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!

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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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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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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?

Help Is On the Way
Upcoming posts on this topic will address the ethics of memoir and family history writing (issues such as fairness to both the living and the dead) and I’ll share info on resources and ways to overcome your apprehensions.

Your Thoughts?
What do you think about the possible perils of writing about your life and your family? Please leave a comment, which can help all of us writers of these types of manuscripts.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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Writers: BUY . . . THIS . . . BOOK


Click the cover image to learn more about this book

[Note: I know Diana Raab only through our online connection, and have no relationship with the book’s publisher.]

Even though my creative writing and journaling students hint that I browbeat them, I’ve never told them to buy a book. As a rabid supporter of libraries, I typically urge people to borrow books before buying them. But I want you to trust me on this one. Writers and Their Notebooks, an anthology edited by Diana Raab, is a book you’ll want all to yourself. So, I urge you to just go ahead and buy it.

You’re going to want to read and reread it; write in it; draw stars beside passages; and exclamation marks next to those that are so apt they could have emanated form your own pen, your own heart.

The collection will introduce you to writers you didn’t know before; and you’ll want to read their published work and compare those to what they say about the relationship of their notebooks to the final products. For example, writer James Brown states in his contribution, “For me the journal is. . . a stepping stone to a larger, more refined work… [W]hat you originally thought you wanted to say and what you actually end up writing aren’t always the same thing.”

The Basics
It’s taken me a long time to write this review; the collection is so rich, so perfect I had trouble figuring out who and what to highlight. So, here are the basics.

Writers and Their Notebooks consists of entries by twenty-four highly accomplished contemporary writers of long and short works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and plays. The book is divided into five sections: The Journal as Tool; The Journal for Survival; The Journal for Travel; The Journal as Muse; The Journal for Life.

I’m pleased that Raab didn’t confine this book to just journals, which like diaries suggest daily entries, while “notebooks” covers a broader field. In this collection, we see little of the actual journals or notes. Instead we salivate over glimpses of the secret lives and work they chronicle.

The Many Names of Notebooks
Some of the writers call their notebooks wailing walls. Others, junk drawers. Still others, mirrors. They write in fancy blank books, or in those childhood “copybooks” with the green or black covers, and a big, empty white rectangle for the owner’s name surrounded by squiggles like paint peeling off a wall. Some of the contributors write in tiny old spiral notebooks small enough to stick in a back pocket, and even on tired scraps of paper, as when mental institution personnel forbade a writer to use real books to record her self-healing sentences.

Besides my journals, I’ve got notes on my iPhone, kitchen counters, and the passenger seat of my car. Writers and Their Notebooks gave my habit, my compulsion, legitimacy; allowed me to feel I’d located my tribe, my club—writers who not only turn a literary microscope on others, but also ruthlessly forage around in their own lives and minds.

How and What They Write
I can’t imagine how Raab found these perfect contributors, willing to let us snoop on their private writing habits. There’s Sue Grafton, the über successful mystery writer, who shares her time-consuming system for writing every single one of her twenty-some books. Ilan Stavans’ notebook struck me as a joyous melee: “An idea shows up and becomes a line. I then cross it out and put another one on top, add several below or on the side. I let myself enjoy non sequiturs.” Bonnie Morris’s essay, “Writing in Public Places,” notes “a willingness to create in chaos.” But keeping a journal publicly held its perils. At fourteen, “as a middle-class white girl, living in an affluent country,” she writes, “I listened numbly as a circle of other white girls told me I had a choice—give up my journal…or have neither friends nor protection in our hostile junior high school.”

Not surprisingly, truth and authenticity, either one of which represents the writer’s Holy Grail, make frequent appearances in Writers and Their Notebooks. It’s one of the reasons writers keep journals; it’s a place to tell the brash, unflattering truth, be our real selves, rather than the one we show to the world that we are in, but often, not of.

At the end of the book are appendices, containing ideas for keeping a journal and imaginative ideas about what to write in it; suggested further reading; and bios of the contributors to the volume.

Books about writers’ journals and notebooks can be surprisingly hard to find. But, from now on, I need look no farther than Writers and Their Notebooks. This book’s got it all.

A Single Complaint
The book is profoundly enlightening, entertaining, and downright satisfying; I wish it were double its size.

Do you keep a journal or notebooks? Weigh in about your practices.

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Allyson Latta: The Best Memoirs Don’t Preach

I regularly check Allyson Latta’s web site for meaningful ideas for memoir writers. In her guest post that follows, Allyson explains how preachiness mars a memoir and she offers practical strategies for avoiding it in your manuscript.
– Lynette

Allyson Latta - photo by Keane Shore

Allyson Latta – photo by Keane Shore

We were sitting cross-legged on the floor in my apartment, three young women in our early twenties, debating as usual.

It was what we did in the evenings, a form of entertainment when, as university students, we couldn’t afford much else. The more controversial the topic, the better. On that occasion, it was abortion.

My two classmates were vehemently against abortion, under any circumstances. I argued that there were situations where it might be the only viable option. They were passionate and unyielding; I was outnumbered. As the discussion progressed I began to feel preached at, and a little resentful.

