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Memoir Writing 101: Getting Started (part 2)

Updated: Oct 4




This post could also be called: What I Wish I Knew Before I Started Writing My Memoir. This is part two of a three-part series (previously posted on Writers in the Storm on June 14th, 2021).

Today I’m sharing Part 2, where we discuss with the same authors I wrote about, the positive things and surprises that came out of their memoir projects—the unintended consequences memoir writing can have in our lives.

When I work with memoir writers as their editor or writing coach, there is an inherent bond of trust that is forged. They promise to share with me their best work (which usually nobody has seen), and I promise to listen, read, and give them honest and helpful guidance that can make their manuscripts stronger. It’s a delicate act and not one for the faint of heart (for either of us). I know I’ll be treading through different and sometimes difficult stories: some painful, some rewarding, some that took years to write, and some that are born out of pure passion—so what I say, and how I say it, can break or strengthen a person’s soul, or both.

Universal Writing Truth

In all manuscript revision processes, there are hard moments of truth we need to acknowledge (things we missed or omitted, points we never got across, sections we could have written differently). But there are also moments of great joy, where the writer finds themselves in the words they’ve written and a sense of pride permeates the pages. The writer has found their voice and their story.

Here is part two of our conversation, printed here with their permission.


My Question: Can you tell me three positive outcomes that came from writing your memoir?


Christina (inspirational memoir): I found writing my memoir to be very therapeutic. It allowed me to understand and work through some of my traumas. That isn’t to say that I’ve completely fixed myself, but writing it all out was a good start. When I finally did go to counseling I knew exactly what I needed to work on and heal from. 

Writing also forced me to sit down and focus on one thing for a certain amount of time every day. I work as a certified nursing assistant, so my mind is usually racing and cluttered, but when I had to sit down and write, I had to be very intentional and grounded with what I was doing. This approach worked and I enjoyed the process very much.

I also kept a promise to myself:  That before I died that I would write a story about my life in hopes that it would inspire others out there who are going through a rough time. I also want to be able to share my story with my future children someday. When I finished writing it, I felt very proud of myself for not giving up, and for being honest with all the parts of my life. (Christina’s first book can be found here)


Takeaway:

Writing memoir can be therapeutic and grounding. Being disciplined, and writing every day, guarantees you’ll finish your manuscript.

Carolyn (memoir author about a 40-year friendship): The most positive thing that came from writing my memoir, was that I finished it and saw it through to publication (when I started writing it I wasn’t sure I’d be alive by the end due to many medical conditions), so that part went exceedingly well! My memoir is about a forty-year friendship I had with my neighbor Doris, and I didn’t realize how meaningful that friendship was until she passed away. It was this realization that moved me to write this memoir. I was afraid of how her family would take the book, but they had a very positive reaction, far better than I ever could have hoped for. (See Carolyn’s memoir here.)

All the artwork in the book is mine, and that is something that I am immensely proud of. This memoir has brought new friends into my life and discussing my book has deepened friendships. Hearing that someone has changed their thinking and felt something more deeply has been a powerful reward I never had expected to have.

Takeaway:

Memoir affects other people’s lives and deepens relationships.


Ed (historical memoir): What I enjoyed the most while I wrote my memoir was how many events I was able to recall triggered other memories. The “triggered memories” helped make connections to understand the “how” and “why” some things happened. I was able to see my past with different eyes, and that of my parents and grandparents with so much more perspective, curiosity, and compassion.

I also enjoyed visiting historical societies and learning the specifics of certain things. How and why an early 1900s photo of my grandparents had been staged a certain way. What every item in that image meant. Touching historical documents and artifacts from the late 1800s—like a stereoscope, or a Twinplex blade stropper like the one my grandfather used—was very moving as well. I was able to revisit my past in a very tangible way and appreciated every minute of it. (Ed’s memoir is here.)

Takeaway:

Memoir writing helps you develop perspective. It also makes you appreciate the small things in life.

Shelli (inspirational memoir): From what I’d heard about “editing” I didn’t think I would like or appreciate the suggestions and critique I received nearly as much as I did. This part of the writing process (revising my work after a developmental edit) was actually the MOST helpful and I appreciated it the most—even though sometimes it was very challenging to think through and figure out what I am/was really trying to say and how to say it more clearly.

I never realized how much chapter order—or the order of what is presented—can add to or detract from a story. The input I received on this was eye-opening for me.

I enjoyed experiencing firsthand that having someone edit your work isn’t just for the mechanics of writing, it can help you be a better writer. I wasn’t expecting to learn so much. It’s made me a better writer.


Takeaway:

Working with an editor can help you become a better writer.

5 Mindsets for a Successful Memoir Writing Experience

Writing a memoir can seem overwhelming but with a game plan in place, not only is it doable, but it can be extremely rewarding. What can increase our enjoyment of writing memoir is knowing that:

  1. Writing memoir is therapeutic, even healing (and not every memoir needs to be published!)

  2. Writing our memoir will likely trigger other memories, and make us appreciate our lives—and how far we’ve come—a lot more.

  3. Writing memoir allows us to see the past with a new set of eyes, gain perspective, even learn something new about ourselves/our life.

  4. Our memoir can have an effect on the lives of others.

  5. A good editor will correct more than just the mechanics of writing, they can help you strengthen your manuscript so your message is clear, but also reaches your intended readers.

Now it’s your turn. Are you writing a memoir? What positive experiences have you had so far?

[In part III of Memoir Writing 101, we will discuss different ways to revise our memoir, so stay tuned for the next installment]

Linda Ruggeri Author and Editor

Linda Ruggeri is a full-service editor and project manager based out of Los Angeles. She coauthored the historical memoir Stepping Into Rural Wisconsin: Grandpa Charly’s Life Vignettes from Prussia to the Midwest and can be found online at The Insightful Editor and on Instagram. Her new book Networking for Freelance Editors will be released this fall.

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