Memoir Writing Prompts: Hints for Memoir Writers from Woody Allen

by Matilda Butler on September 4, 2012

Writing Prompt LogoPost #157 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Lessons from Woody Allen

A few months ago, I pulled a page from Bloomberg Businessweek. The article was called, “The Woody Allen School of Productivity” and the author was John Lopez. The premise was that there are valuable lessons in examining a career that has been as successful as Woody Allen’s. Between 1965 and 2012, 47 years, Allen has directed 43 films. Just about one a year.

Can you write a book a year for 47 years? Some do. Some do even more, producing one every three months or so. Of course, it’s work, productive work.

John Lopez researched Allen and came up with eight points. I’ve turned five of these into tips for memoir writers. With thanks to Lopez for this inspiration —

1. “Change slows you down.” It seems that Allen sticks with the same team of producers and managers film after film after film. He writes all of his scripts on the same typewriter with the same typeface (Windsor Light Condensed), and incorporates the same themes (love and death).

As a memoir writer, learning new software packages will slow you down. Moving from one computer to the next in mid-book is just asking for problems. I should know. Files that have always been in one folder are no longer there. Confusion reigns and that slows you down. If you are making good progress, don’t change your routines.

2. “Fix it quick.” This seems to be a necessary corollary to #1. If something isn’t working, make a change without hesitating. Allen viewed the “rough cut of ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors,’ threw out a third of the film and rewrote it from scratch.”

Don’t get stuck in a rut that keeps you from a quality memoir. If your writing isn’t satisfactory, if it isn’t to your standards, throw out the part that doesn’t work and start over. You’ll get it right the next time. Sometimes an edit will do. But if that doesn’t work, go ahead and start over on the parts that need help. Sometimes material is just beyond fixing — begin anew with a fresh perspective.

Don’t be afraid of your own version of film on the cutting room floor.

3. “Keep extra cooks out of the kitchen.” Woody Allen makes the final cuts on all his films. He feels that too many others slow him down.

As a memoir writer, you may have a wonderful writing group. I hope you do. At the same time, know your own vision of your book. Listen carefully and openly to all critics and their suggestions. But remember, don’t rewrite just because one person makes a suggestion. It is your life, your story, and your book. Trust yourself while gratefully accepting the kindness others mean when they tell you what to change or how to write.

Or, as my children used to say, “You’re not the boss of me.”

4. “Have a life.” In an interview with Robert Weide for the American Masters documentary, Woody Allen said “I don’t have a lot of patience in life or in general. So I don’t have the patience to do another take if I’ve gotten what I want. I want to move on…”

Memoir writers sometimes have the problem of working and reworking chapters, never believing they are good enough. Have a life. If you want to be productive, take your writing seriously. Dedicate regular time to it. Do the best you can. And then, move on. There comes a time when your story needs to move out into the world — the world of your family and possibly the broader world of readers. You may need a professional editor. Do what it takes, but don’t let yourself become stuck.

5. “Just keep swinging.” If you were a baseball player, you wouldn’t expect to hit every ball out of the park and you wouldn’t even anticipate hitting every ball. But you would work on your technique, your style, even your attitude. And then you would do the best you could each time you were up to bat. You’d also know that there would be more times at bat.

Think of memoir writing in the same way. Having a hard time with a sentence? Have a paragraph that doesn’t work? Don’t give up. Just keep swinging.

Memoir Writing Prompt:

1. Take one of these five tips that resonates with you. Then write for five minutes about how you have allowed it to slow you down in the past.

2. Now write for five minutes about what you are going to do differently to become more productive.

3. Execute. Do what you just wrote. Become more productive.

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