Dear Pamela, Memoir Advice Columnist Answers Your Questions

by Pamela Jane on July 12, 2016

[NOTE: Stay tuned after reading today's Dear Pamela. Here's a sneak peek at questions Dear Pamela will be answering in August and September.

--August: How do I write an effective book proposal?
--September: What is a book query about and how do I write one?

If you have specific questions on these two topics, just leave Dear Pamela a note in the comments section below and she'll be sure to address them. If you have your own questions about memoir writing that you need answered, just leave them in the comments section as well.]

How do I describe my mother in my memoir?

Dear Pamela, memoir advice

Dear Pamela,

My mother is the primary “other” character in my memoir. I don’t know how much emphasis I should put into describing her. And I wonder if I should put all the description right up front or do I develop her over time? Should I give a physical description? What else should I do? An emotional description? A personality description? -Ally Asking-for-Advice

Dear Pamela

Dear Ally Asking-for-Advice,

Thank you for your question, which I know many writers, myself included, have struggled with.

Since your mother is a primary character in your memoir, it’s important to give your readers a mental, emotional, and physical “picture” of her, but you do not have to do this upfront. Let your mother’s physicality and personality emerge gradually, over time, both in direct descriptions and in scenes.

Dear Pamela Advice and Tips

Here are some tips:

Tip #1. In a separate document, write down everything you can think of about your mother – how she looks, how she talks, how she acts and even how she thinks. Don’t censure yourself at this point, or worry about how your description relates to your story. Let yourself go wild!

Tip #2. Look at what you’ve written to see if a few outstanding traits or even a complete portrait emerges. Is your mother a funny, sad, or contradictory figure? What aspect of what you’ve written about her is pertinent to your memoir?

Tip #3. Think in terms of “story” or scene for describing specific features. For example:

Physical: If your mother had long hair you can simply state that fact, or convey it through an action: “my mother let out a scream; her long hair must have gotten tangled up in her electric brush roller again.” This says something about your mother beyond her physical appearance.

Emotional: It’s all right to state that your mother was nurturing, mean, or sarcastic, but follow or precede this statement with an example through a scene or a piece of dialog.

Here is how how Jane Austen, describes Mrs. Bennet in Chapter I of Pride and Prejudice:

“She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.”

Jane Austen states the salient aspects of Mrs. Bennet’s character, however she illustrates these through action and dialog both before and after her description.

And my final tip:

Tip #4. Be patient and let your mother’s character and personality emerge throughout your story, over time.

“I need help with POV.”

Dear Pamela, memoir advice

Dear Pamela,

You’re providing great advice for all writers! I have my own question about first and third person. My memoir is about my mom who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. In Part 1, I’ve told her background (early life) in third person. But once I come into the picture… I’ve started telling the story in first (my point of view). I’m wondering if this change in point of view will confuse people.” — Point-of-View-PA.

Dear Pamela

Dear Point-of-View-PA,

It’s fine to tell your story from two different points of view, such as first and third person, as long as you signal clearly to the reader when the point of view shifts. From your longer statement to me, I think you are already doing this.

Dear Pamela Advice and Tips

Here are some tips on how to accomplish this:

Tip #1. You can head the chapter(s) about your mother (told in third person) with something like “My Mother’s Early Story,” “My Mother Before I Knew Her,” or simply “My Mother’s Story.” Later, when you switch to first person, signal the change by heading this section “My Story” (because it is, in a sense, your perspective about what is happening with your mother). Or you could write “I Enter into the Picture,” or “My Mother and Me.”

Tip #2. Alternately, you could tell your mother’s story in first person (from her point of view) as well as your own story. Once again, you must signal the shift in point of view to the reader.

Tip #3. Another way to indicate a change in point of view is to use a different font. For example, your mother’s story, whether in first or third person, could be italicized.

By the way, if you have not tried to write about your mother’s early life in first person (and this takes an imaginative leap) this might be a good exericse, even if you end up returning to third person for this section.

There are limitless ways to approach point of view, and no hard rules, as long as you make it clear to the reader who is narrating.

I hope this is helpful!

