Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

Getting Feedback on Your Memoir Manuscript

Two little girls sharing a book, giving feedback on a memoir

Figure out how many people you will ask to read your book and what information you will want them to provide.

Are you thinking about asking someone to read your memoir manuscript? How many readers? How will you select them? How far into writing the manuscript will you wait before you start asking for feedback on your memoir?

This Story Will Not Go in My Memoir

Back in college, I had to make an oral presentation that would count for most of my grade in my “Myth Into Literature” class. Departing from the Greek, Roman and random other literary myths we were studying, me being me, I decided to focus on American figures—either totally mythical like Paul Bunyan or based in truth with mythical trimmings like Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crockett. It was very fun to research and write this, and I was happy to have settled on a topic that held my interest. I don’t know why I didn’t include a woman, but back then we didn’t put diversity into the equation, and that’s a whole other discussion.

I knew how to write a paper, but I was less confident that I could speak my way through a compelling presentation, so I was more concerned with the delivery than the content. I wanted to practice out loud to minimize my anxiety and avoid a shaky voice, and that would help most if I had a live audience. The night before my presentation, a friend agreed to watch me deliver it, and when I finished he proceeded to list all the problems with every aspect of the presentation. He addressed both the content and the delivery, and I don’t think he had a single positive comment about either one.

I was not going to stay up all night recreating it, and at that point I couldn’t take the emotional risk of trying again with a different friend, so I told myself all sorts of things to neutralize the bad review. My friend was a very smart guy who didn’t do college well; he was into at least year five of a four-year program and nowhere near graduating. I decided that this had to mean he didn’t intuitively understand what professors wanted. I, on the other hand, had good grades and especially did well on papers rather than tests. Or maybe he was lashing out for some reason—trying to undermine my success. He could have been tired, hungry, not feeling well, resentful at having to spend his evening on academics, whatever.

Be Confident in Yourself

Eventually I recovered enough to stop replaying his reaction in my mind. I read over my presentation one more time, and to me it sounded perfectly fine. Planning to trust in my own abilities, I just had to keep my nerves in check and deliver it, and the following day that’s what I did. I’m not sure what my grade was, but something like A minus rings a bell.

Now, it’s been a long time since college. Since I can barely remember what I did last week, this episode in college must have created a significant impact since it has stuck with me. My conclusion at the time: So much for second-guessing yourself after a trusted friend criticizes your work. I didn’t run my stuff by anyone after that. If I liked it, my own evaluation was good enough.

But Verify

Do not learn that lesson from me. In time, I switched my conclusion to just the opposite—I had needed more feedback, not less. If I’d asked another five people to listen, I’m guessing that I would have received enough positive reaction to consider the first reviewer just an outlier.

I don’t know if that small episode in my life influenced the way I advise memoir authors today, but I do lean toward asking a lot of people to read through the book—especially the beginning of the book. By definition, people are the public, and the public is probably where you’ll be marketing your memoir if you’re not writing only for your family and friends. People have all different strengths and interests, and even if you discount some of the comments that come your way, I think a range of opinions will benefit you.

The people you’ll ask will not, or at least not necessarily, be formal editors. You’ve probably heard them referred to as “beta readers.” The major question you want them to answer is very simple: Does each page make you want to turn to the next? Does each chapter leave you with curiosity about what will happen?

People to Choose

Let’s say you decide against crowdsourcing strangers online, which is probably a good decision because you don’t know where your book’s words could end up. So instead, you look around your own circle. Who will make a good reader to give you feedback?

  • People named in your memoir. I’m not talking about someone you document as doing great harm to you. Most authors hope that person will never see the book at all, much less ahead of publication. But people you mention just as playing a role in your life—parents, siblings, friends, colleagues—might describe an episode that will augment or differ from your memories. You’re better off knowing that before you publish your book. It could be a simple fact that you remembered wrong about the person or maybe details about an event that would add color to your narrative. If you interviewed someone for your book, I think that person should get a preview of how you wrote up the information, especially if you don’t want your book to harm your relationship with the person.
  • People who love you—or at least like you! It’s risky to ask someone to read your book, because criticism is hard to hear. Readers who care about you will lovingly use a velvet hammer in sharing any negative opinions.
  • Avid readers. People who read a lot can discern the difference between an amateurish book and one that sounds as if it were professionally written. They can identify holes in the narrative and spots that are repetitive. They can alert you to passages that sound forced or just unnatural. And they certainly can address the question about whether the read was compelling enough to make them want to finish the book.
  • People with a writing, editing or English literature background. You’re not asking anyone to edit your work. But someone who has formal training in writing or book development can identify why a section doesn’t work that well. Maybe there’s a run-on sentence, a dangling modifier or too much passive voice.

