Writing Memoir, and “Sixtyfive Roses”

by Kendra Bonnett on May 19, 2009

Post #3 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompts – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

In preparation for this month’s Author Conversation, an interview with a memoirist, Matilda Butler and I are pleased to post this guest blog by Heather Summerhayes Cariou, author of Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister’s Memoir. And we believe you’re in for a treat. Heather’s memoir is a powerful story of love, heartache, perseverance as a family (and a sister) struggled with the all-too-harsh realities of Cystic Fibrosis.

What Heather has chosen to write here is as powerful and inspiring as her memoir. Personally, we find this one of the more comprehensive and heartfelt definitions of memoir we’ve read.

We hope that Heather’s comments here will stimulate lots of questions, which we invite you to pose in the form of Comments for this post, because on Friday, May 22, 2009 at 10 am Pacific time (1 pm Eastern) we’ll be interviewing Heather. This is a live call, and you’re invited to listen in. But you’ll need to ask your questions in advance as we mute out the audience. Post your question as a Comment below and we’ll read your question during the call, and Heather will respond.

Date/Time: Friday, May 22, 2009 at 10 am Pacific (1 pm Eastern)

To listen, call: 712-432-0600 access code 998458#

Questions for Heather? Put your question in the comment field below. (To have a quality recording, we do not take question during the call. But please do listen in while Heather is on the line with us.)

We asked Heather to comment on her personal experience with the memoir-writing process, here’s her explanation. And don’t miss her special writing prompt at the end:


Heather Summerhayes Cariou

I had to write my way out. I wrote on big yellow pads, the backs of old envelopes, and cocktail napkins. I wrote around the edges of magazine pages as I waited in line for the bus. I wrote in small notebooks that I carried with me everywhere, buying and beginning new ones when I’d forgotten to bring the old. I wrote in my head at the supermarket and scribbled sentences on the backs of register slips. I left a pad and a pen by my bed because I wrote in my sleep. I piled the bits and pieces on my desk, typed them into the computer, printed out a day’s work. Next morning I’d sit with the hard copy, read it out loud, and listen for the speed bumps and the phrases that rang false. I edited the pages with a pen, crossed out and rewrote, typed them back into the computer, and went on.

It took me twenty years. I wrote like crazy for periods of time, then would stop for several months because I had to leave the past and come back to live fully in the present. I had to digest my own experience. Sometimes I went to therapy to discuss what I had discovered through my writing. I exploded my own myths.

I attended as many writing workshops as I could. I made it a project to read every National Book Award-nominated memoir each year that I was writing, so I could be assured I was reading—and learning—at a high level. I read every book on the craft of writing that was on the shelf. I researched the history of my hometown, books on siblings, and university studies on siblings of disabled children. Then I wrote again.

Through the years, I went through several drafts: the pity-party draft, the agenda draft (where I vented my anger on everyone), the faux-literary draft, etc., etc. With each draft, I changed as a woman and developed as a writer, so that I found I needed another draft, convinced I could write the next one at a higher level. I drove my friends and supporters mad.

There were days when I would write a few sentences, lay down on the floor and cry for an hour, then get back up and continue to write. At first I was concerned about what my family would think, how they would feel, but as I went on I wrote more and more for me and for the story…because it was necessary. I did not write for publication until the very last draft. If you are worried about what others are going to think, you can’t write the story the way it needs to be written, and there’s no point in doing it. I wrote to find out what the story was, and to serve it. I wrote to heal myself, to make sense of the chaos I felt, to excavate the truth, not just as I remembered it but also as I discovered it to be in the process.

To write an effective memoir, you have to be willing to go to the well and damn the torpedoes (if you’ll excuse the clichés). I had a quote by Virginia Woolf above my desk the whole time: “If you don’t tell the truth about yourself, you can’t tell it about anyone else.” My goal was to reach as much truth as I could within myself, peeling through the layers of what I had previously thought was truth, finding deeper truths I didn’t know existed. This effort alone is tremendously worthwhile for you as a woman and a writer, even if in the end you have a work that you feel you can’t publish while others are still living. You will have given yourself a Masters course on your life, and your writing.

