Memoirs of Summer 2020 Have a Familiar Ring

Cover of Loni Love memoir

What do Jessica Simpson, Madeleine Albright, Ihlan Omar, Colin Jost and a whole lot of people you’ve never heard of have in common? They’re all authors of memoirs published this summer. Coming out of one of the strangest summers we’ve ever experienced, what’s different about these memoirs compared with previous ones?

Nothing.

People write about themselves for many reasons, but by the time you publish a memoir it’s because you think someone may be interested in reading about how you solved a problem, came out the other side of a challenge, managed a particular situation or just plain lived as you. That’s as true in summer 2020 as in any other time.

For celebrity authors, the book will sell well if there’s a big reveal. Hey, Jessica Simpson, what was it like to date John Mayer? André Leon Talley, what’s it like to be a Black, gay fashion editor at Vogue?

No matter how fascinating the life, for a memoir to be a good read it still must be written well. As a comedian, Loni Love has an easy time making I Tried to Change So You Don’t Have To entertaining. TV and movie director Barry Sonnenfeld knows how to stage a scene, so it’s not much of a leap to exercise a flair for description while writing Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother. It’s right in journalist Eilene Zimmerman’s wheelhouse to report on her husband’s addiction in Smacked.

Google “memoirs summer 2020,” and you’ll pull up a long list of autobiographical tales that all sound tempting to take a look at. Many of the authors are first-timers, and one summer you may find yourself on one of those lists. Meanwhile, keep writing! And keep reading. These memoirs will inspire you to craft your story as candidly and compellingly as you can.

Music Triggers Memoir Stories

piano

Every now and then when you hear a song, does it take you back to a particular memory? I think we all have that experience. One of the biggest summer songs some years back was Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long,” which recounts the singer’s fun summer years ago when he met a girl and blasted songs on a Michigan lake beach. At the end, it includes this lyric: “Sometimes I’ll hear that song, and I’ll start to sing along, and think man I’d love to see that girl again.” It’s hearing the music that revives the emotion.

As we write our memoirs, we pay a lot of attention to the sense of sight, making sure to convey a scene just as we witnessed it. In some scenes, we also remember other senses. How did the meal taste? What were the aromas in the house at the time? Don’t forget the sense of hearing! As you write about an era of your life, listen to the music you were hearing at the time. This may trigger unique memories, and you can include some references in your memoir if you think it will help the reader to connect.

Music has always played a huge role in my life, so I really relate to someone who includes special songs when writing a memoir. From some pre-Beatles tunes right through to today’s top 40, songs provide a sort of déjà vu for me. Coloring your life story with details like that will make it interesting not only to read, but to write as well.

Image: ©Vladyslav Makarov

Happy U.S. Thanksgiving from Write My Memoirs!

Write My Memoirs Thanksgiving

Many of our members here on Write My Memoirs do not live in the United States, so they do not celebrate Thanksgiving. But the Thanksgiving sentiment is something that applies to memoirs no matter what your nationality. Thanksgiving brings up all sorts of memories.

  • For Americans who were alive in 1963, the memory of that Thanksgiving can be painful, because President Kennedy was murdered six days earlier. All Americans remember where they were when JFK was shot. I was in fifth grade, and we were sent home early. Walking home in the middle of the day, I was surrounded by an eerie silence. This is something that could go into a memoir. Even if you’re not American and weren’t living in the United States at the time, I’m sure the news reached you and touched you in some way.
  • Thanksgiving brings to mind family traditions in general. What are yours? Do you cook Thanksgiving dinner? Attend a family get-together? Is your autumn all about football, or raking leaves or getting away from the cold? Certainly Thanksgiving or any family celebration can be a focal point of a memoir.
  • The end of the year signals loss for many people. Those memories are punctuated by the contrast of holiday celebration. My own mother died on this date, November 25, and we held her funeral the day before Thanksgiving. The following day, it took until afternoon for any of us to realize it was Thanksgiving. We bought some deli turkey, ate sandwiches and cried and reminisced about Mom. Perhaps you have a November story to tell in your memoir.

Starting a memoir now is a great idea, because it’s a jumpstart on the New Year. A lot of times we start some goal on January 1 only to abandon it by February. Starting now gives you that necessary six weeks to get in the habit of writing so that you don’t disappoint yourself in 2020!

Happy Thanksgiving, memoir authors!

