Story Circle Conference 2016 Wrap Up

Story Circle Conference 2016

I recently returned from the Story Circle Conference held in Austin, Texas. It was a whirlwind of teaching—Brooke Warner and I taught the pre-conference workshop  “Breaking Ground on Your Story.” My workshop “Building Your Memoir with Scene and Narration” followed up the focus on craft. We both noticed the need to integrate craft with inspiration, which we try to do in our workshops and Write Your Memoir in Six Months course—a new one starts in June! 

Coming to the conference brings back so many memories. My first time was in 2002 when I was a new author, having just written Becoming Whole-Writing Your Healing Story. I was shy and uncertain as a new writer, my head full of the questions that Brooke Warner addressed in her keynote. Is my workshop “good enough?” Will anyone want to read my words?

Story Circle Conference 2016

Story Circle Conference 2016

The most amazing part of this conference is meeting up again with old friends, like Tina Games and Sharon Lippincott, and meeting new ones I know mostly from books or online presence. Social media has offered wonderful ways to get to know people, but we all celebrated with big hugs when we finally met in person. I enjoyed long talks with Lisa Dale Norton, whose books Hawk Flies High and Shimmering Images were already my friends; and Susan Tweit, whose photos and posts I have followed on Facebook for years. Lisa’s workshop offered a new understanding of voice, and Susan showed the importance of place to bring our stories alive. There were other connections too, some quick, some over a glass of wine or coffee that made us wish we could live closer so every week we could have community and conversation.

Brooke’s Keynote

Brooke Warner presented an inspiring keynote, worthy of a standing ovation. I’ll summarize what got us to our feet.

Brooke Warner

Brooke Warner

First, she talked about how lucky she was to have been raised to believe in herself and her ideas. Many of us in the audience had grown up with the messages that we should stay silent, or mute our expression. Particularly, we often feel we have to be careful about saying or writing anything that might offend, hurt, or make someone uncomfortable. Brooke told us about her passion in championing women to publish during her eight years as Executive Editor at Seal Press. She was happy to be exposed to the huge variety of women’s stories, but came to realize that only a small percentage of the stories she loved could be published in the publishing environment that’s developed over the last decade. She began to think about a press that would publish women’s voices based on the merit of their writing and not their brand or platform—and She Writes Press was born in 2012. This year the press is celebrating multiple winners in the IPPY, Ben Franklin, and Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

Brooke became aware through her experience and research to the degree to which women writers have been silenced. Messages from society and our upbringing, both subtle and overt, affect our ability to claim our stories and get them out into the world.

Brooke cited statistics about women and publishing, pointing out the huge gender bias in publishing for women, and particular memoir. Women are less likely to be reviewed, less likely to win contests, and less likely to resubmit after receiving a rejection. Women tend to take rejection harder—and these statistics are sobering. Men are 5 times more likely than women to resubmit if their piece has been rejected. We need to change that!

Well-known writers such as Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, have been subjected to the bias against memoir. Gilbert likely received less accolades for her novel, The Signature of All Things, as a result of writing Eat, Pray, Love. Mary Karr, in her book the Art of Memoir, dedicated one chapter to discuss how Katherine Harrison was attacked for her book The Kiss.

We need to be reminded of our passion and motivation to write and to express ourselves. For some of us, including me, the story has been chasing us and won’t leave us alone. We need to write the book we couldn’t find in the bookstore. If it doesn’t exist, write it! We write to understand ourselves and our families, or to help someone who will benefit from our life lessons. There are many reasons to write, and reasons not to become discouraged.

“We have to keep saying yes, our story matters!” Brooke said.

Brooke offered 5 C’s that can help us stay inspired to write our stories.

  1. Community—we write our stories in community and we need the support of community.
  2. Commitment—we need to keep the commitment to ourselves and our story—and stay committed to getting our story out in the world, to share it with others through publishing.
  3. Championing—we need to champion each other and all writers by supporting, reading, and reviewing each other’s work.
  4. Claiming your work—we have to claim our right to write and publish our stories. No one will do this for us.
  5. Courage—it takes a lot of courage for us to dig deep and reveal our stories, and more courage to publish.

Brooke ended by urging us to take the time to get our stories written and to get past the fears and critical voices we carry. We have to champion ourselves and take the risk to be seen and heard. We need to write, and keep writing! We can change the world with our stories.

Discovering the Treasures that Bring your Family Legacy Memoir Alive

Discovering the Treasures that Bring your Family Legacy Memoir Alive
Discovering the Treasures that Bring your Family Legacy Memoir Alive

Discovering the Treasures that Bring your Family Legacy Memoir Alive

Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Writing a memoir is like entering a dream of past memories and at the same time doing an archaeological dig. When you write memoir, you are sifting through layers of time and history. You find buried rooms, shards of lost artifacts, and surprising treasures. Sometimes you find buried skeletons too! The nature of your dig will be unique, of course, as your family and your story is not like any other.

