September 23, 2020

The Intersection of Memoir and Poetry

This post is inspired by Jacqueline Woodson, author of many books, including her memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming. In addition to teaching in our upcoming boot camp (September 22-October 27), Jacqueline is a guest this week on my podcast, "Write-minded," where she shared her thoughts about memoir and poetry. She said: When we’re writing memoir, we’re writing the small moments. When we think about memory, memory does not come in a linear narrative. Memory comes to us with lots of … [Read more...]

Enliven Your Memoir with Sensual Details

When we write memoir, we’re creating a story, and re-creating moments in our lives rich in detail, experienced through the body. But sometimes we forget or don’t yet grasp just how much we need to bring forward those details so the reader can live that experience alongside us. Writing stories means that our task is to create “real life” experiences a reader can participate in, that reach into their hearts and minds. How do we do this trick? Create that kind of intimacy? The secret: write scenes … [Read more...]

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...]

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...]

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...]

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...]

The Secret of Scenes that Keep your Readers Reading

As readers, we tend to take for granted the writer’s skill, but when your heart starts pounding, and in your mind’s eye you see vivid colors and feel the wind, you are experiencing the writer’s skill in creating a world. You’re lost in a story and stop noticing the passage of time, a car honking outside, or a barking dog.  The author succeeded in connecting her imagery and language and feelings with your emotions, bringing you into what John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction calls “The … [Read more...]

Where Are We in Relation to the Last Scene? Tracking Time in Memoir

Lately, with my memoir students and clients, I find myself writing the following query into nearly every submission: Where are we in relation to where we just were? As the writer of your memoir, it’s critical to remember that you lived the experiences you’re writing about, and that you must slow down and anchor the reader again and again and again as to where they are in your timeline—multiple times in a single chapter. I encourage my students to read best-selling memoirs to see how other … [Read more...]