Guest Blog and Writing Prompt by Susan Wittig Albert Is Guaranteed to Get you Journaling

by Kendra Bonnett on November 3, 2009

Writing Prompt LogoPost #19 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

With each posting of a guest blog, I wax enthusiastic at the gift Women’s Memoirs is giving memoir writers. In truth, it is Matilda and I who have received the greatest gift…after all we get to unwrap each guest blog. And we’ve had some wonderful posts, too. I’m the luckiest of all, as I’m the one who opens each gift first–lessons so artfully presented by women who have spent years honing their craft and writing their books.

Susan Wittig AlbertAs of this posting, we have provided an even dozen guest blogs, which as you know by now, are followed by interviews, posted recordings and book reviews. I hope you have gained as much from these published authors’ insights and experiences as I know Matilda and I have.

With each guest blog, I feel we raise the bar–ever so slightly because all have contributed to our knowledge of memoir writing. Maybe I just become ever so much more appreciative.

This week I must exclaim my appreciation once more for we have a very special guest–Susan Wittig Albert, author of the China Bayles Herbal Mysteries series (21 books), the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter (6 books), and co-author with her husband Bill Albert of the Robin Paige Victorian/Edwardian Mysteries (12 books). Susan has also written a writing craft book, a self-help book for women and Starting Points, which is a little of both, and edited two anthologies. In addition, Susan has recently written a memoir, Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place. And if you’re not yet exhausted just contemplating her many accomplishments, let me add that Susan has a new series debuting in 2010. I’ll let her tell you a little about that when we speak on Friday (details below).

But wait; I’m not yet finished. Susan is founder and driving force of Story Circle Network, a wonderful non-profit association for women writers, both published and aspiring, who are exploring their own lives through memoir, journaling and personal storytelling. It’s through Story Circle that I know Susan best as I’ve been a member of SCN for more than a year now and have taught writing through their online classes series.

Susan starts her blog below with a quote from Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (”We have two lives…the life we learn with and the life we live after that.”). All I can say is that Susan has lived a lot with her learned life.

Story Circle Network - Stories from the Heart ConferenceI finally get to meet Susan in person this coming February, in Austin, at Stories from the Heart V–the Fifth National Women’s Memoir Conference. It’s going to be a wonderful program; if you can possibly schedule the trip, I think it would be one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. You’ll hone your writing craft, meet women with similar interests, and share your love of writing. I hope to see you there.

Matilda Butler and I will be talking with Susan this Friday. As always, you are welcome to listen in. More importantly, I encourage you to participate by asking your question in the Comments section. We’ll be talking writing, with a focus on her new memoir Together, Alone. Read Susan’s essay below, then leave a question (or two) for her in the Comments section. We’ll be sure to present your question to Susan. Listen live for her answer, or catch the recording, which we’ll post next Monday. Here are the call-in details:

Date/Time: Friday, November 6, 2009/12 noon EST (9 a.m. Pacific)

Phone Number: 712-432-0600 (access code: 998458#)

And now, let me get out of the way and allow you to read what Susan herself has to say about memoir. If you want to read more about Susan’s books, as well as start regularly reading her blog posts, just follow this link to Susan Wittig Albert.

Documenting a Life: From Journal to Memoir

by Susan Wittig Albert

“We have two lives… the life we learn with and the life we live after that.”–Bernard Malamud, The Natural

Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place (University of Texas Press, 2009) looks back over a quarter century, from the point in my life when I decided I needed to change my career and adopt a new and very different lifestyle. For nearly 15 years, I had led a successful life as a tenured university professor and administrator–until a day came when I knew I couldn’t do that any longer. I needed to find a new way, and a new place, to live in the world. I needed to find out who I was, beyond the focused, determined professional person I had become.

Together, Alone documents my journey from university professor to full-time writer, from divorced and discontented to contentedly married, from urban resident to homesteader. It also documents the inward journey that both enabled and compelled this outward journey, and made my story possible. It’s a long story, as I said: it begins in 1985 and ends very close to the present day. And because I’m a novelist and know how important it is to tell a vivid story, it’s full of details about places, people, and events that are now past and gone.

How do memoirists do that? How is it possible to remember so far back? How can you report what was done and said and thought so long ago? I’m often asked these questions–good questions, too–questions that have often occurred to me when I’m reading someone else’s memoir. How can she possibly remember what her father said to her 40 years ago? Isn’t much of it invented?

The answer, of course, is that the act of remembering is very difficult. To tell the story of the past, we interweave memory and invention in a complex pattern of recollection, reenactment, and reconstruction. As Patricia Hampl says in I Could Tell You Stories, “I am forced to admit that memory is not a warehouse of finished stories, not a gallery of framed pictures. I must admit that I invented.” To my mind, there’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is absolutely what we need to do–as long as the invention stays within the real framework of the life and as long as the memoirist struggles, through genuine reflection (and not sensational fictionalizing), to piece together the fragments of the past.

