Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Story of A Lifetime: Writing Your Memoir

Spring Concert,  Holy Names College, 1944

WRITING THE STORY OF A LIFETIME

Dream a little dream of me...

"Oh, yeah. I'd like that." People often talk to me about writing their memoirs; its something they  mean to do, someday. Sadly, few actually sit down and start writing. When I give a talk ten, twenty or thirty people may show up. Two or three are already jotting down notes or gathering pictures in a shoebox.  
When I give talks on writing your memoir, there are some basics I always encourage people to do. 

Read other memoirs. Check out best-selling memoirs on Amazon or at the library. Listen for their voice. Go home and write freely, at least 15-20 minutes a day. That's how you develop your voice. 
Finding your own voice is essential. 
From that, your writing resonates with others. They know its authentic. It's you.
And, though you're writing something to share with family and friends, don't shape your story to please anyone else.
 For now, just glue yourself to the chair and write. You can edit later.
As you're writing, day by day, don't worry about where to start. Just write.

Glue bum to chair, pick up pen/turn on computer

As you go along, one particular incident will grab your attention and refuse to let go.
That's your inciting incident. 
If you stick to your plan, your story will find you.

Once you have that inciting incident, you can answer the question, "what's it about?"
I know, it's about your life. But, what's it really about?
There is more.

Other ideas will crop up, leading you down paths that may not contribute to your story.
Put a blank piece of paper next to you, or open another document. Call it "Notes" or "Scattershot"
Write those other ideas here. Look at it later, to see if they're


Overcoming Difficulties: Getting Started on Your Memoir

Taking the Plunge

If the idea of writing your life story keeps coming up, you're probably doomed. Might as well turn on the computer and get started. I always caution people to confront their demons sooner, rather than later. Vanquish them and get on with your story. You will find this to be surprisingly important.

Find Your Focus

Not sure where to start? There's nothing worse than staring at a blank page. It opens you up to self-doubt. Start here: write down six significant moments in your life. I'm not talking major historical events, just moments that stand out, for you personally. Maybe its the first time you stood up to a bully. The first time you learned the truth about something, or someone. Maybe it's first time you realized your parents were people. The first time you made a really embarrassing mistake. A time when you learned to forgive someone dear to you. The first time you learned to forgive yourself.

Confront the Truth

The key is, be honest with yourself. Write things as you recall them, but don't try to whitewash the past. Let it be what it is. This is a matter of self-respect. Writing the truth also means you're more likely to complete your story. Write until you see your story take shape, until you can see the essential structure, the key moments. You may get 50 - 100 pages done and that's fine. Don't try to finish the whole book in one fell swoop. You need pacing, and feedback.

Put it Away, Rest and Rise Again

Next, take a break. Put your burgeoning memoir away for a week or two, no more. Do something else. Then, open the drawer and give your story to someone you trust. Consider their feedback. Pick up your manuscript or open up your document on the computer. Read it aloud. Who is the main character, you as a child, or as an adult? Are you using an active voice, or are you passively reacting to events in your life? Rewrite your story. Put it away for two weeks, then give it to another friend or relative. It's sort of like baking bread; you let the story rise, knead it, let it rise a second time. This gives you a bit of perspective on your rough draft.  Constructive feedback helps you identify problems. Good friends help you keep it real.

Set the Date

Now, you're ready to give yourself a goal, a definite date by which you will complete your memoir. Don't put that kind of pressure on yourself when you're getting started. Only now will you have a realistic idea of how long it may take you to reach the finish line.

Readers Make the Best Writers

And please, keep reading other memoir-writers, bestsellers, old favorites, whatever. Get into other peoples stories. It helps you keep going, until you reach the end of your own tale.



Monday, November 10, 2014

The Story of A Lifetime Begins Here


Several times a year I give a talk on writing your memoir. I talk to small  groups, ten or twenty people, often at the local library or senior center. It's never the same talk; I find myself emphasizing some points, depending on how the discussion goes. 
I love meeting new people and hearing their stories. Out of twenty people, one or two have already started writing, or get started and follow up with me.

