Tag Archives: memoirs

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.

Great Writing Prompts. Thank you Cheryl Strayed!

On June 1, 2013 best-selling author of Wild, Tiny, Beautiful Things, and the novel Torch, Cheryl Strayed came to the Petaluma Sheraton for a day titled “Writing, Truth, & Community”–produced by yours truly and The Owl Press. This was the largest event we have put on and thanks to our volunteers, my assistant–Ali Degolia, and the Sheraton staff, things went very smoothly!! The event consisted of a full day writing workshop, craft talk, reading, and book signing! The feedback has been amazing! Thanks to all who filled out the survey, sent me an email or posted to Facebook! It was an extraordinary day, and Cheryl was charming, insightful, inspiring, funny, and extremely generous with her knowledge and experience.

Cheryl mentioned a number of writing prompts and promised to share them with the group! And so here they are! Enjoy! May you be inspired to be willing to “break your own heart” and go forth to “write like a motherfucker!!”

With gratitude and all best wishes, Albert (& Cheryl)
———–

Writing Prompts from Cheryl Strayed

(The “you” can be you or a fictional character)

Write about a time when you’d dressed inappropriately for the occasion.

Write a few pages in which you obsess over something meaningless.

Write about something/someone being born.

Write about something you can’t deny.

Write about what you have too much of.

Write about when you knew you were in trouble.

Write about something you don’t exactly remember.

What about what you used to know how to do.

Write a long apology.

Write about a secret being revealed.

Write about all the secrets that have been kept from you.

Write about a gift that was not well received.

Write a long thank you letter.

Write about something you are certain of.

Write about having no fun at all.

Write about when you knew something was over (or had begun).

Write about someone you forgot.

Write about a question you wished you’d asked.

Write about something that was too small/too big.

Write about what you’d planned to do.

Write about something that doesn’t get better.

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

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