The Craft of Memoir – Write Like a Novelist

NAMW August Member Teleseminar–Marcia Butler

August 18, 2017

11 AM PDT   12 PM MDT  1 PM CDT  2 PM EDT

One of the greatest compliments I received when my memoir was published was hearing from reviewers and readers alike that my book “read like a novel.”  Most memoirs have a gripping tale to tell, which is vital not only from a publisher’s standpoint, but also for the expectation of the devoted reader of this form. Yet, skillful and nuanced storytelling must be a goal not only of the novelist but of memoirists as well.

After all, there is only one difference between fiction and memoir. In the case of a novel the plot is made up. But the memoirist knows the story and all the characters. We know how the protagonist will succeed and fail; who lives and who dies. The memoirist is in full command of thoughts, feelings, memories, the beginning and the ending. Novelists make their decisions throughout the writing process, tossing out characters and plot threads that don’t serve the narrative.

But memoirists know the stakes from the very beginning and it is our job to tell our story with compassion, craft and intelligence. We must keep the reader turning the pages, eager to see what happens next by pacing the action, by writing believable dialogue and by creating chapters that satisfy as a whole. Just like a great novel.

In my teleseminar, I’ll show you how to tell your life story with the skill and nuance of a novelist.

  • Build your world view
  • The process of selecting scenes for inclusion – must we tell everything?
  • How to make a distant yet important memory come to life
  • Short lens and long lens as a way to create depth and space in a scene
  • Writing from anger and grief – keep this in check and remain be a believable character/writer
  • Craft dials apply to memoir too – use the senses
  • Some characters do not warrant page space – choose carefully
  • Know what your story (plot) is – life is big but a book can contain only so much
  • How to get your character “across the room” – tools to elide gaps in time or compress time


Marcia Butler Short Bio:

Marcia Butler is the debut author of the nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee. She was a professional oboist for twenty-five years until her retirement in 2008. During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras – including pianist Andre Watts, and composer and pianist Keith Jarrett. Marcia was a 2015 recipient of a Writer-in-Residence through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. Her work has been published in Literary Hub, PANK Magazine, Psychology Today Magazine, The Aspen Institute, BioStories and others. She has written a novel which is currently out for sale to publishers. Marcia lives in New York City.


Writing Another Person

Author: Denis Ledoux

Writing another person’s memoir can be called writing biography rather than memoir. You are, after all, not the subject.

But, are there occasions when a biography can justly be called a memoir?

In my penultimate book, A Sugary Frosting / Life in a 1960s Parsonage, I used life stories that my late wife Martha Blowen had composed—and I added text. And…

I called it a memoir.

Was this appropriate?


How did I presume to call it a memoir and not a biography?
When you are both a story teller and a story keeper, and being in relationship with someone who is verbal— very verbal, for thirty-one years, you get to know many of her stories. A number of them you have heard not only because they were told directly to you as you went about your day—perhaps driving together into town or as you began your morning facing the woodstove sipping your coffee—but also because she told them to others in your presence. Often, details are added in this retelling or an emphasis changed for the benefit of the new audience—and, unexpectedly, you understand an angle to the story that had eluded you earlier.

Martha wrote a number of her stories, always in segments. She intended to write a memoir, but her life was cut short by breast cancer before she could realize this goal.

Wanting to compile a memoir, I collected her compositions into a manuscript and soon realized details were missing, details that I knew not only to be true to her storyline but also necessary to bring out the meaning of her story. Soon enough, I found myself adding her words that had lived within me into the narrative. These words soon contributed not only scenes and conversations, but also whole stories I had received from her. Eventually, more of the stories originated in my recall then from her composition.


What to do? Was it all right for me to write so extensively in the first person?
Because I have been a ghostwriter for many years, entering into someone’s sensibility is a facility that I have long practiced. A good ghostwriter is always writing in the subject’s voice—in the first person. He uses the vocabulary of the subject and he enters into the sensibility of the person whose story is being preserved.

When I wrote my mother’s memoir, We Were Not Spoiled, I used stories my mother had told me, and I used stories from memory—stories I had been part of or stories my mother may have shared at another time. But, this was decidedly different as I read everything back to my mother and she responded to the text. I was a bit of the author and a lot of the ghostwriter.

In the case of A Sugary Frosting, and My Eye Fell Into The Soup, Martha was not available to read back to.


