The 3 Most Common Questions about Writing a Memoir

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The three most common problems in writing a memoir:

1. How do I start?
2. What do I include?
3. Where does it all go?

By starting with significant turning points you will soon find yourself thinking about important scenes that address your theme(s). Creating a structure that works helps you to figure out how to weave your scenes and moments together. It becomes easier to write a longer form work when we are focused and know how to plan out the trajectory of our writing.

1.List the most significant moments in your life, ideally those that illuminate the questions, topics, and themes of your memoir.

List 10-20 of these turning point moments—the goal is to focus on specific situations, challenges, important moments that you can turn into scenes. These will be moments that created movement in your life, big changes. And ideally for your memoir, they will address your theme. The theme might have to do with travel, transformation, recovery, or healing; the theme might be coming of age, or how your grandmother’s cooking inspired you to become a chef, or how you survived an abusive relationship. There are moments in everyone’s life that make a difference, that stand out in our memories. Since memoir is about memories, sifting through the many hundreds and thousands to pinpoint significant times helps us contain the overwhelm that can come when starting to write –or even think about writing—a memoir.

After you make your list of turning points, locate them on a timeline. Draw a long horizontal line—preferably on a large piece of paper, and divide it into decades. Then draw vertical lines where you will notate the name of the scene or turning points in the time frame. Do this for all your turning points. Notice how your significant moments may cluster; notice how the moments that created change for you are coordinating with other events—national or international. These could be a war, a tornado or hurricane, the election of a president, or the death of someone famous. Your events might coordinate with important family events like weddings, funerals, births and family reunions. List everything on your timeline that you think will be helpful to give a context to your scenes and memories.

2.Include only what is necessary. Sure, that’s simple advice but how can you do that?
You might start with your title—a working title that helps to define your theme. Wild is about one woman’s journey through the wilderness of the Pacific Crest Trail and how that journey helps her heal her past. In Lovesick by Sue William Silverman weaves her struggle with healing sex addiction with her memories of abuse by her father. The title of my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness shows the arc of my story and the theme of mother-daughter abandonment. To keep the focus of my theme, I edited out 55,000 words from the last draft. Eat, Pray Love is what we call a formulaic memoir that provides a clear goal for each section of the book—eating in Italy, praying in India, and loving in Indonesia. The title includes the themes and provides a structure.

Topics and Themes
List the topics and themes that your memoir covers—at first brainstorm them: for instance the list could include recovery, love, loss and a job search, all significant moments. After you list your themes, write about each one, what you think you want to say, why it needs to be included and how important you think each one is. You’ll find yourself focusing more on one or two themes.
Write about why you want to write your memoir and the message you want to deliver to your audience. That will help you get clear on your themes.

3. It’s a challenge to choose your structure but here’s a tip: most often a linear chronological structure—point A to Point B is the easiest and best way to tell your story.

For memoirs that go back and forth in time, a braided memoir is a good choice. For instance, you would weave present and past in alternating chapters. Wild is a framed memoir—where the main story is on the trail while Strayed picks up threads from the past and weaves them in through flashbacks. Coming of age memoirs often are best with a linear structure. You are growing up in the story as it progresses, learning and changing and gaining new insights. A linear structure works well for psychological development and transformation. The best way to get clear about the structure is to list your turning point dates including the locations, your age, and the year so you can see how the theme and time frames line up.

All these craft factors will come together as you work with them. It’s clear that writing a memoir is indeed a process—challenging but so rewarding! It takes time to sort things out, but every time you make lists, brainstorm, and research how other authors have solved these problems you are solving the challenges of writing, and creating success that help you write a successful book.

Learn more about craft through other articles on our blog, and at our Magic of Memoir conference Oct. 17-18 in Berkeley, CA.

