote is just plain wrong? What if you have regrets after your book is released to the public, or even just to family members or friends?

Charges of Libel?
Your friends and relatives objecting to what you write is one thing. Suing you is another. We’re all supposed to be protected under freedom of speech laws, but to be on the safe side, educate yourself about libel (“a false statement made in writing”) and privacy laws, which vary across states. You might want to give careful thought to whether or not to include photos of people in your memoir or family history, unless you’ve gotten written permission from them.

To stand the test of truth, I’ve kept documentation: letters, emails, legal documents. I have no illusions that those who witnessed certain events would testify to the veracity of my account. Why would they want to get involved in my battle, if it came to a court case?

If you enjoyed this post, you might also find the following helpful:

Will My Family Get Angry About My Memoir? Be sure to read the (quite cautionary) comments.

Memoir, Writing the Truth, and Family: Interview with Author Joy Castro

How to Avoid Committing a Libel in Writing a Family Memoir See additional links at the end of the post.

* In Women Writing On Family

If you need help with writing your own memoir or family history, check me out on the Testimonials tab above and use the Contact tab to tell me about your project.

Short of that, subscribe to this blog so you won’t miss the next posts on this and related topics.

How to Use Artifacts to Fuel Your Memoir or Family History

Paper Prompts
When we prepare to write a memoir or record incidents from our family’s history, we might easily think of common paper items that many of us tend to hold onto. These can form the basis of memory aids, and would include:
— photos of people and places
— letters received from relatives and friends
— diaries we can reference for specific events and dates
— diplomas and achievement certificates
— holiday and/or restaurant menus
— tickets to the theatre, a ride on a sightseeing boat, or for that special anniversary cruise
— invitations to parties, proms, weddings
— bills for kitchen appliances, household repairs, cars
— property deeds, birth and death certificates, and medical records

Other artifacts
Not only paper reminders are helpful. What about furniture—your great-aunt’s moth eaten chair that you vaguely remember storing in your attic, meaning to get it reupholstered? It might remind you of the ritual Sunday afternoon visits to this aunt’s house with your parents when you were a child.

What about your grandfather’s old yard tools languishing in your garage? And your grandmother’s table linens you’ve intended to use each Thanksgiving, but always forget in favor of the Bed, Bath, and Beyond tablecloths and napkins you bought in recent years? Your brother’s baby shoes (bronzed or not). The deliberately tacky key chain your friends gave you for your twenty-first birthday. And my favorites, old clothes and jewelry owned and worn by ancestors long deceased.

All of these can prompt memories of the past and the people whose lives have touched and influenced your own. Through their belongings we not only remember, but recapture and relive our own and our family’s past.

For more ideas and prompts as you write your memoir or family history, see Turning Memories into Memoirs, a book many of my adult writing students find helpful.

Turning Memories Into Memoirs

Click the cover image to learn more about this book

Want more memoir writing and family history tips? Click on those words in the Categories column on the right of this page.

NEXT POST: I’m going to take a crack at addressing how people work up the courage to write the truth in their memoirs, family histories, and journals, and where they hide this writing until it’s time to release it on the public (or at least on friends and family).

This is a biggie, so I hope you’ll all weigh in with your strategies.

The Zen of Life Story Writing

That's me, Lynette Benton

That’s me, Lynette Benton

When I give talks on writing life stories, invariably members of the audience say their kids or grandkids are pestering them about their early lives, and they want to let their extended families, friends, and future generations know what made them who they are. Or that they’ve got stories within themselves that are crying to be set free.

But, even if you’re fully ready to start writing stories from your life, the task can seem overwhelming; after all, you’ve been a part of and witnessed countless events and amassed a lot of experience.

So, here are 3 words to help you jumpstart your life story writing project—and your memory:

• Artifacts
• Lists

In this post, we’ll confine ourselves to the first one.

Shimmering Images author Lisa Dale Norton writes that the title of her book refers to memory pictures that we have embedded in our heads (and often in our hearts).