If you have a question for Dear Pamela, please
leave a comment below or send an email along
with your question to
Be sure to put DEAR PAMELA in the Subject Line

Who’s Dear Pamela

Pamela Jane is a children’s book author, and coauthor of Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp Through Jane Austen’s Classic

Her new memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story which Story Circle called “a fine, five star read” describes how she, an idealistic young newlywed, dreamed of a bucolic future in a country house while her husband plotted to organize a revolution and fight a guerrilla war in the Catskills, a conflict that resulted in explosions of various intensities, drove her mildly mad, and ultimately led to her becoming a writer.

You can see Dear Pamela’s Memoir Book Trailer below. Follow her @austencats.

Recent Essays by Pamela Jane

The Ambivalent Agnostic: An Adoption Story (In Literary Mama)

Just Wait! A Short Story Rejected in Grade School Becomes a Cause of Action (In The Writer)

Gradually, Naturally, Gracefully (In Mothers Always Write)

I Can’t Have a Baby Because I Have a 12:30 Lunch Meeting (in Mothers Always Write)

First Editing ServicePamela Jane heads the First Editing Service and invites you to contact her if you are interested. Click Here for more information.

The First Editing Service offers a great (and inexpensive) way to see where you have been and where you are going. Pamela’s understanding and insights have helped others with their memoirs and can help you move forward on your writing path.

Reviews of An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story

“…Jane takes us masterfully through her story of a lifelong writer struggling to emerge.” —Deborah Heiligman, author, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, a National Book Award Finalist

“…a fine, five-star read!” – Story Circle Reviews

“…incisive, funny, and touchingly candid…” —Howard Rheingold, author, The Virtual Community and Net Smart

“…a harrowing story that invites the reader to experience the thrill and danger of the Sixties from a place of safety and acceptance.” —Tristine Rainer, author, Your Life as Story

“…a gem, a well-written and powerful memoir.” – Sherry Meyer, author

“Her prose reads like poetry and her imagination is like magic!” – Jacopo della Quercia, author, The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy

“…an inducement to all writers who aren’t afraid to take their past experiences and use them towards the future of their dreams…” – a comfychair

“Jane’s memoir…of the hundreds of memoirs I’ve read, is the only one that gives us the opportunity to go into the heart and mind, behind the flashy images of the Woodstock and hippies of the Sixties.” – Jerry Waxler, author The Memoir Revolution

“…a beautifully crafted story” – Linda Appleton Shapiro, author She’s Not Herself

“With imagery that carries me to another time and place, descriptions that make the settings come alive to the senses, darkness laced with humor, this is a book not to miss.” Karen Jones Gowen, author of Farm Girl.

Want to know more about the background of Dear Pamela’s memoir? Read this article in The Writers — Just Wait: A Short Story Rejected in Grade School Becomes a Cause of Action.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Matilda Butler July 12, 2016 at

Thanks Dear Pamela for both of these pieces of memoir advice. Fully describing a person you are close to (or have been close to) is difficult. Your suggestions will help all of us as we write.

And POV can confuse anyone. The more sophisticated we try to make our memoirs the easier it is to confuse the reader. Your advice is spot on. I appreciate the tips.

Georgina July 23, 2016 at

I’m just starting to write my memoir and reading your response to describing characters sure woke me up! I hadn’t even been thinking about that and have now started a little notebook with ideas about how to show how family members look. Super advice.

Now I have a question that may seem kind of silly. But as I work on my outline and think about what I want to cover in my memoir, I’m wondering how long a memoir should be. Of course, it depends on many factors, and yet… I really think I could lay out the book better if I had a sense of the range of the length it might be.

Any thoughts on how long is too long and how short is too short?

Pamela Jane July 24, 2016 at

Hi, Georgina, Thank you for your comment; good question! The length of a memoir can vary quite a bit; I have favorites that are close to 100,000 words, and others as short as 60,000. My own memoir is closer to the lower figure. Here is a link that you might find useful as well:

Pamela Jane July 26, 2016 at

I’m excited about our Dear Pamela post for August 16th, packed with tools for writing your memoir proposal. Stay tuned!

Ally August 5, 2016 at

Dear Pamela — Ally here. You gave me such a thorough response. I’m going to print out your advice and keep it on my desk. I especially like your Tip #3, but they are all valuable. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Pamela Jane August 6, 2016 at

Hi, Ally,

I’m so glad my tips were helpful! Please do keep us posted on your memoir progress!

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