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How to write a memoir

Dear Pamela: When Is It Time to Write?

by Pamela Jane on September 25, 2017





[NOTE FROM MATILDA: PLEASE JOIN PAMELA JANE at the Doylestown Bookshop at 6:30 pm September 27th for SPINNING MEMORIES INTO MEMOIRS. Pamela promises to keep everyone laughing and inspired, too!

If you live in Philadelphia or New Jersey areas, this is a great opportunity for you. I wish I lived there as this is a "must-do" workshop. Just click here for more details.]


When Do I Know It is Time to Write?

Dear Pamela, memoir advice

Dear Pamela,

My husband died seven months ago. As my mind returns to him over and over again, I think I’d like to write about him…about our life together. My question to you has to do with what I should consider at this time. Is it too soon to write? Should I just let this be private writing or can I consider crafting a true memoir? Almost any thoughts or tips you might have would mean a lot to me. — Mary M.

Dear PamelaDear Mary,

Thank you for your question; I’m very sorry to hear about your loss. You definitely came to the right place for this question, since I’ve also been negotiating the dilemma about whether or not to write about my husband, who died two months ago.

Dear Pamela Advice and Tips

Tip #1: To begin with, I don’t think there is any generic “one size fits all” answer to whether or not it’s too soon to write about your husband. From my own observation, I’ve concluded that there are no universal “stages” of grief ; grief as well as love is different for each of us, and we all negotiate loss in our own way. In my case (and forgive me for interjecting myself but this is very personal for me) I stated initially and emphatically to anyone who brought up the subject that I had absolutely no intention of writing about my husband’s death. “There’s too much of that already!” I said.

Part of that was my natural writerly defiance; I never want to write about what others tell me I should, or write what I think has already been written – or overwritten. This was perfectly expressed recently in an article by Barton Swaim in the Times Literary Supplement, on intellectual honesty:

“My instinct is to distrust or at least to be bored by, what everyone agrees is the true and right view of things – not because I’m so high-minded and independent but because I’m afflicted with that writerly perversity that can’t quite be happy in any overwhelming majority.”

But then, in spite of my initial resistance, I found myself submerged in writing essays about my husband; the first took me weeks and was serious (with some irony; I couldn’t help myself); the second was darkly funny. I’ve found joy, relief, and even exhilaration in the challenge and rigor of writing about something so deeply felt, yet universal and unique in the way each of us experiences it.

Tip #2: As for whether you should write about your husband (and I suspect from the way you phrased your question that you would like to), ask yourself if this is something you feel strongly about doing? If you’re not sure, you can always try and see what happens. And remember, the memoir or essay you begin with may be very different from the one you end up with, which is part of the rewarding process of self-discovery. How do you know what you feel until you have written it?

Tip #3: In addition, ask yourself if you want what you write to be private, or something you’d like to see in print? I plan to publish my essays about my husband, but again, this is your decision and not one you have to make immediately.

Tip #4: I believe the most difficult things we experience in life make the richest stories. My coming-of-age memoir describes episodes of my life that seemed utterly hopeless and confused at the time, even tragic. When I came to write about them later, though, I found not only understanding and perspective, but humor, too. I wrote The Kiddie Car Syndrome about my husband before he died, and I was very pleased that it got published.

Mary, I would encourage you to be true to your own vision, and write about your husband as only you can. You have the option of putting it down for a while, if you decide this is not the right time.

Good luck, and let us know what happens!

Dear Pamela, memoir advice

Hi Dear Pamela,

I imagine you have been asked this question many times, but I hope you are willing to discuss it again. I have had a fascinating life. You might even say many lives. I’ve been toying with the idea of taking perhaps a dozen or 15 of these wild episodes and writing about them. However, I have no idea how to structure the memoir, other than chronological. Could you tell me how I might go about figuring this out? — Ginger T.

Dear PamelaDear Ginger T.

Thank you for your question – the ultimate dilemma of every memoir writer and one that stumped me for years!

When I was writing my memoir, which (don’t get discouraged!) took me over twenty years, I read, marked up, analyzed, and practically eviscerated every memoir I admired to try to figure out how they were organized, and what made them work. (I had also done this with children’s books, before I broke into children’s publishing.) The most difficult memoirs to analyze were the ones that appeared to be relaxed and random, like an English country garden. In reality, well-written memoirs that seem to meander, really don’t; it’s a trick or sleight-of-hand by an experienced writer in absolute control of her material.

Dear Pamela Advice and Tips
Tip: It sounds as if you have a lot of fascinating stories to work with. So, how do you organize and structure them? Even if you arrange your stories chronologically, there must be a theme that informs what you put in and what you leave out. Sometimes you discover this simply by writing your way there ­– but that is the long way around and I suspect you don’t want to spend twenty years doing it, like I did. Therefore, I am including a post (a short cut!) which was previously published on womensmemoirs.com, Color-Coding Story Elements to Weave a Narrative. I hope this will help illustrate the various ways to organize your material.

And I have good news! I am just finishing a memoir about living in Florence and it took me less than a year!

Please come back, comment, and let us know how organizing your memoir works out!




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


Who’s Dear Pamela?

Pamela Jane is the author of over 30 books from board books to memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story that Story Circle Reviews called “a fine, five-star read.”

Pamela has published essays in The Writer, mothersalwayswrite, Literary Mama, Parent Co., The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Huffington Post. Please visit her at pamelajane.com.

Wonder what her memoir is all about? You can read the first chapter of her memoir here:

http://www.pamelajane.com/read-the-first-chapter-of-my-memoir/

Pamela’s memoir is now also available as an ebook on Amazon.

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.






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

“…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

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