Your Memoir as a Movie




Do you love movies? To me, there’s nothing so satisfying as sitting down to immerse myself in a new story. The first few moments need to capture my attention so I can’t look away. I make sure my tea is nearby, and that my kitties are ready to settle down on my lap. Once the kitties are there, I won’t be getting up for at least an hour or more as the story weaves its magic around me. It grabs me with a scene, in a moment where I’m drawn into a world not my own. I’m inside the scene, inside the beginning moments of a delicious new story. Whether it’s the first moments of Downton Abbey or Star Wars, you know that you are being taken on a journey to another world.

Brooke Warner and I use the “write your story as a movie” metaphor frequently in our Write Your Memoir in Six Months workshops to make our point about how important scenes are in writing a compelling story. We have the writers we coach do a “scene check” to see if they are including the important elements necessary to weave the magic a good story needs.

Necessary element #1.
A scene is set in a particular moment in time presented by the narrator-protagonist—you.
Necessary element #2
A scene exists to immerse the reader in a significant moment where something important happens that creates change—a moment of dramatic significance that includes conflict or a challenge.
Necessary element #3
The scene is connected to the theme(s) in the book.
More necessary elements:
Sensual Details
To create a powerful scene you need to paint a picture and offer sensual details that trigger a response in the reader’s brain. Include smell, sound, texture, colors, body language.
Dialogue—dialogue helps to create distinctive characters and advances the plot.
Vivid descriptions create the movie in the mind of the reader, in Technicolor.

More about Scenes
A scene is a building block of your memoir. At the beginning of your story, you’ll be introducing people, including yourself, as characters. You need to include action-there’s movement in a scene that propels the story forward. Sensual details such as smell, sound, taste, and colors create a picture in the reader’s mind and stimulate an emotional response. Include a kinesthetic sense, such as the difference between the way snow feels and the way a hot, humid day feels.

You can have a full scene that is narrated and without dialogue or interaction, but you know it’s a scene because it occurs in a particular moment in time and something important is happening. Cheryl Strayed uses this technique in Wild. The “now” narrative takes place when she’s mostly alone on a trail, but it’s full of scenes. In some scenes, she moves in and out of time and in others she’s still in the wilderness. She’s not interacting with anyone, but something meaningful is happening.

Weaving Narration and Reflection in your story

In a reflection, you’re musing about the situation just presented in your scene. Narration includes reflection, and it may also include action. Narration reveals something about the scene or the characters that show us how to experience or understand the scene. The narrative voice guides the reader into and out of specific scenes, and includes reflection.

There are two “I” points of view in a memoir. In one, the specific scene, let’s say you are five years old—you’re the character in the scene and see the unfolding moments through the eyes of who you were then.
And in a memoir, you’re also the narrator, reflecting on what happened and guiding the reader through time. “I remember, I thought that I would recover somehow…” There’s always the “I” character and the “I” narrator moving through time.

Reflection includes moments between scenes where the memoirist reflects upon what just happened and tries to make sense of it, or freaks out, or gets a new insight. These are internal moments where you tell the reader how you feel or what you wish had happened differently. Be sure to notice if your reflection is taking place in the point of view of your “I” character or you as the narrator reflecting now.

A reflection offers what’s called a “takeaway” for the reader—a universal connection that reaches beyond your individual story and connects with your reader. The takeaway a nugget for the reader of self-understanding. Takeaways are smaller moments within the narrative when you tap into something bigger than yourself, you reveal a universal human truth. In a takeaway, you’re and trying to connect to your reader in a way that’s bigger than your book.

from Wild by Cheryl Strayed—a takeaway:
“I was three weeks into my hike, but everything in me felt altered. I lay in the water as long as I could without breathing, alone in a strange new land, while the actual world around me hummed on.”
That’s a universal connection, how she’s changed. She’s already being changed by something and many of us have had that experience. We’ve all been alone in a strange new land, so we can identify with what she’s saying.