But there is a bridge between the transient memory and the remembered, reconstructed memoir: the journal, the regular (daily or weekly, as frequently as possible) documentation of life-as-it-is-lived. I don’t know how other memoirists reconstruct and explore their pasts, but for me, it is my journal that allows me to revisit important times in my past while it ties me fully and meaningfully to the present. I began it when I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley and maintain it to this day, more than four decades later.

Through the years, my journal has taken many forms. Ordinary ruled, spiral-bound notebooks. Handmade papers bound between handmade covers. Scraps of loose paper,  backs of envelopes, and notes on photos, all untidily stuffed into boxes. Computer printouts. Computer files. Online blogs (I began keeping an online public journal in 1999) with photos. Some entries are pages long, others are brief and diary-like, some are so painfully personal that I would never want anyone to read them. Still others (particularly in recent years) are written with an audience in mind. There’s certainly a lot of trash in these pages–whines and rants, complaints and compulsions, the effluvium of life caught on the fly and long ago forgotten. Often, the words startle me into an embarrassed memory, a little laugh, an upwelling of sadness, a wish that I could have been kinder or less hurried or more true to myself. Often, as a reader of my life, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of my own inadequacies.

But there’s good stuff here, too. People who were once a living and vital presence in my life live in these pages. Events that were fun, exciting, enlivening. Feelings I indulged in, feelings I hid. Patterns that I couldn’t or wouldn’t see amid the whirlwind of contemporary crises but which are clearly evident now that the crises have faded. Oh, and the details, details, details! Tiny scraps of memory that slipped through the cracks of the floor of my mind and into the cellar where unremembered things lie, dust-covered and silent. Good stuff, yes. I’m glad I can turn these pages and find it again.

But what’s really good (really, really good) is the gift my journals gave me when I began to write the memoir. Memory is unreliable. It’s a shape-shifter, altering our pasts through the twin distortions of time and desire. But because the journals were there to read and refer to as I wrote, I could avoid many of these distortions. I can’t lay claim to absolute truth, of course, any more than any memoirist can. But I will lay claim to the relative truths of what I knew then, what I thought at that time, what I hoped and feared and wished for in earlier days. I can lay claim to these truths, because there they are, on the pages of my journals, in black and white and infinite shades of gray.

As I wrote Together, Alone (it took me the better part of two years, working between other writing projects) I read through a twenty-year cache of sixteen thick, handwritten notebooks, several boxes of loose material, and more than five hundred single-spaced pages of computer printout. I used these entries as bridges to a past that lies far back in time, as maps to a land now far away and nearly forgotten. I included some of the entries as opening passages for each chapter of the memoir, as a way of anchoring my story in the past as I lived it, not just as I remember it.

Years ago, I read The Natural, in which Bernard Malamud writes that we have two lives: “the life we learn with and the life we live with after that.” For me, my journal documents the life I learned with, and my memoir is the story of the life I have lived with, after that. Both the journal and the memoir help  me understand why and how I became the person I am today.

And that’s what memoir is all about, isn’t it?

Writing Prompt

If you have a journal (or better yet, journals), go back and read as much as you have time for. Study it, think about it, reflect on it. Write dated notes to yourself in the margins. Use colored pencils to trace out themes. Use Post-its or inserted pages to reflect on certain passages. Then choose an event and write 3-4 pages (a memoir fragment). Write about what happened (really), why it happened, what you learned, how you felt about it afterward, how you feel about it now. Finished with that? Write another, and another. Don’t try to tie the pieces together just now. Just write. Discover for yourself how much you can learn about the life you learned with, and the life you’ve lived with after that.

If you don’t have a journal, now is the time to start one, in preparation for the memoir you’ll write three or thirteen or thirty years from now. Write every day, or as often as you can, about the life you’re learning with. Write with the full awareness that you are documenting your life. Write down all the details of people, events, activities, results, feelings, so that later–when you want or need to recall what happened, these will be available to you. Don’t avoid the hard stuff, for that’s the very material of memoir: what’s challenging or frightening or anxiety-provoking, as well as what’s fun, interesting, enlightening, expanding. And do get into the habit of reviewing your journal on a regular basis. I review mine once a year, on my birthday. It’s my way of rewarding myself for living my life–even the hard parts–as fully and completely as I can.

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Janet Q. Glaser, the Wordwright » Blog Archive » Journaling–Is it for You?
December 7, 2009 at

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Jackie P. November 3, 2009 at

Susan – Like so many others, I adore your books and am always watching to see when the next one will come out. Actually, that’s how I happened to see that you have your memoir available. I just ordered a copy.

The reason I’m interested in your memoir and my question are basically the same. I’m interested because I’m starting to think about writing my memoir. My question to you is: Why now? What made you decide that now was the time to write your memoir rather than 10 years ago or 10 years from now?

