Get a DNA Test Before You Finish Your Memoir

In the process of writing your memoir, you’re probably researching a bit of your background. You may be checking your parents’ or grandparents’ birthplaces. Maybe you’re asking relatives to fill in a family tree so that you know exactly how you’re related to your cousins. This is what memoir authors have always done. Today you have another tool: the DNA test.

A memoir published earlier this year, Inheritance: A Memoir Of Genealogy, Paternity, And Love, addresses author Dani Shapiro’s discovery that the man who raised her was not her biological father. Shapiro traces her reaction from learning this information through fully processing it and then reflecting on it. She discovered this fact when she used one of the DNA testing companies such as the popular 123andMe or AncestryDNA. Shapiro wasn’t the product of an affair, so she didn’t have to deal with a parent’s infidelity or secret life. She’d known that her parents had sought help for infertility, and she’d been told that her mother had been artificially inseminated with her father’s sperm. It turns out that she came about through donor sperm; eventually Shapiro met her biological father. Her book explores the dynamics of parenthood and identity as she grappled with a fresh view of both.

So think about taking one of these tests. The company will give you the names of people who match you, and you may find out that you share DNA with someone you weren’t expecting to turn up as a relative. Perhaps you could contact the person and expand your knowledge of your biological family either just for your own background information or for inclusion in your story. Like Shapiro, you may decide that the new knowledge provides insight for you and has become an important enough piece of your identity to build the book around it—or maybe just a chapter. As commercials for these companies show, maybe you always thought your family hailed from one country and now you know that there’s a broader mix or you’re from a different part of the world altogether.

Also consider the health information available through these testing services. If you have a genetic condition you weren’t aware of, that could affect your outlook about the future or just become something you’ll want to share in your book. In all likelihood, the test will confirm what you already know, both about your health and your genealogy. But writing a memoir is a big project, and you might as well gather as much information as you can before you put your book out there as the truth about you.

Do Facts Matter in a Memoir?

Some people have diaries to source, but many memoir authors rely on their memories to tell the stories of their lives. You could be trying to remember details of events that took place decades ago. How much time and effort should you put into making sure you get your facts straight?

There’s no perfect answer to this, but here are some guidelines:

  • Interview friends and relatives to find out whether they recall events the same way you do. You’ll probably learn a lot from this exercise. Often, some of the key people have died by the time you write your memoir, so interview the players as soon as you think you may ever want to capture your life’s stories. And even if you don’t have a diary, they might have one to share with you.
  • Check pubic records for birth dates, weather conditions and other information that will help you put together a time line, get people’s ages accurate when you set them into a story and ensure that your descriptions make historical sense.
  • Research online accounts of the locations you talk about for clues about terrain, customs, business names and other details that may have faded from your memory.
  • Consider omitting anecdotes if you’re sketchy on the specifics.
  • On the other hand, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the near-perfect. If you can’t be sure of a few things, you still can tell the story.
  • Use asterisks to include footnotes with uncheckable details that someone you’ve interviewed disagrees with, such as how long the labor was or who caught the biggest fish on that summer trip.
  • Feel relatively free to add “color” to your story without being certain you’re presenting it factually. As long as you capture the true intent of what someone said, you don’t need the person’s exact wording; you still can put quotation marks around the words. You can set a story’s backdrop with detail about what you saw, smelled and heard without worrying that it all has to be exactly right—but it does have to convey the emotional impact in the way it did for you that day.

It’s impossible to remember every moment of your life, even the important ones. You’ll remember how you felt, and aim to make the reader feel the same way. But you can describe the surroundings without worrying about getting everything 100 percent accurate. Confirm any facts you can, ask others for input and write your story from your heart, because it’s your story to tell.

Attracting a Publisher: Advice from a Memoir Author Who Did It

Linda Strader was getting nothing but rejections when she pitched her memoir to agents and publishers. But a couple of rejection letters became her saving grace when she took their advice:

  • “Memoirs need to be universal—they need to resonate with the reader.”
  • “A memoir must read like a novel.”