Click the cover image to learn more about this book

I don’t know about you, but I have images that trigger recollections and fragmented reminders of incidents in the past: The look on my father’s face when I was a toddler and screamed when he lifted me onto a bus on our way back from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. (My parents must have made a big deal of the excursion, because even then, I knew that was where we’d been.)

I see myself subsequently on a huge metal table, alone in an empty room with a big, boxy, machine moving above me.

Years later, haunted by that scene, I asked my mother about it. She explained that I was lying beneath X-ray equipment, which revealed that I’d fractured my left collarbone. I can visualize the very day I must have injured it; I’d fallen off the bed while playing with my older sister.

What are your shimmering images? You’re not looking for facts here; you’re searching for impressions connected to your past. Your grandmother at the stove, her presence reassuring and anchoring the entire household. Yourself dancing to forbidden music in a basement rec room after school. The picnic where you met your true love. Driving home after being offered your dream job. Driving home after being fired.

These images can lure you into a meditative state that helps you call up and even relive your personal history. Write them down, along with their associated physical and emotional elements. Was there a transistor radio or boom box playing music (what kind of music?) or broadcasting a baseball game at the picnic? Can you remember your father’s exasperated expression as he made his way down the basement steps, caught you partying with your friends, and reminded you that he’d sent you to the supermarket to pick up lettuce for dinner? Was the sun hot and your car without air conditioning the day you lost your job?

Right now, just rely on your own mind to provoke memories for your stories. Since some of your shimmering images might be caught on photos or videos, in my next life-writing post, I’ll discuss how you can use artifacts to further stimulate your memory.

Choose a Life or Family Story Writing Option

That's me, Lynette Benton

That’s me, Lynette Benton

If you’re thinking of writing about your life, or your family’s life, here’s some information to help you decide which of the possible forms would work best for you.

An autobiography covers your entire life. Tip: Be careful about starting out with your actual birth, unless there was something special about it, like yours being the first recorded birth in such and such a year or town.

You want your autobiography to engage readers, even if they’re family members, so I advise against lists of facts. “I was born on” feels like the beginning of a list of facts.

Try instead to write something about your birth, like “No one knew if my father would be able to get leave from the military in time for my mother’s due date.”

That immediately sets up suspense. We’ll keep reading because we want to know if he did get home in time. Then you can go on with something like: “Military leaves were scarce, since Pearl Harbor had been bombed a short time before and the US was at war.” Now you’ve added context. We’re interested.

A memoir describes a portion of a life, which could be a chronological period, like your teen years, or a subject, like all the houses you’ve lived in. I recently completed a project with a client who wrote about the years she and her husband spent their winters in Florida.

Life Stories
What I call a life story (or story from your life) is an anecdote about something in your life. I like it best when someone delves into a family myth, or discovers a secret. (I’ve never yet taught a class in which a boomer or senior didn’t find out something about their family that had been deliberately suppressed. For more ideas, see Supercharge Your Life Story with These Ideas.)

My husband's wonderful family helped me find info on my father's family on a recent trip to NC,

My husband’s wonderful family helped me find info on my father’s family on a recent trip to NC

Genealogy and Family History
The definition of genealogy that I like best is: “The study or investigation of ancestry and family histories.”

In addition to, or in place of, developing a family tree that confines itself to births, marriages, and deaths, many people write family history, which takes a broader look at ancestry than a family tree can accommodate.

Some genealogies include family stories and artifacts and documentation such as letters to help build a portrait of a family and its members. A number of sites like Family Search and USGenWebProject offer a rich trove of genealogical search opportunities.

Often a student of mine will realize in his or her mature years that a certain person exercised a strong positive influence on him or her. That acknowledgement inspires the student to write a profile of the parent, teach, mentor, neighbor, or friend, which turns out to be a meaningful tribute to the memory of that significant person. One student wrote so beautiful a tribute to her father that all of us who heard it wished we had known the man.

Going Forward
In my next post, I’ll provide tips for getting started on your personal and family history writing projects. What else would you like to know about writing stories from your own or your family’s life?

