11 Memoir Writing Tips to Remember in 2011

by Matilda Butler on January 3, 2011

catnav-alchemy-activePost #23 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

11 Memoir Writing Tips to Remember in 2011

Memoir Writing Tip #1: Write and write and write. You will eventually find the place to start your story. Every author, even well-known authors, have had a difficult time finding the right place to open the narrative.

For our tip from Elmore Leonard on where to start your story:

Memoir Writing Tip #2: Put your best foot forward and this means craft an opening sentence and paragraph that will draw readers into the story.

For our tip on writing opening sentences:

Memoir Writing Tip #3: Do your background work on people, times, and places before you begin writing, or as David McCullough says, “Marinate your head.”

For our tip on immersing yourself in the details of the story:

Memoir Writing Tip #4: Early one evening in New York City, a woman was asked, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” She responded, “Practice, practice, practice.” And so it is with writing. If you want to be read, you need hours and hours and hours of writing. Learn about the magic number 10,000 hours.

For our tip from Ray Bradbury on how quantity helps with quality:

Memoir Writing Tip #5: Create a string of words and let that line pull you along.

For our tip from Annie Dillard on following the line of your words:

Memoir Writing Tip #6: A memoirist needs to do more reflecting and less recounting. Remember a memoir is your take on life, not a recitation of a string of events.

For our tip on reflection from Natalie Goldberg:

Memoir Writing Tip #7: “The devil is in the details” applies to writing as well as to life. Remembering and describing the small details takes more time but creates the rich story bed for the plot of your life.

For our tip on using details from Anne Lamott:

Memoir Writing Tip #8: Weak verbs make weak sentences that mushroom into weak paragraphs, chapters, and books. Make your verbs lift their share of the workload.

For our tip about verbs from Rita Mae Brown:

Memoir Writing Tip #9: Go easy on adverbs. If you want more drama, find power words.

For our tip on the problem with adverbs from Stephen King:

Memoir Writing Tip #10: Have a point. It is easy to get lost in the process of writing your story. Make sure that your readers don’t also get lost. Have a message, a point, that will be the reader’s take away.

For our tip on making your point from Elizabeth Berg:

Memoir Writing Tip #11: The writer may have more than one persona. A story from when you were six may need a different voice than a story of you today. Check the persona you are using and make sure it is true to your story.

For our tip on persona from Alyce Miller:

Hope this list for writers of 11 tips to remember in 2011 will be helpful to you throughout the year.

Be sure to check back tomorrow for the next in our series of 11 lists for 2011.

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Jenny January 3, 2011 at

Hmmm, tip #11 yes! I have been finding myself almost automatically writing as an 11 year old would think and speak as I’m working on that piece, sometimes it is easier to do than others. I find that reflecting on memories I can put myself back to where I was. Also watching tv shows and movies from that time, listening to music I listened to even looking at artwork and fashion from that time period all helps ‘bring me back” to that 11 year old kid.
By not fixating on Chronological order I can go with whatever era, or stage I’m best able to relate to at the time. I guess my question is, how many different voices do I use? I’m reminded of Alice Walkers “The Color Purple” and the evolution of language and thought that we see in Celie.
Also I love the tip of utilizing the different POV, we actually used to do something similar with my groups when I was counseling youth…it’s good life practice as well as writing practice!

Grace January 3, 2011 at

Thank you for this valuable information.

Matilda Butler January 3, 2011 at

Hi Jenny: Thanks for your comment. As to your question about different voices. As long as you keep the voice age appropriate, I don’t think the reader will notice the changes. Readers do notice a child speaking and using non-age appropriate words, and more importantly, concepts. It sounds to me as if you are doing a great job of putting yourself in the mood for the time period you are writing about.

Here’s one suggestion: When you finish a vignette, read it aloud. Listen to it and see if it seems right. I think you’ll know if you have let her adult mind influence the words of a young child.

Best wishes to you for your writing in 2011.

Matilda Butler January 3, 2011 at

Hi Grace: Thank you for visiting Women’s Memoirs. Kendra and I have lots of great information planned for this year so be sure to stop by often.

If there is any way we can help you with your writing this year, be sure to let us know.

Amber Lea Starfire January 4, 2011 at

Matilda, great tips for all situations. Any one of them will make us better writers. Thanks. I love the videos, too … working my way through them, one by one.

Jenny January 4, 2011 at

Thanks, good idea. It can be challenging to stay in that frame of reference for long periods of time. As with most things, some days are easier than others!