If you hear the same problem from several readers, take it seriously. If one person you trust a lot mentions something, give it a lot of thought as well even if no one else brings that up. Then, ultimately, just as I learned with my oral presentation in college, you have to trust your gut. It’s your story, and you get to tell it however you like.

Start Journaling Just In Case You Decide to Write a Memoir

One hand on a keyboard and the other holding a pen over paper

Your memory is probably not as good as you believe it is

If you think you may want to write a memoir someday and you’re not journaling, start now! Reflect on your day. Write about your views of the world right now. Describe where you live and how you feel about living there. Share your thoughts about the important people in your life. Next, start finding your memories. Relate how you feel now to previous events in your life. On your mother’s birthday, write about growing up with her as your mom. When you travel, write about the last time you visited that site or how it reminds you of previous trips you’ve made. Include names, dates and locations. All of this will be invaluable if you ever sit down to write your memoir.

Let’s say you’re in your 40s, and 20 years from now you decide to write your entire autobiography or a memoir focused on a particular time period of your life. A lot of people wouldn’t know where to start. When you have a journal, you know where to start—by rereading your own writings about your life.

Don’t Trust Your Memory

Everything that you say you’ll never forget? You will forget much of it. You will confuse the details of different events. You may even remember vivid dreams as reality. Later in your life when you compare notes with friends and siblings, you’ll be surprised how much your version of what happened differs from theirs.

Another way to keep your stories accurate is to tell them verbally. Talk to your children about your own childhood and reminisce with friends about old times. The more you tell your own stories, the more you’ll keep the facts straight. Then when you go to write them down, you won’t have to dig into your brain too far!

But journaling still works better than verbal storytelling. In addition to getting the facts down, journaling helps you understand your own emotions. That’s why therapists frequently suggest journaling. Whether you’re trying to manage stress, face a past traumatic event, work through relationship issues or jumpstart a creative project, writing can be a valuable tool to use toward your goal.

Your Story is More Than Just Facts

You can do a lot of research and fact-checking online, but not everything from decades ago is as available as you might expect. Local newspaper articles may be gone or accessible only with special permission. Records from your old job, school, camp or military unit may be hard to come by. So while you may have a difficult time collecting information from your life history, at least you can document everything happening from now on.

The “color” in a memoir comes from descriptions of everything surrounding the simple facts. All of that is important to note in your journal. Maybe you were involved in a crime or other event that made the newspapers, and you have all of the clippings from that time. But what were you wearing? What could you see from where you were? Trees or sand or houses? Indoor walls, furniture, staircases? What smells were you picking up? What sounds were you hearing—conversation or a dripping faucet or the eerie silence of falling snow? Your memoir will benefit from this level of detail.

A Journal Keeper is a Writer

The other big benefit that comes from journaling regularly is that it gets you into the habit of writing. When you do sit down to write your memoir, you won’t have to adjust your mindset. You’ll know where you sit to write, how much quiet you need, what objects or snacks you like having handy, and what time of day works best for you.

Also, you’ll have your technology figured out. When you think of journaling, you may picture a beautiful, leather-bound book just waiting for your handwritten entries and additional scrapbooking touches. But a keyboard works as well as a pen, and a computer keeps your work from getting burned or spilled on or misplaced. Email your work to yourself, save it to the cloud or copy it on a jump drive so that you won’t have the worry of losing it.

When you journal regularly, you’ll have confidence that you won’t fall to pieces when you see that first blank screen or page. You’ll already be a writer.

What Matthew Perry Taught Us About the Addiction Memoir Category

Matthew Perry's memoir

As fans continue to struggle with the death of Friends star Matthew Perry, much attention has centered on Perry’s memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, published just about exactly one year ago. The book earned generally favorable reviews, and Perry supported it with a series of televised interviews including, most notably, an hour-long conversation with Diane Sawyer on ABC.

Perry’s memoir could be called an “addiction memoir,” a “redemption memoir” or both. Many of you may be writing or hoping to write a similar type of book that chronicles your journey as you overcame an addiction or triumphed over a different life challenge. You may not be asked to do a lot of TV interviews after your memoir is published, but you can follow some of Perry’s writing concepts to make your book a good read.

