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

If you’ve never visited the web site,, 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 often, too.
– Lynette

Christine Houser, blogger at

Christine Houser, blogger at

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 For good story fodder, she travels widely and unabashedly eavesdrops while on the San Juan Island ferries.

Find her on Twitter @flashmemoirs and #lifewriting.

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Memoir Revolution, by Jerry Waxler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact him at

Memoir Revolution is available in both paper and Kindle formats.

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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,, 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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Clichés Bugging You? Me, too.

That's me, after hearing a cliche

I used to think of journalists as the leaders, rather than the lemmings, of our language. Well, maybe I was thinking of print journalists, New Yorker writers, who don’t go in for clichés as broadcast journalists too often do. They (and the self-aggrandizing pundits who appear on their shows) seem to have sunken happily into the sloth of clichés.

Old enough to remember the first Gulf conflict, when Stormin’ Norman and Colin Powell brought us “prosecute a war?” For months after that war ended, you couldn’t watch a news show without hearing someone mention prosecuting something—and they weren’t talking about a person or a courtroom.

On the Ground
There’s nothing like a war to stir up broadcasters to copy military terms and apply them long after those terms have anything to do with war.

I hear journalists using “on the ground” for just about any exciting event, especially bad weather. A tornado has passed through? They tell us they have a reporter on the ground, then ask the reporter: “Can you tell us about the situation on the ground there?”

War Zone
Most of us haven’t ever seen a war zone (thank heavens) except on TV. But anywhere there’s rubble, a broadcaster’s sure to exclaim, “It looks like a war zone!” The phrase has caught on to the extent that people use it to describe their offices and their teenagers’ bedrooms.

For quite a while after journalists began traveling as part of fighting missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, everything was embedded. Everything.

Order of Magnitude
Does anyone really know what an “order of magnitude” is? I hear it on the radio practically every day, particularly in reference to the escalating US debt.

Ugh. I don’t remember who it was, but someone wrote that you could just substitute “not” for arguably and come close to the truth. Try it.

Fiercely Independent
One of my longtime annoyances. Some family protecting its rights in Vermont is fiercely independent. The phrase is written as if its constituent words cannot be separated. Why is no one ever intensely independent? Forcefully independent? Ferociously independent?

The same goes for “companionable silence,” although I admit that one usually pops up in novels.

Why Do So Many Journalists Employ Clichés?
The habit of leaning on clichés could be tied to the pressure of writing stories under tight deadlines (or just plain lazy brains). So, I asked Shari Lopatin, a journalist who doesn’t rely on clichés, for her take on the subject.

“As a journalist and media strategist, one of the first lessons I was taught in journalism school, was to avoid clichés. And I try my darned hardest to stick to that lesson! Nevertheless, those clichés will arise inevitably. Have I noticed a rise in the clichés used by other journalists? Not any more than I’ve seen in the past.

“I cannot think of specific clichés that rub me the wrong way (catch that one?). But I have other pet peeves in print-and-broadcast writing that drive me bonkers—such as beginning a sentence with ‘There is.’ Or adding too many ‘thats’ to a paragraph. I understand the pressure that comes with writing news under deadline, but I always try to go through my work and check for clichés before submitting it. Because the best writers and journalists think outside the pen.”

Mired in clichés yourself? Try Phrase Finder. And see: Are You Addicted to Clichés? Help Is On The Way!, by Russell Working. He’d also be grateful if you’d take a look at the trailer for his book, The Hit.

Add the clichés that bug you in the Comments below.

In my next post I’ll rant about rampant incorrect usage: “Hopefully,” anyone?

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Book Review: Women Writing on Family

Click the cover image to learn more about this book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quit Complaining and Write

In my roles as a reader, writing instructor, and coach, it’s my job to encourage writers. And there’s little I enjoy more. I want to see more writers writing, and more good work published.

But those writers who’ve been fooling with Chapter One for two years, who can’t get the story down because the little time they devote to writing is spent tweaking those first 15 pages?

The ones who insist they’re preparing to write when what they’re actually doing is caressing the new writing tools they got for Christmas, or shopping for color-coded stickies at the stationery store?

The ones who tell me their latest accoutrements are just what they need to make significant progress on their book? Encouraging words for those writers? Sorry. I’ve run out.

These are not my students. The “writers” I’m referring to haven’t found time to take a class with me or anyone else. Instead, they accost me after I give a talk on writing or when I’m on my way into the library for some focused writing time.

I’ve Heard All the Excuses
For years I’ve nodded patiently while listening to these writers list the reasons their lives are busier than other writers’ lives.

I tell them about Margaret Walker and countless other women and men who had children to rear on little money, or struggled with illnesses—their own or their family’s—or scrambled to subsist in war torn areas—but still wrote and published their work.

The wannabe writers smile sheepishly. “You’re right,” they say, earnestly. “I know you’re right.”

I tell them to take a writing class of their choice; it needn’t be one of mine. A class will help keep them accountable.

But when I next see them, they offer a new raft of excuses.

Do You Really Want to Write—or to Have Written?
Brenda Ueland wrote If You Want to Write, a wonderful book for aspiring writers. Go ahead and read it.

But if you really want to write, stop talking about it. Quit complaining. Give up the excuses. (You can’t come up with any I haven’t heard ad nauseum.)

Don’t grab me to whine when I’m on my way to write or to teach. Just sit down and write.

If you’re an aspiring writer who’s running out of time, you might want to read Finding Time to Write.

If you’re running out of excuses, bookmark Excuse Editor. You’ll get spot on tips and gentle nudges that can help you. Or, at least read Writer’s First Step: Show Up.

Finally, I recommend this post: Hardworking vs. Talented.

For more writing tips, please follow lynettebenton on Twitter.

