Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Why We Write Memoir

I wrote my new memoir, Morning at Wellington Square, as a sequel to Again in a Heartbeat.  I did this because I realized I had more stories I wanted to share and that those stories were intrinsically linked to each other. My stories revolve around the quest for love, romance and finding passion in life; how this collides with the realities of death, single parenting, widowhood, loss of a career . . .online dating. So my memoirs are really about life's journey, one I hope women - and men - relate to.  The books can stand alone, but together they make a whole.

When people ask me for tips or advice on writing memoir, this is what I offer.

Do you have a story you need to tell?  Do you want to bear witness to what you see out there in the world?  Have you paid close attention and want to bring it all together with your senses?  Are you "striving to become a person on whom nothing is lost," to quote Henry James?

What is the compelling narrative . . . this "slice" of life you want to write?  This may not be obvious until you begin writing.  Then synergies emerge from the shadows and with it your story - the narrative. 
Don't write a memoir because you seek love or support.  Write from the heart.  Don't write because you want to please an "audience" or seek the acceptance of  family.  Each one of us has our own unique voice when we write.  Nurture it, love it, cultivate it.  Don't make apologies for it.

When someone tells you they like your story, believe them.  As writers we live in a cocoon of second-guessing ourselves.  To again quote Henry James:  "We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."

While we want honest comment, we must also learn to accept the support and accolades that come our way after our stories have been written.  This is the beauty of the Women's Writing Circle.  We hear the supportive comments of other writers in the Circle and it encourages us to go on, despite our fears and inner critic.

Write about your background, your past, but don't get stuck in it. Keep in mind that your story must resonate with a broader appeal.

Memoir is drama, it is not cut and dried, a blow-by-blow of a life. It unfolds with a narrative arc and interesting characters, of which the protagonist, the narrator, is the most insightful.

And, yes, dear memoir writers, this is what makes our genre so daunting. We are required to do this standing up close and personal to our lives yet looking through a broad enough lens to write an engaging and entertaining story.
All of this and more has been said much better by Natalie Goldberg. I would urge you to read her books on the art and craft of memoir:


kathleen pooler said...


This is such sage advice for anyone writing a memoir. Being clear on and connecting with my own purpose for writing has helped me propel through the daunting process of finding my story so I can share it in a meaningful way. I also feel it is important to be far enough removed from the life events to be able to see it as a story worth telling and from a position of healing,forgiveness and strength.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Yes, there are many things we can only write about after we are, as you say, far enough removed. Writing about my parents in the new memoir was like that for me. It is still hard, tho, and at times I often think of Margaret Atwood when she talks about the blank page and says . . . "take something you can hold onto, and a prism to split the light and a talisman that works, which should be hung on a chain around your neck: that's for getting back."

Anonymous said...

I would hope that anyone considering writing a memoir would come across your post, Susan! Such wisdom and advice packed into a small piece of writing. Kathy has been a mentor in my writing process, mentioning once that we each have a story to write and it is ours and ours alone. That really spurred me on as I fear family angst and perhaps even separation once my story is written. But Kathy's comment showed me there is only one way to tell our stories, and to tell them honestly and bravely. Thank you both for setting a higher bar for me today.

Susan G. Weidener said...

Dear Sowing Seeds of Grace,

It does take courage to write our stories. For women, especially, we have been silent too long while others told our stories - men! Now it is our time and our turn. Good luck and I know how you feel. I wrote a post about how writing memoir is similar to diving naked off a cliff. Scary, exhilirating! It is both an extraordinary and revolutionary adventure to write the truth of your story.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your clear thinking on writing memoir. I struggle with how family members will view what I've written, as each of them, I'm sure, has their own vision and interpretation of events. I'm impatient to finish my project so I can get on to writing fiction!

Susan G. Weidener said...


I hear you. Fiction provides more creative freedom and leeway than memoir and is something I, too,look forward to writing. But I would urge you to consider this: memoir is that place between the invented and the remembered; it is your story and no apologies need to be made because just telling it takes incredible courage and perseverance. Believe in your story, stand by it, enjoy it and revel in it! And if they don't like it, too bad. Let them write their own memoir.