5 More Pitfalls Awaiting Aspiring Memoir Writers

That’s me, Lynette Benton

In my last post, I said I’d provide tips for writing about your family next, but I realized I had a few more memoir writing tips to share with you. I’ll post about writing about your family next. Promise.

________________

Last week I posted a few things for aspiring memoir writers (or even more experienced ones) to avoid when writing a memoir. These apply even if you’re just working on briefer stories about your life. In your writing you want your actual experience reflected. By that, I don’t mean just telling the truth (as much of it as you’re comfortable with) but presenting your story as more than a mere recitation of bare facts. To do that . . .

Here are more mistakes to avoid:
1. Starting big. Start telling your story in small bits. For example, you can write down a single memory. Then write down another. Keep going. Don’t worry about the order these are written in. You can rearrange them later.

2. Sugarcoating. When writing about your life, it’s important to dig deeper than the surface appearance of events and relationships. You’re involved in a process of discovery.

3. Reaching for clichés and overused phrases, especially those that are trendy at the moment. I know it’s easy, but it’s also unoriginal. Find your own words, those that clearly express your story and convey its uniqueness to a reader. Befriend a thesaurus to find what a woman in my life story writing classes calls “juicy words.” In fact, if you’re working on a writing project, go through it now and see if you can replace a few boring words with words with power.

4. Having events take place in “nowhere.” Everything happens somewhere. So be sure to include the setting of your stories. Tell the reader a little about where things are happening, and describe the places (though beware of filling your stories with too much description).

5. Forgetting to include gestures. I find this is among the biggest challenges for new writers. But gestures are critical to bringing your story and your characters alive. We don’t speak to one another in frozen poses, with our arms glued to our sides.

If you need help getting off to a strong start on your memoir, or help making significant progress on it, get in touch with me. Unsure? Check out what my students, colleagues, and clients say about working with me.

 

 

Reasons to Write About Your Life or Your Family

That’s me, Lynette Benton

Can’t think of reasons why you should you invest the time or effort to write about your life or your family?

Here are just a few reasons to write down stories about your life or your family.

  • To create a record
  • To preserve memories
  • To protect personal and family history from being lost
  • To celebrate accomplishments
  • To educate others (Show others, including future generations, how you or your family overcame obstacles.)
  • To share your take on public events (Show the ways in which the stories behind the headlines affected you or your family.)
  • To share your perspective on family mores and myths. (All families have mores and myths.)
  • To show “how things were” in the past
  • To discover a new take on occurrences in your life. (You’ll be surprised how writing about your life or your family reveals new views of things you’ve taken for granted.)

Don’t know what to write about? These can help.

Supercharge Your Writing With These Ideas

Need resources? Check out the information at these links.

How to Write What Matters

Women Writing on Family

Must-Have Memoir Writing Aids

Another Must-Have Memoir Writing Aid

If I’ve convinced you that writing about your life or your family is worthwhile, but you don’t know how to get started, or continue, get in touch with me. If you’re not sure I can help you, take a look at my Testimonials, then use the Contact tab to tell me about your project.

Memoirist Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D. Wears Many Hats: Part 1

For years, I have admired the work of Linda Joy Myers, prominent author, memoir writing instructor, and founder and president of the National Association of Memoir Writers. She now appears here to share her wisdom and experience with all of you who write and read memoir and family history.

– Lynette

Linda Joy Myers

 All my life, I’ve been a passionate reader of stories—they helped save me. When I write, I enter a creative space to discover and share stories I hope will offer a relatable experience for the reader. As a teacher, I look for the gold in the writers’ stories, and help them dig deep into their creativity, their memories, and their courage. It’s satisfying to help them rise from the archeological dig of memories with meaningful moments that offer wisdom to others.

Based on my passion for stories, I founded the National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW) to be a place where memoir writers could gather and learn. I wanted them to get the support that I’d needed early in my writing career when there were relatively few memoir writers.

Writing My Memoirs

I learned how writing and creativity help to heal wounds of the heart through journaling, writing poetry, and doing art. The research done by Dr. James Pennebaker, a clinical psychologist, proved that writing the truth about our lives helps us heal physically and emotionally.