After a total rewrite based on that information, Strader’s memoir, Summers of Fire, is now on bookstore shelves, thanks to an acceptance from publisher Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company. At editingpen.net, Strader shares tips for making it happen:

  1. Give the publishers what they want. They know what sells. Go to publishers’ websites and read best-selling memoirs by people who are not famous.
  2. Make your memoir a story. It’s not an essay. You need a beginning, middle and end. And, of course, show, don’t tell. You’ve heard this before, but Strader provides the contrast. Telling, she writes, sounds like: “I walked into the hospital to see my sick mother. She lay in bed, unable to speak. I never did like hospitals, so it was hard for me to be there.” But showing lights up all the senses: “The minute I walked into the hospital, the smell of disinfectant about knocked me over. That odor always made me remember the day my dad died, and now it looked like my mom would follow. When I entered her room, I detected the odor of urine and medicine. Her face was gray, her eyelids closed, but her hair had been carefully combed into her favorite style. A heart monitor bleeped steadily; the oxygen tank whooshed. My mom was leaving me and there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it—and I was angry.”
  3. Specify what was at stake, the choices you made and how they changed you. Everyone makes decisions, and facing those forks in the road are what can make readers relate to your experiences.
  4. Be yourself. Write from your heart, reveal your true self, show your vulnerability, expose your fears.

If you do all of that, Strader concludes, “readers will relate.” And when readers can relate to your book, publishers will want to get your book out there.

Easy Writing: From Blog to Book

Do you write a personal or professional blog? If so, you probably have a lot of really good material, already written and illustrated, that’s just sitting there. Adapt some of your best blog work to a book format, and now you have something to hand out and even sell. And it’s so easy.

Every Christmas, I exchange gifts with a longtime friend. This past Christmas I was trying to figure out a nice gift for her when I had a thought: what if I took one aspect of her personal blog and “stole” the text and photos to make her a little paperback book with her own name as the author? Would that work? Would it be cool?

I knew that her blog addressed many sides of her life—travels, family, home decor, food and quite a bit about her pets. When I went to her blog, I saw that both of her dogs had died earlier in the year. At each passing, she wrote a beautiful tribute and posted lots of images covering the dog’s entire life and all of the people who spent time with that dog. She also had posts about the dogs while they were alive. I did a copy-and-paste on each of those entries and downloaded all of the images. I organized the material, devoting a chapter to each dog sandwiched between end pages of quotes that my friend posted about her pets. It turned out to be mostly a picture book, with just enough text to provide some color and clarity. I didn’t write a word; every bit of text was lifted from the blog.

To publish the book, I used the normal format we offer our Write My Memoirs authors: a perfect-bound paperback. Since it was largely a picture book, I made the width greater than the height/length. I created a PDF for our regular Write My Memoirs printer, and everything went smoothly. I was very happy with the result and had the book in my hands in plenty of time to ship some copies off to my friend.

As you might guess, this little 40-page book was a huge hit. She tells me it was the best gift her family received and was passed around multiple times as everyone was opening gifts on Christmas night. We would love to do the same thing for you—turn your blog into a book or help you present this type of gift to a friend who writes a blog. You can gather the essentials, or just provide a link to the blog and we’ll be the “curator” for you. Email us at support@writemymemoirs.com, or go to our Publishing page and get started! Books bring joy!

The Valentine Memoir

What’s the best valentine you’ve ever received? Maybe your partner wrote you a heartfelt note about how much you are cherished, or a child drew hearts on a card to present to you. Perhaps someone wrote a song for you or created a little video of your relationship. You know what else makes a really nice valentine? A love memoir. It’s just taking the card, the video or the song up a notch to create a whole book.