What can we learn from Matthew Perry’s memoir? Quite a bit:

  1. Overcoming a huge obstacle makes you want to write a memoir. Beating addiction is necessary in order to live a long and fulfilling life, so you have a lot to celebrate if you’re able to conquer addiction. The natural motivation for many people to chronicle their journey is to help the next addict. In a quote and video clip that’s gone viral since Perry’s death, he tells an interviewer: “The best thing about me, bar none, is if someone comes up to me and says, ‘I can’t stop drinking, can you help me?’ I can say, ‘yes,’ and follow up and do it.” He established a clinic for addicted men, but his memoir also was part of that effort to help people.
  2. Perhaps even more than most memoir topics, this one requires utter candor. If you don’t want to feel vulnerable, you probably can’t write an addiction memoir. Perry is brutally honest, not concerned with whether he’s giving “Chandler” a bad name or anything like that. For readers to relate to your saga, you have to come across as baring all and hiding nothing.
  3. Don’t put off writing your memoir. No matter what the topic of your memoir, as soon as the arc of your story is resolved, start writing. You may live much longer than Matthew Perry, who was only 54 when he died. But life goes quickly, and lots of things can get in the way of finding enough time to write a book. While you’re still able to create and the story is fresh in your mind, start writing it. You don’t want to regret letting your life story go untold.
  4. You don’t have to wait for a final ending. No matter what your redemption story involves, you never really know whether you’ve ultimately succeeded in defeating your demons. If you came out of an abusive situation, you don’t know for sure that you won’t find yourself inadvertently stuck in another abusive relationship. If you’ve recovered from a serious illness such as cancer, you can’t be certain that you won’t have to battle it again someday. And if you’ve overcome addiction, there’s no guarantee that you won’t experience a relapse. Matthew Perry continued to have medical problems related to his previous drug and alcohol use. If you have a redemption story to tell, what you do know is that you landed on the other side of something frightening.
  5. When you talk about other people, keep the negativity confined to the facts. One big concern for many memoir authors is how much they can divulge about someone else’s bad behavior. As long as you stick to the truth as you remember it, you can write about someone else. Matthew Perry wrote about his childhood marked by his parents’ divorce. It didn’t make his parents look great, but that’s part of the creative freedom an author gets. However, he also made an unfunny, unnecessary and hurtful joke about Keanu Reeves that had nothing to do with the story he was telling. He received so much blowback from this throwaway line that he removed it from the book in subsequent printings. You don’t have to reveal every opinion you have about everyone you mention. You’re better off complimenting people if you choose, rolling out the facts, and letting your description of the action speak for itself rather than specifically trashing the people who make it into your memoir.
  6. Readers, including friends and family, may be more supportive than you think. Today, addiction doesn’t have the stigma it used to carry. If you feel compelled to tell your story, don’t be afraid to admit what you went through. Don’t feel embarrassed that you stayed with an abusive partner or gave into the temptation of alcohol or drugs. Remember that much of your audience is looking to you for guidance; they’re not out to criticize you. Complete honesty wins over a lot of people.

For many memoir authors, the catharsis gained from writing their story serves as some of the best therapy for getting on with their lives. You want people to know how you faced that challenge and what worked for you to reclaim your own life. Having that book as a reaffirmation that you didn’t back down, didn’t give up, is a reassuring reminder of how strong you are.

When and How to End Each Chapter of Your Memoir

Woman sitting on library floor with book

Different Writing Devices Produce Different Effects

How do you know at what point one chapter of your memoir ends and the next begins? Should you have sub-chapters within chapters? As with everything relating to memoir, you can make your own rules. But let’s take the second question first.

Be Disciplined and Edit

I’m not a fan of separating a memoir into three or four parts and then doing chapters within each part—or worse, letting each part go on and on without dividing it into chapters. If you’re writing a history of the world, maybe you want to split that up a bit, devoting Part I to the prehistoric world and subdividing that into the stone age, the bronze age and the iron age. But look, your memoir is not the history of the world. It’s a close look at a shorter time frame. Subcategories within categories can have the reader picturing your outline or storyboard, and listing Parts I, II and III can be kind of a spoiler, because readers see how your life divides up.

So let’s assume you go with ordinary chapters. According to Scribe Media, an average nonfiction book of 50,000 words typically has 12 chapters. The math of that comes to 4,166 words per chapter, or let’s call it 4,000 words per chapter. I think that’s a fair guideline but nothing you should consider carved in stone. If one chapter feels complete at 2,500 words and another not until 7,500 words, rely on your sense of what works.

Of course, you still should always look at your work with a critical eye. Will the reader want to slog through that longer-than-average chapter? Let’s say you devote a whole chapter to high school. Does it feel longer than the four years of high school seemed to last? If you didn’t get along with any of your teachers, maybe five examples are one too many and you can cut the weakest of them.

If you have an exceptionally short chapter, make sure the content justifies its own space. Perhaps the information can be woven throughout a few other chapters. Or for a simpler solution, maybe you can tack it onto the end of the previous chapter or the beginning of the next.

Organic Timing for a Chapter’s End

I haven’t experienced much of a struggle in determining when it’s time to end a chapter. As you get used to writing, your writer’s voice will just grow quiet when you’ve finished what you have to say about that segment of your memoir.

Endings are pretty obvious especially when you write your memoir in chronological order. If, again, the chapter is about high school, graduation or prom will pretty much cap it off. If the chapter is more of a theme that spans several time periods, such as your difficulties getting along with your sister, you will know when you’ve shared all the important points of that relationship.