Click the cover image to learn more about this book.

I found intense relief in writing Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness, a memoir about three generations of mothers who abandoned their daughters. I ended the silence that often accompanies abuse, and my words offered testimony about the tragedy of loss and fragmentation. I began to see myself and our family story through new eyes.

But the characters, especially my mother and grandmother, were not through with me, and another theme emerged. Through the years, I’d gathered stories about the Great Plains, the pioneers, and our family history; in this new memoir, I wanted to capture the essence and power of the plains. Digging deep to find the hidden truths in my family story had a parallel in understanding the history of America, and how our stories can embrace larger universal truths.

In my new memoir, Song of the PlainsA Memoir of Family, Secrets, and SilenceI unearth the story of my mother that she could never tell, and I travel with my grandmother on ships in the 1930s to her beloved England, walking in their shoes and seeing the world through their eyes. I learned that the antidote to the pain of the past is to find our authentic voice, and reveal the truths we discover. We shape that raw material into a story. It’s transformative, and I find a great sense of peace from having written both books.

Don’t miss Part 2 of Linda Joy’s discussion of her extensive work in the memoir field.

Linda Joy Myers is president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, and author of the award winning memoir Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness, and two books on craft: The Power of Memoir, and Journey of Memoir.

Her new memoir, Song of the Plains, A Memoir of Family Secrets, and Silence, is about breaking generational patterns through art and self-expression, and how history holds the clue for compassion and forgiveness.

She’s a co-author with Brooke Warner of two books: Breaking Ground on Your Memoir and Magic of Memoir. Myers writes for the Huffington Post, and co-teaches the program Write Your Memoir in Six Months. She has been a therapist for nearly 40 years, where the power of story is part of the healing process. She has been a memoir coach for the last 20 years.

Memoirist Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D. Wears Many Hats: Part 2

In Part 2 of this post by Linda Joy Myers, prominent author, memoir writing instructor, and founder and president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, she continues to describe her wide ranging work in the field of memoir, both for herself and other memoir writers.

– Lynette

 The National Association of Memoir Writers

Every month we offer a free event, the Roundtable Book Discussion, and two member events that provide craft, inspiration, and memoir writing skills. The presenters on our teleseminars are engaged in their own creative processes, and wrestle with the same questions and trials. No matter how experienced we are, each work we undertake asks something new of us, and we’re pressed to solve that problem. On these calls, writers talk with each other about their challenges, comforted by knowing they aren’t alone as they work on their book. We offer free eBooks, discounted courses, and 100 audios of past teleseminars, resources that help memoir writers succeed.

Brooke Warner and I created the Write Your Memoir in Six Months course because we saw how profoundly memoir writers needed support, accountability, and craft. We developed a time frame and a word count goal to help with motivation and deadlines, and a curriculum that covers all aspects of craft in memoir, from beginning idea to structure, scenes, the narrative arc, revision, and publishing. We include the psychology of memoir writing: family, truth, shame, silence, and the inner critic. We’ve had a great response, which tells us that we’re doing something right for memoir writers! It’s inspiring for me as a teacher to be brought into the lives of the writers and help them find their story and guide them toward making their dream of publication come true.

Memoir and Family History Writing Thrives

As the Baby Boomer generation gets older, the interest in memoir and family history grows stronger. Perhaps it’s because our generation began to question the world forty or fifty years ago, and we’re still trying to understand and make meaning from our experiences. Many of this generation of writers want their books to be a legacy of love to their family.

Click the cover image to learn more about this book.

Advice for Writing Your Story to Heal Past Injuries

Make a list of 10-15 significant moments, both the dark and light memories. Choose one of those moments, and start writing. Draw upon photos and other memorabilia to help you remember details. Re-read your journals for clues. If you’re writing about pain, write for no more than 20 minutes to protect yourself from sinking too deeply into the darkness. Remember that you are both a character in the story, and the narrator who understands everything from a later vantage point. These two “I” voices weave together to create a new perspective and layers of insight that were missing when you were younger. Each scene has the potential to shift your point of view and move you forward to a new understanding about your life.

