Memoir Writing: Back to the Basics

I’m happy to share here a truly excellent guest blog recently posted on writing guru, Jane Friedman’s, web page that revisits the basics of Memoir Writing. Not being formally educated in story telling and creative writing myself and not having even attempted story telling and creative writing until 2008, it took me the better part of seven years to self-learn and get up to speed on what it meant to write a story and to write creatively.

Jane Friedman’s guest blogger, Cyndy Etler, shares “How to Write Your Memoir with Fun, Easy Lists”

The title of the post is a bit deceiving, because this post does way more than its lighthearted title suggests. It is a basic primer of all that is necessary to pull off writing a coherent memoir. It is everything that it took me the better part of seven years to understand and retain (by reading countless how-to-write-memoir blogs, and how-to-write-memoir books, and reading good memoirs written by good writers and so-so memoirs written by good writers and trying to figure out what made one good and one so-so, etc.). But take note: Etler’s post is way more than the fabulous primer it promises to be. It’s the one post you might do well to re-read after having written your first draft . . . and second draft . . . and third draft. This post might be the very thing to save you when you’ve somehow drifted off from your original plan, when perhaps you started off winging it (you pantster, you!) and now need structure, or you carefully planned it out (you plotter, you!) but lost your notes or your focus along the way.

Memoirs are far more difficult than I imagined (I know this after tackling several drafts of my own and helping a good friend with his own), especially if story telling and creative writing is new to you. I know there are tons of people out there who are like me, who have experienced something so profound, they feel compelled to write (possibly for the first time in their lives). To them, I say, “Go for it! Write that memoir!” It’s not easy. It takes lots of self-study if you were never schooled in story telling and creative writing, but I think it’s worth it to learn what you can from the massive amount of resources out there (search ‘memoir blogs’ in any search engine and be prepared to be overwhelmed). It’s enough to get you going, and the rest of it will depend on what you already subconsciously know about telling stories and doing it well–whether via your instincts or via your lifetime exposure to good books, movies and ballads, and even your memories of those storytelling friends and relatives in your own life whose stories made an impression on you. All of this counts as your self-education in the rewarding (though sometimes frustrating!) realm of writing stories and, specifically, writing memoir for the first time.


Three Reasons I Could Stop Writing Memoir But Won’t

Timely read, given that I have recently put my third-draft-in-progress memoir on the side (yet again). Deeper still I need to go. There is no end to the layers I’m undoing with each draft . . . that alone is a tremendous challenge. But by far, the bigger challenge is believing in myself, in my need to write this story, and in my rightful place among other memoir writers who attempt the same.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz ronitBy Ronit Feinglass Plank

I had been writing fiction and wanted to try nonfiction, so I began with personal essays. I didn’t think memoir was for me; in fact I was deliberately avoiding it. I didn’t see a reason to revisit the facts of my confusing childhood and thought memoir wouldn’t be as challenging as creating a world from scratch and putting characters in it. To tell my own story, the story I knew by heart, seemed almost too easy.

I could not have been more wrong. I was about to discover that looking at something you think you know pretty well with fresh eyes and trying to understand it in a new way is definitely not easy. I did try writing several personal essays but the history of how I grew up kept barging in, taking up more and more space. It seemed part of me really wanted to…

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You’re Invited to a Party! My Short Story Published in Chicken Soup

Chicken Soup for the Soul, Angels and Miracles

Hello, My Faithful Followers!

My short story called “The Desk” is being debuted in the new Chicken Soup for the Soul: Angels and Miracles book, AVAILABLE TOMORROW, November 1, 2016, at a book store near you! (Or online, of course! Here–> at AMAZON)


I’m beyond excited about being part of the Chicken Soup for the Soul family now. It’s truly an honor.

This particular collection of 101 stories (cherry picked out of somewhere between 5000 and 6000 submissions!) is a widely varied collection of stories relating to . . . well, it’s much easier to allow the Chicken Soup folks explain it . . .

Miracles, answered prayers, cases of divine intervention—they happen every day—strengthening our faith, giving us hope, and proving that good things do happen to good people!

Miracles are all around us—we just have to look to see them. These powerful stories will deepen your faith and give you hope that good things do happen to good people. From guardian angels to divine messengers, from miraculous healing to messages from heaven, from mysterious dreams that come true to divine coincidence, you’ll be in awe as you read these 101 stories of true wonder and inspiration. These stories are written by real people—ordinary people who have had extraordinary experiences—who are just as surprised that these things happened to them as we are to read about them.

