February 2, 2023

Theme as Your Memoir’s North Star

Is there such a thing as a memoir without a central theme or themes? Yes, but it’s called an autobiography, or just a bunch of strung-together scenes about “what happened,” which is not enough to make a meaningful memoir. Theme can be a tough topic for memoirists to wrap their minds around. After all, most of us have lived very big and full lives and sometimes writing with theme in mind feels like reducing your experience to just a small part of your life—not necessarily representative of the … [Read more...]

Getting to What Matters Quickly and Succinctly

What’s your focus and what’s your point? These are the most important questions you can ask as you start to unwind the threads of your life in your memoir. Brevity forces us to think about the best words or brief phrases that express a complex story. When writers are asked, “What’s your memoir about?” Brooke and I observe that oftentimes the responses can be a meandering attempt to find the heart of the story, often missing the essence of the message they want to convey. Publishers and … [Read more...]

What to Avoid and Embrace When You Write about YOU in Your Memoir

People often ask me about memoir do’s and don’ts. What makes or breaks memoirs? What do the best memoirs have in common? High on that list is the memoirist’s authenticity, the degree to which the writer understands themselves and can create a nuanced picture of themselves as a whole person. Speaking of don’ts—memoirists should never portray themselves as all good or all bad. They shouldn’t take all the credit for all the good that’s manifested in their lives, nor should they take all the … [Read more...]

Rules to Live By if You Feel Freaked Out About Writing About The People in Your Life

"Don’t show your work to any family member or friend in question until it’s ready to be published. Yes, that might take a while. That is the point. Read on." One thing I know from teaching memoir over the years is that memoirists freak out about writing about other people in their life. Since memoir means writing the truth, my students often ask, Isn’t revealing my true thoughts about myself exposing enough? To write about others brings up all kinds of fears: What if they sue me? Hate me? … [Read more...]

Memoir, Uninterrupted

In 2015, I interviewed Mary Karr, the godmother of modern memoir, shortly after she had released The Art of Memoir. Just a couple weeks before our interview, she’d told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air that she felt an obligation to defend the genre. When I asked Karr why, she said, in her wry, hilarious way, that “it’s trashy, ghetto-ass primitive—anyone who’s lived can write one.” And she means these words, spoken in her East Texas accent, in the very best way: this is what makes the … [Read more...]

Why and How to Do More “Takeaway” in Memoir

Takeaway is the most important part of memoir writing that most memoirists don’t know how to do, or don’t do well or often enough. In my memoir classes, I share with students that I came to be so obsessed with takeaway first as an acquiring editor for Seal Press, because I knew as soon as I got to an editorial meeting, the marketing team would ask, “What’s the takeaway?” If it wasn’t apparent, the book wasn’t acquirable. Later, as I began to teach this genre and shepherd more authors through the … [Read more...]

Where Are You NOW? Tracking “Now” in Memoir

Because I have the great honor of reading about 70,000 words (an entire book-length manuscript) every single month for student homework alone, I come across this problem of when “now” is in memoir on a weekly basis. “Now” cannot occupy two separate spaces, times, or eras. For your readers, there can only be one now. One of the most jarring things beginning memoirists do is to pull the reader out of a given scene by referring to the “now” of today, when they’re writing the book, in 2018 or … [Read more...]

Why to Ditch “I Remember” in Your Memoir

A memoir, by its very definition, is an account of your personal experience, which means it’s a compilation of what you remember. Because a memoirist’s entire book is a series of remembrances, the words “I remember,” especially when remembering from the vantage point of “now,” by which I mean the now of when you’re sitting down to write your story, are almost always redundant. Most of the time I find that “I remember” is easily deleted, as in: I remember when she came home that … [Read more...]

What to Share When Writing a Memoir

Who cares? is one of the most common assaults memoir writers are subjected to, and it’s usually lobbed at them by their own inner critic. Memoir writers face critical voices—their own and others’—who state that the story/message/idea is trivial, boring, not worth sharing. It’s so important for memoirists to get past these messages in order to set free the story that wants to be told. Here are some tips for memoir writers, especially those struggling with their inner critics, whose primary goal … [Read more...]

Practice Makes Perfect: Why Practicing the Art of Scene Writing Is the Path to Memoir Excellence

Scenes are the building blocks of memoir. Given this is so, you can’t really begin to write a great memoir—heck, even a good memoir—until you master scene. Linda Joy and I teach scene in nearly all the classes we teach. (In fact, we did a recent hour-long intensive on scene that’s available to view here.) And as much as we know how important it is for memoirists to wrap their minds around the mechanics of what’s involved, there’s no substitute for practice. In my opinion, practice comes in … [Read more...]