Lizzo Reflects a Common Memoir Theme: Life Happens, and You Fix It

There’s a song out right now, “Truth Hurts” by Lizzo, that has the lyric:
“Yeah, I got boy problems, that’s the human in me.
Bling bling, then I solve ’em, that’s the goddess in me.”

That way of thinking proves to be a catalyst for many memoir authors. Your problems happen to you through no fault of your own, but you manage to turn them around or triumph over them. You change the direction of your destiny through sheer will and hard work.

As a child you suffered neglect, poverty, family dysfunction, maybe abuse—and look at you now. You mended your broken parts and became a whole adult. Or you fell into a downward spiral of addiction until you kicked it for good.

Maybe the redemption wasn’t as dramatic. You were a clumsy kid who became an accomplished athlete. Or you left Wall Street to run a small farm and love it. Or you took a chance on surgery that cured a debilitating medical condition. It can even be what Lizzo says: you figured out what you were doing wrong in romance, and now you have a great relationship.

We’re driven to share our win against the odds or the formula we devised all on our own for repairing our situation. It’s not about bragging, just documenting. We write it all out to add weight to the fact that it happened. The writing provides a bit of therapy—or at least closure. It’s letting out a breath we’ve held for so long. Phew. We did it, and now we wrote about it. And we hope that sharing our story will help others facing a similar set of circumstances.

If you’re looking in the mirror and seeing someone you’re relieved to finally be, no wonder you want describe who you are now and how you got from then to now.

You Want to Write a Memoir, But You Don’t Know What to Write About

If you want to write a memoir, the topic is obvious: you! But it’s not always so simple, is it?

Most people who write memoirs have a burning desire to describe a particular episode in, or time period of, their life. Typically, these are stories of redemption. The author may have triumphed over a rough childhood or rebounded after an abusive marriage. Perhaps the author was a victim of a crime and wants to document the facts as well as the emotional fallout. The episode could be pivotal in a more positive way, such as winning a lottery, or the memoir could track a time period during which the author’s life took an unusual turn, such as adopting a dozen children.

But what if your life doesn’t offer any of that? Maybe you’ve lived what seems to be a pretty ordinary life. You just want to write a memoir because, unusual or not, your life is special to you and you’d like to write it all down.

One way to approach a pretty ordinary life story is to abandon the memoir format of choosing just one aspect of your life and, instead, write a more comprehensive autobiography. Many people want to leave something in writing so that their children and grandchildren know details about their heritage. In that case, a full autobiography makes sense. It will provide your descendants with the facts about the people who came before them. It will convey your impressions of what it was like to grow up in the time and place of your early years. It will explain why you made the choices that you made.

If you prefer to write a memoir, though, even what seems like an unexceptional life contains many interesting moments. Think through your life, and write down five to ten episodes that stand out. Does one jump out more than the others as either somewhat unusual or especially meaningful to your life? Or does a pattern emerge that can serve as a theme and include more than one episode? Analyze the way you handle challenges. Is there a lesson there? Examine what you’ve done right that has delivered good results for you—maybe that’s where the lesson lies. Perhaps a long relationship with a friend or relative holds an interesting dynamic.

If you want to write a memoir, you’ll find something to write about. Give it some real thought, and get going!

What Types of Memoirs Sell?

Getting published can feel like such a crap shoot. No wonder memoir writers doubt whether they have a story that’s compelling enough to appeal to publishers. At Write My Memoirs we believe that every life is interesting and worth documenting, and we help our writers self-publish so that they will have a book to hand out to friends and family. But getting a monetary offer from a publishing company that wants to publish your book is a whole different kettle of fish.

As I look over the 2019 “best memoirs” lists, I’m finding several common themes among the books that get published and then land on these lists. The books from 2019 tend to break down into four categories:

