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!

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!

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.

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!

Memoir: Go Small to Go Big Later, by Christine Houser

If you’ve never visited the web site, Flashmemoirs.com, the post below will give you a hint of what you’ve been missing.

As a memoir writing instructor, I make sure I take frequent looks at the latest news and advice from my guest blog post writer, Christine Houser. After reading her tips, I think you’ll find yourself visiting Flashmemoirs.com often, too.
– Lynette

Christine Houser, blogger at FlashMemoirs.com

Christine Houser, blogger at FlashMemoirs.com


I find that breaking most projects down into small, specific pieces makes for greater success, and writing is no exception. To tell your big life story, you have to tell many smaller stories – and going small requires an emphasis on good storytelling.

So what are some good storytelling techniques, you ask? Pick a scene you want to write, and try using these tips:

• Dispense with the preamble and start in the middle of the action to immediately engage your reader. You can imply or briefly describe some context later.
• Keep your storyline small and well contained.
• Use the active voice.
• Don’t name emotions or draw conclusions. Instead, describe them so your reader arrives at the same understanding.
• Ensure that every sentence furthers the story.
• For extra credit, employ a twist to surprise and further engage your reader.

Here are a few great flash-story samples that illustrate these tips:

After you’ve written some short stories or scenes, you can join them with a longer narrative or compile them into a volume. And don’t forget to free-write the first draft of every story – this too is a very important storytelling step.

__________
Christine Houser reads, writes, studies, and teaches flash-length creative nonfiction in Seattle, and blogs at www.flashmemoirs.com. For good story fodder, she travels widely and unabashedly eavesdrops while on the San Juan Island ferries.

Find her on Twitter @flashmemoirs and #lifewriting.

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!

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.

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

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!

5 Ways Libraries Can Support Local Writers

Adams Free Library

Adams Free Library

Last month I had the honor of participating on a panel at the New England Library Association conference in Portland, Maine. In response to the numerous requests libraries receive from boomers and seniors for memoir writing classes, I’d been invited to talk about my experiences teaching memoir to those populations in libraries and elsewhere.

For that I was happily prepared. But a question posed by the coordinator of my session (Self-Publishing) surprised and stimulated me. She asked:

What can libraries do for writers?

We typically think of libraries as institutions that feed our passions for reading, researching, and learning. The flip side of reading, researching, and learning, however, is writing. Someone writes the books we love. Someone writes the research findings and textbooks we need.

When it comes to creating memoirs and family histories, most individuals have to figure out—without professional guidance—how to tell their stories in writing. Their solitary struggles can delay completion of their work for years; all too often the effort is abandoned altogether.

Some libraries offer free literacy classes. Several in my area, offer journaling, memoir writing, and even writing classes for youngsters.

But could more local libraries become the places where those in our communities go for free writing instruction? In addition to teaching memoir and family history writing classes at the occasional library, I teach talented writers through community education programs, senior centers, and in retirement communities. But I know equally talented writers who cannot afford even the modest cost of those classes.

What Libraries Can Do for Writers
1) Perhaps libraries could avail themselves of grants earmarked for memoir writing classes. It would make sense for libraries, those repositories and consumers of writers’ work, to underwrite writing instruction a couple of times a year.

2) Many libraries host public readings of local writers’ published work. They could also sponsor writing contests and readings of excerpts from works in progress.

3) Libraries could stock the best-written and historically significant memoirs written by residents of the area. My students have written about life in a small Italian village in World War II officially hearing that the war was over when it wasn’t; a dramatic liberation from a German POW camp; life in a 20th century New England orphanage; even a mystery novel loosely based on the author’s experiences.

4) Hosting a series of seminars on self-publishing would be helpful to librarians and writers alike. Some libraries are partnering with Smashwords as a publishing platform. Other companies, such as FastPencil, evidently are getting into the act, as well.

5) Writers who want to self-publish their memoirs and family histories often need computer classes that cover effectively using Google for research; scanning and inserting photos into documents; downloading and saving documents; and formatting their manuscripts for publication.

Writers: Does your library offer memoir or other creative writing classes? Would you take advantage such free classes if your library made them available?

Librarians: I’d be happy to talk with you about short courses for your writer patrons. Please use the Contact tab at the top of this page to get in touch. Thank you.

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 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.
Memoir_Revolution_Front_Cover_Thumbnail
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 jerrywaxler@yahoo.com.

Memoir Revolution is available in both paper and Kindle formats.

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!

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.

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!

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”

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!

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.

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!