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!

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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!

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How Do You Like Your Memoirs?

Are you having trouble figuring out how to approach writing your memoir, or if you’ve started it, are you baffled about how to make it “take off?”

One way to think about possible treatments for your memoir is to take another look at those you’ve enjoyed. (You have been reading memoirs, right? You wouldn’t attempt to write in a genre you weren’t familiar with, would you? Nah. I know you wouldn’t.)

You might have read a number of books and blogs that urge writers to construct their memoirs to read like novels. Some memoirs, like my own (My Mother’s Money), happen lend themselves to a novelistic structure.

But your story might not. It’s best to choose what will work for the life events you want to recount. So, think about what appeals to you in memoirs, regardless of their structure.

You might like:

Descriptions of how things were. The family, the neighborhood, the early joys or problems, the political climate, or financial issues the memoirist experienced.

Stunning surprises. In one of her memoirs, Diana Athill opened with a description of a novelist who came to a dinner party at her house. She took to him immediately, knowing he’d become a dear friend. That section, which is almost merry, ends, “Five years later this man killed himself in my flat.” How’s that for a baldly stated surprise?  In your case, it might be a relationship that unexpectedly collapses, an illness that overtakes someone, or even coming into more money than you know what to do with—anything that upsets the status quo.

A thinking narrator, who isn’t averse to wandering off on tangents to discover and comprehend connections, unravel a conundrum. (Above my desk is a quote, urging writers to “approach their subject for its mystery—as an investigator examining the unfathomable.”)

New knowledge about a lifestyle, religion, era, problem—a sort of “Oh, so that’s how landscapers (or morgue attendants, or hedge fund managers) work, live, and think.”

Admiration for the narrator’s courage and persistence, as she tackles a problem, even if others feel she should “leave well enough alone.”

Having your own ideas about how to write your memoir—what you want it to be—will make it authentic. And if a memoir is nothing else, it should be that.

What do you like in memoirs?

If you need assistance to make your memoir work, use the Contact tab above to see how I can help.

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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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Top 3 Reasons Baby Boomers and Seniors Put Off Writing About Their Lives

Are you among those who chide themselves for not doing anything about those anecdotes your friends keep telling you that you should write down? Or maybe it’s those personal memories you feel you ought to share with the world? Or, you might feel weighed down by a nagging desire to preserve the history of your family for future generations?

Well, if you keep procrastinating about writing your stories, you’re not alone. When I give talks about life story writing, I usually face a roomful of folks wearing guilty expressions.

I open with a question for those in attendance.

“What are the differences among biography, autobiography, memoir, genealogy, and life stories?” I ask.

Reason #1
The audience looks perplexed; some individuals shift uncomfortably in their chairs. Someone might murmur a tentative response, but actually, no one’s quite sure what the different terms mean.

“It’s easier to write about your life if you know your options,” I tell them.

(Here are some of the different types of life story writing.)

Reason #2
After I explain the differences, the most frequent remark I hear from the audience is: “How can I start getting my story down on paper? I’m not sure I even remember a lot of what I want to write about.”

Reason #3
And invariably, the next remark is a perfectly valid one: “I feel overwhelmed by the prospect of writing all this stuff down.”

Well, in upcoming posts, I’m going to give you some tricks to get you started on that biography, autobiography, memoir, family history, genealogy, short personal tribute, or story from your life. I’ll also tell you about fabulously helpful resources.

I hope you’ll check back so you can get the “I-should-be-writing-this-down” monkey off your back. If any questions have you stumped, just put them in comment below and I’ll be sure to address them. And you might want to subscribe to future posts so you’ll be notified by email when they are published.

In the meantime, take a look at some of my Family History posts.

Having trouble getting your writing off the ground? Check out my Testimonials, and get in touch with me. I can help you out.

I'd love to know the personal histories associated with this building on a Washington, DC corner

I’d love to know the personal histories associated with this building on a Washington, DC corner

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Allyson Latta: The Best Memoirs Don’t Preach

I regularly check Allyson Latta’s web site for meaningful ideas for memoir writers. In her guest post that follows, Allyson explains how preachiness mars a memoir and she offers practical strategies for avoiding it in your manuscript.
– Lynette

Allyson Latta - photo by Keane Shore

Allyson Latta – photo by Keane Shore


We were sitting cross-legged on the floor in my apartment, three young women in our early twenties, debating as usual.

It was what we did in the evenings, a form of entertainment when, as university students, we couldn’t afford much else. The more controversial the topic, the better. On that occasion, it was abortion.

My two classmates were vehemently against abortion, under any circumstances. I argued that there were situations where it might be the only viable option. They were passionate and unyielding; I was outnumbered. As the discussion progressed I began to feel preached at, and a little resentful.

A year or so after that discussion, I was taken aback to discover that each of these women, as a teenager, had undergone an abortion.

