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Memoir Advice

Thanks Pamela

Our very own Dear Pamela is signing off after today’s advice column. She is writing a new memoir as well as numerous articles that are being published in the Wall Street Journal and a number of online journals. I am sure that Pamela and I will continue to do things together in the future. We just don’t know what’s next.

I do want to personally thank Pamela for the great advice and tips she’s given to all of us with her column.

–Matilda and the WomensMemoirs Community

What If People Can’t Identify with My Story?

Dear Pamela,

I am stuck with my memories that are very depressing and even dated.  My cultural ambience (I live outside the US) is very different from yours and I am afraid that my memoirs and memories will not be understandable to you and others.  What can I do to get the spirit to go ahead and forget my memoir’s probable lukewarm reception? –Laxmi

Dear PamelaDear Laxmi,

Thanks for your question. I am sure that many people feel similarly.

I can’t comment specifically on your memoir, without knowing more about your story and time period.  However, I can tell you that the most important thing is to bring your story alive.  Your work, as a memoirist, is to vividly create new worlds for your readers to explore, no matter what era you are writing about.

It sounds as if you are feeling a bit stuck and discouraged, and I certainly sympathize with that.  Here are a few tips which I hope will inspire you to move ahead.

Dear Pamela Advice and Tips Tip #1  Push your book’s reception to the side

Ordinarily, I’m not in favor of repression, at least to the extent you can avoid it.  But in this instance, it’s crucial for you to set aside your concerns about your book’s reception.  The reception, at this point, is a fantasy, a thought, or a worry.  It has no reality.  What is real is the story inside you, and your desire to get it on to the page.

Tip #2 Break the brakes

This is one of those rare times when you need to have “broken breaks” and let yourself go careening down the hill, all caution aside!  Tell your inner critic to take a vacation, if you can, or watch quietly.  Then pull out all the stops and let yourself go.

Tip #3 If you have a weakness, shout it from the rooftops

Don’t run away, in your writing, from whatever it is you are worried about.  If you are concerned that your story is dull, or won’t be of interest to others, write that down, make it part of your story.  Ultimately, you may not keep what you wrote in the final draft, but “naming” it, challenging it, and directly addressing the “shadow” over your shoulder will help you break out. For example, you might write, “I know this may seem foreign or uninteresting, but to me it was…”

Laxmi, I hope this is helpful; I’m sure you have a story to tell because you have persisted. Good luck, and please let us know how it goes!

How Vital is Conflict in a Memoir?

Dear Pamela

I am curious to get your take on this question:  Must a memoir have a conflict?  Many of my memoirs appear not to have conflict–at least not a mind-boggling, earth-shattering conflict, which is what I think some publishers want.  The conflicts are usually small (at least on the surface); they are subtle and transformative in quiet sorts of ways.

I guess I’m just not convinced that memoirs have to smack of something large and grand such as abuse, abandonment, violence, etc.  I strive more for the universal truths inherent in life’s experiences; and they seem to strike a chord with readers.  Yet I am concerned about getting my book of subtle memoirs published given what some editors and critics have told me.

So, your take please, Dear Pamela.  Thanks, Sara Etgen-Baker

Dear PamelaDear Sara,

Your ask an excellent question, and one I struggled with when writing my own memoir (which does have conflict, though in parts it is lyrical and internal.)

I think things are changing in publishing and it may be that agents and editors are less willing to take on a memoir that doesn’t shout.  On the other hand, I often see a cautionary “No abuse memoirs, please!” on agent’s websites.

In reading over your question, I find myself thinking, “what is mind-boggling and earth-shattering?”  Perhaps the universal truths you allude to are mind-boggling and earth-shattering in their own way.  As example of this is Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, and also Norman MacLean’s A River Ran Through It.  This eloquent memoir is quiet in many ways, though there is a murder (which is all the more horrifying because he writes about it quietly).

Sara, the best thing you can do combine excellent storytelling with strong writing and not worry about explosive conflicts.  Let your universal truths speak for themselves.

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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.

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Memoir Writing: Is It the Journey or the Destination?

by Matilda ButlerAugust 9, 2016
Memoir Writing: Is It the Journey or the Destination?

Matilda Butler returns with thoughts on memoir writing as a destination or a journey and how your understanding of these attitudes will influence your writing.

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Dear Pamela, Memoir Advice Columnist Answers Your Questions

by Pamela JaneJuly 12, 2016
Dear Pamela, Memoir Advice Columnist Answers Your Questions

Dear Pamela returns to WomensMemoirs.com with her monthly memoir advice column. She answers two questions that might be ones you’ve had yourself. Have your own question? Be sure to ask it in the comments section.

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Memoir Writing Advice and Writing Prompts

by Matilda ButlerJuly 5, 2016
Memoir Writing Advice and Writing Prompts

Matilda Butler shares new memoir writing prompts.

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Author and Guest Blogger Jessica Bram Makes Editing About More than Grammar

by Kendra BonnettJune 16, 2009
Author and Guest Blogger Jessica Bram Makes Editing About More than Grammar

Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler are pleased to post a guest blog on Women’s Memoirs. Author and memoirist Jessica Bram (Happily Ever After Divorce: Notes of a Joyful Journey) provides excellent insight into getting one’s inner thoughts and true feelings into one’s writing without hurting or embarrassing family and friends. Consider this your invitation to join us for an Author Conversation with Jessica on June 25th.

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