Lists for Writers: 10 Tips for Writing Your Memoir

by Kendra Bonnett on October 8, 2010

Book Business PaperclipPost #59 – Women’s Memoirs, Book Business – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

memoir-journalBecause we have so many aspiring memoir writers as regular readers here at Women’s Memoirs, this week I decided to scour the Internet for advice on writing memoir.

Matilda and I teach classes in memoir writing, we coach writers through the process and we host critique groups. Across all these interactions with writers, we see a couple of common writing mistakes that I want to share with you.

The first is the tendency to fall into a narrative style of telling one’s story, rather than showing. The best remedy for this is to think about your own reading and how you enjoy it when the author “paints” a vivid picture of a scene or event so you can not only see it but have enough facts, detail and imagery to draw your own conclusions. Show, don’t tell the reader your story.

And second, always remember that it’s your story. Make sure the reader sees the story through your eyes. Be engaged in the narrative. Let us see you, your emotions, your connection to events. You’re not a reporter telling us what happened. You’re a participant or recipient of the story. Let your readers see your responses, reactions and repercussions.

And I want to throw in a bonus link that may help you bring your characters to life. Matilda and I firmly believe that even real people are characters…so develop them fully.

Make that two: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is a classic for all writers. Here’s a link to NPR and an excerpt from the new 30th anniversary edition that includes a chapter for memoir writers. You can read an excerpt from “How to Write a Memoir” here.

Great advice…pass it on!

Don’t Ration Out Your Ideas In her There Are No Rules blog, Jane Friedman quotes Benjamin Percy’s piece for Glimmer Train and gives you a link to Percy’s full piece. Jane encourages us to read the piece to understand why we “should go ALL IN.” I second her encouragement. Actually, the first time I saw this bit of advice was in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. Annie tells writers not to hold anything back…and here’s a link to my brief video about The Writing Life.

Don’t put off writing your memoir until tomorrow…

This is a “Rick Tip” from Rick Frishman’s newsletter for the week of Oct 4, 2010. He tells writers not to wait for circumstances in their lives to be “exactly right” before getting serious about writing. Who knows. In retrospect, today may be the best, the most ideal time you will ever have to dedicate yourself to writing your memoir. Rick’s not necessarily suggesting you quit your job tomorrow and write full time; he is saying get off the sidelines and give yourself to your dream as fully as you can. There may never be a better time. If you want to get on Rick’s mailing list for his Author 101 newsletter (it’s free), sign up at

Ideas and material for your memoir can come from many sources…

Seven Handy Prompts for Writing a Memoir So you want to write a memoir but are not sure how to get started. Marg McAlister, writing for, knows what you’re facing. She’s created some techniques (writing prompts) to help you get started. She says the “important thing is to get those ideas flowing.” You’ll want to see her list of people and places to stimulate your thinking and get your ideas flowing onto the paper. The most unlikely memory, image or conversation can give your memoir focus, so engage and be receptive to stimuli.

Because everyone has a story…

How to Write a Memoir in Twelve Easy Steps Lorilyn Roberts has a quick article over on that will help you get started. She’s got some good advice to keep you moving forward. I especially like her point Number Nine: “After you’ve written around one hundred pages, take some time to reflect on what you have said….It will be easier to spot things that need to be revised or rewritten. Save deletions for later.” I’d add the word “only”…”Only after you’ve written….” Pour your thoughts and emotions out onto paper before you begin editing and questioning your raw words.

Learn from other memoir writers…

How to Write Your Memoir Joe Kita’s article for Reader’s Digest if full of great advice from published memoir writers. Joe shares his “10 great” list and gives you a little insight straight from each of the authors. Matilda often tells our memoir students that you need to read memoir to write memoir. Joe takes you through 10 memoirs that he feels are instructive for the aspiring memoir writer. You’ll get inspiration, understand motivation and collect ideas by reading these 10 memoirs and the experiences of their authors.