TOMORROW, NOVEMBER 1, 2016, the Chicken Soup folks are hosting a TWITTER PARTY for us contributors, with an open invitation for family and friends to join us. I’d love to have you in attendance if you can make it!

If you attend, make sure to give a shout out to me! My twitter tag is:  @SusanMaddyJ

Thanks to my family and friends who support me in my baby steps in the big, big world of writing and my big, big endeavors to find my place in it! I love you so much for encouraging me to dream that big!

Warmest love and regards,


Writer’s Journal_10: Writing Past the Pain in Memoirs

Even though it is often painful to write my memoir, I have found that writing about the pain has allowed me to push past some of the pain. The end result is an understanding that didn’t exist when I started. And so the memoir morphs. It changes in tone the longer I work on it. It is my therapy–a gift I give to myself, a lesson I learn for myself. And therefore, it sticks. I’ve arrived by myself at realizations I’ve navigated to by myself. In the future, when I’ve forgotten these lessons, I’ll read my own words and will not be able to refute them and the sanctity of what I have come to know. I can trust myself to know myself best, to believe my own guidance on what I have found to be true for me.

Copyright @ 2016 | All rights reserved.

Writer’s Journal_9: Digging Deep for Meaning in Memoirs

If my memoirs were only a capture of the facts and events as they’ve happened, I’d be able to publish one of my books this year and likely the other one next year.

But writing memoir is not about just chronicling facts and events. Writing memoir is about recalling and interpreting facts and events into something meaningful.

Yes, the events of our lives happened. BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

“What it means” is the whole point of writing memoir. For many of us who write or read memoirs, it is what drives us to write our own and to voraciously read someone else’s. We don’t want to regurgitate the facts or read someone else’s regurgitated facts. We want to piece together the clues of our own lives and determine what it all means. We want to read someone else’s clues and see what they believe it all means compared to what we may think it all means.

The best memoirs, in my opinion, are the ones that dig deepest, the ones that are difficult to write and often difficult to read because of what they uncover. I’m trying to stay mindful of this as I pace back and forth today, digging deeper . . . deeper still.

Copyright @ 2016 | All rights reserved.

Writer’s Journal_8: Third Draft is Just the Start of the Art

For some fiction or memoir writers, a third draft might be a final draft. For me, however, my third draft of memoir #1 is still a lump of wet clay–mostly centered, spinning on the wheel, but awaiting the artist’s hand to shape it into something beautiful. No pressure (cha, right!).

This is real life and it’s taking a while for the nuances in my story to emerge, for the patterns of my life to be revealed to me through my own relentless investigation. The patterns will help me to weave a deeper story, and a deeper story is where the art lives.

Copyright @ 2016 | All rights reserved.

Writer’s Journal_7: Crap

I stare at the sullen face staring back at me in the mirror . . . I look like crap. I’m only a week into what will be a month-long marathon of rewriting and editing, and already I look like a vampire. The artificial blue-white light of the moon and my computer screen are reflected in the darkening blue circles creeping out from under the corners of my eyes.

Memoir #1 looks like crap to me at times, too, depending on what else I allow to influence me. Today, it is an article in a writing magazine about plot points, about successful fiction books having a tantalizing crisis, climax, and closing. I’m writing a memoir, not an autobiography, so it must moonlight as fiction–not that it be fabricated, but that it borrow from useful, successful storytelling techniques. I fret at times with this memoir, because life doesn’t always follow a neat crisis-climax-closing structure. Sometimes, it is crisis, climax, crisis, climax, crisis, climax, and eventually a closing of some sort (before the next crisis and climax muddy the mix again). Almost as often as day turns into night and back into day, I change my decision of where memoir #1 will begin and end.

I feel drained, like I want to trash this book. I wonder how I’ll make it through the next three or four weeks like this.

In response to my downward spiral, I make a command decision to stop writing and editing, to escape the draining blue-white of the computer and instead bask in the replenishing yellow-bright of the sun. I set up a lounge chair in the backyard and lay my sick body down so it can soak in as many rays as I imagine might replenish a body with Vitamin D and positive energy. After 15 minutes, I pick up the writing magazine again. This time, I find something between the lines that gives me hope for my memoir.