The responsible take on writing someone else’s memoir
Writing in the voice of the subject has always been an energizing challenge of ghostwriting. In writing A Sugary Frosting, when I found myself writing something that fit the drama of Martha’s story as I understood it, but about which I was not certain, I would feel a tug toward what felt like “The Story,” toward something that demanded to be told. When I felt this pull, I sensed that I was being directed towards the factual, towards authenticity.

There were other times, fortunately, when I felt uncomfortable. Perhaps I was imposing my “take” on her story? I decided to leave this material out.

The bulk of the text in A Sugary Frosting presented as Martha’s memoir has been ghostwritten. I don’t think the reader will realize where the stories she wrote end and where the ones I ghosted begin. That is as it should be. A ghostwriter must be invisible—or why call us ghostwriters?


But is it okay? Where do I presume the authority?
For starters, I promised Martha that I would write her stories—for our grandchildren who were not yet born—and for readers. This gave me a sense of writing in her stead—and it bestowed a certain authority.

She had also said, “I trust you not to write anything that would embarrass me.” I have endeavored to use that request as a guide—and that too has given me a sense of authority to write her story.

I believe Martha would have approved of A Sugary Frosting and would easily have called it her memoir. But…

For those readers who are still unsettled, I am perfectly comfortable with your calling this a “fictionalized memoir” or a “memoir fiction”—but what I believe it to be is a co-authored memoir.


Writing My Eye Fell Into The Soup
After Martha’s death, I very much wanted to write an account of her illness. I knew to do that, to really do credit to the etiology of her illness, I had to go earlier in her life. I felt that her cancer–cancer was called the disease of hopelessness in the 19th century–had roots in her early family life. The influence of these years perdured into the present.

Because of this belief, I wrote A Sugary Frosting. The, having written that book, I wanted to write about the time of her illness—which was my real goal. This task was actually easier as had her voluminous journals to quote. When I combined them to mine, I had a text.

Even in My Eye Fell Into The Soup, I had to create some text. Sometimes, it was to explain an element and other times it was to create a transition from one entry to another, a transition that she had not made but which was necessary for the reader.


In conclusion
I have one more volume to write of Martha’s illness, and then I will be through with writing biography as memoir. I have no intention of ever writing a straight biography.


Denis Ledoux’s flagship book, Turning Memories Into Memoirs / A Handbook for Writing Lifestories [available both in e- and hard copy], has been joined on Amazon by a number of other how-to books. Among them are Don’t Let Writer’s Block Stop YouStart Your Memoir Right and the free Memoir Writing 101. In the summer of 2017, he published the e- and the hard-copy of My Eye Fell Into The Soup / A Journal Memoir of Living with Stage 4 Cancer. It is drawn both from his wife’s journals and his own. My Eye Fell Into The Soup is the third in a series of five memoirs focused on his wife. The first in the series, The Nice-Nice Club Holds Its Last Meeting, is available free on Amazon.

  1. To access the most current catalog of his writing books, his memoirs, and other titles, visit the memoir store.
  2. To read over 500 free articles on memoir writing, go to
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Fourth of July Sale 2017

Over the next few days, we celebrate our independence. At this time of year, we celebrate being part of a country that created a new identity with new ideas: freedom of speech, the belief in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

When we write a memoir, we’re engaged in bringing our memories to life! We gather the stories of our life together in a narrative that makes sense and connects the dots between past and present. That’s how writing a memoir empowers us: piecing together fragments, weaving themes, and discovering hidden parts of ourselves, our family, and our identity. It can be an ongoing experiment!

Independence is the hallmark of writing. We want to support you and celebrate being free to write and share the stories of your life. It’s great for you, and it’s a valuable legacy for family and friends.

This weekend, we’re offering you the opportunity to join NAMW at $20 off our annual membership fee.  From July 1 to midnight July 4–it’s just $129.00 for an annual membership, and $119 for renewals!

When you join NAMW this weekend, you’ll receive the full benefits of membership as well as our new guide, Secrets, Lies and Scandals Behind Closed Doors –Challenges with Family and Truth When Writing a Memoir as well as access to the audio recordings of the Telesummit “Breaking Silence.”  NAMW features a variety of industry pros and fellow writers throughout the year for our members.  We provide resource to inspire you and encourage you to keep going on your journey toward publication, whether it’s a blog, a book, or articles.

Writing your story offers your family and audience a slice of life, a personal history that tells a bigger story about where you are from, your traditions and your cultures.

Join NAMW today and we’ll support you in your journey toward healing and sharing your life’s stories!