People always ask, "how do I get started?"

While you’re thinking about writing your memoir, and making notes on the backs of envelopes or starting Word docs here and there, find some time in your day to do this:
FIRST: read other people’s memoirs, at least half a dozen. You’re doing this to identify their voice.
SECOND: write every day. Journal. Pull out a notebook, grab a pen and write. No judgement, don’t show this writing to anyone. Twenty minutes a day, at least.
Doing these two things will set you on the right path. You’ll hear and identify other voices. Through consistent intuitive journaling you’ll finally start to hear and identify your own voice. 

Once you’ve trained yourself to listen TO yourself and really get to know you, the inciting incident in your life will leap out at you. You won’t be able to avoid it. The words will start tumbling out, more and more. You’ll find it difficult to leave the house without your pen and notebook. Or with your tablet and keyboard.  Because the words, rich and compelling, are bursting forth, demanding your attention.

There’s a lot more I can say about writing your memoir, all kinds of fine points to bring out, but if you’re not doing these two things I mentioned, you’re still daydreaming. Get off your keester and write! Don’t just read other people’s memoirs,  and skip the journaling. Don’t worry about how it looks or sounds, just write. As my high school tennis coach reminded us, “It’s all in the follow-through.”


THEN, if you’re doing these two things and writing every day, set yourself a goal to attend a writer’s conference in six months or a year.  Before you get to that writer’s conference, you’ll be prepared with a completed manuscript and a well-written pitch. More on that later. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Love Vs. Road Rage: Love Wins


I was very tired, driving up the New York Thruway. I’d worked all day on a client’s book, in the City, then gone to my son’s marvelous play at Hunter College, despite freezing, sub-zero temperatures. Now it was one in the morning. I wasn’t working the next day, so I just wanted to go home. And home was still an hour and a half away.

A huge truck loomed up behind me. I was in the middle lane, going the speed limit, but just barely. When it’s late at night and I’m really tired, I don’t speed. I don’t trust my reflexes. Exhaustion makes me cautious. Seeing the huge semi tractor-trailer fill up my rear view mirror, I reached out for the Lord and said a quick prayer. I didn’t want to accept resentment; I didn’t want to buy into his anger, or his demons.

The truck finally passed me. I kept driving, staying in the middle to avoid where the road splits off for north Jersey, then splits again for Suffern. I passed Sloatsburg, where people stop for coffee and fast food. Suddenly,  the semi was behind me again. He blasted his horn for a full minute. I glanced up quickly; no traffic  on my right, so I moved out of the middle lane quickly. The truck wasn’t behind me at that point; he was over in the fast lane, still blasting his horn. But I had my shield of faith in place, and there was no anger in me.

I marveled at the peace in my heart. This was a clear, beautiful gift from the Lord. It wasn’t just that I called myself back from demonic thoughts. Because of the Lord’s gift, I didn’t even go there. I felt so light and free, it was marvelous. I kept thanking the Lord all the way home. Peace brings such freedom and joy. ‘Much better to be there, in peace, than in turmoil and road rage.

Plus, my writing is more powerful when it comes from a place of love. Hate shrinks your world, cutting off possibilities, freedom, abundance, joy. Hate limits you; love expands your world encompassing stars millions of light-years away. Love knows no bounds.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Ephesians 6: Putting on the Full Armor

Ephesians 6 comes in handy this time of year, for chasing away the blues.  It's snowing (again) and I've just taken down the tree which is always kind of depressing. I mean, several of the kids are usually involved in setting up the tree. We pick out our tree just a few days before Christmas and its always a lot of fun. 
The first week of January, the kids have gone back to college or to work and I'm taking the tree apart by myself. Plus, snow's just not as exciting after Christmas. Now we're into the quietest two months of the year. But its also the time when I'm setting things up for the spring. I know I need to keep my focus, read lots of encouraging scripture, watch some funny movies and plan ahead.
I'm sitting down to work on a rough draft, following some coverage from Danny Manus' No Bullscript Consulting firm. www.nobullscript.net. The challenge is diving into this material and doing a major rewrite without losing the wonderful story. I know a lot of writers hate to change anything, but I'm ready to tear this work apart and let the chips fly where they may. This will be fun. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Write Every Day, Without Fail


