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.

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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.

Advertisement Disclosure This website contains Amazon.com affiliate links. That means that Amazon.com purchases that originate on Tools and Tactics for Writers will help offset the expenses associated with this site. Your support is deeply appreciated!

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.

Advertisement Disclosure This website contains Amazon.com affiliate links. That means that Amazon.com purchases that originate on Tools and Tactics for Writers will help offset the expenses associated with this site. Your support is deeply appreciated!

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.

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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.

Advertisement Disclosure This website contains Amazon.com affiliate links. That means that Amazon.com purchases that originate on Tools and Tactics for Writers will help offset the expenses associated with this site. Your support is deeply appreciated!

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!

Advertisement Disclosure This website contains Amazon.com affiliate links. That means that Amazon.com purchases that originate on Tools and Tactics for Writers will help offset the expenses associated with this site. Your support is deeply appreciated!

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 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.

Advertisement Disclosure This website contains Amazon.com affiliate links. That means that Amazon.com purchases that originate on Tools and Tactics for Writers will help offset the expenses associated with this site. Your support is deeply appreciated!

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.

Advertisement Disclosure This website contains Amazon.com affiliate links. That means that Amazon.com purchases that originate on Tools and Tactics for Writers will help offset the expenses associated with this site. Your support is deeply appreciated!