Memoir, Life Story Writing, Family History Survey Results

Willows at Mt. Auburn Cemetery

I hope you all received your free Tip Sheet—the gift for filling out my survey of those who write memoir, stories from their lives, or family history. And I hope you found the advice contained in the tips useful enough to put into practice.

Here’s Who Took The Survey

The overwhelming number of respondents were women. The age of ninety-five percent of all those who responded was 50 or over.

 

Most are currently writing:

  • Short sketches: 70%
  • Book-length memoir: 30%
  • Family history: only 10%

Key Survey Results

Here, without further ado, are the results of the survey—and my interpretation of those results.

Resources

More than 60% of you look to online and paper resources to aid your writing. Most of you use as writing resources this site (Tools and Tactics for Writers—thank you!); books and journals; explanations (when available) from publishers on why a particular work was published or won a contest.

The Biggest Writing Problems

  • Making writing a priority (and finding time to write).
  • Making the writing artistic, rather than just factual and straightforward (like a report).
  • Suppressing the inner critical voice.

Other problems cited were trouble developing writing snippets into publishable work. Getting started on a project, outlining, and choosing an appropriate structure if you are writing a book.

Sources of Feedback on Your Writing

You get feedback from instructors and classmates in your courses; from friends, relatives, writing group members, and experts at conferences.

 One Finding Stood Out

Probably the most important (and among the most surprising) finding: The majority of respondents prefer to get writing guidance through classes (nearly 75%), individual coaching (48%), and paid professionals (probably editors). In other words, not through online info contained in a blog, but through interactions with a person, whether classmates, instructors, or those who coach and edit writers’ work one-on-one. (That’s what I do. Some of you have already worked individually with me. The rest of you should try it!) Don’t be alarmed: Yes, I know who took the survey, but I don’t know what your individual answers were.

Conclusion

I’ll need to digest these findings to determine what they mean for this website as well as for the services I offer. I’ll keep you posted.

And thanks again for participating in the survey!

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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.

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Another Must-Have Memoir Writing Resource

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.

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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.

TREES WATER

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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