Soul-Searching Autobiography Can Reveal Author’s Flaws

blog12Andy Williams, one of my favorite crooners, has a new memoir on the shelves, Moon River and Me. A reader who reviewed it on wrote: “This autobiography has captured a whole, not publically well known, side of one of the greatest entertainers of all time. And above all else, I came away with an appreciation for what a really good man there has been behind the public persona. This is a story of an American Dream realized, a man, like many of us, who dedicated too much to his career and not enough to his family, who has the strength and courage to admit it.???

I like the “strength and courage??? characterization. Writing your life story in some ways is quite a brave undertaking. Even though you actually lived the events that you’re putting into words, delving deeply into each chapter may threaten your own image of yourself. I wonder how many people begin writing their memoirs only to discover aspects of their lives that shine an unflattering light on some of their choices. Looking back less than fondly on spending too little time with family, as Andy Williams does in his memoir, is probably a fairly common regret to express.

In this way, writing your memoirs can be cathartic: a good exercise in acknowledging your faults and flaws. In addition, infusing some honest evaluation will win over readers quicker than simply providing tale after tale of success, achievement and conquest.

This is Not

blog11Here at WriteMyMemoirs, we have no truth police. If you choose, you can write up your imaginary experiences as a superhero and try to pass it off as your autobiography. But I have to say that I don’t relate to that level of “embellishment.???

At, columnist Benjamin Radford provides a short list of some high-profile faked autobiographies. Written last January, the column was timely because of the revelation that highly publicized Angel at the Fence, the story of a connection made by a young boy and girl during the Holocaust miraculously rekindled many years later as a romance and marriage, was a complete fabrication. Author Herman Rosenblat did not in truth first meet his wife Roma when she threw apples across a fence in Nazi Germany. What Oprah labeled “the greatest love story??? was more like the greatest sucker punch.

But it certainly wasn’t the only faked bio, not even the first one that fooled Oprah, who was an early champion of James Frey’s largely invented A Million Little Pieces. Our assumption with WriteMyMemoirs has been that members would be pursuing nonfiction writing. But, hey, if you want to make up the whole thing, just remember to call it what it is: a piece of pure, if entertaining, fiction.

Photo: © Gataloca

Correct Apostrophe Use in Writing Memoirs

blog10As you write your memoirs, you may have questions about grammar and sentence construction. I’m a writer and editor by profession, and I teach an adult education writing class. On this blog I’ll try to help you with the most common writing difficulties. One mistake I see over and over is apostrophe misuse, particularly with regard to pronouns.

The confusion stems from our use of apostrophes to show possession as in, “John’s autobiography is very interesting.??? But notice what happens when we replace “John??? with a pronoun: “His autobiography is very interesting.??? The apostrophe disappears, because possessive pronouns like “his??? do not use apostrophes. “It,??? “your??? and “whose” are pronouns, too, so as possessives—indicating belonging to someone or something— they need no apostrophe: “The cat licked its paws???; “I enjoyed reading your memoirs; Whose book is this????

However, contractions also take apostrophes: “Sue’s [Sue has] finished writing her memoirs.??? When we replace “Sue??? with a pronoun, this time the apostrophe remains: “She’s [She has] finished writing her memoirs.??? All contractions with pronouns work the same way: “It’s [It has] been a nice day???; “You’re [You are] doing a great job???; Who’s [Who is] at the door?” So when you want to use a confusing pronoun—its/it’s; your/yours/you’re; their/theirs/they’re; whose/who’s—determine whether to apply the apostrophe form by testing whether you can replace the word with two words meaning the same thing.

Photo: © Alexandr Tkachuk

Never Too Early to Start on Your Memoirs

blog9At 17, Olympic gymnast and “Dancing With the Stars??? champ Shawn Johnson announced that she’s considering writing a sequel to her 2008 photo memoir. If you haven’t had quite the blue-ribbon-packed life that Shawn has, you probably aren’t thinking about publishing your life story once, much less twice, while still in your teens. But you might not want to wait until your golden years, either.

For some people, a memoir is the natural extension of the baby book they’ve been keeping after the birth of their children. They’ve gotten accustomed to documenting the little events that occur, the triumphs and the disappointments, and when baby outgrows the baby book they simply either continue to keep a record for the child or transfer the energy to their own journaling. If not a birth, perhaps a graduation, new career, marriage, illness, death of a loved one, move to a new city or major birthday is what triggers the desire to get the facts down or express your impressions and emotions.

I think starting early is a great idea. First of all, the memory is so unreliable! Time robs us of the details that bring texture to daily life, and sometimes we even forget the who/what/where/when essentials. Second, starting early keeps us from being overwhelmed when faced with an entire lifetime to recapture. And the process of memoir writing is so rewarding that once they get going, a lot of people wish they’d given themselves the gift of reflection sooner. No time like the present!

Candor in Memoirs: Don’t Ask, but Do Tell?

blog8You’ve probably heard about the disturbing revelations Mackenzie Phillips bares in her new memoir. According to reports, many of her family members are not pleased that she decided to do this, and some don’t even believe her account of the events. As you sit down to write your own life story, are there details you’d like to include that you feel might hurt family members or friends?

You may find that this is one of the toughest decisions you’ll make as you proceed with your writing. Maybe your daughter doesn’t want your grandson to know that you smoked when you were a teenager. Perhaps apprising everyone about an early first marriage will be upsetting to them. Or you may be second-guessing a passage that, in simply communicating your impressions and opinions, recalls Cousin Pat in a less-than-flattering description. Maybe the “dirty laundry??? you’re airing isn’t even your own, and someone will feel betrayed that you’ve let a cat out of the bag.