While I empathize with their not wishing to disclose everything to me during that earlier debate, if they had trusted me with the truth of their experiences – and the fact that they had come to regret their actions – I would better have understood their vociferousness. What they had gone through couldn’t help but colour their views. Their personal stories would have given context to the discussion.

The past we see as meaningful shapes our thinking and who we become. As memoirists, we strive to structure and render vividly such life-shaping incidents. We endeavor to say something revealing and true – emotionally true – about ourselves, and in the process, humanity. But a potential pitfall is preachiness.

Just as holding back relevant backstory can render someone’s argument moralistic-sounding, so too can a writer’s heavy-handed delivery of a “message.” Preachiness, says Denis Ledoux, director of The Memoir Network, is the “negative underside” of theme. Every effective story, beyond its ability to entertain, has an underlying theme or themes, but in the desire to drive home our points, we can easily sound didactic.

Which presents the memoirist with a dilemma. Don’t we write our stories because we believe we have something important to say? Don’t we ache to impart some essential wisdom gained through our personal challenges? How, then, to do this without sounding self-righteous?

As teenagers we didn’t take kindly to being lectured to, and as adults we don’t much like it either. We have Aesop’s Fables if we want unwavering moral lessons. But in reading memoirs we’ll skim over boring, moralizing passages, or perhaps even toss the book aside. We crave something deeper: a story that connects us with the world of the writer and encourages us to reflect on aspects of ourselves in a new way.

Like most readers of memoir, I look for a believable narrator, one I care about, and a plot that sweeps me along. I want to be taken somewhere I haven’t been before, scene by scene. And those scenes need to bring to life the writer’s challenges and struggles, the consequences of those actions, and finally, a satisfying (if not always tidy) resolution. I want to see, and more importantly feel, the narrator undergo some sort of transformation.

Underlying themes – and this goes for fiction as well as memoir – resonate only when the characters and story are compelling. It never works the other way around.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee manages to condemn racial discrimination through a fictional story that’s as powerful today as it was more than 50 years ago. In the acclaimed memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed explores truths about forgiveness and the healing power of solitude and physical challenge without clobbering us with preachy passages.

Each author, first and essentially, tells a good story well.

The path we travel as writers of memoir can be one of gratifying, if sometimes gut-wrenching, self-discovery. Yet we will almost certainly be humbled at what we find difficult to express, or can never know. “The first product of self-knowledge,” said Flannery O’Conner, “is humility.” Those words might be worth tacking above our writing desks.

The best memoirs don’t preach. They don’t purport to have all the answers. They’re honest, vulnerable, and searching, and even as they attempt to illuminate, they allow space for reader to breathe and interpret.
***

Ways to avoid preachiness:
1. Write to entertain. Don’t sacrifice story for theme.
2. Eliminate words like moral, message, lesson, and teach from your vocabulary.
3. Encourage the reader’s empathy for your characters’ struggles.
4. Focus on breathing life into your experiences on the page, not on exhorting readers.
5. Be honest; be brave. Don’t be afraid to expose your weaknesses. Readers will relate to your vulnerability. They will be more influenced by what you say if they believe you’re being emotionally truthful.
6. Use scenes, action and dialogue to make your points.
7. Write with compassion. Give voice to various sides of any issue, through your actions and those of other characters.
8. Portray yourself and other characters as multi-dimensional: not all good or all bad. Acknowledge and explore the complexity of their issues and attitudes. Oversimplification can come across as preachy.
9. Ask questions. Dani Shapiro, author of the memoir Devotion, said, “I wanted to use my own self, my own life, as a laboratory, using both my history and my present to ask myself some of the deepest questions I could.”
10. Avoid lecturing and putting speeches in your characters’ mouths (unless a particular character is prone to pontificating). Maintain your story’s pace; don’t get bogged down in persuading readers to your point of view.
11. Use humour, where appropriate. Some of our greatest lessons are learned through laughter.
12. Read your work out loud. You’ll home in on preachy passages.
13. Avoid tied-in-a-bow or over-explained closings. Your story will have a stronger and more lasting impact if you allow readers to glean its significance.
***

Allyson Latta is an independent editor of literary fiction and creative nonfiction. She teaches memoir writing online for the University of Toronto (formerly also for the New York Times Knowledge Network) and is available through UofT as an online mentor. Her love of travel has led her to teach English in Japan and creative writing in Arizona, Chile, Costa Rica, and Grenada. Books she’s edited have won national and international awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Allyson holds a degree in Journalism, and worked as a reporter and magazine editor/writer before turning to book editing. Her website, www.allysonlatta.com, was recommended in The Writer magazine and features essays, interviews, and resources for memoir writers.

