Tag Archives: memoir

memoir writing, how to write a memoir, how to write a novel

Your Scene-Writing Toolkit

Guest Post By Brooke Warner

Writers shoulder a lot when it comes to writing a memoir. There are so many things to hold in addition to the memories, messages from our saboteurs, and bouts of self-doubt. Most writers who are working on a memoir are learning a new craft while also dealing with the wellspring of emotion that comes from tapping into experiences that can oftentimes feel like stirring a hornet’s nest.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of all the points you’re supposed to hit while writing. So here’s a list you might print out and keep in your writing space—a checklist of sorts, but more like a scene-writing toolkit. When you’re writing scenes, keep in mind that you have all these tools and more at your disposal. You might want to do a quick run-through at the end of each scene you write and ask yourself which you’ve touched upon. And if your list is looking a little sparse, you can consider layering in some other concepts to make your scenes more robust.

The Toolkit for Scene and Memoir Writing

Word variation

When I think of books I love, I consider the ways in which they’ve sometimes challenged me. I think of beauty. Sometimes our shitty first drafts are just that, an effort to get out what you need to say. But in a second or third pass, you want to be looking to word variation to create an experience the reader won’t forget. Vary up your words and your sentences to keep the reader’s mind engaged.


A scene without dialogue is like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the jelly. It’s fine, but it’s just not as good. Look for opportunities to weave in dialogue. It makes your characters come alive, and it provides a needed break for the reader from narrative summary.

Narrative voice

Narrative voice can be varied up too. Some memoirs are done only in what’s often called the “voice of innocence,” while others are told exclusively from the “voice of experience.” These are your “then” and “now” narrators, and I personally love memoirs that let both voices speak. Given yourself permission to explore what you think today about what happened to you “back then.” You can weave back and forth. You can use reflection to give insight to the reader about what you know today but couldn’t have possibly known “back then.” Using a more complex narrative voice lends sophistication to your memoir.

Body language

Please, don’t forget body language and tone when you’re writing descriptions and dialogue. The reader can garner a lot of information about how a line is delivered if you tell us about a raised eyebrow, a terse look, a pat on the back, a smirk. Writers often underdeliver on body language cues either because they lived what they’re writing and don’t see how important it is, or because they forget. This is an invaluable tool!

Figures of speech

There are many figures of speech, but for the purposes of this post I’m only going to point out metaphors and similes. Use them. They’re wonderful. And they create more dynamic imagery for your reader.


Analogies are also great brain teasers, and only not included above in figures of speech because they’re not. Analogies serve the same purpose as metaphors and similes, however. Because they’re imaginative, and because they compare two unlike things to show a likeness, they’re fun and interesting for your reader—and can create a very rewarding reading experience.


This is a big one— and it’s the essence of scene. Yet too often writers breeze through their descriptions, not giving their reader enough. I’ve come to discover that this often stems from not wanting to be boring, and yet the result of that way of thinking is that a scene can feel rushed, and the reader ends up feeling like they’re not wholly immersed in your memoir, or worse, just cheated.

Sensory detail

When you think of these details, you’re considering taste, sight, sound, touch, and smell. Let your scenes explore each of these details. Or at least consider them while you’re writing. What were you—the protagonist—tasting, seeing, hearing, touching, and smelling during any given scene? These are the details that make scenes come alive—and create that layered description you’re aiming to gift to your readers.


All good memoir has reflection. An easy rule of thumb is to allow your reflections to come at the end of scenes. Don’t forget to let the reader know what the then-narrator was thinking or feeling, or, when appropriate, what the now-narrator makes of a given scene from your vantage point this many years later.

Thank you, and keep writing!


3 Steps to Becoming a Brilliant Writer of Memoir

Guest post by Jasmine June Cabanaw

Think of the most influential books you’ve read. I bet at least one of them was based on a personal journey, of someone overcoming their hardships and gaining valuable life lessons. This is the beauty of memoir writing— the protagonist doesn’t have to achieve something extraordinary in order for it to be inspiring. In fact, some of the recent bestselling memoirs, such as Eat, Pray, Love and Wild are based on events to which most people can relate.

If you have a personal story to share— one that you hope will inspire and motivate others— there are some things you can do that will help you be a brilliant writer of memoir and stand out from the crowd. Here are three steps to get you started:

Understand Memoir vs Autobiography

An autobiography encapsulates an entire life, while a memoir is a collection of memories from that life. This is an important distinction because oftentimes new memoir writers will make the mistake of trying to fit too many details into their story.

