Memoir Revolution, by Jerry Waxler

Jerry Waxler and I have something in common. We’re both memoir evangelists, writers and writing instructors passionately promoting the power of memoir—for writers and readers alike.
In his recent book, Memoir Revolution, Jerry makes the case that the recent groundswell of memoirs exerts an effect on society. From my own perspective, I’ve seen how writers making public their individual struggles with (for example) addictions, uncommon diseases, family abuse, and assimilation (or resisting assimilation) have made the larger community aware of private battles most of us either didn’t know of or treated as unfortunate, but isolated, incidents.

But Jerry notes that, “Memoirs provide us with an exciting, deep way to understand ourselves and each other. [They] break down barriers.” Memoir Revolution shows us that these personal stories aren’t just therapeutic outpourings, but contributions to culture and the human family.

Jerry’s deep reading of hundreds of memoirs is evident in Memoir Revolution, which organizes many titles into categories for us. One of my favorites is the chapter, “Giving Back the Wisdom of the Ages.” It addresses a longing many of us feel to go back and interview our ancestors to gain valuable insights into their (and therefore our) history.

Jerry wrote this book for those who write or read memoir or might be persuaded to do so. (“Memoir Revolution might help them take the plunge,” he says.) If you wonder if there’s any reason to write about your life, see Jerry’s blog post, Ten Reasons Anyone Should Write a Memoir.

Don’t know how to write a memoir? Check his post, 5 Memoir Starters for Beginners. Oh, and find writing classes or a coach for skill development and support.

If you’re considering writing your own memoir, Jerry suggests asking yourself if you’re ready to make the necessary commitment, and how you’ll find the time to write. Later you’ll want to think about “how to make the memoir compelling.” That is, how can you turn a collection of facts about your life into a story that’s interesting and meaningful to others?

If you’re intrigued by memoir, besides reading Memoir Revolution, you’ll want to visit the rich trove of resources at Jerry’s Memory Writers Network. For memoir writing and reading tips, follow Jerry Waxler on Twitter.

Contact him at

Memoir Revolution is available in both paper and Kindle formats.

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The Interview, Part 1

I hated the company.

I was working at the company of my dreams. Unfortunately, my dreams had misled me. I hated the company. A lot of the employees did, so we were always feverishly exchanging job leads, exchanging tiny notices torn from the classifieds, and hunching over telephones to engage in whispered calls.

Finally, a small local company that published newsletters contacted me. They wanted an interview.

I was elated—except that I had the flu. My boss wouldn’t let me stay home. At the end of each day she’d say, “You have to come in tomorrow. I need you to write this or edit that. This report has to get out.”

Each night at home I’d lie flat on my back, still wearing my hat and scarf, my boots dangling from my feet over the edge of the bed. One morning, my husband Joe had to bundle me into my coat, propel me to the car, and drive me through a foot of new wet snow to the office park where I worked. Seated in front of my computer, I was terribly hot. I drank a lot of water. But at nine o’clock, my boss found me prostrate on the sofa in the company’s professionally decorated reception area.

She had stood over me, pencils protruding wildly from her hair, and declared, “I’ll get you some temporary help. All you have to do is supervise them.”

“I can’t,” I grunted.

“Then go home.”

“I can’t.”

When I came to, Joe was easing my feet into my boots and murmuring that he would bring the car right up to the door. I was to lie there and wait for him to come back inside and get me.

I was too ill to interview.

I had told the newsletter people I was too ill to interview, but they had been insistent. That should have been enough to convince me I didn’t want a job there. Hell, I already worked for an inconsiderate company. Now this newsletter company wanted me to interview, even though the receptionist I had spoken to there had several times murmured, “You sound terrible.”

Still lightheaded and shaky two days after my collapse at work, I donned a wool Neiman Marcus dress I had bought at a consignment shop. I can’t imagine what I found to wear on my feet to walk through the dingy snow that was barricading the curbs in the center of town.

Please continue reading The Interview, Part 2.

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The Interview, Part 2

The interviewers materialized.

At the newsletter company, four employees materialized into the open space of what had obviously been a factory devoted to light manufacturing at some time in the past. The three women wore wrinkled corduroy slacks, flannel shirts, and clogs. The man was dressed the same, except that he was wearing battered shoes with thick soles.

