Memoir, Life Writers, and Family History Writers: Help Me to Help You

Amaryllis Blooming in Winter in My Kitchen

To update this site, Tools and Tactics for Writers, by offering information and services more specifically targeted to writers of Memoir, Family History, and shorter personal sketches about the writers’ lives, I need to know what site visitors and subscribers want and need for their writing.

So I’m asking for your input and opinions in this Short Quiz.

After completing the quiz, you will be able to download a free gift to help you with your writing.

The results of the quiz will be posted here on Tools and Tactics for Writers. (If you haven’t subscribed to this site, please do so. That way you will be notified by email when the results of the quiz are posted. And of course, you’ll be notified of all of new blog posts.)



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.

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.

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

That's me, Lynette Benton

That’s me, Lynette Benton

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

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

– Lynette

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:

Talking Memoir with Writing Instructor, Coach, and Publisher Brooke Warner, Part 2

In Part 2 of her interview (below), Brooke Warner discusses She Writes Press’s approach to publishing and offers advice to those starting or continuing work on their manuscripts.
– Lynette

Instructor, Coach, Publisher Brooke Warner

Instructor, Coach, Publisher Brooke Warner

Why do you think She Writes Press is thriving? Does it publish a variety of genres? How does it differ from traditional publishing on the one hand and self-publishing on the other? Do you feel it empowers authors?

She Writes Press is thriving because we are filling a need. Right now barriers to traditional publishing are so high, and authors who might have gotten a book deal ten years ago have no hope of getting one today. This is because the focus in book publishing has moved from content to author platform, so you basically need to have a large established fanbase in order to get a traditional book deal.

She Writes Press is functioning in many ways like a traditional press. We vet projects and have a high editorial standard, and we have traditional distribution, which means that we have a sales force selling our list. But we are not basing our acquisitions on author brand or platform. Instead it’s solely about the books and the writing itself. Authors are so relieved to have this kind of option, where they have support without having to self-publish. Plus, our books are beautifully designed and we’re getting great accolades, both for the aesthetics of our books and for their content, which speaks to the kind of authors we’re attracting.

We’re also different from traditional publishing in that the authors invest in themselves. We offer a package that covers everything from cover and interior design, proofreading, project management, and everything it takes to get a manuscript prepared and through publication. For that, the authors retain 60% of net proceeds on paperback (as opposed to 15% in traditional publishing) and 80% on e-books (as opposed to 25% in traditional publishing). The cost of our package does not include individual title publicity support, but we absolutely market our titles, and the press collectively, which does give the authors and their books exposure.

Our press empowers authors by giving them an option to play in the big leagues, and our goal is always to rival our traditional counterparts. We are also collaborative, and authors retain more creative control with us than they would with a traditional publisher. They also retain their copyright, which is a big deal. The world of publishing is far from perfect, but we’re giving authors a legitimate shot at getting the kind of recognition that largely eludes self-published authors.

And yes, we publish multiple genres—fiction, memoir, self-help, and everything in between. We’ve done parenting books, cookbooks, leadership books, spiritual books, and even poetry.

Do you have any advice for those writing their first book? Or for those who feel their manuscripts are ready to publish?

First: Hang in there. It might be a long process, and that’s okay. There’s so much hype right now about writing your book in a few weeks, never mind six months (which is what our class was built upon), and what we’ve found with our own class is that we end up giving authors a strong foundation to continue. Certain books are emotionally taxing to write, and there’s a lot to learn.

Study your craft. Read other authors in your genre—please. Connect with other authors. Join writers’ forums and attend events. The road to becoming an author starts with understanding who’s come before you, and with social media you can actually connect with these people. Your journey will be that much more inspiring and less lonely as a result. And when you’re ready, seek out experts to read, edit, and help you figure out which publishing path is right for you. None of this should be done alone; it’s much more joyful with company.

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, and the co-author of Breaking Ground on Your Memoir. 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.

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

Sure, I’m grinning all over myself.

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

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

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

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

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!