Dear Pamela Advice: Cancer Memoir Help and What’s Your Story?

by Matilda Butler on June 14, 2016

Memoir writer asks questions about her cancer journey memoir

Dear Pamela, memoir advice

Dear Pamela,

I am writing a memoir about my breast cancer journey that is aimed at helping cancer survivors deal with their cancer. I would like to include reflection about things such as how I made my decisions, what I found most helpful, and what helped me relieve stress. I am writing in the first person. Can you give me some suggestions about how to weave such reflections into the memoir and refer me to memoirs to read that would be good examples of this? Thank you. — Jane-Reflecting-on-Cancer-Survivor-Memoir

Dear Pamela

Dear Jane-Reflecting-on-Cancer-Survivor-Memoir,

Your book about surviving breast cancer will benefit many readers, including those whose friends or family have grappled with breast cancer. Congratulations on working on this memoir.

There are several ways to construct your narrative. Begin by asking yourself the following two questions (it may help to write down the answers).

Question #1. What is the main story you want to tell? In other words, what is the most important element of your story, what drives you to want to write this particular book?

Once you have answered this, ask yourself:

Question #2. Is there a secondary narrative, a kind of “subplot,” that you would like to include. This might be a love story, a parenting or a childhood story that relates to the main narrative. Let’s say, for instance, your mom was a doctor or health worker in the hospital where you are seeking treatment; you could contrast your current story with memories of a young child in the same setting. Alternatively, you may simply pause in the narrative periodically to reflect on what you went through, or outline strategies that helped you during this time.

Dear Pamela Advice and Tips

Here’s a tip that may prove to be useful to you. When I was writing my memoir, I used colored markers to help identify various elements of my story. You can do it on the manuscript itself, but I’ll also use colors here to help illustrate these elements and how you might weave them together:

a) main narrative

b) “subplot” or secondary narrative

c) survival strategies

Once you have established the various components, you have many ways to construct your narrative. Here are three:

1. Alternate chapters of your main narrative with a subplot, or strategies for reducing stress.

2. Weave bits of your subplot into your main narrative by making connections or transitions: For instance “the brilliant coral of the setting sun brought to mind the color of [my best friend’s] dress when I first met her.” Notice the transition from main narrative to subplot , which in this case is the genesis of a friendship that mattered to you during the course of your treatment.

3. Write your main narrative like a novel in the sense of suspense, pacing, and dialog. I’m not suggesting you invent anything, just that you make the writing highly readable. If you want, you can have a separate page at the end of each chapter highlighting specific strategies you used rather than incorporating them into the main narrative. This is a fairly straight-forward method, and may serve you well.

Below are suggestions for two books to read and analyze:

In Sickness & In Health: A Love Story by Karen Propp

Too Much Tuscan Sun: Confessions Of A Chianti Tour Guide by Dario Castagno (this may sound like a stretch since it is not about breast cancer, but Castagno flawlessly weaves stories of his adolescence in Tuscany with his present-day job as a tour guide there. His method is sound for any book if you have a current story and a back story, or subplot.

I hope these tips and suggestions are helpful, Jane. Please write back and let us know how they work out!

“What’s Your Story About?”

Dear Pamela, memoir advice

Dear Pamela,

I keep getting asked the same question from my writing mentor: “What’s your story about? Is it a family recounting of grief/loss? A spiritual memoir? Is it geared towards professionals (I’m a therapist)?”

You would think that question would be a no-brainer but I’m finding it difficult seeing as the memoir continues to evolve. What I set out to write isn’t where it’s now headed.

Any words of wisdom on this? I’m finding it difficult as agents are responding to my query letters with interest but state they’re unclear on the narrative and audience. –Carol-What’s-My Story

Dear Pamela

Dear Carol-What’s-My-Story,

Great question. You pose a universal question about writing a memoir: What is my story really about? (And believe me, it is not a no-brainer!)

