Memoir, Life Writers, and Family History Writers: Help Me to Help You

Amaryllis Blooming in Winter in My Kitchen

To update this site, Tools and Tactics for Writers, by offering information and services more specifically targeted to writers of Memoir, Family History, and shorter personal sketches about the writers’ lives, I need to know what site visitors and subscribers want and need for their writing.

So I’m asking for your input and opinions in this Short Quiz.

After completing the quiz, you will be able to download a free gift to help you with your writing.

The results of the quiz will be posted here on Tools and Tactics for Writers. (If you haven’t subscribed to this site, please do so. That way you will be notified by email when the results of the quiz are posted. And of course, you’ll be notified of all of new blog posts.)



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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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Memoir Narrator’s Transformation

I just had the pleasure of having my article, A Memoir Narrator Transformed posted on Women Writers, Women[‘s] Books. I hope you’ll stop by and give it a read, especially if you write or enjoy reading memoir.




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Who Cares If You Write?

August Perennials at Elm Bank

August Perennials at Elm Bank

I’ve got a quotation over my desk by the novelist Louis Auchincloss. In large font, it reminds me daily, hourly that,

“A man can spend his whole existence never learning the simple lesson that he has only one life and that if he fails to do what he wants with it, nobody else really cares.”

I’ve been lucky. I have a husband, his family, and a few close friends who relentlessly, yet lovingly, cheer me on in my writing. Still, I’ve been swayed by well-meant, but often intrusive, invitations.

Who Cares?
Those folks who invite you to spend an afternoon at the 4th wedding shower you’ve attended that year when you could be home writing? I doubt if, at the end, even one of them will say, “We should have left him [fill in your name here] alone to get his writing done.” They won’t care that you never finished that essay or novel or children’s story, or the small book of poetry that would have felt so right in your hand.

It doesn’t even need to be anything grand. You might just need to write yourself through a bad experience or record some lessons recently learned. A personal diary or journal will do for that.

In our busy-making, byzantine world, where a good deal of energy is spent in occupations unrelated to our deepest desires, a quotation like the one by Auchincloss can help you buckle down and get your writing done.

Pinning it over my desk works for me. Despite distractions and demands, I get my writing done. My articles and essays have been published in reputable outlets because I remind myself that if I give in to the external pressures instead of doing what I feel I was meant to do, nobody will give a hoot.

Auburn Lakes

Auburn Lakes

Use These Inspirational Quotes
Here are some quotations to encourage you to value your writing, make time for it, feed it what it needs.

“If you wish to be a writer; write!” – Epictetus

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” – Mark Twain

“Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us.” – Don Delillo

“To write something, you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” – Anne Rice

“I have lived on the razor’s edge. So what if you fall off? I’d rather be doing something I really wanted to do.” – Georgia O’Keefe

If you’ve got any quotations or any mantras you made up that propel you to your desk and keep you there, please share them.

And, post your favorites over your desk. They’ll help you out in times of doubt.

Additional Resources
Finding Time to Write
What are you Willing to Sacrifice to Write?
Quit Complaining and Write

If you really need a push to get it in gear, to realize we shouldn’t put off our writing because we don’t live forever, try this one. Writing & Illness: More Than Metaphor.

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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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Does Your Writing Need an Editor?

That’s me, dressed up for an event

It probably does.

An editor finds the errors in your manuscript that you’ve overlooked—which happens if you’ve been staring at your words until your vision’s blurred, and your forehead hits the table in front of you.

Or, maybe you didn’t overlook those errors. Maybe you made mistakes you didn’t recognize as mistakes.

Say you think periods and commas go outside the quotation marks in your dialog.

Or you don’t know when you’ve got a phrase wrong. (You’d be surprised how many writers think the phrase “wreck havoc” is correct. It isn’t.) Maybe you’ve never understood the distinction between disinterested and uninterested.

It’s the editor’s job to point out the overuse—and misuse—of words and phrases like “hopefully” and “begs the question.” (Just about everybody gets those two wrong.)

Perhaps you treat the same word(s) differently in different places in your work. Is it “copy editor” or “copyeditor?”

At some point in your story, you might have put two periods at the end of a sentence. Or, throughout your book, you’ve inserted two spaces at the end of sentences.

There might be a word you always misspell. For me, that word is “narcissism.” I had to try three spellings just now before I got the right one.

If you’re like me, when you type fast, you write “ot,” instead of “to,” and “of,” instead of “or.” That’s why I always give work I intend to publish to a copy editor before I submit it. (Blog posts are a different matter. I can’t afford to have dozens of them edited, so please ignore any errors you find here.)

Is it possible something you’ve written on page 138 of your manuscript already appears on page 101? Are you telling the same story over and over again, drumming its details into your readers’ heads? In short, is it repetitious?

Get your work edited so you won’t be embarrassed when you submit your query letter or manuscript to an agent, or upload your book to sell online. Crisp, engaging, correct copy allows your readers to lose themselves your writing. Isn’t that better than having them sigh, before casting it aside?

Please contact me ( if you need an editor. Sceptical? Click on the Testimonials tab above to see what my clients, students, and colleagues say about my work.

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