A memoir is a document of discovery in many dimensions. As you write and research your family, it’s likely that you’ll uncover and discover secrets and hidden clues to the past.  Gather your photos, family Bibles, and diaries if you are lucky enough to have them. Sign up for one of the genealogical sites to find more information and get facts about your family. You may be surprised!  

One of the best sources for your research will be the family photo album or photo box—you know,  that cardboard box or plastic tub where the family has been collecting photos for years. If you have photos from other generations in your family, most will probably be tattered and unlabeled, but if you’re lucky, you might be able to figure out who some of the people are. If you have older relatives, take your photos to them and see what stories they can tell you. You will want to record that meeting if they allow it. Remember, people who are older may have been raised with a different sense of open sharing that our culture has now. Allow them to refuse to elaborate if that is their choice.

The family photos you inherit are a treasure. A photo is a moment  captured in time in the middle of lives that were going on before and after the photograph was taken.  A snapshot taken in a split second introduces us to people we will never know and shows us a time and place in history, a valuable legacy.

You can often see hidden clues about family dynamics in photos. Look deep into those moody sepia images and the black and white snapshots to see what you can notice or imagine about the people and situations in the photo. Allow your mind to wander and your imagination to take hold as you gaze into the faces who look back at you from beyond time. Notice body language, clothes style, people’s gestures and attitudes. Try to “read between the lines” to understand what you are seeing about the people in the photo.

Notice the background in the picture, the rooms, furniture, and the  architecture of the houses. Landscapes and weather tell their own stories, as do cars, carriages, airplanes, and trains that might be included in the photo. Every detail tells a story that can help you develop yours.

One of my students told me about special moments she spent talking with her eighty-six-year-old mother and ninety-year-old father.

You could feel the power of their memories as we all gazed and murmured over the photos in the evening lamplight. They lifted one photo, then the other, talking fast as they told us about the bread lines during the Great Depression, and how families put gold stars in the windows when their sons were killed during WWII. They talked about shoveling snow in winter, and the challenges of just doing laundry —it could take days in the winter time. We laughed at the old cars and the outfits they were wearing. We learned so much about the history of the world, not just their lives. I wish we could have taped these conversations.

Some family members look at treasured recipes handed down through the generations. They learn about cooking from scratch as it once had been done by the women in the family and even try some of the recipes—this is true research, and hopefully delicious! Some family members are careful keepers of the family Bible, where their ancestors’ birth and death dates were written in by hand. With such raw material to get you into another time and place, a story may begin to take shape, though you may hunger for more details.

Personal diaries are a treasure, but most contain “just the facts,” written without emotion or reflection—often people didn’t have time for that and might have felt it indulgent or too personal in the age before “sharing everything.” But you might be able to read between the lines in the diary to discover a hint of feeling or a reaction to events. If you can read diaries from different family members, you might uncover even more hidden nuggets of truth about the family and the times they lived in.

To write about your ancestors, you need to trust your imagination and do all the research you can from sources like the Internet, newspaper archives, and books written at the time or near the era when your ancestors lived. You’ll be knitting together what you know from your primary sources with how you imagine life was lived. When you draw from several sources like photos, historical records and online research, you can come close to piecing together the time you’re writing about. We’re all products of our context in time and place. The more you know about your ancestors and grand-parents, the more you might discover about yourself.

Inside Out or Outside In? The Challenge of Memoir Writing


19165858_sA memoir is a subjective story, written from the point of view of you, the narrator and main character of the story, the protagonist. This means that you are translating your experiences—the moments in your life that are significant and make up the spine of your story. This translating is part of the challenging work of writing a memoir; it means that we do our best to present the inner world—our thoughts and feelings as well as our actions—to the audience, the reader, the outer world.

Stand in the shoes of the reader for a moment. The reader is outside your world, and it’s only your words, the descriptions and scenes that bring the reader inside your experience. We need to write our memoir from the inside out, and then stand outside ourselves to get a perspective on what the reader sees. This can make a memoir writer feel a little crazy—this juggling of inner and outer swivels our heads as we try on these different points of view.

In the early drafts, it’s best to write from a deeply subjective place, a place of memory and buried feelings, and it’s important to allow this kind of process to take place. This is part of being a translator as you bring upward the memories and experiences that took place long ago, bringing them into the light of the present. In the now, we view these moments differently than we did then. When we are young, quite often we don’t have words for our experiences yet. When we write now, we have the benefit of perspective and time. Still, it’s our responsibility to honor the person we were in the past, to try to portray that time and the challenges of our lives with the most accuracy we can muster.