  1. Celebrity. Being famous is the obvious way to get a memoir published. Unfortunately, that route is not open to all of us. But you can be barely famous if you’re around celebrities all the time and will dish on things you know about them—or if you’re related to, or a good friend of, someone very famous. This summer saw the release of Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs, the daughter of Apple founder Steve Jobs. So her memoir sort of doubles as a biography of her famous dad, who’s the one readers are more interested in.
  2. Highly unusual life event. This seems to be the dominant category for the non-famous writer. If any segment of your life—job, childhood, illness—is way off the typical path, people will be interested in reading about it. Tara Westover’s Educated and Karen Keilt’s The Parrot’s Perch: A Memoir are good examples of this. And, as with celebrity, you can write from your own perspective if the person with the unusual life event is a close friend or relative, as Tom Weidlinger does about his father in The Restless Hungarian: Modernism, Madness, and The American Dream.
  3. Moderately unusual life event. Lots of people have had cancer, but writers keep finding new ways to share the experience. You can perhaps focus on the aspect that was the most unusual or talk about your very individual way of processing it. In No Happy Endings: A Memoir, author Nora McInerny tells what it’s like to lose a father, husband and unborn child all within a year. While that much loss all at once is not typical, it’s also not unheard of, but McInerny has a way of connecting with the reader. Another popular 2019 memoir, On Being Human: A Memoir of Waking Up, Living Real, and Listening Hard by Jennifer Pastiloff, takes the reader through the author’s experience of triumphing over her own difficulties by helping others heal at yoga retreats. There are tons of yoga teachers out there, but Pastiloff tells a new story.
  4. Fresh twist on ordinary life. Although this strikes me as the toughest category to break through in publishing, a very gifted writer can do it. You just have to be a keen observer of life. We all are players in some story every day; it’s the way you look at it that makes it uniquely interesting. While this type of memoir can be poignant, typically it’s written with humor. With this year’s release of Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, author Trevor Noah joins a long list of comedians who put their humorous spin on their life story. Sharing life’s true experiences in some form of memoir is a regular pastime for Mindy Kaling, Chelsea Handler and many others. And although the celebrity factor plays here, their humor and writing is part of what made them famous, so the books stand on their own.

A Memoir of Random Life Stories

One of our Write My Memoirs authors recently asked for our help in figuring out how to fashion a memoir that had no obvious structure. The author did what memoir authors are often advised to do: write out the stories you want to include without worrying about how to connect them. So now he had this collection of what he called anecdotes and vignettes, which he grouped into categories such as “childhood,” “school years,” “hobbies” and “pets.” He didn’t know what to do next. His stories didn’t naturally form a theme or involve turning points in his life. He wanted to share them as experiences, not to hand down life lessons. But he wanted his book to be interesting enough that people would read it story by story.

In my reply to this author, I reminded him that memoirs don’t come with rules. It’s your book and your life story; you get to determine how to present it. If the writing is good, the reader will want to continue on to the next story. Still, I had some suggestions for him to think about that may apply to anyone collecting life stories with no particular theme in mind:

  1. Retain the disconnect. Just place the stories in random order. In this structure, the introduction will be important. You can introduce your book as a window into your memory as you look back over your life. Whether funny, touching, bittersweet, sad or frightening, these episodes together create the ensemble of experiences that define your life.
  2. Make it a diary. Date the stories, arrange them in chronological order and present each one in a chapter in that order as if you’re writing a diary. When you’ve written all of them, an implied narrative may be revealed even if you don’t see that happening until you’ve finished.
  3. Present stories as letters. For each story, identify the person in your life who would want to know about that story, and write the story as if you’re writing a letter to that person. Maybe one story would be something you would write to your mother and another would be something you’d tell a friend. Perhaps you have a great story from high school that you would send to a teacher to thank the teacher for his/her part in how it worked out. Same with a job and a boss. One story could be a letter to your child explaining something about your earlier life, before the child was born; another could be a letter to a deceased grandparent giving a peek into how your life turned out. This sounds contrived, but with skill it could be really cool.
  4. Consider the reader’s perspective. Once you’ve written out all the stories, reexamine them from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know you. Sometimes we’re just too close to the work to be objective and see it with fresh eyes, and often there’s more of a theme than first appears. You don’t need a perfect narrative or story arc to still be able to link each story to the next. For example, let’s say you write a chapter about something that happened at your brother’s wedding. Then you can start the next chapter with, “My brother was long-settled into marriage by the time I saw him again, and did I have a story to tell him! I’d just returned from a business trip to Brazil, where I met a woman who made me think about marriage for myself.”

Patterns sometimes pop out during the editing process. So if you’re having the same dilemma as this author who wrote to us, keep writing and put the question of structure aside until you get to the editing stage. And remember that we’re here to help at that point—please consider our Write My Memoirs editing services if you’d like a professional eye on your work.

July 4 Fireworks Can Reignite Your Memoir Writing Process

Summertime brings a change of routine. If you have children or help to take care of grandchildren, you may find yourself spending extra hours with the kids. Whether you’re still working or not, you probably are scheduling some travel. Your priorities may shift to afford you more time to enjoy the warm outdoors. In the midst of all that, sitting down to write your memoir may fade into the background. Once you lose momentum, it can be difficult to get started again.