A flashback is a full scene—a new time and place where something is happening that takes you away from the time and place moment in the scene where you were. Be clear about: why and where you are going to pick up this other moments in time. The purpose of a flashback is to illuminate the present so the reader better understands the situation

Free Memoir Telesummit


May 15, 2015

10 AM PDT-1:45 PM PDT

what's Your Story photo1 PM EDT-4:45 PM EDT

The Power of Story: Write a Memoir with Heart and Craft  

In my work with memoirists through the years, I continue to be impressed and awestruck by the ways I see story carry the power to touch lives, to present the truths of how we live, love, are born and die—the universality of the human experience. Memoir, along with other literary and art forms, serves to illuminate and connect us all in ways that can be amazingly transformative. In this era of social media, we can see how much it’s possible to connect with people all over the world through words and pictures. Being on Facebook and Twitter is like “reading” many mini-memoirs!

In this free Telesummit, The Power of Story, presented by the National Association of Memoir, you will deepen your knowledge about what a story is, discover how story works on us emotionally, and learn new ways to get your story out into the world even before you have a published book.

flying books for TS

I’m so pleased to present some of our favorite people to you during this telesummit, each of them with new things to share and new ways you can develop your memoir writing life.

Lisa Cron, the author of Wired for Story, is back with us to give a preview of her new book, and teach some time-honored ways to create a memoir that no one can resist.

Denis LeDoux, an old friend of mine in memoir-writing-land, will talk about creative and innovative ways to draw from your stories to create your platform through writing small and short pieces. Publishing shorter pieces helps not only you to get out in the world with your stories, but your readers too as they can connect with your wisdom and life experience early on as you develop a longer book length work.

Amy Ferris, the amazing author of Marrying George Clooney, editor of Dancing at the Shame Prom and Shades of Blue to be released in October by Seal Press is back by popular demand to deepen our conversation into the ways that memoir can reach into the heart and draw out the pain, and can help us connect with our broken and our best selves.

Brooke Warner, my teaching partner in Write Your Memoir in Six Months, and I are teaching a series of ever deepening memoir courses, and we want to bring you the latest insights we have in how memoir can connect us all through the heart.

Each discussion is 45 minutes, with 15 minutes for direct questions and comments, so please join us live if you can! All sessions are recorded and if you sign up, you will receive the recordings.


What Your Reader Really Wants: 5 Steps to Writing an Irresistible Memoir

Lisa Cron 

10 am PDT  11 am MDT  12 CDT  1 pm EDT  

Lisa Cron-Photo hi-resEvery writer wants two things: to tell a story that hooks readers and never lets them go, and to find a way to accomplish that without going through the long slog of writing draft after draft. In this teleseminar we’ll examine the five steps to take before you start writing that will save you months (or years) of hard work, not to mention heartache and frustration. You’ll unearth the key story elements beneath the plot that bring it to life, drive it forward, and give it meaning. These elements have little to do with the surface events or “writing well” and everything to do with what we’re hardwired to respond to in every story we read.  Learning what your reader’s brain craves, and why, will allow you to zero in on what your story is really about before you write word one.  You’ll not only produce a more powerful memoir, chances are you’ll drastically reduce your rewrite time.

  • Why story isn’t about what happens externally, but about an internal change.
  • How to avoid the reason most memoirists fail – i.e. they tell us what happened, without realizing that the story is really about how what happened changed them. St
  • The need to be vulnerable, and go deep. If you don’t have something to learn when the memoir begins, you have nothing to teach us. The reader doesn’t care about what happened to you, they care about how the lessons you learned along the way can help them navigate their own life.
  • How to figure out what your memoir is actually about by zeroing in on the point you’re making.
  • How to pinpoint the internal change you’ll make based on what events will force you to deal with.
  • How to isolate the specific story you’re telling from the rest of your life.
  • How to use backstory to create the lens through which you’ll evaluate what happens to you in the moment, on the page, as you make sense of what’s happening to you

Lisa Cron is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence (Ten Speed Press), and her video tutorial Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story can be found at Her TEDx talk, Wired for Story, opened Furman University’s 2014 TEDx conference, Stories: The Common Thread of Our Humanity. Her new book, Story Genuis: How to Use Brain Science to Crack the Code of Your Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) will be released in August, 2016. She’s a story coach helping writers, nonprofits, educators and memoirists wrangle their story onto the page.