I wish I had some special software that you could pop into your computer and the answer to “what the heck am I really writing about?” would magically pop out. I don’t say this flippantly, but because I, and many others, have faced this dilemma, and I empathize with your predicament. For many years I struggled with the same question with my own memoir, and I never found a shortcut. But, following are some tips I hope will be helpful.

Dear Pamela Advice and Tips

1. Realize that you can’t articulate to an agent or editor what your book is about until you know yourself, but understand that this is a process, and be patient with yourself. Your story is still evolving, which brings me to …

2. Allow your story to develop organically. Maybe you think it’s about one thing, but the current shifts as you write, and you find your narrative flowing in an entirely unexpected direction. Don’t fight it! In the meantime …

3. Tell your story, or the gist of your story, informally over and over to anyone who will listen – friends, fellow writers, family members, even strangers at a dinner party. Often, when you relax and stop “writing” the true story your true voice emerges. Different people will bring out different sides of you and your story, and each telling will bring you closer to identifying your theme.

4. Practice “pitching” the memoir to an agent, but don’t actually send it out until you know clearly what your story is about. Practice a five-sentence pitch, a three-sentence pitch, and a one-sentence pitch.

5. Answer this question immediately (yes, right now when you first read this) in less than a minute, with no thinking!

Carol, what is your story about?

There are no shortcuts, but if you are determined and diligent, you will find your story and be able to articulate it clearly to all those interested agents!

I hope this advice is helpful, Pamela

If you have a question for Dear Pamela, please
leave a comment below or send an email along
with your question to
Be sure to put DEAR PAMELA in the Subject Line

About Dear Pamela

Pamela Jane is a children’s book author, and coauthor of Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp Through Jane Austen’s Classic

Her new memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story which Story Circle called “a fine, five star read” describes how she, an idealistic young newlywed, dreamed of a bucolic future in a country house while her husband plotted to organize a revolution and fight a guerrilla war in the Catskills, a conflict that resulted in explosions of various intensities, drove her mildly mad, and ultimately led to her becoming a writer.

You can see Dear Pamela’s Memoir Book Trailer below. Follow her @austencats.

Recent Essays by Pamela Jane

The Ambivalent Agnostic: An Adoption Story (In Literary Mama)

Just Wait! A Short Story Rejected in Grade School Becomes a Cause of Action (In The Writer)

Fade Out: The Art of Sub-Sexting (In dirtyandthirty)

First Editing ServicePamela Jane heads the First Editing Service and invites you to contact her if you are interested. Click Here for more information.

The First Editing Service offers a great (and inexpensive) way to see where you have been and where you are going. Pamela’s understanding and insights have helped others with their memoirs and can help you move forward on your writing path.

Reviews of An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story

“…Jane takes us masterfully through her story of a lifelong writer struggling to emerge.” —Deborah Heiligman, author, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, a National Book Award Finalist

“…a fine, five-star read!” – Story Circle Reviews

“…incisive, funny, and touchingly candid…” —Howard Rheingold, author, The Virtual Community and Net Smart

“…a harrowing story that invites the reader to experience the thrill and danger of the Sixties from a place of safety and acceptance.” —Tristine Rainer, author, Your Life as Story

“…a gem, a well-written and powerful memoir.” – Sherry Meyer, author

“Her prose reads like poetry and her imagination is like magic!” – Jacopo della Quercia, author, The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy

“…an inducement to all writers who aren’t afraid to take their past experiences and use them towards the future of their dreams…” – a comfychair

“Jane’s memoir…of the hundreds of memoirs I’ve read, is the only one that gives us the opportunity to go into the heart and mind, behind the flashy images of the Woodstock and hippies of the Sixties.” – Jerry Waxler, author The Memoir Revolution

“…a beautifully crafted story” – Linda Appleton Shapiro, author She’s Not Herself

“With imagery that carries me to another time and place, descriptions that make the settings come alive to the senses, darkness laced with humor, this is a book not to miss.” Karen Jones Gowen, author of Farm Girl.

Want to know more about the background of Dear Pamela’s memoir? Read this article in The Writers — Just Wait: A Short Story Rejected in Grade School Becomes a Cause of Action.

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