In a closed conference room the four told me what a wonderful place this was to work. They were like a family; several of them lived together. They did their shopping at the food co-op; did I know it?

Not only did I know it, I was a member!

They breathed sighs of friendship. What kind of writing did I do now? What were my editing responsibilities? they wanted to know.

My mouth answered; my head swam. Perspiration stealthily beaded my forehead. I was too sick to interview. And whose idea had it been for me to wear wool?

I thought, “I gotta get out of here.”

I said, “I hope we can talk again, since I’m not at my best today.”

“You’re doing great,” they chimed.

They faded before me. I could hear them, but I could barely make out what they were saying. I wasn’t sure what I was saying. It was as if we were speaking beneath the surface of the sea. Someone got me some water, and we all smiled.

One of them wondered aloud why I had had to work while I was ill. I replied that my boss had needed my help with an important project. (I felt it couldn’t hurt to seem indispensable.) They were looking at me benevolently, speaking slowly, and being very polite. I became suspicious, aware that the line between what I was thinking and what I had actually verbalized had blurred hopelessly. Had I absurdly used the word “crazy” in describing with my boss?

I dutifully admired the sample newsletters they showed me. But, I said, the contents seemed technically daunting, involving as they did tank hatches and tonnage, pipes and pressure valves, and hose handling derricks.

They assured me that I could learn it all, and gaily implied I would soon love it as much as they did. But even through my flu-induced fog, I knew the subject would bore me to stupefaction.

My interviewers were loath to let me go. Had I been entertaining them with hilariously unguarded revelations? I brought matters to a close by rising to my feet, leaning a hand on the table as I thanked them, and dragging my coat from the back of my chair with as much dignity as I could muster.

I never minded that I didn’t hear from the company again. But I’ve always wondered what on earth I said in that interview.

I’m planning to run a series on working. If you’ve got a weird interview story, share it in a comment. Or, hit me up if you’d like to guest post about interviewing or working.

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Book Review: Women Writing on Family

Click the cover image to learn more about this book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Guest Post by Author Lisa Dale Norton

I often use Lisa Dale Norton’s gem of a memoir-writing book in the memoir and life story writing classes I teach. Her small book, Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir (St. Martin’s Press), leads writers along the pivotal path to the heart of our personal stories.

In her guest post below, Lisa explains the critical relationship between the structure of memoir and its meaning. (And don’t forget to check the bottom of this post so you can tune into her AuthorChat on November 10.)

– Lynette


Memoir: Let Your Story Tell You Its Structure

Author Lisa Dale Norton

I work with a lot of writers on their stories, and one of the hardest things for most to accept is that the shape of their memoir will not reveal itself until they know what they are trying to say. It’s counter intuitive and certainly not what we are taught in school where there are tidy formulas, all of which are useless when you are pushing forward the fragile idea of a memoir: you live your life, you remember your life, you attempt to make a story out of parts of that life. But quickly, questions plague the would-be memoirist: What do I use? What do I leave out? Should the story be chronological? How much background is necessary, and how do I make it mean something?

Structure follows meaning; it rises out of meaning. You can’t get to one without the other.

So what’s a writer to do?

I advise writers to keep writing the memories, or shimmering images as I call them, those shiny moments you remember above all others. You remember them because there is a key inside them that is a clue to what you are trying to say in the manuscript. If you allow those memories to articulate through story they will help you figure out the meaning of your memoir. In that organic process the inevitable structure will reveal itself.

Here’s an example. In my new book of narrative nonfiction I combine the story of my experiences in Europe with tales of my parents’ travels there shortly after World War II. But that’s not a story.

Somewhere inside those various tales of travel and discovery there has to be something bigger. It’s taken much work to reveal what that something is.  How did I get here? I kept writing drafts of my parents’ stories, my stories. As I researched locations, studied ephemera, searched maps, and hunted my heart for hot points of sadness and joy, I began to understand why those parallel journeys rivet me.

In other words, I have figured out what they mean to me; I know what my story is about. And now I know its shape.

The only way to get here, and it’s a stretch in our control-oriented culture, is a leap of faith. You have to let go of the notion that you know what your story is about, and let it tell you.