Write from the heart…

10 Simple Tips on Writing a Memoir Bryan Hutchinson began One Boy’s Struggle: A Memoir as therapy to help him express his thoughts and feelings about his ADD and experiences leading up to his diagnosis. Ultimately, he felt these very private musings were too important to keep to himself. You’ll find some good ideas here in this piece he wrote for ADDer World. As he admits, he was not a professional: “I just wrote and I wrote and I wrote some more. I didn’t follow any procedure or have any preconceived ideas that I was writing a book.” His tips include advice on interviews, the process of remembering details, and the importance of being true to yourself, your experience and what it all means to you. Bryan takes a rather unconventional approach to promotion and publication. He uses the article to make a pitch to Oprah and Ellen and to find a bigger publisher with wider distribution. Personally, I think he could have left that part out.

Dealing with ugly truths and difficult pasts…

How Best to Reveal Ugly Truths About Your Family In her column for The Faster Times, Dani Shapiro answers a writer’s question about “revealing unpalatable truths” and worrying about family reactions. This is a question Matilda and I get asked often. In fact, it recently came up as a question posed by a member of our LinkedIn Women’s Memoirs group. Dani encourages us to write truthfully and unfettered, but she warns us to question our motives. A memoir should be a story of remembering. It can be instructive and inspirational. It’s not an act of revenge. It’s not to elicit sympathy or prurient curiosity.

Lots of bonus links this week: I want to point you to an interview with Elizabeth Wurtzel, the author of Prozac Nation and Bitch.  She recently hosted a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, called “Exposing a Difficult Past.”

Memoir is what the writer remembers…

Twelve Ways of Looking at Memoir I think you’ll like this insight from writer, editor, professor and, yes, memoir writer Louise DeSalvo posted on the Writingalife’s Blog. She provides a perspective on the memoir genre, distinguishing it from autobiography. Her message, essentially, is that a memoir is what the writer remembers. She then digs deeper into the form to help aspiring memoir writers appreciate both the freedoms and obligations of the genre. Here’s a sentence from her twelfth point that reflects her take on memoir: “Memoir must show the reader that our life’s meaning is continually in process and never tidy and resolved.”

The hybrid memoir…

How Memories Become Memoirs Personally, I like self-help and how-to books that incorporate elements of memoir. I think the personal stories and memories make these genre more interesting and engaging. Not everyone agrees with me, which is fine. Some want memoir to remain a pure genre. However, if you’re wondering if you could use memoir as part of a hybrid or cross-genre work, then I think you’ll like this. Chip Scanlan, writing for Poynter Online, interviewed Walt Harrington, the author of The Everlasting Stream: A True Story of Rabbits, Guns, Friendship, and Family. Harrington describes his book as “a hybrid, comprising journalism, memoir, and essay.”

Memoir tips from video…

I always like to leave you with a video. This one is Sue William Silverman’s video book trailer for her craft book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. Sue has been a guest on Women’s Memoirs; here’s a link to her guest blog, entitled “Who is that Masked Memoirist?”

One more bonus for good measure. Two more friends of Women’s Memoirs: Susan Wittig Albert (founder of Story Circle Network, serial mystery book author and memoir writer) also has a craft book for aspiring memoir writers, Writing from Life: Telling Your Soul’s Story. Susan J. Tweit, ecologist, photographer, essayist and haiku writer, is also a memoir writer (Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey). Both women have written guest blogs for Women’s Memoirs: Susan Wittig Albert, “Documenting a Life: From Journal to Memoir,” and Susan J. Tweit, “Picking Up the Pieces.”

I’m posting the first of a six-part YouTube series with the two Susans reading and exchanging thoughts and ideas in a delightfully conversational format for a presentation, entitled “Women & Place: Two Voices-Two Perspectives,” sponsored by The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. The event occurred about a year ago, but the video has only recently been posted on YouTube. Enjoy.

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