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Writing your memoir

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #113 – Memoir Writing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Women’s Memoirs and Contests

Sharing our writing is an oddly difficult step. Many people write for years and don’t even share with a writing group. Others take classes or share with a family member. But entering a contest? No. Never.

If you don’t feel reluctant to enter a contest, just skip this part and jump down to Pamela Bell’s post below.

If you are reluctant, then we hope that today’s blog describes a contest that will tempt you. It is a contest that requires you to share just one paragraph. Of course, we want it to be a strong, engaging paragraph that marks your current thinking on the opening for your memoir or novel. But still, it is just one paragraph. Yes, for the first time we are opening a contest that invites the fiction writer in you or the memoirist in you. Let out whichever one you want.

When Pamela came to me with the idea of this contest, I applauded. I have felt for a long time that an opening is critically important. A few years ago, I did an interview series called Memoir Moments that focused on openings. But I’ve known writers who just toss out a paragraph so that they can get on with the “real story.” Well, if you want readers around for the real story, you need to determine how to intrigue them from the beginning. Of course, there are many ways to do this right. Pamela doesn’t have any rules for right or wrong. So don’t think Pamela is just looking for one particular kind of opening. Give her your best and see what happens.


PS After you read Pamela’s great article about effective openings, check out both the rules for the contest AND the awards at the bottom.

Submit Your Best Opener to our Contest

Pamela Jane BellBy Pamela Jane Bell
Regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently seeking an agent her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic is now available.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma

Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma

We all have our favorite memoir or novel openings, those spectacular beginnings that draw us inexorably on and in. And now we’d like to read yours! Please send in your unpublished memoir or novel opening by September 3, 2014, and we will post the five most compelling entries later in the month. (Please see entry details at the end of this post.)

To get everyone in the spirit, here are a few of my own favorite openings along with my thoughts on what makes them great.

1. Emma by Jane Austen

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

The incomparable Jane –openings don’t get better than this! We suspect that this young woman, blessed with natural gifts and great good fortune, has also been spoiled by both. And we know that though she may have had little to distress or vex her in the past, she’s about to be very seriously vexed.

2. An Unquiet Mind  A Memoir of Moods and Madness By Kay Redfield Jamison

“When it’s two o’clock in the morning, and you’re manic, even the UCLA Medical Center has a certain appeal.  The hospital – ordinarily a cold clotting of uninteresting buildings – became for me, that full morning not quite twenty years ago, a focus of my finely wired, exquisitely alert nervous system.  With vibrissae twinging, antennae perked, eyes fast-forwarding and fly faceted, I took in everything around me.  I was on the run.  Not just on the run but fast and furious on the run, darting back and forth across the hospital parking lot trying to use up a boundless, restless, manic energy.  I was running fast, but slowly going mad.”

Through its galloping pace and overwrought imagery, Jamison’s opening illustrates the mania she is experiencing.   She catches you up in her frenzied mood, and then stops and acknowledges that she is slowly going crazy. “Running fast but slowly going mad” could be a tagline for her memoir.

3. A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.  We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others.  He told us about Christ’s disciples being fisherman, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fisherman on the Sea of Galilee were fly fisherman and that John, the favorite was a dry-fly fisherman.”

Maclean’s dry humor and irony are evident, and in his image of “the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana” one senses this slim novel will be epic in scope.

4. An American Childhood by Annie Dillard

Pittsburgh 1950

Pittsburgh 1950

“The story starts back in 1950, when I was five.

“Oh, the great humming silence of the empty neighborhoods in those days, the neighborhoods abandoned everywhere across continental  America– the city residential areas, the new “suburbs,” the towns and villages on the peopled highways, the cities, towns, and villages on the rivers, the shores, in the Rocky and Appalachian mountains, the piedmont, the dells, the bayous, the hills, the Great Basin, the Great Valley, the Great Plains–oh, the silence!”

Annie Dillard’s opening is similar to that of A River Runs Through It in the grandness of its imagery.  She begins with a sweeping cinematic tour of neighborhoods, towns, villages, mountains and hills across post-World War II America before narrowing her focus to one particular neighborhood, where her story begins.

5. Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam

“Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn’t know my hometown was at war with itself over its children and that my parents were locked in a kind of bloodless combat over how my brother and I would live our lives.  I didn’t know that if a girl broke your heart, another girl, virtuous at least in spirit, could mend it on the same night.  And I didn’t know that the enthalpy decrease in a converging passage could be transformed into jet kinetic energy if a divergent passage was added.  The other boys discovered their own truths when we built our rockets, but those were mine.”

Hickam moves through a series of startling contrasts, from the town’s children to bloodless combat, from young heartbreak to the science of building rockets.  It’s clear that Rocket Boys is a coming-of- age memoir, with the building of rockets serving as both story and allegory.

6. Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

“Toward a Topography of the Parallel Universe

“People ask, How did you get in there?  What they really want to know is if they are likely to end up in there as well.  I can’t answer the real question.  All I can tell them is, it’s easy.

“And it is easy to slip into a parallel universe.  There are so many of them:  worlds of the insane, the criminal, the crippled, the dying, perhaps of the dead as well. These worlds exist alongside this world and resemble it, but are not in it.”

