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Memoir Writing Tips

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 Tiny Tip #14: The Main Thing

by Matilda ButlerOctober 3, 2017
Memoir Writing Tiny Tip #14: The Main Thing

Matilda Butler poses a memoir writing tiny tip for you to ponder today. Reflect on it as you move through your busy day.

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Dear Pamela: When Is It Time to Write?

by Pamela JaneSeptember 25, 2017
Dear Pamela: When Is It Time to Write?

Dear Pamela responds to two great questions — one about when to write after the death of a loved one, and one about story structure. Pamela’s suggestions and tips just may help you as you work on your memoir.

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Memoir Giveaway and Interview with Kristin I. Morris, Memoir Author of Jamarr’s Promise

by Matilda ButlerSeptember 5, 2017
Memoir Giveaway and Interview with Kristin I. Morris, Memoir Author of Jamarr’s Promise

Kristin I. Morris joins Matilda Butler for a discussion about her new memoir, Jamarr’s Promise.

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Memoir Writing Tiny Tip #12: What Do Coffee Beans and Memoir Writing Have in Common?

by Matilda ButlerAugust 8, 2017
Memoir Writing Tiny Tip #12: What Do Coffee Beans and Memoir Writing Have in Common?

Here’s Memoir Writing Tiny Tip #12, another in a continuing series of brief suggestions for handling your memoir. This time Matilda Butler looks at when memoir vignettes are ready to be written and shared.

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Dear Pamela: Advice Column for Memoirists

by Pamela JaneJuly 11, 2017
Dear Pamela: Advice Column for Memoirists

Pamela Jane, author of the advice column Dear Pamela, returns to answer a great question…what advice has helped her the most. What do you think? Is this advice also helpful to you?

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Dear Pamela: Take Her Advice!

by Pamela JaneMay 9, 2017
Dear Pamela: Take Her Advice!

Dear Pamela, memoir advice columnist, provides five tips on how to get restarted when life has caused you to put aside your memoir writing for a while.

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