Be Deliberate When Ending Each Chapter

It’s so helpful to read memoirs even as you write yours. When we read as readers, we’re interested in following the story. But when we read as writers, we’re also observing all the techniques that hook the reader, make the story flow, keep the information clear. So be mindful of the various ways a skilled author ends a chapter. You’ll discover that you have a choice at the end of each chapter. To take one of the common approaches to ending a chapter, you might:

  • Build suspense. This is probably the most common device. It doesn’t have to be a big cliffhanger, but you always want your reader to have trouble putting the book down. A chapter’s last sentence can easily make the reader curious about what will happen next. Try something like: “When I shoved the diploma into my jacket pocket, I felt the key I’d dropped into the pocket hours earlier and knew I had to figure out what door that key would open.”
  • Foreshadow. Similar to developing suspense, foreshadowing gives the reader a glimmer of what’s coming next but offers a bigger hint. You can foreshadow what’s coming immediately in the following chapter or in an episode that occurs several or more chapters later. In either case, try something like: “Even as I watched him drive away and my breathing finally returned to a normal pace, I had a feeling our paths would someday cross again.”
  • Review/reflect. Like a short story, a chapter can be its own vignette that circles back to a theme or message. Just be careful not to be preachy or “authorsplain.” If you’ve made your point through the narrative, you don’t have to boil down that point for the reader. But you still can drive it home a bit: “That quaint town helped me see beauty in nature and appreciate the value of every individual who entered my life, but it wasn’t going to hold me back from discovering what else was out there for me.”
  • Increase the reader’s emotional connection to you. A memoir can reveal your darker side, so you have to make sure you don’t turn the reader against you. Consider ending a particularly brutal chapter on an emotional note: “His reassuring nod nearly brought me to tears. It was all I needed to be sure that I was making the right decision—owning up to my mistakes while still following my heart.”
  • Put the reader in your shoes. To some extent, your entire memoir is intended to resonate with the reader. Support this by ending a chapter here and there with a sort of invitation to readers to consider what they would do in that position. You can combine this with building suspense: “The three options would lead me down completely different paths, and I knew I could choose only one of them.”
  • Summarize. I wouldn’t use this technique often, because you shouldn’t have to repeat what you’re trying to get across. But it does add variety to your chapters’ endings. It can be something like: “So that was it. I’d tried everything the doctors had recommended. I did the hard work in therapy, had the MRI to check for physical problems, propped myself up with a supportive community and even changed jobs. Nothing worked, and at this point I wanted to just give up.”

You can probably think of more types of chapter endings on your own. Keep in mind that in a first draft you don’t even need to be concerned with this. It comes with the polishing—that’s the great thing about a second draft! And once you get the hang of ending a chapter, it will flow for you. Writing is like anything else—practice improves your outcome.

When Chronology Gets in the Way of Your Memoir Narrative

Sign has arrows pointing to "Future" and Past"

How to take readers down rabbit holes they’ll follow and enjoy

Memoir authors are often concerned with how much to prioritize chronology. Should you roll out the events of your life in the order that they happened—chronologically? Is that too amateur a structure?

No, you can do it and sound professional, but telling your story strictly in order is probably not your best strategy. Even if you generally hold to the chronology, sometimes it feels natural to explain a little more about a topic that comes up. You find yourself going into the past to give the reader some background or jumping ahead to reveal how the situation was resolved. And then you may worry that it will be confusing for the reader.

No Rules, Full Freedom

There’s no one answer. A memoir is successful when it’s tightly written and keeps the reader turning pages. That’s obvious but still not easy to accomplish, and there’s just no rule book you can follow to make sure your memoir is a compelling read. Try to look at that in a positive way: it gives you the freedom to make your own rules for telling your life story.

Currently the trend is to begin your book at a pivotal point in your story. Create drama right away to get the reader invested in what will happen to you. After that, most authors cover ground that came before that pivotal incident, going back as far as childhood, but some write theme-based memoirs that draw from the entire time line as they cover each major point.

No matter what the structure, as you fold out your story you’ll likely find many times when you want to take a side road to focus on a particular topic or person. Stopping to follow the entire arc for that topic will save you from having to bring closure to that segment later on, when the topic itself is not as pertinent. Let’s look at a few examples.

Jumping Ahead

Maybe you’re writing about high school. You talk about a teacher who was helpful to you during a traumatic event or who was just an adult who influenced you in some significant way. Twenty years later, you run into that teacher and, in catching up, you learn that the teacher kept up on your progress by asking various people how you were doing. That encounter isn’t important enough for you to mention it when your narrative reaches that time in your life twenty years later.