Lisa is also the author of the memoir, Hawk Flies Above: Journey to the Heart of the Sandhills (St. Martin’s Press). You can follow her memoir-writing tips on Twitter.

Writing a memoir and need some tips? Ask Lisa Dale Norton Live!

We all have great stories to share about our lives, but how many of us could translate our life experience into something more permanent…say a memoir?

Join bestselling author Lisa Dale Norton for a live front-row seat as she shares her insights and writing techniques regarding the difference between memoir and autobiography, how to claim your voice, and the art of storytelling.

Lisa Dale Norton is the founder of the Santa Fe Writing Institute and teaches writing at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.


DATE: NOV. 10th, 2011

TIME: 5:00PM Pacific / 8:00PM Eastern

How to join in:

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  • Use the guest tab (not registered users tab)
  • Enter your name in the guest field
  • Click the enter button to join
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Memoir or Family History? A Deeper Look at the Differences


While sorting out the question of whether my work-in-progress, My Mother’s Money, is a memoir or a family history, I became intrigued by several thoughtful posts on Virginia Lloyd’s blog addressing this and other questions about what qualifies as memoir. So I invited her to discuss the distinction further here.

Perhaps her descriptions of these two genres that sometimes seem to overlap can help you decide if you’re engaged in writing memoir or family. Knowing the difference could be crucial to the way you tell your tale or your role as narrator or character—as well as how appealing your work might be to a publisher and the public.

– Lynette Benton


Are You Writing a Memoir Or a Family History? 5 Tips to Help You Tell Guest Post
by Virginia Lloyd

What makes a true story about family a memoir instead of a family history? The contours of memoir, seemingly sharp for many years, are blurring. The genre’s definition is losing shape as it groans under the weight of the associations and expectations we assign it. For memoir, grey seems to be the new black and white.

I think there are as many different types of memoirs as there are authors willing to create something unique. And with the intense competition for editors’—and readers’—attention, unique is essential.

Here are some thoughts about the differences between writing a family history and writing memoir. I’d love to hear yours.

— A family history, by definition, is purely about a family.

It documents the lives and relationships of several members of one family. A memoir, however, can be about almost anything, including family members past and present, but it is not necessarily a history. No one would consider Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking a family history; yet the main characters are her immediate family members.

— A family history implies a long time period.

It covers at least three generations, let’s say, whereas the best memoirs tend to focus on a specific moment in the author’s life. Alternatively, family history could focus on a significant object, such as a family heirloom, or a house, tracked through a number of generations. Either way, the memoir author’s lens is narrow, while in family history it is wide.

— A family history is self-referential.

By this I mean that the author’s attempt to recreate the world of the family is an end in itself, exploring and illuminating the dark corners and forgotten characters from the past. Unless you come from a public family or have some extraordinary historical figure lurking in a previous generation, there is little to connect the reader to your characters.

By contrast, a good memoir is both highly personal and universal. A memoir should enlighten the reader about something larger and more complex than its author. It should attempt to illustrate aspects of human experience that have not previously been explored, or are presented in a fresh and unexpected way.

— In a family history, the author is a historian, and not necessarily a central character. In memoir, typically (but not always) the author is a central figure. The author of a family history could include information on characters who might not be relevant to a memoir written by the same author. This reflects the changing point of view from relatively external (family history) to internal (memoir). Of course, the objectivity of a family history author will always be open to debate—especially by members of the author’s family.

— A family history is less commercially viable than a memoir—unless you’re a Kennedy or have a relative who’s a serial killer.

If you’re still unsure if you’re working on a memoir or a family history, ask yourself why the family figures you’re writing about mean so much to you. What is it about your grandfather, sister, or great-aunt that refuses to go away, even when you’ve so many other things to be doing and writing about? If you can find the emotional core of your passion for the subject, then you are probably writing a memoir. You’re just not quite sure what it’s really about yet.

Virginia Lloyd is a memoir coach and the author of the memoir The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement. She blogs at and tweets @v11oyd.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Must-Have Memoir Writing Aids (including the additional resources in the comments under that post).

If you’re ready to write about your life or your family, but you’re not sure how to begin or continue, get in touch with me. I’m experienced and easy to work with. If you’re not sure, take a look at the Testimonials tab on this website, then get in touch.