I wonder if I would have more insights into my life if I waited longer.

Thanks for any insights you can provide.


Tanya DeBuff November 3, 2009 at

Hello! I am in graduate school for creative writing in nonfiction, and I’d like someday to finish my memoir. I’ve been told that it’s a good idea to get started by writing shorter essays that could stand alone (and try to get them published) and someday be put together in a memoir form. What are your thoughts on this?

Thank you so much for your time!

Maureen M. November 3, 2009 at

Your memoir just arrived and I’ll start reading it this weekend.

I teach writing and am thrilled to have a chance to ask you a question. You have written and published fiction for many years. I wonder which elements of fiction writing you brought into writing your memoir. For example, you have learned a great deal about the craft of developing memorable characters in your fiction. Who doesn’t have a finely etched sense of Ruby. Do you think you were able to give more depth to the people in your memoir because you already are skilled in the craft of creating characters?

I won’t be able to listen live on Friday, but I’ll listen to the audio next Monday. Thank you.

Karen Walker November 3, 2009 at

I had no idea that Susan had written so many novels before writing memoir. I’m heading off to Amazon as soon as I finish this comment. I, too, am looking forward to meeting Susan (and you and Matilda as well) at the SCN conference in February. I don’t have any questions at the moment, but just want to say that without the journals I’d kept since 1978, my memoir would never have been written.

Kristin Orr November 4, 2009 at

The problem I have w/journaling is that sometimes I think it’s a waste of time–but I write anyway, because it’s so impt. to me to document the moments of my life! I usu. have a “small” journal because it fits in my purse, & I can have it wherever I go. I never let anyone see me writing in it, because I still think it’s a “waste of time”. I don’t know how to get over that thinking, but seeing that you’ve kept one all these years helps me with that! Thanks, and Peace & Grace, Kristin

Annie November 4, 2009 at

I’m very interested in the intersection of journals and memoir. Since 1978, I’ve been keeping a journal that is very interior and process-oriented. I’ve written short memoir pieces about my early life. But I am now working on a memoir about the last three years, about sudden illness and ongoing disability. In my daily writing, I go back and forth between the journal and the memoir.
My questions: how do you experience and think about the difference between journal and memoir-writing? How did you decide to include actual journal entries in your memoir? How did they become short introductions to chapters? Did you consider using longer excerpts, and if so, how?

Susan Albert November 4, 2009 at

Annie and others, you can read a chapter here
which shows you how I incorporated some of the journal material into the memoir material. That might give you some ideas for ways to use your own journals. I’ll have more to say about this on Friday.–Susan

Elaine Thomas November 4, 2009 at

Susan – You have accomplished so much in your life and positively influenced so many people – especially women. Does it sometimes surprise you or have you always known that you would lead in your own unique way to help others achieve their best? Best, Elaine

Allison Applebaum November 4, 2009 at

I have just started reading your memoir and am so impressed with the way you create a feeling for time and place. I can see those are missing from my writing. What advice or suggestions could you give me about ways to think of time and place, ways to include them in my writing, or any other perspective that might help me as I continue working on my memoir.

Matilda Butler November 4, 2009 at

Susan – The following question came in via Facebook. Laura asks:

“Does a quiet life inspire memoir writing? Is it about the catharsis or about the story?”


Kendra Bonnett November 5, 2009 at

Susan, the following question came in via Twitter from Jason Chu, a well-known Internet marketer in Canada who is popular among social media types in the US as well. Jason asks:

What’s the hardest part of writing a memoir? How do you go about choosing what stays in & what’s cut in telling a life story?

Kendra Bonnett November 5, 2009 at

Susan, I know you’re finishing up the copyedit of a new book (actually a journal-book) called An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days. As I understand it, this book is the direct result of a year’s worth of journaling. I wonder if you would share some of your experience working on this book, what was the inspiration for the book and what happened during the journaling process. Thanks, Kendra

Matty November 5, 2009 at

I love your mystery stories, Susan, and I’m looking forward to reading your memoir. As someone working on her own memoir with an eye to someday publishing, I wonder if you would talk about marketing–both a) the changes you’ve seen in recent years and how you’ve moved toward embracing the Internet and social networking, and b) the differences between marketing fiction books and a memoir. Thank you. I’m looking forward to Friday’s call. M

Kristin Orr November 7, 2009 at

Hi Susan, I don’t know how to listen in to the answers. I was in the corn maze yesterday! Plus, I’ll be in the corn maze today, the weather’s great here! Although I wish I could be at the Wimberley Library–my g.f. is going though, she’s from Wimberley! Hope you have a good turnout! Peace & Grace, Kristin

Kristin Orr November 7, 2009 at

Oh, forgot to tell you–PBS is doing a documentary on the farm Sunday! Can’t wait! K.

Kendra Bonnett November 7, 2009 at

Kristin: The recording of the call will be posted here on Women’s Memoir on Monday morning.

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