But during the high school chapter, when you introduce readers to this teacher, it’s worth taking them down a quick “rabbit hole” to say something like: “After graduation I lost touch with Mrs. Jones and didn’t see her again until I was nearly 40, when I ran into her as I was doing errands in town. She knew all about me. She was candid about telling me she would periodically mention my name to people and ask them if they knew how I was doing. I took that to mean she still cared.”

Another reason to pause the chronology is to give the reader factual information that has little to do with you. Let’s say you talk about moving to a historic section of a city. As the years go on, you visit some of the landmarks and take visitors to the high spots, and each time the historic surroundings give you insight into your personal history. It can be cumbersome to say that as it happens chronologically. Instead, when you tell readers about your move to this new residence, you can go over some of the history, perhaps giving the city’s founding date, population and top tourist attractions. Within that context, you can inform readers of the illuminating effect living there had on your life. You may address a topic like this by both leaping ahead in your life and looking back in history.

Remembering the Past

At some points you’ll probably find the need to explain things about your past. A common topic is heritage. What were your parents like? When you begin your book from the beginning of your life, you can start off with your parents, how they met and some facts about their background. But if you start off at some later point in your life, you still might want readers to have information about your parents and general heritage.

This is when you’ll sharpen your segue skills. An easy way is to just devote a chapter, something like “My Parents,” and then you don’t need much of a segue—but you still need a reason to have that chapter appear. There are a lot of ways to create a segue. Consider:

  • I wanted so badly to break down and cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. In that way, I guess I’m a lot like my mother. While Mom could be emotional in shifting to anger on a dime, I never saw her get the least bit weepy. I know she felt sadness, but her stoic upbringing taught her that crying indicated weakness. While she didn’t talk about her parents, I found out later that…..
  • I wanted so badly to break down and cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. In that way, I was nothing like my father. No one else had a dad who cried in front of them. One time I found him sobbing…..
  • One look at that car brought me back to the day I turned 16. My dad had brought home the same type of old clunker, thinking I’d be excited to learn to drive on a car that would be all mine. I thought Dad was so clueless, but my father loved us in his own way. He grew up as an only child in……

It takes some practice to go back and forth in time as you write what probably will be a mostly chronological memoir. You already know that the first draft of your memoir is just the beginning of a work in progress. It won’t take forever to finish your memoir, but it probably will take some rewriting and editing before you get it the way you want it. The chronology is an important piece, so be patient with yourself as you get the hang of flitting here and there in writing about your life.

Why I Like Coaching Memoir Authors and Editing Memoirs

Photo of books published by Write My Memoirs

The rewards of owning a business like Write My Memoirs

We are now uploading Write My Memoirs blog posts to Substack. They also will continue to be posted on the Write My Memoirs website. We update our blog with a fresh post every two weeks, usually on Tuesday or Wednesday.

For Substack users unfamiliar with Write My Memoirs, I’m using this post to introduce myself and the work of my business. For those of you accustomed to receiving an email notice of the latest blog, Substack will continue to send you those emails.

Memoirs Should Not Be Tedious

Through Write My Memoirs, I have the opportunity to help people write and publish their life stories. Some authors write what’s considered more of a full autobiography, while others stay true to the memoir genre and chronicle one event, theme or time period in their life. Either way is fine; you should write the book you want your family to have or, perhaps, the one you hope to sell.

This is such rewarding work for me. Writing/editing is my interest, my talent and what I was trained to do—I have a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and have worked for decades as a professional writer and editor across many industries. I’ve also taught writing through a focus on grammar. But, while Write My Memoirs offers a go-at-your-own-pace grammar workshop, we don’t focus on grammar when helping someone complete a memoir. For many people, grammar is tedious. Writing a memoir should not be tedious.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Expressing your thoughts in writing is hard enough. Then add the aim of crafting a compelling narrative so that readers will want to continue turning the pages; even seasoned writers do not always hit that mark. It’s also challenging to dig into your own psyche, admit your mistakes or shortcomings, and reveal your vulnerability to others. When a memoir focuses on, or even just includes, a traumatic event, reliving that trauma is really difficult. Additional work is necessary in doing research to fill in memory gaps and fact-check names, dates and places. It’s easy for authors to get frustrated, impatient and, sometimes, disillusioned about whether they should even finish the task.

Helping Throughout the Memoir Writing Process

But if it were easy, these authors wouldn’t need a coach or editor. I’m so glad I’m able to help authors attain this goal. Let’s look at the process from beginning to end.