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What Keeps Me From Writing? Gourmet Food

Blog Photo

Writer, editor, writing coach, Lynette Benton

This time last week I was arguing with a salmon. The Whole Foods butcher had boned it nicely, but left some unappealing tan flesh attached to its underside. I was struggling to scrape that off before chopping the fish into chunks for a soup I was making.

I had already cleaned the sand from between the layers of the leeks. Fresh spinach was draining in a colander before being cut into strips to add to the soup at the last minute.

Once that was all simmering nicely, I started on the Spanish—or was it Cuban?—pork stew.

My husband, a vegetarian, mashed up a few of those delicious Garnet sweet potatoes, ladled sauteed mushrooms over them, then topped them with crispy oven “fried” kale. Somewhere along the line, he also peeled steaming yellow beets, a job I dislike.

We are accidental members of the “slow food” movement. Never having had fast food while growing up, neither my husband nor I eat it now. Since we eat almost no processed foods, dislike banal food, and eat many times in the course of each day, we’re driven to cook a lot.

This time of year, my landscaper husband (who used to be a professional cook), is available to do good deal of meal preparation, so cooking interferes with my writing less than during warm weather. When I’m on my own again from April through half of December my writing time will contract accordingly.

I just finished making a roux for a root vegetable “mac ‘n cheese” casserole, a whole lot better than last week’s fight with the fish. So, I’m out of excuses . . . gotta get back to working on my memoir.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “What Keeps Me From Writing? My Furniture.”

Twitter: @lynettebenton

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Memoir Writing: One Important Element

A critical building block of your memoir should be emotion.

This can be particularly difficult for boomers and seniors to incorporate in their life stories. Although many have an urge to tell their stories, they can be hampered by the constraints of privacy and circumspection their generation often absorbed as children.
40K ft above
I see this often when I teach boomers and seniors; truth be told, I suffer from it myself. We’re more comfortable telling our stories from 40,000 feet above the earth, as if they happened to someone else. We might have yelled, “Let it all hang out,” at some point in our youth, but we find it terribly difficult to do that now.

You Want Readers, Don’t You?
But your audience—even if it’s “just” family members—wants to know how you really felt, how it felt to experience the public and personal events you did.

Readers are seeking the emotional significance of and in your life. They want to connect with you. They’re not going along for the ride. They want to be part of the ride.

If you felt doubt or fear, your readers want to know it. Disgust? Show them what that was like. When you triumphed, if you triumphed, they want to hear the audience’s applause and ride the waves of victory with you.

As I tell my students, if you write a boring memoir or autobiography, not even family members will read it. They’ll avoid you at the next social function, just so they don’t have to admit that they fell asleep over your book before they got to page 5.

Make Sure Your Life Story is a Story
The next post will address another element of “story” in your memoir writing.

If your writing seems flat and lacking in emotional content, get in touch with me. I’m experienced and easy to work with. If you’re not sure, take a look at the Testimonials tab on this website, then get in touch.

Share Your Story
And if you struggle to add emotion to your memoir writing or have a strategy for doing it without being too uncomfortable, please leave a comment!

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Tell Me a Better Story

As creative writers, we want to create stories—not reports. We know a story when we hear or read one, but sometimes it evades us when we’re writing, especially when we’re writing nonfiction, like memoir or autobiography.

But even if the audience you envision for your memoir or autobiography is your family, you’ve got to tell them stories to keep them engaged.

Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story, writes that a simple definition of a story is how you got from point A through point B and on to Point C, where you see things differently from the way you did at point A, the beginning.

Rainer goes on to say that “a story is: what you wanted; how you struggled; and what you realized out of that struggle.” In other words, how your experiences and challenges changed you.

As you think about your life, memoir, or autobiography, think of the way(s) in which what you went through changed your life or your lifestyle; the way that you think; your view of yourself or of others; or your values or priorities.

The struggle doesn’t have to be a fight to the death. It might be something as ordinary as convincing your parents to let you go to college or into the military. It could be about your reaction when you found out you were allergic to your favorite food or when you broke a bone just before a sports trial.

But whatever it is, give it power by shaping it into a story.

Next we’ll talk about the elements of stories. (Hint: one is emotion.)

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