Choose the Form for Your memoir—Book, Mini-Memoir, Flash Memoir, Anthology

Denis LeDoux 

11: 15 am PDT  12:15 pm MDT  1:15 pm CDT  2:15 pm EDT

Denis-Ledoux (1)A memoir allows you to leave a legacy, and there are many choices for how to fulfill that desire. You can write a long-form book, which as you know takes a lot of time, even years. But while you are writing your book, you can select sections to publish as an eBook, or send out to literary magazines, or publish in an anthology. You can even choose to write a very short flash memoir. All forms of your memoir are acceptable. In this teleseminar we’re going to look at the choices you can make to not only get your legacy written, but published and shared with the world.

You will learn:

  • How to think out of the box about your life story.
  • What a memoir anthology is and how to focus your work toward that goal.
  • The short memoir, often called a mini-memoir –different from a flash memoir, which is another form you can choose.
  • The personal essay—how it is similar and different from a memoir “story.”

Each of these forms presents you a choice for your writing and publishing life, and helps you to think bigger than the book. During this teleseminar you will find out more about how to think about your life story in new ways and choose how you would like to implement these ideas.

Denis Ledoux grew up in a three-generation home with paternal grandparents who lived upstairs. Stories have always played an important role in Denis’ life. As a child, he heard tales of his extended family and their history recounted by the family storyteller, his memere. He directs the The Memoir Network, an international group of life story writing teachers who use his methods and materials.

Denis holds a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Education. As a short story writer, he drew on family characters, settings, and stories for his fiction. In 1989, he won the Maine Fiction Award for Mountain Dance & Other Stories. His other titles include What Became of Them and Other Stories from Franco-America, and Lives in Translation: An Anthology of Contemporary Franco-American Writings which he edited. Denis’ short fiction has twice been honored with the Maine Writing Fellowship Award (1991, 1996), an NEA-based merit award.


Saving our Lives through Writing

Amy Ferris 

12:30 pm PDT   1:30 pm MDT  2:30 pm CDT  3:30 PM EDT 

Amy FerrisAmy Ferris and I have something in common: we have seen how powerfully story acts as a witness to our lives, there on the page, there with words and sentences. We have observed firsthand how writing helps to save people’s spirits from being lost in depression, and acts as a guiding light to help create a path to fullness and joy. Hope is an important part of survival and for becoming who we were meant to be. Join us in this inspiring conversation about how important it is to get your story on the page, first for you. Then you can think bigger—how do I connect with others with my story? Maybe we all don’t have to be so alone with the truths of our lives.

You will learn:

  • How the power of story to create a new foundation for our souls and create a bridge to others.
  • About the healing power of story and the research by Dr. James Pennebaker
  • How story helps to change the brain and heal the body
  • Techniques that you can use to tease out and invite your hidden stories to be revealed.

amy ferris is an author, screenwriter, essayist, playwright and editor. She edited the upcoming new anthology Shades of Blue, to be released October, 2015. her memoir, marrying george clooney, confessions from a midlife crisis (seal press) was adapted in an off-broadway play in 2012. she has written films (mr. wonderful, anthony minghella, director and funny valentines, julie dash, director), tv, and has contributed to numerous anthologies, including the one she co-edited, dancing at the shame prom (seal press). she was guest editor-in-chief for two magazine, glossies, where she created the annual all women’s issue. amy lives in pennsylvania with her husband and two cats. she is very content on most days.


How to Make People Fall in Love with Your Memoir

Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers 

1:45 pm PDT  2:45 pm MDT  3:45 PM CDT 4:45 pm EDT

Brooke Warner and Linda Joy MyersYour main job as a memoirist is to give something of value to your readers as you tell your story. To do that, you need to know about voice, the narrative arc, writing a great scene, and how to create a takeaway for your reader. We are excited to share with you the latest craft information that we have gleaned from analyzing The Liars’ Club, The Glass Castle, Angela’s Ashes, The Tender Bar, and the new memoir, H is for Hawk. 