She hopes this guest post doesn’t sound preachy.
***

Lynette here, again. Have you found yourself moralizing in your memoir writing? Did you purge it from your subsequent drafts? Please share your own tactics—-or anything else–about avoiding preachiness in your memoir writing.

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Memoirs That Lead Us “Gently, Into a Different Literary Country”

Allyson Latta, fellow memoir writer and writing instructor, did me the real honor of inviting me to guest on her site. I’d love for you to read my post, and leave a comment, whether or not you relate to my point of view. Or, at least enjoy yourself reading other people’s comments on the post.

You can find my guest post here: The Appeal of Memoirs That Lead Us “Gently, Into a Different Literary Country”

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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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In Need of a Neat Conclusion?

PINK SWEATER
An editor remarked that after sticking with a memoir for 300 pages, he felt he was owed a tidy resolution at the end. I understand his feelings. I even sympathize with them.

But I don’t agree.

Do readers earn the right to a snug, reassuring wrap up to a memoir? Must the narrative of a segment of a life (which is what a memoir is) unfailingly end neatly? And even if it seems to, neither we, nor the narrator, can know for example, if the recovering addict falls off the wagon the very day we sigh with satisfaction over the end of an addiction memoir.

Regarding novels, British author Lee Rourke quotes Viktor Shklovsky, who said [a novel] has no ending . . . “because finishing a novel would mean knowing the future.”

I’m not doctrinaire about endings. I’ve always reserved the right to attach my own preferred ending to narrative works of art. (In my mind, Bambi’s mother is alive and thriving. So is the extraordinary Sean Connery’s flamboyant character in The Untouchables. Oh, he gets all shot up while an operatic aria soars through his apartment; but he’s patched up sufficiently to happily join in the slick scene on the train station steps. He might even kick the guy in the white suit over the parapet, after Ness shoots that villain at the very end.)

Now, that’s a resolution.

But wait . . .
Memoir’s different. Neither the reader nor the writer is allowed to make up the ending. Memoir’s current conventions demand that there must be issues/questions/conundrums and they must, absolutely must, be resolved. The unknown must become known, the unfathomable miraculously fathomed. That probably explains why, on concluding of a couple of memoirs, I’ve felt the ending was forced, and even false.

Dulcinea Norton Smith holds that readers want memoir threads “finished off neatly.” Well, I want the events in my life to finish off neatly. But that’s not how it goes, and memoirists can’t just slap a satisfying ending on their manuscript, all tied up like a sizzling roast just out of Martha Stewart’s oven.

Is that even desirable?

Sometimes the protagonist’s goal hasn’t been fully achieved. The fights with the mother, say, are temporarily stilled, but no one believes for a moment that they are over for good.

Jerry Waxler suggests the author ask what conclusions can be drawn from the experiences in her less-than-perfectly-resolved story. Maybe what the writer has learned along the way will be something readers can use in their own lives.

Yet, I don’t consider it the memoirist’s job to educate readers, nor overtly teach them how to live. I feel our job is to allow readers to share our journeys as we muddle—with some success and many failures—through our lives, as they do through theirs.

When I was a technical documentation writer, my coworker and friend, Bob used to kid that we should tell our customers: “Figure it out for yourselves; we did.”

Why shouldn’t readers wrestle with ambiguities and endure dead ends as the author does? Maybe what we memoirists teach readers, if anything, is that much of the struggle in life winds up inconclusively.

Probably this is just rationalizing. If I can’t offer readers anything short of a pat ending, I’ll have to shelve the memoir I’ve spent a tough four years writing, until a certain thread is tidily knotted. But the end might never knit itself into a nice, symmetrical garment. So, I guess my question is: if the narrator is trying to gain something in a memoir, is it unfair to readers to publish the book before all is achieved? Isn’t the journey worth something?

When I put that question to friends, one said, “Life doesn’t offer tidy endings; it’s immature to expect that.” Another said she actually enjoys open-ended endings. “I like it when months later, while standing at the sink or getting into my car, I find myself pondering possible outcomes of the story.”

Was I ever glad to hear that, because just last week it seemed certain that the end of my story, and therefore my memoir, had arrived, the treasure achieved. But then I learned that no, it hadn’t quite yet.

Again, speaking about fiction, Lee Rourke wrote that he is uncomfortable with the desire for narratives to reach closure. He distrusts books that force “chaos towards order and natural events to act unnaturally.” I feel that applies to memoir as well.

Mine was a search for more than just a material object. It was a quest to come to grips with my family’s destructive dynamics, which cascaded from generation to generation. So, I want to say to readers: “Maybe some of the tangible item is still missing, but Baby, this is still a damn good story.”

What do you think? Should I wait until all has been gained before publishing my memoir?

Further Reading
How to End a Memoir

Memoir Lessons: Buddies, Endings, and Beyond

Endless Fascination: In Praise of Novels Without Neat Conclusions

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