Allow yourself several drafts and some time to sort through your memories. Make a list of the important moments that will be part of your story, and freewrite them—set a timer and write as fast as you can for about 20 minutes. This way you don’t spend time hemming and hawing about what to write. Freewriting speeds you past the inner critic. It’s likely that you will spill out the truth of your situation in the story, that you will write without censoring—the idea of the exercise. You are capturing your inner world, how you felt and thought in a rough draft. No, it’s not going to be how you will eventually present your story, but it will likely be authentic, it will be the inside story of your life.

Later, much later when you have done 10 to 20 of these exercises, you can begin to be more objective about your story. By writing it, you’ll be claiming your story, getting acquainted with it, and learning what it is about. You will end up working your way toward more objectivity, as you begin to observe yourself as a character. You start to be able to stand outside the story. Throughout the drafts of over 300-400 pages, you’ll be doing a weaving of this inside-out perspective. I believe that being able to take both perspectives allows us the freedom to write what’s in our hearts while at the same time we learn to view our story as a witness. Learning to become a narrator and a witness draws upon different parts of our brains, and is a healing act. I wish you the best in writing your memoir this month!


Words and Wisdom of Silence—How to Claim Your Truths in Memoir

Words and Wisdom of Silence—How to Claim Your Truths in Memoir
Words and Wisdom of Silence—How to Claim Your Truths in Memoir

Words and Wisdom of Silence—How to Claim Your Truths in Memoir

Jeannette Winterson, author of the novel Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit, and a memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal talks about the merging of “truth” and fiction early in her memoir: “To avoid the narrow mesh of Mrs. Winterson’s story, I had to be able to tell my own. Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story. I wrote my way out.”

According to Jeannette, Oranges is the story she could write at the time–“a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.”

When I work with memoir writers, they too worry about how much of their story they can/should tell, what to leave in and what to leave out. What about the story that is too painful to write. What about the story that will get the relatives and friends up in arms, angry or hurt. Of course, what we choose to leave out alters the literal “truth,” and what we include shapes the “truth” that we claim as our own, so we have to allow several drafts and several layers of the writing to emerge step by step. It’s no simple thing to gather words together into sentences that have meaning and power and share them with the world. Finding our truths is a process. It requires us to encounter ourselves on paper. We may need space and silence and shake hands with confusion as we allow the words to come.

What kind of person can sit around and muse, allow the silence. Dream about writing. We’ve all heard all the clichés about memoirists being “narcissistic and navel gazing.” You do  have to be a contemplative person to self-examine and be willing to look within and listen to what bubbles up.  I think memoir writers shouldn’t shy away from the “navel gazing” label. We need to grab it and claim it. We need to redefine it as being on a search for meaning. We can be proud of being willing to investigate the nature of being a human person—that is the path we are all on—a journey through life.

From Jeannette again: “When we write, we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.”

Risky Business

Think about your silences. What are you leaving out that you could explore and expand?  Are you willing to take some risks with your writing? Writing a memoir invites you to spill out things you never thought you would write or say or share. Don’t censor. Don’t say, “I can’t write this because person x and y will read it.” No one else is reading your first draft. No one will read your 10th draft either. You are simply writing and you’ll be writing a long time before it’s time to share your story with family. Along the way, carefully choose with whom you share your writing. Find a safe and understanding memoir group who is on the same path as you are, and be sure they are supportive, not only of what is written, but of your deeply emotional process of writing. That means they can offer feedback, but no character assassination. Make boundaries about what you want to know from your group.

It is a natural thing for memoir to inspire self-knowledge. Write to investigate what you think and feel, who you were and are becoming. If you hold back, you don’t get to make new discoveries—which are useful for us, but are also important for readers who will eventually feel the energy of your discovery. If you are discovering new things as you write, readers will become curious and investigative too—about themselves and their own lives. Readers will take in what you have learned and try it on for size. Writing and books change lives—for the better. It’s a way to be in community—writing and sharing stories that illuminate our path.

Give your memoir and yourself time to grow and develop, which does not mean ignoring it or procrastinating. A lot of thinking, dreaming, doodling, and research go into writing your story.  Sit down with your material regularly—daily if possible. If you wait too long between writing sessions, you lose the thread of your thoughts and insights. Read what you have written, take notes, and keep a journal by your bed. Be awake and alert to the richness of the silences you carry. Feel into the story that is whispering and trying to emerge.

Writing a memoir is like being an investigative reporter—you and your life and insights and feelings are the subjects. You’re investigating what you couldn’t find words for before, areas where there was a “keep out” sign.

Jeanette again: “I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.”

Part of that self-forgiveness is allowing yourself to think on paper, to write and to listen to yourself. It’s like opening a door that has been barred. You open it with curiosity and bravely step through.




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

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