Get a Handle on Yourself and Your Characters

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Why would my writing blog review a book about psychology—apart from the fact that I’m on a tear about narcissists, which is how I learned about Dr. Joseph Burgo’s new book, Why Do I Do That?, in the first place? (He’s got a wonderful website, called, After Psychotherapy. Never been in therapy? All the more reason to avail yourself of the wisdom on his site.)

I’m reviewing the book because it can help us writers disclose the depth and pump up the power behind our characters’ actions and knee-jerk reactions, and understand the internal frailties our characters’ and our own defense mechanisms are trying so desperately to protect.

Dr. Burgo says he can understand how Why Do I Do That? “might be a useful tool for writers. In developing fully three-dimensional characters, a writer of fiction has to consider what motivates or drives those characters, and my book’s focus on our ‘primary psychological concerns’ would help” the process of developing those characters.

For those of us who write essays, journals, and memoir—personal, nonfiction reflective writing—it’s critical to have a grasp on why we feel the ways we do, have found ourselves in the fixes we have, and made the adjustments we’ve made to tolerate or extricate ourselves from the various quagmires we’ve landed in. After all, the point of our writing is to understand what we’re trying to banish or preserve, and when we do it well, we connect with our readers and ourselves, though I can tell you, it’s almost never pretty. But, as Michelle Seaton writes in her post about Why Do I Do That?:

“[T]he unpleasant feelings we deny in life we deny doubly on the page.”

One of the most unnerving aspects of Dr. Burgo’s book is that in it I saw every single person I know, every person I’ve ever known, including myself. But, instead of making me smugly label everyone with my new-found knowledge, it helped me see what we’re trying to do to maintain our fragile equilibrium. The book already has affected they way I present myself and others in my writing.

Now, that’s not to say I’m cutting everyone, even myself, a ton of slack. I still want everyone to get over their bad behavior—or keep it away from me (and small children). But it does mean that I now know what’s going on—the why behind the behavior.

Why Do I Do That? is divided into three sections: “Understanding Our Psychological Defense Mechanisms;” “Identifying Your Psychological Defenses” (be prepared to blush, bigtime, over this section); and “Disarming Your Defenses.”

Though in places there’s a good deal of theory, overall Dr. Burgo’s tone is conversational, leaning towards gentle compassion. His use of the word “bear,” as in bear all the burdens and consequences stemming from lackluster or even dangerous early parenting, almost brought me to tears while I sat reading the book at my hair salon. He translates our use of terms like “defense,” which in their original German, conveyed meanings closer to “warding off” or “fending off”—both much more sympathetic phrases than “defenses.”

Also, the book is occasionally peppered with Dr. Burgo’s struggles to subdue his own psychological defenses, which made me grateful for his sympathy; he avoids sounding like an oracle or disapproving parent.

My one complaint is that Why Do I Do That? contains no index (they seem to be becoming largely outmoded), so on those days when someone else’s defenses are driving spears in your sides or your own behavior seems painfully at odds with your goals and well-being, you can’t do an easy, if frantic, search for just the topic that can rescue you. I suggest you mark up your copy of the book liberally so you can find the lifelines in it that you need.

You can follow Dr. Burgo on Twitter.

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Book Review: Women Writing on Family

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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.

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Does Your Writing Need an Editor?

That’s me, dressed up for an event

It probably does.

An editor finds the errors in your manuscript that you’ve overlooked—which happens if you’ve been staring at your words until your vision’s blurred, and your forehead hits the table in front of you.

Or, maybe you didn’t overlook those errors. Maybe you made mistakes you didn’t recognize as mistakes.

Say you think periods and commas go outside the quotation marks in your dialog.

Or you don’t know when you’ve got a phrase wrong. (You’d be surprised how many writers think the phrase “wreck havoc” is correct. It isn’t.) Maybe you’ve never understood the distinction between disinterested and uninterested.

It’s the editor’s job to point out the overuse—and misuse—of words and phrases like “hopefully” and “begs the question.” (Just about everybody gets those two wrong.)

Perhaps you treat the same word(s) differently in different places in your work. Is it “copy editor” or “copyeditor?”

At some point in your story, you might have put two periods at the end of a sentence. Or, throughout your book, you’ve inserted two spaces at the end of sentences.

There might be a word you always misspell. For me, that word is “narcissism.” I had to try three spellings just now before I got the right one.

If you’re like me, when you type fast, you write “ot,” instead of “to,” and “of,” instead of “or.” That’s why I always give work I intend to publish to a copy editor before I submit it. (Blog posts are a different matter. I can’t afford to have dozens of them edited, so please ignore any errors you find here.)

Is it possible something you’ve written on page 138 of your manuscript already appears on page 101? Are you telling the same story over and over again, drumming its details into your readers’ heads? In short, is it repetitious?

Get your work edited so you won’t be embarrassed when you submit your query letter or manuscript to an agent, or upload your book to sell online. Crisp, engaging, correct copy allows your readers to lose themselves your writing. Isn’t that better than having them sigh, before casting it aside?