As the year winds down, I am already scheduling for spring. One client will be speaking at a series of independent bookstores in the Philadelphia area, to publicize the latest edition of his book on Iran. Another agrees a "starter website" is needed to expand her organic produce business' online presence beyond Facebook. A third recognizes a fresh approach is needed to her autism book project. That project comes off my schedule for a few months. It is quickly replaced by other projects that need attention. Conversations with film producers continue on the screenplay. Short-term copywriting projects -- sales copy, fundraising letters, queries, one-sheets, pitches, etc. continue apace, mornings and evenings.

And somewhere in there, I find a tree, wrap a few presents and make it to choir practice.

Am I doing what the Lord calls me to? He says "write," every day without fail.  If I can capture a moment in someone's life, make them feel they are heard, that they matter, then that is a day well spent. So many times throughout the day He calls me to stop, in the moment, and listen.

I seldom feel I am doing enough. But sometimes I get a sense that I'm doing something right, that I am at least on the right track. And in that, there is peace. Praise God. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Dig Deep, Plant Dreams, Look Ahead


In researching independent bookstores to see which ones would be most receptive to new authors  (a favorite avocation; I have yet to run across a bookstore I didn't like.) I wandered far afield and discovered Richard Nordquist, an intriguing online resource for grammar and style and all things writing. Take a dip into the wealth of wit and wisdom he doles out via http://grammar.about.com/bio/Richard-Nordquist-22176.htm. Reading Professor Nordquist led me, via some well-placed links, into The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis and the Note-Books of Samuel Butler.  I love learning from the best writers!

And, like any writer, I love to read. November is the month to make up my list of 100 books to read over the next twelve months. Why not wait until New Year's? Too depressing. By the start of the new year, I like to be well on my way.  November, when I plant bulbs in hopes of seeing them blossom next spring, when I dig up my favorite herbs and bring them inside, is also the best time to make plans and set goals.
It usually takes me a few days to mull over the list, to see where it might take me. Three of the books are re-reads, but I need to hear them again. One book in particular, I'll never stop reading and re-reading, because there is so much to explore and meditate on within its pages. This year's crop is eclectic, but focuses on Screenwriting, Copywriting and Catholicism.  Here are the first 25 and yes, all non-fiction:


  1. Aristotle's Poetics
  2. Selling A Screenplay - Syd Field
  3. Secrets of a Freelance Writer - Bob Bly
  4. The Screenwriter's Workbook-Syd Field
  5. Great Leads -Masterson & Ford
  6. The Classics of Catholic Spirituality
  7. How To Write A Movie in 21 Days -Viki King
  8. Poem of the ManGod - Maria Valtota
  9. The Copywriter's Handbook - Bob Bly
  10. The Wealthy Freelancer - Gandia,Slaunwhite, Savage
  11. Words From Heaven - Blessed Virgin Mary
  12. The Hero With A Thousand Faces - Joseph Campbell
  13. Think And Grow Rich Action Pack - Napoleon Hill
  14. The Feynman Lectures on Physics - Richard Feynman
  15. Hiroshima - John Hershey
  16. Essays of E.B. White
  17. The Guns of August - Barbara Tuchman
  18. One Writer's Beginnings - Eudora Welty
  19. The Medusa and the Snail - Lewis Thomas
  20. Kind and Unusual Punishment- Jessica Mitford
  21. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - R. Pirsig
  22. My Life and Hard Times - James Thurber
  23. Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich
  24. Desert Solitaire - Edward Abbey
  25. Silent Spring - Rachel Carson