Then comes along Independence Day. It’s not one of those Monday holidays that began replacing special dates a few decades ago; it’s always on July 4, no matter when in the week that falls. And that’s not the only way it’s the same celebration as it’s always been for people living in the United States. Just as they did when we were growing up, communities sponsor all sorts of activities, from picnics and 5K runs to fairs and music, typically capping off the day with a fireworks display immediately after dark. Attending these events now, we’re reminded of the many Independence Days that preceded this July 4. We were children along a riverfront, teens at a beach or young parents with our own kids lying on our backs on a blanket in a park, staring straight up at the bursting, colorful shapes lighting up the sky.

Take all of those memories and follow them wherever they may lead you. Perhaps the next day you went back to a fun camp, a tough summer school course or the first job you ever had. You could have been celebrating from afar as you served in the military abroad or toured some exotic city on another continent. Or maybe the memory is bittersweet—the last July 4 fireworks that you enjoyed with a now deceased parent or friend.

Memoir authors often ask us how to trigger memories and how to choose the stories from their life to include in the memoir. Using something like July 4 as a starting point, you may be able to daydream and reminisce your way back to a selection of life episodes that will guide you through a few or more chapters. Happy 4th from Write My Memoirs!

How Should Your Memoir End?

When you (finally!) write the last chapter of your memoir, you have two decisions to make: at what point to stop writing, and what type of sentence will supply a fitting end to your story. I think the first decision is easier than the second.

If your memoir is more of a full autobiography, you’ll probably end it at the present time. If the story concerns one period of your life or just one episode of your life, you can either end it naturally when the time period or episode is complete, or you can jump ahead to present day and end with a sort of epitaph that lets the reader know how you feel about it now or how things turned out in the long run.

On her website Live Write Thrive, C.S. Lakin, author of The Memoir Workbook, writes, “You should end your story at the place where the lessons have hit home—when you’ve taken those epiphanies you’ve gleaned from your experiences and now use them to light the way forward.”

It’s tougher to settle on the one exact sentence to end your memoir that will feel satisfying to readers and, even better, stick with them a while. Last year, Buzzfeed asked people to submit great ending sentences from literature. Here are some from famous fictional works that strike me as instructive for a memoir:

After all…tomorrow is another day.—Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

“Darling,” replied Valentine, “has not the count just told us that all human wisdom is summed up in two words? — Wait and hope.”—The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Now I understand that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.—My Ántonia by Willa Cather

But now I know that our world is no more permanent than a wave rising on the ocean. Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.—Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

But I don’t think us feel old at all. And us so happy. Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt. Amen.—The Color Purple by Alice Walker

These aren’t just sentences; they’re poetry. They’re poignant and thoughtful. You should craft every sentence in your book with care, but the final sentence is even more special. Take time to come up with something that caps off your story just right.

Limiting the Focus of Your Memoir

Although I think it’s fine to use the words “memoir” and “autobiography” interchangeably, traditionally a memoir traces only a segment of your life, not your entire life the way an autobiography does. As I wrap up my time at the 2019 National Senior Games, which I hope you’ve been following on Instagram @writemymemoirs (also will soon post some on the Write My Memoirs page on Facebook), I’m thinking about all of the great stories these older athletes have to tell. When you have a defining hobby like sports competition, you can craft a memoir just around that.

The facts are handy—in the case of the Senior Games, the National Senior Games Association (NSGA) keeps all of the results online. U.S. Track and Field (USTAF), another sports competition organization, does the same. At this year’s Senior Games, there also are videos posted on YouTube by ProView Networks. The athletes tend to bring family members who take lots of pictures. Put it all together, and much of the research for a memoir like this is already at the author’s fingertips. To fill in the words, you go back into your memories of each medal you won, every city in which you competed, all of the friends you made and the inspiration you felt. I think the writing comes easier and is more enjoyable than with other types of memoirs that may require recalling painful incidents and challenges to overcome.

So think about some lifelong or recently discovered activity that has made a difference in your life. It might be something that you take for granted. Maybe everyone tells you what a great cook you are. You can build a memoir around food, family meals and the joy that brings you. Perhaps you have a specific hobby like photography, birdwatching or attending estate or “garage” sales. You may be in a bowling league that has met weekly for several decades, or you’ve participated in various book clubs over the years. This type of limited-topic memoir can be very interesting both to your family and to people engaged in a similar activity. It also can inspire other people to get involved with something they can love as much as you love yours. As always, we would love to help you bring your memoir to life! Email me at rosanne@writemymemoirs.com.