Editors on Editing: Using Primary Sources for Your Memoir, Part 2

by Matilda Butler on April 11, 2011

Editors on Editing LogoPost #7 – Women’s Memoirs, Editors on Editing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

[Kendra and I are the Co-Coordinators for Story Circle Network’s Editorial Service that gives you easy access to a team of professional editors. These editors are attuned to the stories women write — memoirs as well as fiction. Your manuscript deserves respect…the best treatment…and an editor who understands you. That’s why SCN Editorial Service exists. When you’re ready for an editor, we’re ready for you.

From time to time, we ask one of the SCN Editors to share an insight based on her experiences both as an editor and as a writer. Today, Roseanne Rini gives practical tips about using primary sources in your memoir writing. This is the continuation of her blog post on Story Circle Network’s Telling HerStories blog. Here’s the link to that post.


Using Primary Sources for your Memoir

Roseanne Rini

Working with primary sources can be challenging on many levels. For the best results, interviews should be recorded and transcribed, both of which are time-consuming processes. But once one has completed these tasks, the work has in a sense just begun. Whether you have before you transcriptions of interviews, a diary, or a collection of letters, deciding upon the story that is being told and how best to tell it is perhaps the greatest challenge.

memoir writing, memoir, journaling, diary, for writersIf you are fortunate enough to have in your possession any such materials, or if, like Lily Koppel, who wrote The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal, you happen upon such documents by someone unknown to you, you may have found a wonderful source, provided you have permission to use it, for biography, memoir or even fiction.

In thinking about the story waiting to be told, consider the following:
1. Why is this person’s story of interest to you?
2. What major issues or themes concern this writer or speaker?
3. Can you trace a narrative thread through the letters, diaries or interviews?

Unless the writer or speaker is still living, as was the case with Florence Wolfson, whose diary Koppel discovered, you may have to use your imagination in order to complete the story, in which case what you write will be closer to fiction than to memoir or biography. A contemporary example can be found in Jeannette Walls’ Half-Broke Horses, which bears the subtitle A True- Life Novel.

How would you characterize the writer of the diary or letters or the subject of the interviews and what would be the most effective organization for developing this character? You might choose a straightforward, chronological organization, or you might find organization by theme works better.

Whatever you decide, the narrative one creates from interviews, or from the diaries or letters of others, often says as much or more about you, the writer, as it does the subject. Another interviewer or reader might have perceived a different story in these materials. Because Jeannette Walls wrote her novel in the first person, that is, in her representation of her grandmother’s voice, it is difficult to discern how much of herself she put into this portrait. The novel suggests that her grandmother felt Jeannette was like her and that they had a special connection. In her independent grandmother and the stories she heard about her as she was growing up, Walls perhaps found an important role model that enabled her to survive the disastrous childhood she described in The Glass Castle and to thrive in adulthood as a writer.

While Lily Koppel had the advantage of meeting the author of the diary and being able to go to her with questions about her story, still, it was she who selected the diary excerpts, deciding what the focus would be, and who ordered the material. And, as Lily ends the book with a description of herself beginning to write, we come to recognize how much she has identified with Florence. Seeing her own life through the lens of Florence’s as represented in the diary and the interviews, perhaps motivates her to live the life Florence might have lived had she been born at a time when women had greater options.


1. Who is your role model? How would it help you to learn her story and to write about it? How might it help her?

2. Is there a woman in your life who could use your help in getting her story told? If so, consider interviewing her. As Lily Koppel says, “. . .we might not really know our mothers and grandmothers.” Listening to and writing their stories is one of the best ways to get to know our ancestors, to give them a voice that has been left out of history and to provoke, as Koppel calls it, “intergenerational discussion.”


Roseanne Rini

Roseanne Rini

Roseanne Rini’s best advice to writers:

“In my experience, writers tend to stop themselves by being overly concerned about mistakes or what their reader might think about what they’re saying. I always tell people to set those concerns aside and just write what comes to them in the moment. The important thing is to get their thoughts down on paper or on the screen. Then they can go back and cut out what doesn’t belong, correct errors, re-organize, etc. But with a first draft one should allow oneself total freedom.”

To learn more about Roseanne, go to Story Circle Network’s Editorial Service.

Here’s Roseanne’s previous article focusing on use of journaling for memoir writing.

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