  1. Motivation. Simply having someone keeping you accountable can motivate you to produce work regularly—but, honestly, this is on you. I can help you design a writing schedule, and I can share a few tricks that have been shown to help people stick to the schedule, but somehow you have to get those fingers on the keyboard and put something up there on the screen. Together we can explore whether you work best with or without specific deadlines and how much nagging you’d like me to do. There’s just no one formula for everyone; staying motivated is a highly individual dynamic. It’s nice having a partner, though, and I’m in it with you all the way.
  2. Good writing. People like to point out all the terrible writing out there online, but I’m pretty impressed with the manuscripts I receive. So what if you write complimentary when you mean complementary or you’re partial to a haphazardly placed semicolon? I can fix those things. I find that, for first-time authors, their own memoir makes a perfect initial book, because it’s their heart that’s driving the effort. They’re writing from a deep place, so it comes out as authentic, passionate, relatable. What nonprofessionals need is polishing, which is what a professional editor can supply. The voice is still the author’s voice, but the readability improves.
  3. Logical organization. While a chronological memoir is fine, typically it’s more interesting to start a memoir at a pivotal moment and then trace what came before and follow up with what happened from that point forward. That takes a bit of finesse, which is where the coaching gets really helpful. Even a story written chronologically tends to need a little pause here and there to explain some background, expound about a specific character or jump ahead in one aspect to finish it up since it doesn’t much relate to the rest of the book.
  4. Publishing. It’s so sad when a manuscript sits in a drawer and never becomes a real book! I enjoy helping authors update, edit and finalize a previous attempt to get that work out of the drawer and onto the bookshelf. Write My Memoirs is partly a self-publishing business. We do all the preparation for our clients and can print up as many copies as our authors want, in any size, soft cover or hard cover. Speaking of covers, we help authors with cover design.

As the coaching, editing and publishing progress, I get to know the authors and enjoy the stories they tell. I’m with them as they complete this major goal. Often it’s just a few hundred pages in soft cover, but it’s their life right there in print. When their friends and family members learn that they’ve written up their lives, they all want copies. Reprints are among our most common requests. The authors then feel the result was worth the work, and I do, too.

Melissa Etheridge Explains How Memoir Writing Supports Healing After Tragedy

Memoir by Melissa Etheridge

Singer Melissa Etheridge has just written a memoir, Talking to My Angels, that includes revealing her grieving process after losing her son in 2020 to an opioid overdose. In a recent appearance on “Good Morning America,” Etheridge said her son’s death was one of the reasons she wanted to write the memoir.

Writing the memoir helped her with her grief, Etheridege said, in several ways:

  • Memoir is a vehicle for responding to people’s curiosity about you. Because Etheridge is a celebrity, she knew there would be questions about the circumstances surrounding her son’s death. “I knew as time went on that I would need to answer the questions, and I wanted to,” she said. “I’ve never really run away from truth, or life, as it’s happened, and I knew that I would need to explain this. So I thought that this might be a good time to do a book, so I can explain to people how I handled an addiction in the family, a death from the addiction in the family, and how we all got through it.”
  • For people going through something similar, memoir is a way to let them know they’re not alone. Etheridge explained, “I have seen, and know about, many parents who take on such a huge guilt and shame when one of their children becomes addicted, and has this problem, and dies from—this was fentanyl—and more and more this is happening. It can happen in any family. But the guilt and shame that so many take on…can really stop your own life.” She added that the person you lost doesn’t want you to stop your own life.
  • The process of writing is healing. Writing is “such a great healer,” she said. “To get it out…to then move on from it, not to just tell it over and over but to move on and say, ‘Yes, this happened.’”
  • Memoir teaches authors about themselves. “I have learned so much,” Etheridge said. “I learned how much I loved. Learning that can be so exhilarating. Wow, I loved that much that I hurt that much. And I love being human.”

Some of our Write My Memoirs members are finding a kind of solace just as Melissa Etheridge did—by writing out the facts of something unpleasant or tragic that happened to them and connecting with readers through their feelings about that time in their life. They’re discovering how powerful memoir is as a healing agent.

Why Do People Write Memoirs?

Person leaving footprints in the sand on a beach

Facebook has several memoir groups, and on one of them a member posted the question, “What is the primary reason for writing your memoir?” Quite a few people responded in the comments.

Memoir as a Family Legacy

Some reflected the thoughts of many of our Write My Memoirs members—to write a memoir, as one commenter put it, simply for “posterity.” Another person hoped her memoir would become a “family heirloom.” She noted, “If I never amass a fortune to bequeath, at least I will be able to share my story.” Similarly, someone said she was writing her memoir “for my kids and grandkids to have a record of me should they someday want to read it.”

Memoir to Honor Someone Close

Some memoirs have the theme of capturing the life of someone who had a significant impact on the memoir author. The memoirist may intend to honor a parent, mourn a child who died young, or maybe relate the story of a great friendship or marriage.

In the comments on the Facebook post, someone wrote about writing her memoir to bring awareness to deaths from Agent Orange. Her husband was a sailor in the US Navy who died from the effects of the chemical. Another said her memoir commemorated the short life of her sister, who died at 19, and someone else said she was documenting all the good advice from her mother.