12-Month NAMW membership, $149 $129

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12-Month NAMW renewal, $139 $119

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Writing Your Story Will Change You

Writing Your Story Will Change You

Writing Your Story Will Change YouDo you have a family story that won’t leave you alone? Have you spent time not being sure you should or can write it?

That’s how I felt as I approached trying to write both memoirs—Don’t Call Me Mother and Song of the Plains. I tried to push aside completing my first book because it was painful to drop into the past again and revisit scenes of abuse and loss when I was a child, though I relished the happy moments with family, my cello teacher, and friends. I didn’t think I could write; I was afraid to put things on the page that were true but unspoken. I knew that my family would severely criticize me for it—if they were alive. But even though they weren’t, it was still a challenge to keep writing through the layers of time. I worried about being exposed about my life and my crazy family if I were to finish the book, which lead to twelve years or writing and rewriting before I felt I could let it go. There was shame, too, in having lived through some of the events in the book. Do any of these concerns go through your mind about your memoir?

A couple things kept me going: I wanted to write a book that would support other people who had grown up either abandoned or lost to help them seek healing and resolution. And, I wanted to write the book I had looked for on the shelves as I lived through my story.

When it was finally published, I discovered that I was part of a larger community of people, all who had been silenced and were afraid to speak their truths, but gradually, there was permission through writing memoir, a fairly new genre when I started writing, to write the stories that no one knew. The stories where I was the only witness. Through being able to be connected by the Internet, and social media like Facebook, communities have been built that share similar issues and themes.

To learn more about my new book Song of the Plains, please visit

Writing your story will change you! As you are writing your story, perhaps you already have experienced a shift in perspective about your life, your family, and the events you lived through.  Our stories carry a wisdom we didn’t know we had. Memoir makes its demands on us, pressing us for stories we’ve never written before, leading us into moments and memories as we drop into another time and place. To write a memoir means to wrestle with truth. We are the narrator and witness to the life we’ve lived. Writing a memoir means that we learn how to move through time as we draw upon writing craft to create a world the reader can relate to, a world that brings them into the magic of a story.

To support your journey into memoir, I hope you can join us this May for two major memoir events at the National Association of Memoir Writers.

First, our NAMW Member monthly webinar, May 12. Structure is such a challenge, and Beth Barany is going to offer several possible solutions that can solve the puzzle of structure for your memoir.

I’m thrilled to present our FREE NAMW Memoir Telesummit Webinar on Friday, May 19. This talented and well known group of presenters will talk about truth, trauma, resilience and how to tackle challenging themes. Join us for a memoir event that can change your life, for the better!

May 19, 2017

Free Day Long event: 10 AM/1PM to 2 PM/5 PM

We’re very excited here at NAMW to offer a day long discussion about truth in memoir–one of the hottest topics memoirists discuss online, in forums, and in running Facebook posts!

As memoirists, we have to struggle with “the truth.” When we write our stories, we search to discover and reveal various angles of the truths in our lives. As complex humans, there are multiple and sometimes paradoxical truths—love and hate, letting go/holding on, attraction/repulsion desire and rejection of intimacy, and countless other opposites that are part of life. In our stories, one scene may highlight one aspect of truth, and then in another we’re someone else. The characters in our stories may have conflicting presentations   and we feel complex emotions about these real people who become our “characters.” In a world that asks for us to have a single opinion or reaction that defines, writing a memoir and facing its complexities can get challenging. Sometimes we’re tempted to give up. As one of my students said, “I keep changing my mind about what I think and feel each time I write my story. I need to know what position I should take. Shouldn’t I have this all sorted out by now?”

The secret to writing a memoir is that it’s more of a journey and a process than a single destination. We are always becoming and learning as we write. In writing a memoir we uncover surprises, some of which we don’t want to know about. As I wrote both Don’t Call Me Mother and my new memoir, Song of the Plains, I encountered bumpy emotional rides. In my new memoir, I tried to pull back even deeper layers of truth that I either couldn’t write about yet in my first one, or I couldn’t bear to share with the world. By investigating our story, new truths were revealed. Today we are going to investigate truth—how to find it, why we try to avoid it, and what to do when it speaks deeply to us, body and soul.

Join this FREE special webinar on May 19 with these deep and engaging presenters who have agreed to spend time with us. The day will be one of exploration and insight, and I hope you will find support and inspiration for your own work through this special event.


Myers makes a compelling case for the power of words as a form of healing and growth.

James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D. 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

Kathy Pooler