Only you can weigh other people’s feelings against how important it is to you to be fully candid as you write your memoirs. Your name is on this, and others all have the same opportunity to state their own case if they so choose. Here at WriteMyMemoirs, we’d love to hear how our autobiographers are handling this aspect. Comment on this post if you’d like to share.

Photo: © Renata Osinska

Written Memoir Could Add Detail to Vintage Wedding Album

blog7I recently attended a wedding shower where the two extended families met for the first time. To help everyone get to know each other, the host pulled out the wedding album of the bride-to-be’s grandparents. That ceremony took place in the early 1950s, and the album was really charming. The cars, clothes and hairstyles indicated an earlier era, of course, but the event was still modern enough that we all could relate.

Because the grandparents are now deceased, it was left to the next generation to narrate the story, provide background information and match names to the faces in the photos. They did a pretty good job, too! Still, I couldn’t help but think how much more complete the experience would be if the grandparents themselves had left something in writing about that special day in their lives. Here we were, more than a half-century later, about to celebrate the marriage of their granddaughter. It would be wonderful to be able to pass around a personal memoir detailing all of those great family stories that otherwise may not be passed down at all.

Look through your own wedding album—at the flowers and food and people sharing the day with you—and let it inspire you to write down your thoughts for the generations that follow. When it comes time for your grandchildren and their grandchildren to walk down the aisle, they’ll feel your presence as they carry on the “wedding culture??? of the family.

Photo: © Olga Drozdova

Honor Your Pets in Your Memoirs

blog6I have a friend who just moved to a place that doesn’t allow pets, so she left behind, with trustworthy caretakers, a couple of cats she absolutely adores and misses terribly. This made me realize how large a role pets play in a lot of people’s lives. I urge you to include them in your memoirs.

In fact, among the various suggestions we make for structuring your life story—chronological is the most common, but view some other structure ideas for writing memoirs here—I’d like to add using each of your pets as a chapter. That doesn’t mean the chapter would revolve solely, or even primarily, around the pet. Rather, each pet would signify a changing era in your life. Perhaps you grew up caring for a frog, spent time in the army scratching behind the ears of a roaming dog and raised your children to ride horses. You could reminisce about how each treasured animal affected you, or just recall the events that took place when your furry, scaly or feathered pal was in your life.

Even without pets of my own, I look back fondly on various other people’s pets, from my brother’s Bichon “Sugar??? (photo here) and a friend’s great, wolflike mutt “Cooper??? to one sister-in-law’s Black Lab “Woodstock??? and another’s Maltese “Dickens.??? And my cat-loving friend? Years ago she had a sultry black feline named “Obadiah??? who always will have a piece of my heart and, I’m certain, will rate a mention in her memoirs.

Dick Cheney’s Memoir Highly Anticipated

blog4Last time I talked about why it might be appropriate for some people to infuse a little politics in their memoirs. But when you’re a political figure, obviously your autobiography will focus heavily on your views. The next one to offer up this type of book is Former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Scheduled for publication in 2011 by Threshold Editions, the memoir will be Cheney’s first book about his long career in government. Cheney recently told the AP, “I’m persuaded there are a lot of interesting stories that ought to be told. I want my grandkids, 20 or 30 years from now, to be able to read it and understand what I did, and why I did it.??? At Write My Memoirs, we hear that same sentiment from the everyday folk who use our site. Our members want their grandchildren to understand what life was like for them, and that can include the reasoning behind their opinions, voting or perhaps political activism.

Interestingly, it’s been reported that Cheney’s daughter Liz is the one who put the “bug in his ear??? about writing an autobiography. Liz Cheney told the Washington Post, “You have to think about his love of history.??? Backing up her dad’s own statement about the motivation behind writing it, she adds, “When he thinks about this memoir, he thinks about it as a book his grandchildren will read.???

A Proper Memoir: Fact or Opinion?

blog3When I was in the grocery store the other day I noticed an older man involved in a spirited political discussion—with the fruit-stacking guy! Maybe this man was a regular at the store, and the pair had gotten to know each other pretty well over the years. Still, the employee, after all, had fruit to stack, and perhaps the shopper would enjoy not only a wider audience but a structured outlet for expressing himself. Instead of cornering the fruit clerk, I thought: this guy should write a memoir!

Before that happened, I considered a memoir or an autobiography to be a collection of facts—with feeling, yes, but not so much a walk through the person’s politics. But I saw the passion of this man’s discourse and the sincerity in his face as he waved his arms around explaining his views. I realized that, to many people, their politics are as much a part of their life story as the dates of their big events.

If you’re a politically minded person, you might want to devote a chapter just to your opinions. Or maybe you’ll freely sprinkle those views throughout your autobiography. I think it gives readers (even those it might offend!) a real sense of who you are—-which is kind of important in a memoir! So maybe a memoir can be both fact and opinion. Check back next time, when I’ll report on one famous figure who will soon release this type of autobiography.

Photo: ©Serghei Starus

The Examined Life: Worth Living

Welcome to the new WriteMyMemoirs blog. As a member of the WriteMyMemoirs family, you’ve made the decision to channel your life’s memories into a written product—perhaps just for your own satisfaction but, more likely, to have your voice reach the generations that follow. Of course, making that decision is only a first step. Will you stay on task as you recount each chapter of your life? It’s easy to lose focus or get preoccupied with other interests and obligations.

Here on the blog, you can always stop by for motivation. Share a thought or ask a question. I’ll try to address the topics you want to discuss, and as others join in we’ll become a community.

I can’t say I’ve ever written my own memoirs. Maybe someday! But I have written a lot of other pieces and also teach grammar and writing to adults. I’ll try to help you navigate this effort, and don’t be surprised if I use the blog to talk about my favorite (or least favorite!) grammar pitfalls. I applaud your determination to undertake what I hope will be an extremely rewarding process for you, resulting in a valuable source of information and inspiration for your readers.