Memoir to Serve as a Note of Caution

One typical reason people write memoirs is to help readers learn from the author’s mistakes or warn them about dangers the author encountered. A number of responses fell along this theme.

One commenter said she was writing her memoir to help people who have been shunned by their families. Her family shunned her after she left what she calls a religious cult. Another person wanted to caution people about “medical gaslighting” and the medical community not believing you when you describe symptoms. Yet another person had addicts for parents and crafted her memoir to offer ways to break the cycle of addiction.

Memoir to Heal, Share and Reflect

Many lives are infused with humor and interesting anecdotes, and if you’re sharing those stories you might as well compile them into a memoir. One commenter had 30 snippets of stories she’d written over the years, so she went through them and laced them together. Another wanted to relate her quirky tales from being a lesbian southern belle. One said he simply wanted “to tell the world my fascinating story,” while another wanted to write about his “unusual existence.”

One commenter wanted to write her memoir before it was too late. “I feel the need to tell my story for future generations,” she said. “As a child during the Cold War, I was part of an exodus of unaccompanied children from Cuba fleeing Communism….We are elderly now. If we don’t write about it our stories will die with us.”

A couple of commenters mentioned writing as a way to heal; memoirs are well known to help people heal from trauma or work through grief. One commenter said she was motivated “for self-healing and to share life experiences.” Another said sharing her life story was “nothing short of transformation, for myself and others.”

For some people, writing a book is a goal. One commenter said she wrote her memoir “to prove I could do it. I first dreamt about publishing a book when I was a little girl.”

And for people who are natural writers, a memoir is an obvious task. “I write because writers can’t not write,” one commenter remarked. “And I write my story because I believe we all have stories that matter.” At Write My Memoirs, we agree with that!

5 Ways Your Memoir Will Be Unique

Unique memoir standing out from other books on library racks

A lot of memoir authors worry that they have nothing new to add to the nonfiction literary category and will not have a unique memoir. At Write My Memoirs, we feel that concern is unnecessary. We assure you that your memoir will be unique! Here are five reasons.

  1. Your life is unique, so any chronicle of your life, by definition, will be unlike any other. You can think about the person closest to you—maybe a sibling, whose parents are the same as yours and who grew up in the same place as you, under at some points identical circumstances. And yet you know that your life has not mirrored any of your siblings’ lives. You are you—different from everyone else. Your story is yours alone.
  2. No other memoir includes your specific anecdotes. The aspect of your life on which you’re focusing is narrower than your full life, so you’ll be taking a close look at small incidents. Those various stories came together in your life but no other life. So much of life is happenstance. You happened to have met someone. It happened to have rained that day. Some pivotal event happened to have set your journey off on a new direction. It happened to you, but not to other people.
  3. Every relationship is different, and relationships are a big part of most memoirs. Even within your own set of relationships, each one has its own dynamic. As you write your memoir, keep that in mind and don’t minimize it. Think about the way you act around different people and how they’ve each influenced you and impacted your life. Don’t assume the reader has had the same relationship with a parent or a colleague or a friend that you have.
  4. Your surroundings are unique. From the time period to the location, your story is set against a background that will not replicate anyone else’s. You were the one born on your birthday, living in your home somewhere on the map and going through life as it was during that era at that spot.
  5. Your writing voice is unique. This is important! Two people can report on the same event, and the results will not be the same. Writing styles vary, and so do the choices of which facts, players and issues to include. The way you roll out a narrative is all your own. Like a vocal voice, a writer’s voice is special to each person.

So of all the concerns that might trip you up—finding the time to write, facing past traumatic incidents, fearing you’ll hurt people’s feelings with your candor—don’t worry that your memoir won’t be unique. There absolutely will be no other story like it.

Writing Dialogue in Your Memoir

Two people sitting on outside steps having dialogue

You don’t have to write very far into your memoir before you realize that dialogue can be a handy tool for you to convey action, emotion, passage of time and more. But even though you’ve read lots of books that have people talking to each other, writing dialogue in your memoir may not come naturally to you.

Sample from F. Scott Fitzgerald

Let’s analyze some dialogue from a classic: The Great Gatsby:

“Why candles?” objected Daisy, frowning. She snapped them out with her fingers. “In two weeks it’ll be the longest day in the year.” She looked at us all radiantly. “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.”

“We ought to plan something,” yawned Miss Baker, sitting down at the table as if she were getting into bed.

“All right,” said Daisy. “What’ll we plan?” She turned to me helplessly. “What do people plan?” Before I could answer her eyes fastened with an awed expression on her little finger.

“Look!” she complained. “I hurt it”

We all looked—the knuckle was black and blue.

“You did it, Tom,” she said accusingly. “I know you didn’t mean to but you did do it. That’s what I get for marrying a brute of a man, a great big hulking physical specimen of a—”

“I hate that word hulking,” objected Tom crossly, “even in kidding.”