  • Why will the reader care about your story?
  • Scenes, the building blocks of great storytelling.
  • Making a connection with the reader by keeping an eye on takeaway.
  • Creating a narrative voice with authenticity and personality.
  • Guiding the reader deep into the meaning and emotions of your story through solid story-building.

Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of What’s Your Book? and How to Sell Your Memoir. Brooke’s expertise is in traditional and new publishing, and she is an equal advocate for publishing with a traditional house and self-publishing. She sits on the board of the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) and the National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW).  Her website was selected by The Write Life as one of the Top 100 Best Websites for Writers in 2014. She lives and works in Berkeley, California.

Linda Joy Myers is president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, and a therapist for 35 years. She’s the award winning author of Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness, The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story, The Journey of Memoir and Becoming Whole—Writing Your Healing Story. Don’t Call Me Mother and Becoming Whole were finalists in the ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Award. Linda co-teaches the program Write Your Memoir in Six Months, and offers editing and coaching for writers.  Blog:

Sign Up Here for Our FREE Memoir Telesummit 

Date: May 15, 2015

Time: 10 AM PDT-1:45 PM PDT

The Power of Story: Write a Memoir with Heart and Craft


Spring Memoir Workshop: Find Your Voice, Write Your Truth with Linda Joy Myers

linda-joy-myersSpring Memoir workshop dates

April 9, 16, 23, 30

May 7, 14, 21

June 4, 11

Time: 3 PM PST/6 PM EST

If you are writing a memoir you know what it takes to bring your history and the story of your life to the page. You have to excavate not only what happened, but who you were to reveal your inner truths. A memoir is a journey of meaning and understanding, woven together with facts, reflections, and a story that’s true, a story you have lived.

Of course, your story touches on the lives of others, and there’s the rub. The challenge is to find your own story even though woven in with all the other stories of family, friends, and community, and to be able to tell it fully, to claim your truths.

You have to wrestle with the voice that brings your story to life, the voice that reveals the personal and the universal truths that your readers will need to know. The more personal and detailed your story is, the more it will contain universal truths.

In this 9-week workshop, you will find the stories that you need to write by creating a “turning point list” of significant moments, locate them on a timeline, and write these moments that shaped you, moments that form the spine of the theme of your memoir during the class.

The workshop is small, 4-6 people, which allows intimate sharing during the teleclass that meets once a week. You send your work out to the group, but the group is private and your writing is held with confidentiality. The feedback offers what is working in your story, and supports you with the emotional content as well and giving feedback for how you can develop your story and move forward to the later stages of writing your book.

Vignettes and shorter works are welcome too. You don’t have to be writing a book to join this class. The focus is to get you writing and to support you on your journey. Many people who write a memoir find it transformational, and we welcome discussions about your inner life as you explore it through your memoir. My background as a therapist helps the group find insights to the stories that emerge, and I always approach the writing and the writer with compassion and encouragement to explore the stories that have never been told. We all know that the dreaded “inner critic” can get in the way! We work with how the inner critic stops you and we help you move forward.

To summarize: in this workshop you will
• Find the stories that have meaning to you
• Learn to write the scenes that bring your story to life
• Discover the fiction tools that are the secret to great story writing
• Receive the support and accountability to get at least one story a week written
• Find out how to weave narration, dialogue, and scenes to create a dynamic story
• Learn how to manage your inner critic
And much more

Please contact Linda Joy Myers if you are interested before making payment.

Non-Member Pricing – $420

Click here to purchase

If you are a member log in and then come back to this page to get a special discount.


Myers makes a compelling case for the power of words as a form of healing and growth.
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professor of psychology, The University of Texas at Austin and author, Opening Up and Writing To Heal 

...the NAMW memoir classes with Linda Joy Myers are wonderful
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