Hazel January 9, 2011 at

I was pleasantly surprised to find your site and the helpful tips for writing a memoir. I, too enjoyed the videos. Hopefully, you will read my published memoir one day-soon.

Velda Brotherton January 10, 2011 at

Thanks so much for the pointers. I especially liked a memoir being my take on life not a …string of events. In writing all my nonfiction I stick to telling stories rather than reciting dates, facts and figures. Guess this will hold true as I work on my memoir. This site is very helpful.

Vivian Martin June 26, 2012 at

I left Edwards AFB in California when I was 12 to live in S.E. Asia with some members of my family. My Dad, an Air Force test pilot, was hand-picked by the CIA for the “Secret War” in Laos. I am writing a memoir about the eight years I lived in Bangkok, Thailand and Vientiane, Laos during the Vietnam War. My concern centers around dialogue. That was so many years ago, and I do not recall exactly what was said. All I know to do is write what I think each character would have said in each situation or scene. The remaining members of my family do not recall anything they said. Will this be problematic? What would be a sufficient amount of dialogue for a memoir? I am considering “American Teenagers in Laos” as the title of the memoir, but I also want to write about the bravery of our fathers. Many pilots lost their lives. My own Dad had a mid-air collision with a student pilot in 1972 – a Royal Laotian prince, who was not cleared to fly. Sadly, the prince did not survive. My Dad was an ace pilot, and landed his plane with the wreckage of the other plane on top of his airplane, a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron. When he returned to the states, he had the signs of PTSD. It was difficult for him and our family. The death of the other pilot devastated him. Also, the movie “Air America” (with Robert Downey, Jr. and Mel Gibson) made it worse by including made-up scenes of the pilots transporting drugs, which is not true. My Dad always did everything by the book and was honest to a fault. I know my friends in Laos knew that about their fathers as well. They were too busy taking on enemy fire as they flew their assigned missions. I want to address that. I know I can tie it all together, but would that leave me with too many themes?

Matilda Butler June 26, 2012 at

Hi Vivian:

Thanks for your lengthy comment. You have raised a number of different points and I’m not sure I can answer them all here. But let me get started:

1. It seems that you have a fascinating topic for your memoir.
2. You will know the best title as you get deeper into your writing. I say that because the title shows the thrust of the story and I can’t tell what that should be. For example, a slight change might let you include the Secret War that was going on. The use of “teenagers” may not reflect that this is your story, not the story of all American teenagers in Laos, etc. For example, “Coming of Age During the Secret War in Laos” shows a little different view of your story. Write down ideas as you are working on your memoir and eventually the perfect one will come to you. That’s when you’ll say: “What didn’t I think of that to begin with.”
3. Dialogue. Again, there is no correct answer to how much to write. In our new book Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep, we focus an entire chapter on dialogue and how to make it do power work in a memoir. We bring in research fro the social sciences to show how to better develop dialogue and include exercises for writing entire scenes in dialogue before deciding how much is appropriate.

4. And Dialogue and Truthfulness? As Sue William Silverman points out — “I can’t remember the exact words I said ten minutes ago and so how can I recall what everyone said in a conversation that took place 20 years ago?” (That may not be a word for word quote, but you get the point.) There is factual truth and emotional truth. As long as you rely on emotional truth in dialogue, then you should be fine.
4. Bravery theme — I think the bravery of your father and others will come through. This is memoir so it has to be from your point of view.
5. Air America. It seems to me that you could convey how that movie seemed to affect your father. However, I don’t think you should tackle the truthfulness of a movie unless you have full access to all the military records and investigations. Drugs were involved in the VIetnam War. No, not everyone used them or sold them or smuggled them back into the US. And some of the people who did may have been brave in many other ways. But some did get involved in drugs. I’m sure there are ways you can show (not tell) how your father’s honesty (you use the interesting phrase – honest to a fault) meant he never would have considered transporting drugs. But again, you need to think through your theme and message and make sure that the stories you tell help you deliver the theme and message to your readers.

Vivian: It seems that you are well focused and I’m sure you will write a powerful memoir that will reveal what life was life during those eight years as seen through the eyes of a teenager.

Thanks for stopping by our website.

Vivian Martin June 26, 2012 at

I am very appreciative of the time you took to answer my long, long post. I have been writing for quite awhile, but never a memoir. I only wrote non-fiction. You were very generous with me in your response. Now I am getting a better idea of how to approach it. You have helped me tremendously. Thank you!

Matilda Butler June 27, 2012 at

Hi Vivian:

Thanks. Be sure to stop by often. We invite you to leave comments on our blogs. We always try to respond.


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