Relationships are complex, but happy relationships have love at the core. Write about that love. You can start anywhere, but the obvious place to begin is to talk about how you met. Did you “meet cute”? Were you fixed up? Was it love at first sight? A memoir like this can chronicle some of the rougher times, too, but that will shift the focus. A valentine memoir probably should stick to the positive.

Gather photos of the two of you and really look at them. Can you see love in the eyes? Can you tell that you each feel safe with the other? Choose pics that show playfulness and intimacy, and place them throughout your love memoir. Watch the years go by in those photographs. If you have children together, you can include some pics of the kids—or pets you’ve nurtured together.

A love memoir doesn’t need to have a lot of pages, just enough for a printer to bind it. You can create it as either a paperback or a hard-cover book. A hard cover makes it more durable, and then the book can go large like a coffee table book or you still can keep it small. Imagine handing that to your favorite person in the world as something to treasure forever. Now that’s a thoughtful valentine!

Please consider our publishing services at Write My Memoirs when you’re ready to publish any book!

Ideas for Memoir Structure

For many memoir authors, their life story isn’t their first stab at creating some form of art. When those authors decide to write a memoir, it’s natural for them to want to include their other artform. So let’s say you’ve written poetry all your life, or you have a file of newspaper clippings of your op-eds published in your local paper. Maybe you’re a painter or even a composer. Perhaps you have a file full of your essays or you’ve kept a list of favorite quotes by other people. Today, even tweets or Facebook posts could be considered a body of work. Can you incorporate your work or favorites into your memoir? Yes, of course you can.

“Most memoirs read like a book, chapter by chapter with some photos added somewhere,” writes Nancy Julien Kopp in her review of the memoir Wingin’ It Beyond the Veil by Joan Breit. “Ms Breit’s book offers a series of vignettes that give us a slice of her life at a time. Between the vignettes, she has included scripture verses, poetry (both her own and others) and photos. I found all that is included to be delightful and I thoroughly enjoyed piecing her life together via the individual vignettes.”

If you’re a photographer—professional or hobbyist—it’s obvious to picture how you can use your work in your memoir. But through photography you also can share with readers your paintings or a page of musical staff from a song. You can begin each chapter with a pertinent piece of your past writing. You can pepper your memoir with lines of your poems. Sharing yourself as a creatively multifaceted person will bring readers closer to who you feel you are, which is exactly what you want your memoir to communicate.

Religion in Memoirs

You believe in God or you don’t. You belong to an organized religious sect or your don’t. You are very observant, somewhat observant or not observant. How much of that do you put in your memoir? So many elements make up the person you are, and religion is one of them. So it’s understandable that religion has a role in many a memoir, but the reasons are all over the place:

  • A chapter on your childhood may include your experience with religious education.
  • Authors who write about difficulty, illness or trauma often explain how faith helped them through it.
  • Your parents may be of two different religions, or you may have married someone of a different faith.
  • If you rejected your family’s religion, then that, too, impacted your life and the choices you made.
  • Anyone with a career in a religious field will have a lot of religious topics to write about.

Yet probably the most common reason to mention religion in a memoir is that so many memories revolve around religious traditions. Christmastime, for example, can remind you of anything from the magic of opening presents under the tree while still in your pajamas to the stress of all the expectations to the loneliness of being far from home during the holidays. A simple activity like stringing lights around a front door can launch a whole chapter that reveals much about your family life.

At this time of year, here at Write My Memoirs we’re thinking of you, our authors and perhaps future authors, making new memories and living new stories to fill in the text of your lives. We hope all of yours are happy and funny and touching.

The 12 Days of Memoir

On the first day of Memoir, my memoir coach gave to me….

Here’s a checklist for writing your memoir that just happens to count to 12. It’s from Mary Karr, author of The Art of Memoir.