Top 3 Reasons Baby Boomers and Seniors Put Off Writing About Their Lives

Are you among those who chide themselves for not doing anything about those anecdotes your friends keep telling you that you should write down? Or maybe it’s those personal memories you feel you ought to share with the world? Or, you might feel weighed down by a nagging desire to preserve the history of your family for future generations?

Well, if you keep procrastinating about writing your stories, you’re not alone. When I give talks about life story writing, I usually face a roomful of folks wearing guilty expressions.

I open with a question for those in attendance.

“What are the differences among biography, autobiography, memoir, genealogy, and life stories?” I ask.

Reason #1
The audience looks perplexed; some individuals shift uncomfortably in their chairs. Someone might murmur a tentative response, but actually, no one’s quite sure what the different terms mean.

“It’s easier to write about your life if you know your options,” I tell them.

(Here are some of the different types of life story writing.)

Reason #2
After I explain the differences, the most frequent remark I hear from the audience is: “How can I start getting my story down on paper? I’m not sure I even remember a lot of what I want to write about.”

Reason #3
And invariably, the next remark is a perfectly valid one: “I feel overwhelmed by the prospect of writing all this stuff down.”

Well, in upcoming posts, I’m going to give you some tricks to get you started on that biography, autobiography, memoir, family history, genealogy, short personal tribute, or story from your life. I’ll also tell you about fabulously helpful resources.

I hope you’ll check back so you can get the “I-should-be-writing-this-down” monkey off your back. If any questions have you stumped, just put them in comment below and I’ll be sure to address them. And you might want to subscribe to future posts so you’ll be notified by email when they are published.

In the meantime, take a look at some of my Family History posts.

Having trouble getting your writing off the ground? Check out my Testimonials, and get in touch with me. I can help you out.

I'd love to know the personal histories associated with this building on a Washington, DC corner

I’d love to know the personal histories associated with this building on a Washington, DC corner

Book Review: Women Writing on Family

Click the cover image to learn more about this book

Interest in genealogy, family history, and memoir* is so intense these days it’s about time a book to guide writers working in these genres became available.

Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, an anthology edited by Carol Smallwood and Suzann Holland, is that book. Smallwood says she was led to compile the collection when a novel she was working on raised questions concerning writing about her relatives.

“How much to tell, how much to leave out?” she wondered.

When no books came to her aid, she decided to collect essays by published women who were also experienced in writing about families. Why did she choose all women? She recalled Virginia Woolf’s observation: “We think back through our mothers if we are women.”

With eight sections (including one on “Writing Exercises and Strategies”) and 55 essays, Women Writing on Family can help women writing about family stay out of court on charges of libel from irate relatives; carve out writing time from frantic schedules; approach editors in the hopes of getting published; and promote their work—whether self- or traditionally-published—to the public.

In the opening essay, “Family Secrets: How to Reveal What Matters Without Getting Sued or Shunned,” Martha Engber takes writers on a tour of their—and others’—First Amendment rights, and offers tips on protecting yourself and those you write about.

Lela Davidson’s “Laundry, Life, and Writing: Making the Most of Short Sessions and Stolen Moments” (Don’t you love that title?) shows writers how they can make brief bursts of writing productive.

As a writing instructor, I tell my memoir-writing students not to bother writing paeans to their perfect childhoods. I won’t believe them and neither will anyone else. In her no-holds-barred essay, “How to Write a Childhood Memoir,” Catherine Gildiner lists the unpleasant memories writers should be willing to excavate from their own pasts, warning that writing a memoir “takes nerves of steel.”

If you’re ready to propel your story out into the world, take a look at “Identifying Potential Markets for Family Writing,” by Rebecca Tolley-Stokes, “Locating Markets for Writing About Family,” by Colleen Kappeler, and “A Writer’s Thoughts on Book Marketing,” by Ann McCauley. All three contain a host of valuable ideas for sharing your writing with larger audiences than your family.

*According to Booklist, the number of memoirs alone published over the last four years increased 400%.

If you’re up to exploring more hard-hitting memoir topics, see Supercharge Your Life Story with These Ideas.