With a memoir, it’s okay to omit people, events, and other information if it isn’t relevant to your theme. A memoir is not a diary entry. You don’t need to write your memoir chronologically, or even start at the beginning. Writing more than one memoir is appropriate, too, if you have multiple stories to share.

Learn from other brilliant writers

One of the best (and pleasurable) ways to become a brilliant writer is to be a voracious reader. And if you want to be a brilliant writer of memoir, then you should be a voracious reader of memoir writers. Read everything from Ernest Hemingway (A Moveable Feast) to Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love). What do you think worked for those authors? What gripped your attention and kept you turning page after page? Make notes, jot down thoughts, and highlight passages that truly inspired.

Another option is to take classes and workshops from memoir writers. It’s a good idea to read their memoirs first, take notes, and then ask the authors to expand upon them during the workshop. Many authors are happy to do this, especially if it is during a designated Q&A. The bonus to this option, of course, is getting to meet a brilliant writer in person, and maybe even getting a signed copy of their book.

Have a story arc

A memoir may be a series of memories from a specific time period, but there still needs to be a story arc. Otherwise, you’ll be left with disconnected islands and nothing to join them together; you need to either build bridges or give your readers a boat. Plan a beginning, middle, and an end, and a theme or two that ties them all together.

Remember, you are writing about real life, with all of its challenges, twists, turns, and lessons. Your memoir doesn’t have to be dramatic, but it should be relatable. This is the gift that memoir writers bestow; their writing inspires, motivates, and helps us get through the challenges in life, if even just a little.

Top Writing Prompts for Memoir Writers

At its best, memoir writing explores a portion of a life lived in a unique open way, filled with adventurous experiences, transformation, lessons learned, a solid story structure, and prose that shimmers off the page as lusciously as any novel, and as poetically as any great poem.

Everyone is struggling to figure our their existence within this world, and the best memoirs are the ones that help people better understand where they fit in. If you look at the recent popularity of memoirs like Eat, Pray, Love and Wild, it’s evident that most women who experienced heartbreak were able to relate. In fact, most people can identify with the chain of losing yourself in a relationship, having that relationship end, and then struggling with the process of rediscovering who you are.

So, where does your story begin? How do you make your memoir relatable? How do you make people want to keep turning the page? Below are tips and writing prompts specifically for memoir writing that will help:

What story are you trying to tell?

Too often memoir writers try to tell too much. You are not writing an autobiography. A memoir covers a section of a life. It could be about the last three weeks of your best friend’s life, or the ten years it took you to get off prescription pills.

How does your past affect this section of your life?

One of the great defining characteristics of contemporary memoir is the unique play of time using flashback, dream sequence, and future projecting– my favorite example being Boys of my Youth by Joanne Beard. But what we aren’t doing is chronologically recalling an entire life. Past experiences can be useful tools, but only use them in relation to the story you are telling.

What do you enjoy about life?

Many memoirs touch on heavy and distressing subjects. But you don’t want to drown your readers in misery. Think about the things you enjoyed. What pleasures did you experience from that time period? Sharing small moments of happiness with your readers will brighten up even the darkest of experiences and will give your readers hope.

What does your memoir time capsule look like?

If you had to gather up people and objects from that section of your life, who and what would be included? Write down whatever comes to mind and use this list as a reference for the characters and scenes in your memoir. Including little details will round out your characters and give depth to your story.

What conflict is being solved?

Even if nothing dramatic is taking place, some sort of conflict is working itself out in your memoir. Think “problem = solution”. Just like you, people are searching for answers. Give them some.

Who did you used to be?

Make a list of all of your old pet peeves, desires, likes, dislikes, and personality traits. What did you use to obsess over? What situations did you engage in or avoid? Since you are writing your memoir as your present self, it will help to have reminders of who you used to be.

Did you have any pets?

Animal companions are key players in the stories of our lives. If you had any pets during the section of your life that is in your memoir, make sure to include them. Your relationship with your pets will also provide insight into your character. Plus, pets are highly relatable. Almost everyone has had an animal companion at some point in their lives.

For writing prompts to really inspire, for them to thoroughly bleed into you and push you deep into the page, it helps to actually be there with the teacher. So if you’ve been thinking about taking a workshop from a master teacher, do it. Don’t hesitate, no excuses, go for it. Take the plunge, your writing and heart will shine from the experience.