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Seniors Write Stories from Their Lives

As I’ve written in other posts here, I teach boomers and seniors to write stories from their lives. Our classes are moving, exciting, suspenseful, and a whole lot of fun—because that’s what the stories the students write are.

My Legacy is Simply This

When new students tell me they have this inexplicable urge to write about their lives, but don’t know what to write about, I suggest they take a look at My Legacy is Simply This, a book of short essays by seniors living in various neighborhoods in Boston.

No matter what age you are, these are stories you’ll enjoy. Among my favorites is the story of his dangerous career, recounted by  William Boyle, a former fire fighter. As a young man, he helped quench the big Hotel Vendome fire, which killed nine Boston fire fighters, in 1972. Even after pulling dead coworkers out from the rubble, he still loved his work, especially because that day, he found his boyhood friend, alive in the debris.

Boyle also describes being overcome by smoke inhalation in one fire, and being asked by his wife, as he lay in the hospital, if he would consider giving up the job. But, as his work was one of the loves of his life (his wife being the other), he told her “No,” and returned to work as soon as he was able. His essay ends with the successful CPR performed on a baby.

Dorothy Parks is a woman who lives each day as if it were her last, as a result of the perils she faced in her travels, whether by train, ship, or air. Her essay is the funniest in the collection, as she recounts an absurd brush with death on an airplane with a wing on fire.

Holiday Gift Recommendation

If you’re looking for an engaging gift this holiday season, consider My Legacy is Simply This. Your gift recipient won’t be disappointed. (Note: I have no affiliation with the publishers or writers of this book.)

And if you’ve been considering writing down the stories from your own life, I hope you’ll find the following posts helpful.

You don’t have to be a senior to join my Writing Stories from Your Life class at the Arlington Center for the Arts. Just browse the winter catalog and check page 6 for a description. You can register online.
For writing tips and resources, follow me on Twitter @lynettebenton.
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How to Choose a Creative Writing Class

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWriters, like musicians, athletes, and even astronauts have to constantly strengthen their skills. For writers, attending classes is one good way to do that. But writing classes have their pros and cons. How do you assess which class is right for you?

Tips for Choosing a Writing Class

1) The class should be challenging, but not so difficult that you can’t do the assignments or understand the terminology being used.

2) Check the instructor’s background and credentials. Has he or she had work published, and if so, what? Call the program director or registrar to find out if the instructor’s gotten positive reviews from past students. Check out the instructor and his or her work online. Just do a Google search.

3) Ask around. People in your neighborhood, library, church, gym, or even your poker buddies might know of writing classes that are what you’re looking for.

4) Find out what the format of the class is. Some writing classes require that you not only produce your own work, but that you read and critique your classmates’ writing. This is a great way to expand your knowledge about writing, but if your time is limited, you might find that requirement too onerous.

5) Don’t forget the discussions of peripheral issues that can further enhance your writing. Will the class cover issues like overcoming writer’s block, making time to write, staying inspired to write, and publishing your work?

6) Choose a writing class based on your writing goals. If you want to complete a particular writing project within a certain amount of time, take a class where you’re expected to turn in a piece of writing or read a passage from your work each week. Most of my students take my classes year after year, partly to maintain the discipline and momentum of writing regularly.

Do You Shy Away from Writing Classes, or do you take them? What have you gotten out of them?

To help you with your writing, you might be interested in 3 (or 4) Terrific Books for Aspiring Writers.

For lots more tips about writing, follow me on twitter @lynettebenton. And I’d love for you to subscribe to this blog. Thank you.

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Guest Post: What You Deserve From Your Copywriter

In my past work as a marketing communications director, I hired and supervised a ton of copywriters. Shakirah Dawud is among the best I know.

In her guest post below, Shakirah explains what you have a right to expect from any copywriter you engage.

– Lynette

You want to send an effective message via your branding, brochure, advertising, or press release. You need to communicate clearly to get the reaction you desire from your intended audience. So you’re in search of a good copywriter—or you’re about to work with one you’ve already chosen. Make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.

A professional background you’re comfortable with. Check the portfolio of the writer you’re interested in. It’s not necessary for every project to fall within your industry, but it is necessary for you to feel drawn to her style—or the flexibility of her style—for your purposes. If yours is an ultra-specialized or socially sensitive area, ask about her background with those types of projects, and how she’s addressed such issues in her writing in the past.

Appropriate language. Although we all learned English at home and in school, marketing copy is not a college essay. Ask about or be aware of differences in expression, spelling, or grammatical constructions that may be common and correct in one context but inappropriate for your purposes.

Talent. It comes in many forms, and your definition of talent may be totally different from mine, but you know it when you see it. It makes you want to read more, find out more, and eventually contact a particular copywriter. Another copywriter may be technically and stylistically excellent, but like any art, greatness of expression is in the eye of the beholder. Don’t settle for less.

Communication—as much of it as necessary. If you want to know what’s going on at any point in your project, it shouldn’t be a hassle to get hold of your writer. Keep leaving messages? Are emails left unanswered for more than 24 hours? Try setting up weekly meeting times to get updates, ask and answer any questions, and offer further input as the project takes shape.

Professionalism. Can your copywriter meet the tight deadlines you throw at her? Can she meet those deadlines without sacrificing consistently high-quality results? Is she honest with you about her capabilities? Find out what past clients say about her work and her working style. You can do this by getting references and testimonials, running a Google search, or placing a few phone calls. The extra effort is worth it when both your peace of mind and your business’s reputation are on the line.

For more wisdom about copywriting, visit Shakirah’s site, Deliberate Ink, and follow her on Twitter @deliberateink.

You can also read Shakirah’s post, The Mystery of Character in Memoirs.

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