  1. Paint a physical reality that uses all the senses and exists in the time you’re writing about—a singular, fascinating place peopled with objects and characters we believe in. Should include the speaker’s body or some kinesthetic elements.
  2. Tell a story that gives the reader some idea of your milieu and exploits your talent. We remember in stories, and for a writer, story is where you start.
  3. Package information about your present self or backstory so it has emotional conflict or scene. All the rest of these are interior:
  4. Set emotional stakes—why is the writer passionate about or desperate to deal with the past—the hint of an inner enemy?
  5. Think, figure, wonder, guess. Show yourself weighing what’s true, your fantasies, values, schemes, and failures.
  6. Change times back and forth—early on, establish the “looking back” voice, and the “being in it” voice.
  7. Collude with the reader about your relationship with the truth and memory.
  8. Show not so much how you suffer in long passages, but how you survive. Use humor or an interjecting adult voice to help a reader over the dark places.
  9. Don’t exaggerate. Trust that what you felt deeply is valid.
  10. Watch your blind spots—in revision, if not before, search for reversals. Beware of what you avoid and what you cling to.
  11. (Related to all of the above) Love your characters. Ask yourself what underlay their acts and versions of the past. Sometimes I pray to see people I’m angry at or resentful of as God sees them, which heals both page and heart.
  12. And one big fat caveat: lead with your own talent, which may cause you to ignore all I’ve recommended.

Check Out Our New Video!

I hope you’re enjoying the fresh, modern look of the Write My Memoirs website, the updated Timeline feature and the ease of adding and managing your book’s chapters. Along with our relaunch we created a little video to motivate anyone who’s ever wanted to write a memoir to take the first step and join Write My Memoirs.

The idea behind the video is the same as the concept of the website: that every life is unique and worth documenting. Everyone has had experiences that will resonate with readers, but no one has lived your exact life except you. Most people have friends and family members who will appreciate a written account of your life. Some people write a memoir that shares a story of hardship or abuse, often as a cautionary tale for others. What memoir authors all have in common is that it helps them to write out their point of view of their own life.

The video takes that into consideration—that both happy times and sad times enter our lives. Reliving experiences can be nostalgic or cathartic. Keep those memories close and read your book often, or write your book as a way to let go and move on. We hope you enjoy the video:

Why Young People Write Memoirs

The founder of Write My Memoirs was in his 60s when he figured out that people about his age needed a good website to anchor their memoir writing. In more recent years, we’ve noticed a trend—people much younger than their 60s also are joining and engaging with Write My Memoirs. It seemed odd at first. How much life is there to write about after only 20, 30 or even 40 years? The answer to that lies in the very heart of what a memoir is.

“Every event, and certainly every event worth writing about, will always remain tattooed on our neurons,” writes biographer Benjamin Moser in a New York Times article, “Should There Be a Minimum Age for Writing a Memoir?” Moser says it’s never too early to start writing about those events for the simple purpose of keeping a record. He calls it an “homage we pay ourselves.”

In the same article, young novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison makes a similar case for capturing the memory while it’s still fresh. “The narratives we tell about our own lives are constantly in flux,” she notes. “Our perspectives at each age are differently valuable. What age gains in remove it loses in immediacy: The younger version of a story gets told at closer proximity, with more fine-grain texture and less aerial perspective.”

In the article “Why Should You Write Your Memoir?” in Psychology Today, researcher Diana Raab reports her findings from interviews she conducted for her book, Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life. Younger people told her pretty much the same thing we hear from older memoir authors: they felt they had a story to share and wanted to tell it in their own voice, from their own perspective. “Additional reasons to write a memoir include preserving a family’s legacy, learning more about one’s ancestors, a search for personal identity, gaining insight into the past or healing from a traumatic experience,” Raab adds.

Our experience at Write My Memoirs is that our older authors look back on their entire lives and choose stories they consider worthy of inclusion in their memoir. The driving factor is the writing—a desire to write about their life. With younger people, the story itself is what drives the idea. Something distinctive, good or bad, happens to them and they want to make sure the story gets told. It’s a subtle difference, but we notice that age does influence how you present your memoir.