When I return to my cave in the house, a quick examination in the mirror shows I still look like crap, but when I return to the blue-white screen, my memoir looks considerably better than I do. Maybe there is hope after all.

Copyright @ 2016 | All rights reserved.

Writer’s Journal_6: Starting at the End

Memoirs seem more challenging to me than fiction. In fiction, a writer can design an alluring opening, a smash ending, and then set to the task of writing all the interesting stuff in between. But in memoirs, as in life, aside from being born and dying, beginnings and endings aren’t as clear.

In memoirs, we often don’t know where our particular sub-story began. That’s what we pay a psychologist many decades of analysis for, if we’re so lucky to be able to afford one. Often, we don’t know where the end is either. Because when we’re living life, the ‘end’ never really happens. In the process of living, we blur the lines between the end of one story in our life and the beginning of the next.

It’s the very reason, I now have TWO memoirs in progress. Not because I love torturing myself with two major projects at once, but because they’re closely related, sharing the same backstory, so it’s difficult to decipher where one ends and the other begins. I constantly flip-flop between the two projects, jotting down notes, moving a piece from one into the other and back again.

This morning, I stared at my first memoir, hoping to tackle the third draft, trying to nail down a beginning and an end. At best, I still only have a vague idea of the beginning, but I did settle in on an ending that just might work. I’ve used this approach many times before . . . even if I don’t know exactly what scene will be the last in the story, I at least have an idea of the “take-away”–the “lessons learned” that I hope the reader will ponder as they close the book cover. This, I know, is the most important part of the book, the part that drives the entire story. Today, the ending was an excellent place to start.

Copyright @ 2016 | All rights reserved.

Writer’s Journal_5: Distraction

There’s a reason the work doesn’t get done when I say it will: distraction.

Yesterday, it was a glance at an essay contest advertisement, with a hefty payout for the winner and publication in a national magazine. I dropped my memoir writing in a heartbeat and set to the task of whipping out something that I thought might fit the theme.

The words and concept came easily. I liked what I had written. It was good. With additional cutting, lifting, creating, finessing, it could be great.

Today, I picked up on it again. Bound. Determined. I checked the advertisement again. Originality–Check. Creativity–Check. Use of language–Check. Adherence to theme–Check.

Then I pulled myself back from the micro-view and took a look at the macro-view. Wait a second, now. Will this magazine’s editors see my subject matter as a fit for their magazine?

No. No they won’t. Why did I not see this from the start?

Because I got distracted. By prize money. By the thought of being published again.

So, I’m back to the memoir. And stashed away in my file folder is a decent personal essay about a difficult life lesson that boiled down to “my efforts weren’t wasted,” which ironically is the theme of today’s life lesson . . . that none of my efforts related to writing are wasted. Every time I put together something meant for someone else’s eyes, it commands me to write my best. Winning a contest is great, but I’m also winning whenever I’m writing under pressure, because it elevates my writing to higher heights. Whether I win a contest or not, I win whenever I pressure myself to write my best.

Copyright @ 2016 | All rights reserved.

Writer’s Journal_4: Planning or Pantsing?

Once I finished first-drafting the bulk of my fourth chapter, I sat back and stared at the screen. Now what?

I had gotten past that point, that easy point where I had deposited the fury of words stirring in my belly onto the page. Writing by the seat of my pants had taken me as far as it could go. Before I could write . . . one . . .  more . . .  word, I needed a plan.

So, without much choice, I wasted spent an entire day laying out a timeline of events I intended to cover and then working through a story outline as best I could.

The timeline was helpful and essential. It would seem a no-brainer to tackle a memoir just as you experienced it, but if you don’t decide ahead of time what the dozen or so major events are of the whole, you spend too much time writing too much about–and, therefore, drawing too much attention to–the less compelling stuff.

The story outline was critical. What am I most passionate about that has led me to want to write this book? What is it I want to convey as the take-away lesson or theme? What characters will I bother to mention by name (because only they are critical to the story)? What is the premise of the protagonist (me!) relative to her major flaw (oh, I have so many!) and to the theme? And what are my true story events I’ll try to overlay upon the major story points of any story (hook, backstory, trigger, crisis, struggle, epiphany, plan, climax, ending).

So, yes, I’ve wasted spent an entire day doing something other the one thing I wanted to do, write!, but considering how far off the path I could have wandered without a plan, I think I’m now better off.

Today, without reservation, I write.

Copyright @ 2016 | All rights reserved.