From Kaysen’s prologue you realize you are in the hands of a writer who will give it to you straight.  But there is poetry in what she says about parallel worlds ­– shadowy and nearly invisible yet so close, maybe even inevitable.  This is an irresistible beginning, combining eloquence with hard-earned experience and an unflinching vision.

It’s amazing how confident all these writers sound!  They know their story and, by Jove, they’re going to tell it.

ProustI can’t end this post without mentioning Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which begins, “For a long time I used to go to bed early.”  This seemingly unassuming opening with its slow backwards glance intrigues me.  Somehow it’s comforting to know one can begin a great work of art so quietly – at least if you’re Proust, living in France 100 years ago.

“First Paragraph” Contest Rules

1. Your entry can be either memoir or fiction. Please let us know which.
[Note: You can submit your first paragraph for both a memoir/nonfiction work AND for a novel/short story work. Just make sure your entries clearly are marked with the genre.]
2. Your entry should be unpublished.
3. Include the working title of the memoir or fiction that you are writing.
4. Include a few sentences on what the book is about. That will help us evaluate the contest entry.
5. Your entry should be about 150 words.
6. The deadline for your contest entry is September 3, 2014 at midnight (PDT)
7. Email your entry either in the text of the email or as an attached .doc file.
8. Send your email to: Matilda (at) WomensMemoirs (dot) com
NOTE: Matilda receives hundreds of emails a day and your subject line is the only way she can make sure your entry doesn’t get lost.

I look forward  to reading them! I will publish the best entries later in September.

And We Have Two Awards for the Winners

The first award is getting your opening published on our website. Having your name and writing available to readers is something you can be proud of.

In addition, contest winners will receive one of our four award-winning, best-selling Kindle ebooks:

Seasons of Our Lives: Spring
Seasons of Our Lives: Summer
Seasons of Our Lives: Autumn
Seasons of Our Lives: Winter

We have purchased copies of these ebooks from Amazon and all contest winners will get one as an award. Each includes about 25 memoir stories. Each of these stories is followed with a memoir takeaway that we’ve written to give additional lessons and insights — to help guide you as you work on writing your own life stories. The takeaways are valuable for both memoir and novel writers.

We will notify each winner to find out which volume you would like. Then we will forward to you one of the official gift emails that we purchased from Amazon with your unique gift ID number. Just click on the link and you’ll get the Kindle ebook to read, learn from, and enjoy.

Don’t have a Kindle? Not a problem.

As you probably know, Kindle books can be read on any electronic device — computer (PC or Mac), tablet, phone. Amazon provides free software that turns your favorite device into a Kindle reader. So if you are reading this article, you already have a way to read Seasons of Our Lives.

award-winning memoir stories

These four ebooks, stories of the seasons of women’s lives, are available through Amazon’s Kindle Books and ranked on Amazon’s bestseller list as #2, #3, #4, #5 for Writing Skills. In addition, the volumes have received six national book awards.

Already Have All Four Volumes?
If you are a winner and already have all four volumes, then this makes a great gift for a writing friend. Just give us her email and we’ll send her the gift with a note from you — or you can forward the email yourself.


Writing and Healing: The Fifth and Final Hurdle to Publication

by Pamela JaneJuly 1, 2014
Writing and Healing: The Fifth and Final Hurdle to PublicationWriting and Healing: The Fifth and Final Hurdle to Publication

Pamela Jane Bell returns with thoughts on five key steps to seeing your memoir in print. Where are you in this process?

Read the full article →

Writing and Healing: 5 Outstanding – and Surprising – Self-Help Books for Memoir Writers

by Pamela JaneMay 6, 2014
Writing and Healing: 5 Outstanding – and Surprising – Self-Help Books  for Memoir Writers

Pamela Jane Bell offers 5 books to get your writing and keep you writing your memoir. Her choices just may surprise you.

Read the full article →

Memoir is About the Little Things Too

by Kendra BonnettMarch 17, 2014
Memoir is About the Little Things Too

What do you think belongs in a memoir? It’s not only about earth shattering drama. The elements of everyday life, when well written are also engaging.

Read the full article →

Memoir Writers – Hold it Close, Toss it Away: Writing Your Heart Out

by Pamela JaneMarch 4, 2014
Memoir Writers – Hold it Close, Toss it Away: Writing Your Heart Out

Life, death, and writing. Yes, Pamela Jane Bell, our insightful guest blogger, returns with a thought provoking discussion of thoughts about death and about writing.

Read the full article →

Writing and Healing: How to Write a Memoir According to Shakespeare (and Four Other Famous Artists)

by Pamela JaneJanuary 14, 2014
Writing and Healing: How to Write a Memoir According to Shakespeare (and Four Other Famous Artists)

Pamela Jane Bell, guest blogger, took a look at advice from five authors and reveals what they say that will help you with your memoir writing. A must-read article.

Read the full article →

Writing and Healing: Putting Your Weird Perspective to Work in Your Memoir

by Pamela JaneDecember 10, 2013
Writing and Healing:  Putting Your Weird Perspective to Work in Your Memoir

Think you are weird? Pamela Jane Bell shows you how to use that weirdness to enhance your writing craft.

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