“Hulking,” insisted Daisy.

4 Tips in Writing Dialogue

What can we learn from that passage? A lot!

1. When you insert dialogue from a new speaker, start a new paragraph. Sometimes, this applies even when it’s the same speaker. Consider this part:

“All right,” said Daisy. “What’ll we plan?” She turned to me helplessly. “What do people plan?” Before I could answer her eyes fastened with an awed expression on her little finger.

“Look!” she complained. “I hurt it”

Daisy is still the person speaking, but there’s a sentence from the narrator before Daisy’s next line. Also, she changes the subject. Because of those two reasons, Fitzgerald starts a new paragraph for “Look!”

2. Place the attribution either in the middle or at the end of the first sentence. Typically, you mention who’s saying the sentence at the end of it. But you can see in this sentence how you can place the attribution where you might have a comma or force a pause for effect:

“I hate that word hulking,” objected Tom crossly, “even in kidding.”

When you split the sentence like that, keep the second part lower-case. Another way to create the same feeling is to chop off the second part so that it’s just a sentence fragment. In that case, make the first word uppercase:

“I hate that word hulking,” objected Tom crossly. “Even in kidding.”

A common error is to go on for two or three sentences before attribution. For example, this does not work:

“Look! I hurt it,” she complained.

You can do:

“Look, I hurt it!” she complained. But you can’t have two separate sentences before attribution.

3.  There are lots of synonyms for “said” as well as words that inherently carry more meaning. Fitzgerald peppers this passage with a “yawned,” a “complained,” an “insisted,” and two uses of “objected,” in addition to going with “said” twice. Here and there he adds a modifier as well—objected Daisy, frowning; she said accusingly; objected Tom crossly. Don’t be afraid to help the reader by describing the way someone says something. Just don’t overdo it. The reader figures it out.

4. You can interrupt the quote with a narrative sentence or two to provide additional facts or description. This passage has three examples—“She snapped them out with her fingers”; “She looked at us all radiantly”; and “She turned to me helplessly.”

Punctuation in Dialogue

In dialogue, all punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. When you attribute after the first sentence, you end that sentence with comma-close-quote and place the period after the attribution. If the person asks a question or says something excitedly, the question mark or exclamation point goes inside the quotes.

This is different from quoting something within a question you’re asking or an exclamatory statement you’re making. Examples:

Can you believe she said, “I don’t remember any of that”?

I can’t believe she said, “I don’t remember any of that”!

Why Include Dialogue in a Memoir

You can avoid all dialogue and convey what people said within an ordinary narrative:

Snapping out the candles, Daisy asked why we needed them when it was so close to the longest day of the year, adding that she always looked forward to the longest day of the year but typically would miss its significance when it arrived. Miss Baker suggested planning something to mark that day this year. Daisy agreed and began a discussion of what to plan when suddenly her attention shifted to her injured finger.

Do you see why that’s not as good as dialogue? It’s more tedious, less lively. You don’t develop the same understanding of the characters as you do when you start hearing their voices in your head. Your memoir isn’t that different from a novel. Use dialogue where appropriate, and know how to use it when you do.



Then just set up a chapter and start writing your memoir. Don’t worry about rules. There are no rules to writing your memoir; there are only trends. These trends are based on techniques and features identified in current top-selling memoirs. At best, they’re the flavor of the month. If you’re capturing your life in print for your family, for your own gratification or to inspire readers, rather than aiming to set off Hollywood screenplay bidding wars, these trends don’t even apply to you. You’ll write the memoir that suits you best, and it will be timeless, not trend-driven.There are no rules, but there are four steps:

1. Theme/framework
2. Writing
3. Editing/polishing
4. Self-publishing

You’ve researched this, too, and you’ve been shocked at the price for getting help with any one of those steps, much less all four. That’s because most memoir sites promise to commercialize your work. They’ll follow a formula based on current memoir trends, because they want to convince you that they can turn your memoir into a best-seller. These sites overwhelm you with unnecessary information not to help you, the memoir author, but to address Search Engine Optimization (SEO) algorithms so they can sell more.

That’s not what we do at Write My Memoirs. Our small community of coaches, writers and editors are every bit as skilled as any you’ll find, and we charge appropriately for their expertise and the time they’ll spend helping you craft a compelling, enjoyable read. But you won’t pay an upcharge for other websites’ commercialization, the marketing that follows, and the pages of intimidating “advice.” You can sell your book if you like—we have ISBNs available for you—but our organic process of capturing your story takes a noncommercial path.

If you want help with any or all of the four steps above, choose from our services or save money by selecting one of our packages. If you’d like to talk about what’s right for you, schedule a call. One year from now, you can be holding your published memoir in your hand. And at that point, it will be a big deal!