A Poem for Cheryl Strayed

As host of the recent “Writing, Truth, and Community” event featuring best selling author and creative writer Cheryl Strayed, I was blessed with the task of introducing Cheryl, who has by now, been introduced in so many fabulous and interesting ways by so many fabulous and interesting luminaries, that I was wondering what little old me could possibly add to the mix? So in my poet-like bewilderment and terror, I couldn’t think of what else to do except what I always do with such surges of emotion. Write a poem! She was so genuinely touched, that she mentioned how when she met Robert Redford, though he kissed her four times, he did NOT write her a poem. My life is now complete, I can die a happy fulfilled man!! The poem is copied below. Enjoy!

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Cheryl Strayed (after Wallace Stevens)


Among twenty snowy mountains
The only thing moving
Was the eye of a woman with a blue backpack
Called “monster”


She was of three minds
Like a tree with three branches
Of grief, of hope, of love


The woman whirled in the summer winds
A tiny speck of brilliance in the setting sun


A woman and a mountain are one. A woman
And a mountain, and a grieving heart are one


I don’t know which to prefer, the beauty
of subtle thought, or the beauty of mountain dreams—
the woman weeping, or just after


Charcoal clouds drifted across the tops of the sugar pines,
oh dear future sugar. . .the mountains frowned
her solitude thickening, the trail steepened


Oh good people of the city
why do you imagine only golden words?
Do you not see how the blackbirds
nest in her trees, as in yours?


I know of noble songs, of grand ideas,
I know the woman with the blue backpack
is involved in what I know


When the woman took flight
as now a bluebird might, it marked the beginning
of many endings


The sight of the woman
in the blue backpack with her heart full of
birds, full of words,
would make the mountains cry out
in understanding


She walked the spine of California
on winged feet made of glass
on hammered feet of blood and pulp
the mystery and beauty eclipsing the fear
of an unknown. . .the pain of surrender


The river is flowing
the woman must jump in


It was daytime all night long
from then on, the blackbirds in the night tree were
singing for her, a song abloom with the clarity of love

“Beamish Boy: A Memoir” Book Introduction Video

BEAMISH BOY, the harrowing account of Albert Flynn DeSilver’s inspirational journey from suicidal alcoholic to Poet Laureate and beyond. Filled with a luminous cast of characters, and told with searing honesty and ironic wit, BEAMISH BOY is a redemptive story of survival and letting go. View the introduction video here:

“Beamish Boy: A Memoir” Book Introduction

Do You Have A Story To Tell?

By story I simply mean expressive urge to share your experience through words. Be it a poem, a story story, a memoir, an essay, a screen play, a blog post–do you have something to say, a song to sing through words? Why aren’t you writing it? I’ve found in my own experience and with my clients, a consistent writing discipline is the hardest thing to overcome. Our fear and self doubt coupled with the busyness of contemporary life conspire to keep us from the page.

There is a solution. But first you really really need to want to do it. Is that a double affirmative? You almost have to have a nagging obsessive NEED to write. If you are to be successful. And by successful, I mean complete a writing project, be that a collection of poems, short stories, essays, a novel, screen play, whatever–but completed–fully! And edited–professionally! What happens after that is addressed in a future post. For now we want to hit the page. We HAVE to hit the page!

Something is burning within us and it must be set free. Otherwise go weed the garden, or do the dishes, or amble on down to the county fair and ride the Ferris wheel (all things I avoid doing so I can write). There’s lots of other stuff to do in this life. For writers, to write is to breathe forth the words of the soul–to mirror out from the depths of your own unique experience. It’s an exploration and adventure, and at times a tough slog through the muck of resistance.

It’s partly about habits. Changing the listless bedraggled and avoiding neural networks in your brain, for ones that light up when you have a pen in your hand, or are dangling your fingers above the keyboard like an exquisite pianist. They light up anew with that fantastic new idea for what your main character ate for breakfast, and how she held her fork in that funny way with her left hand as if she were going to pound her fist on the table, while in the other she held a pale yellow pencil she kept sliding through the creases in her strawberry braids. Bing. There they go lighting up again! But don’t wait for them to do so. You must MAKE them BLAZE! Practice damnit! Stop thinking about it, shut up and write already!!

Learn more about how to craft and market your story in my upcoming online writing course Brilliant Writer: A Master Class for Successful Writers. Coming soon!