Perhaps if you need to, you can then take the bones of the story and create fiction out of it that will have a shape and a depth it would not have had if you hadn’t done this work. This is exactly what I’m doing with my next book, a work of fiction that will be autobiographically based.

For a long time, I tried to tell my sister’s story. This was impossible. I finally learned I had to tell my own story, and that my sister’s story would be revealed in the process. This taught me to value my own story, and therefore myself. I learned that in memoir one must master both a narrative voice and a reflective voice. Reflection is a huge part of memoir. I took my husband’s advice and wrote everything, because an important factor in writing memoir is what you choose to put in, and what you choose to leave out of the final, crafted draft, and you can’t know that until you’ve written it. These decisions cannot come ahead of time.

There is no need to rush a memoir—in the writing or towards publication. What you put out there will be out there forever, so you want to make very sure you’ve said what you wanted to say with the best craft and compassion possible. To write a successful memoir, you have to have found distance and perspective. Sometimes this comes through the writing itself. You must endeavour to write with love, forgiveness, and understanding, or at least write your way towards that.

Consider that your memoir will have a gift in it for your readers, so that they can leave your story changed in some positive way. Although my life experience was painful, I wanted to make it a light for others, not just a dark confessional. Remember also that memoir is not autobiography. It is not the facts of an entire life, only a window into a life—it focuses on a specific place, time, or relationship, and as I said before, it requires reflection. It uses the elements of imagery and metaphor. It is a life not merely reported on, but distilled, like a good poem.

Writing a memoir takes guts, patience, emotion and craft. It takes discipline and resilience. Sometimes you will sit at your desk despairing, asking the empty room, “Why would anyone else care about this?” The question, however, is why do YOU care? Have passionate thoughts about the consequences of your own life. Take responsibility for your own experience. Make peace with the facts; tell the story for the story’s sake, without a hidden plea for help or sympathy. Decide where the integrity—the honest heart of the story—rests, while at the same time giving respect to events as you remember them.

Then write your ass off.

Heather’s (and Dr. June Gould’s) Writing Prompt
I best learned the craft of writing (especially memoir) over the past 25 years from the women of the International Women’s Writing Guild at the amazing “Remember the Magic” summer conferences and workshops at Skidmore College. One of my mentors there is Dr. June Gould, and what follows here is what I call “The Gould Method.”

One: Go online (or to a library or bookstore) and research two or three poems from the following list, and print them out. These poems have been chosen especially for their specificity of imagery and emotion. You may have other favorites on your own shelf that you could use:

  • XI What We Lost by Eavan Boland
  • X We Are Always Too Late by Eavan Boland
  • My Father by Yehudi Amichai
  • What the Living Do by Marie Howe
  • What I Learned from My Mother by Julia Kasdorf
  • My Mother’s Kitchen by Choman Hardi
  • Starlight by Philip Levine
  • Poem to my Grandmother in Her Death by Michele Murray
  • Five Poems for Grandmothers by Margaret Atwood
  • Grandmother by Valzhyna Mort
  • A Portrait of a Mother in Fall by Valzyna Mort

Two: Make a list of up to 5 people who are lost to you, or potent for you emotionally. Pick one.
Make several lists of 5 things that person wore, 5 things she/he said, 5 objects you associate with her or him, 5 foods you ate with her/him, 5 activities or events you participated in together. Circle one item on each list that is most potent.

Three: Think of a place that is lost to you and that you associate with that person.

Four: Now, read the two or three poems you have selected. Choose a line or image from one of the poems, something that resonates for you, or choose one of the lines below:

  • This is the last time I will tell you…
  • I am the woman who…
  • This is everything I know/remember about…
  • Give me back my…
  • I write for my _________ because…

The line you choose will be your opening line. It might be your closing line as well. Set a timer for 20 minutes and write very quickly, without your pen leaving the page, and without stopping to cross out or edit. Make sure your writing includes the person and place you have chosen, and the 5 items you have circled from your lists. I think you’ll be surprised and delighted by the results. Many of the passages in Sixtyfive Roses were started with this exercise. And if you wish, send me what you wrote!

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