A year or so after that discussion, I was taken aback to discover that each of these women, as a teenager, had undergone an abortion.

While I empathize with their not wishing to disclose everything to me during that earlier debate, if they had trusted me with the truth of their experiences – and the fact that they had come to regret their actions – I would better have understood their vociferousness. What they had gone through couldn’t help but colour their views. Their personal stories would have given context to the discussion.

The past we see as meaningful shapes our thinking and who we become. As memoirists, we strive to structure and render vividly such life-shaping incidents. We endeavor to say something revealing and true – emotionally true – about ourselves, and in the process, humanity. But a potential pitfall is preachiness.

Just as holding back relevant backstory can render someone’s argument moralistic-sounding, so too can a writer’s heavy-handed delivery of a “message.” Preachiness, says Denis Ledoux, director of The Memoir Network, is the “negative underside” of theme. Every effective story, beyond its ability to entertain, has an underlying theme or themes, but in the desire to drive home our points, we can easily sound didactic.

Which presents the memoirist with a dilemma. Don’t we write our stories because we believe we have something important to say? Don’t we ache to impart some essential wisdom gained through our personal challenges? How, then, to do this without sounding self-righteous?

As teenagers we didn’t take kindly to being lectured to, and as adults we don’t much like it either. We have Aesop’s Fables if we want unwavering moral lessons. But in reading memoirs we’ll skim over boring, moralizing passages, or perhaps even toss the book aside. We crave something deeper: a story that connects us with the world of the writer and encourages us to reflect on aspects of ourselves in a new way.

Like most readers of memoir, I look for a believable narrator, one I care about, and a plot that sweeps me along. I want to be taken somewhere I haven’t been before, scene by scene. And those scenes need to bring to life the writer’s challenges and struggles, the consequences of those actions, and finally, a satisfying (if not always tidy) resolution. I want to see, and more importantly feel, the narrator undergo some sort of transformation.

Underlying themes – and this goes for fiction as well as memoir – resonate only when the characters and story are compelling. It never works the other way around.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee manages to condemn racial discrimination through a fictional story that’s as powerful today as it was more than 50 years ago. In the acclaimed memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed explores truths about forgiveness and the healing power of solitude and physical challenge without clobbering us with preachy passages.

Each author, first and essentially, tells a good story well.

The path we travel as writers of memoir can be one of gratifying, if sometimes gut-wrenching, self-discovery. Yet we will almost certainly be humbled at what we find difficult to express, or can never know. “The first product of self-knowledge,” said Flannery O’Conner, “is humility.” Those words might be worth tacking above our writing desks.

The best memoirs don’t preach. They don’t purport to have all the answers. They’re honest, vulnerable, and searching, and even as they attempt to illuminate, they allow space for reader to breathe and interpret.

Ways to avoid preachiness:
1. Write to entertain. Don’t sacrifice story for theme.
2. Eliminate words like moral, message, lesson, and teach from your vocabulary.
3. Encourage the reader’s empathy for your characters’ struggles.
4. Focus on breathing life into your experiences on the page, not on exhorting readers.
5. Be honest; be brave. Don’t be afraid to expose your weaknesses. Readers will relate to your vulnerability. They will be more influenced by what you say if they believe you’re being emotionally truthful.
6. Use scenes, action and dialogue to make your points.
7. Write with compassion. Give voice to various sides of any issue, through your actions and those of other characters.
8. Portray yourself and other characters as multi-dimensional: not all good or all bad. Acknowledge and explore the complexity of their issues and attitudes. Oversimplification can come across as preachy.
9. Ask questions. Dani Shapiro, author of the memoir Devotion, said, “I wanted to use my own self, my own life, as a laboratory, using both my history and my present to ask myself some of the deepest questions I could.”
10. Avoid lecturing and putting speeches in your characters’ mouths (unless a particular character is prone to pontificating). Maintain your story’s pace; don’t get bogged down in persuading readers to your point of view.
11. Use humour, where appropriate. Some of our greatest lessons are learned through laughter.
12. Read your work out loud. You’ll home in on preachy passages.
13. Avoid tied-in-a-bow or over-explained closings. Your story will have a stronger and more lasting impact if you allow readers to glean its significance.

Allyson Latta is an independent editor of literary fiction and creative nonfiction. She teaches memoir writing online for the University of Toronto (formerly also for the New York Times Knowledge Network) and is available through UofT as an online mentor. Her love of travel has led her to teach English in Japan and creative writing in Arizona, Chile, Costa Rica, and Grenada. Books she’s edited have won national and international awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Allyson holds a degree in Journalism, and worked as a reporter and magazine editor/writer before turning to book editing. Her website,, was recommended in The Writer magazine and features essays, interviews, and resources for memoir writers.

She hopes this guest post doesn’t sound preachy.

Lynette here, again. Have you found yourself moralizing in your memoir writing? Did you purge it from your subsequent drafts? Please share your own tactics—-or anything else–about avoiding preachiness in your memoir writing.

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