Check out Part 1 of Linda Joy’s discussion of her extensive work in the memoir field.

Linda Joy Myers is president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, and author of the award winning memoir Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness, and two books on craft: The Power of Memoir, and Journey of Memoir.

Her new memoir, Song of the Plains, A Memoir of Family Secrets, and Silence, is about breaking generational patterns through art and self-expression, and how history holds the clue for compassion and forgiveness.

She’s a co-author with Brooke Warner of two books: Breaking Ground on Your Memoir and Magic of Memoir. Myers writes for the Huffington Post, and co-teaches the program Write Your Memoir in Six Months. She has been a therapist for nearly 40 years, where the power of story is part of the healing process. She has been a memoir coach for the last 20 years.

Hello Again, Memoir and Family History Writers

New posts have been few and far between around here lately, but there are some good reasons for that.

First, I’ve been working with a talented copywriter to expand this website to function as more than a blog. With my webmaster, we’re revamping the entire site and making changes based on what memoir and family history writers (as well as sincere wannabes) have told us they want and need.

Second, I’ve been focusing on writing personal essays. As a memoir and family history writer, I’ve learned it can be useful to start small. As in, with an essay.

That means you don’t have to think in terms of writing an entire memoir or history of your family. You can break your project into small parts by writing individual essays. For example, you can write a short piece about:

• The jobs you’ve held,
• The houses you’ve lived in, or even
• The pets you’ve loved.

Of course you can write short but challenging essays, such as:

• What you wish you’d told your parents when you were a kid,
• Why you chose the wrong career, or
• The reasons an important relationship failed.

For more prompts to get you writing short pieces—personal essays—take a look at: Supercharge Your Life Writing With These Ideas.

For a sample essay about family see, On Family, Chosen Family, and Sisterhood.

If you need help getting started on your memoir, essays, or family history, check out what others say about working with me, and get in touch.

And subscribe to this website to be notified of new posts to help you in your memoir, essay, or family history writing. They’re on their way.

What Kind of Personal Essays Do You Like?

That’s me, Lynette

Since I write personal essays and teach that subject to my writing students, I give a good deal of thought to that nonfiction genre. What is a personal essay? A narrative personal essay? A reflective (or contemplative) personal essay. And which type do publishers prefer today?

If you write short nonfiction works, you might benefit from reading a recent personal essay of mine. It was just published on one of the very best literary web sites around, Brevity. Take a stroll around the site to see its rich offerings. You won’t regret it.

But back to my own essay on Brevity. It’s called Making Room for Both the Narrative and Reflective Essay. Click on one of the stars at the top to indicate how useful (or well written) you feel the piece is. And please leave a comment, or at least read the comments left by others. That’s a good way to become familiar with other people’s thinking on the topic. And of finding out that you’re not alone in your own views.

If you want some help writing your own essays, click on the Contact tab above and get in touch. I can help you.

______________________

The photo below is unrelated to this topic. It’s just there for your enjoyment.

Elm Bank Floral Border

 

 

5 Most Popular Memoir/Family History Writing Posts

Mount Greylock in Western Massachusets

In case you’re flailing about in search of advice, direction, or even general information on writing about your life or your family, the articles linked below can help you. (Just click on the titles that appear in bold green font.) They were all originally published on this web site.

In a short while, I’ll publish some more links to my most popular posts about memoir and family history writing, and soon after that I’ll present a round-up some of the best posts anywhere on these topics.

 

  1. Must Have Memoir Writing Aids
  2. Another Must Have Memoir Writing Aid
  3. Memoir Writing: One Important Element
  4. Supercharge Your Life Story With These Ideas
  5. Book Review: Women Writing on Family

If you need more writing help than articles can give you, get in touch with me. I’ll help you out. I’m experienced and easy to work with. If you don’t believe me, just check out my Testimonials.

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.

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.

Another Must-Have Memoir Writing Aid

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.