Book Titles: How to Title Well

Book Titles: How to Title Well

If you can judge a book by its cover, (and yes you can–which doesn’t mean I’m a proponent of prejudice and snap judgements–it simply means EVERY detail of this author’s process was considered and thought about deeply) then you can certainly judge a book by its title–perhaps even more so. A title should be a mini poem, a gateway, a threshold, into the larger themes, metaphors, and plot of your book. The title is a badge your book will wear, a badge you yourself will wear, especially when it comes to memoir.

I would suggest multiple brain dumps, brain storms, collaborative brain trusts–to come up with your title–sit with your favorites for a few weeks. Present your favorites to you closest inner circle and take a poll. Then open it up to your larger community for their thoughts and ideas. Most of all check in with yourself–what resonates most with your true heart’s desire and what you are trying to communicate with the book. Connect with your intuition–you should feel excited, proud, and motivated by your title.

And what about subtitles? I am of two minds. I love the purity of a simple, poetic title. And yet, these days in order to reach readers it’s very helpful to include a subtitle that speaks to your niche. I chose both. Your title needs to be enigmatically informative but not obscure, catchy but not hokey, original but not overly inscrutable. A great title should propel you the reader into the swelling wave of the book, salt-spraying you with hints of the primary themes and the big why of the book. Given the insane ocean of information we are all swimming in, a good book title has the hard task of leaping out of the sea as a shiny dolphin might, inspiring awe and curiosity and a desire for a second, third, and fourth look. A look that will turn into a stare of wonder and then a surrender to immediate communion with that creature–that creature being the book.

Learn more about marketing your book and taking your writing practice to the next level in the upcoming online course Brilliant Writer: The Master Class for Successful Writers


"Memoir" as opposed to "My Memoirs"

“Memoir” as opposed to “My Memoirs”

The most common reply I get from people when I tell them I’ve published a memoir is “aren’t you a bit young to be writing your memoirs?” At which point I have to explain, “no, no, a memoir, singular, I’ve written a memoir. I’m not in my sunset years writing the autobiography of my entire life, known as one’s memoirs (plural).” A memoir covers a section of a life. It could be about the last three weeks of your best friend life, or the ten years it took you to get off prescription pills.

My favorite example is Robin Romm’s book “The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks,” which is a beautiful and emotional chronicle of the last weeks of her mother’s life as she watched her die of cancer. The opening description of the hospice nurse is exquisite and one of my favorite book openings, period. It’s hard not to notice  how Mary Karr’s memoirs are pretty much broken up into, childhood (The Liar’s Club), adolescence, high school, and early college (Cherry), and young and mid adulthood (Lit).

This is not to say one can’t move through time chronologically, or for that matter experimentally, in a memoir. One of the great defining characteristics of contemporary memoir is the unique play of time using flashback, dream sequence, and future projecting–my favorite example being “Boys of my Youth” by Joanne Beard. But what we aren’t doing is chronologically recalling an entire life (I did this, and then I did this, and finally here I am old and wise.)

Memoir as a genre has very much come into its own over the past twenty years and is now filled with a vast array of narrative exploration of the true (as true as memory can be) personal account. One of the latest incarnations is the “Immersion Memoir” where people are seeking out interesting, challenging, odd, or even dangerous experiences, completely immersing themselves in them, and then writing about it. “My Year Living as a Buddhist Nun in Burma” or “My Time Working for Minimum Wage in a Slaughterhouse in Iowa,” might be examples. I suppose if “Supersize Me” was a book it could be considered an “Immersion Memoir.”

Such books include elements of travelogue, documentary script, and deep investigative journalism. The point being that at it’s best memoir (singular) explores a portion of a life lived in a unique open way, filled with adventurous experiences, transformation, lessons learned, a solid story structure, and prose that shimmers off the page as lusciously as any novel, and as poetically as any great poem.

For more writing tips, check out the upcoming online course Brilliant Writer: The Master Class for Successful Writers

Who needs a writing coach?

Who needs a writing coach? How about everybody. Though some people might call them an editor, some of the best editors are really coaches–and many will resist the idea that they need one at all. But who among the most successful writers has not had a mentor, supportive professor, brilliant editor, that was really disguised as a coach? Call them what you may (I prefer coach)–I think of them as a necessary element of any successful writers career.

I know I would never have gotten my books completed and published without the support of a writing coach. The best coaches act as advocate, inspiration, guide, motivator, cheerleader, accountability partner, confidante, and ass-kicker. They are there to see you through the grim sticky waves of doubt, the debilitating blocks, the blinding seizures brought on by staring too long at the tundra of the blank page. They help carry you through to success, whatever that might mean for you!