Please contact me ( if you need an editor. Sceptical? Click on the Testimonials tab above to see what my clients, students, and colleagues say about my work.

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Seniors Write Stories from Their Lives

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

My Legacy is Simply This

When new students tell me they have this inexplicable 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.

No matter what age you are, these are stories you’ll enjoy. 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.

Boyle also describes being overcome by smoke inhalation in one fire, and being asked by his wife, as he lay in the hospital, if he would consider giving up the job. But, as his work was one of the loves of his life (his wife being the other), he told her “No,” and returned to work as soon as he was able. His essay ends with the successful CPR performed on a baby.

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.

Holiday Gift Recommendation

If you’re looking for an engaging gift this holiday season, consider My Legacy is Simply This. Your gift recipient won’t be disappointed. (Note: I have no affiliation with the publishers or writers of this book.)

And if you’ve been considering writing down the stories from your own life, I hope you’ll find the following posts helpful.

You don’t have to be a senior to join my Writing Stories from Your Life class at the Arlington Center for the Arts. Just browse the winter catalog and check page 6 for a description. You can register online.
For writing tips and resources, follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton.
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Writing Stories from Your Life

I teach memoir and life story writing. Reading my students’ stories has given me a peek into the lives of those who’ve fought in wars or made ends meet on the home front; and of little girls who wandered along wooden floors in an old dime store, accompanied by the slightly sour aroma that emanated from the lunch counter on one side of the store.

My students have written of childhood dinners with the famous, or how they overcame a complex challenge. I learned about the life of a devastating, giant Boston fire through the life of a trolley driver, in a tribute written by his daughter.  In these classes, I get to experience the richness of life behind the headlines, and believe me, that’s the most riveting view.

Leaving a Legacy

Life stories are among the most significant legacies anyone can leave to their children and grandchildren. I wish my deceased relatives had written down the events and circumstances of their lives: what it was like when their home was moved from the quiet Florida neighborhood they’d lived in for half a century to make way for a broad, new highway. Or, how they treated certain illnesses. They certainly didn’t visit doctors as often as we do these days.

We’re Not Talking Autobiographies—Necessarily

Autobiographies begin the day you were born (or close to it) and continue up to the present. Memoirs cover a chronological period in your life, like your teen years, or a subject, like all the jobs you’ve held. Life stories are more like little true tales (although some can run for many pages).

You’ve Got Stories to Tell

Everyone’s got good stories. They’re the anecdotes you’ve told friends, who’ve said, “Wow. You should write that down.” They’re those jokes a relative told at Thanksgiving that made you laugh till you almost upset the green bean casserole.

They’re about the houses you’ve lived in or the pets you’ve loved.

Stories from your life can be about the spot-on advice you got when you desperately needed it. Or about the lousy advice you had the good sense to ignore. Your stories can be humorous. They can be prose or poetry—or even fictionalized. (One of my students is completing a mystery novel based on his work as a security guard.)

Your stories can retell incidents from your past that you’ll never forget, or slices of your family’s history.

My Legacy is Simply This is an engrossing collection of life stories written by Boston-area seniors. (Note: I have no connection with the book or any of its contributors. I have just found the book useful and inspiring in the memoir writing classes I teach.) See portraits of some of the writers.

Subscribe to this blog to be notified when I post provocative ideas you can explore in writing stories from your own life.

For more tips, follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton

Join one of my lively memoir and life story writing classes. I’m always posting additional classes, so check back soon. Or just email me at

Here are a few testimonials.


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Must-Have Memoir Writing Aids

SOW HEADSHOTSome of the most useful, powerful, and perhaps lesser known resources I recommend to my students who are working on memoirs, life stories, and family histories, and use in my own memoir writing are listed below. They include electronic and hard copy resources.

Let’s continue the tradition of writers helping writers: Leave your favorite memoir, life story writing, or family history writing aids in a comment so others can benefit. Thanks!

Web Sites
5 Ways to Start Your Memoir on the Right Foot
Write a Memoir to Remember!
Resources for Writing Memoir
The Market for Memoirs
Women’s Memoirs

I think you’ll also find the National Association of Memoir Writers a unique resource.

Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, by Carol Smallwood & Suzann Holland, Editors

Shimmering Images, by Lisa Dale Norton

Turning Memories into Memoir, By Denis Ledoux

The Memoir Project, by Marion Roach Smith

Old Friend from Far Away, by Natalie Goldberg

Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell. (Even though this book is aimed at fiction writers, it’ll show you how to plot your memoir so it’ll be as readable as a novel.)

I’d like to recommend a book I’ve read recently (October 2014): Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family.

Please leave a comment about the resources you turn to again and again for guidance in your memoir and family history writing.

And, see my guest post, “What Really Fuels a Powerful Memoir.”


If you’d like help writing your life stories, memoirs, or family histories, I can help. Take a look at my Testimonials tab, then use the Contact tab to get in touch. (Both are at the top of this page.) I’m experienced and easy to work with. And you’ll take great pleasure in seeing your pages pile up.

Twitter: @lynettebenton

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