Memoir Writing for Mental Health (Details—Part Two)

What type of memoir do you choose to write? Thematically based or on a particular timeframe. Some common themes are death of a loved one, career, marriage, childbirth, moving to a new home or town, etc. What are the important moments that stand out for you with the chosen theme or timeframe?

Once you understand how plot, character, and theme all work together, chances are good that, if you get one of them right, you’ll get all three right.

K.M. Weiland, Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development

Let’s take a moment to figure out the story arc of the main character: you. Why? Because over the span of your memoir, you change, people change. Where you begin isn’t the same place as where you end. How did you change? Stronger, happier, married, divorced, alone, wiser, or maybe more resilient? Did you escape abuse and are stronger for it? After a bad marriage, did you find the love of your life? Was that challenging career that you had to sacrifice family time for worth it? Did you prove a naysayer wrong and succeeded at something? Or was it rags to riches? How did your personality change? How did you change? That is your character arc.

If you can’t recite your elevator pitch at the drop of a hat, stay home.

Aliza Licht, Leave Your Mark

Now lets take your chosen type of memoir and add it to the character arc. What do you get? Your memoir logline or its elevator pitch that describes what your memoir is about in a brief paragraph or even a couple of sentences?

Did you run yourself from riches to rags in a span of a few years by being a shopaholic? What did that teach you? Did you work as a missionary in Africa during your twenties? Were you a doula in Guatemala for a brief time? Did you serve in the military and saw combat? Are you a cancer survivor? If so, how did that make you grow as a person? You should have your logline (elevator pitch) by now.

The scariest moment is always just before you start.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

So, let’s get to the outline. You can use Writer’s Blocks software and title each column a chapter head, a spreadsheet, or even use a sheet of paper to list the chapter numbers down one side. Titling the chapters with important events from the thematically based or timeframe-based memoir that you chose above gives you a starting point as to what each chapter will be about. It’s best to start with a small number of chapters like ten which gives you a good place to begin. Then write 2-4 smaller events or scenes that occurred under each chapter heading. When your done with that go one step further and note 3 even minor events that occurred under those headings. It’s perfectly okay to have some blank lines. You’ll fill those in later. Voila! You have your outline. (If your using Writer’s Blocks software, hit the manuscript transfer to outline format tab and you’ll have your outline typed up for you.) With Writer’s Blocks you can drop and drag your events into a different order or altogether different chapters, and you can expound on your notes or headings. You can expound on an major or minor event of even subtract from it. It’s completely up to you about how much information you wish to share or keep to yourself.

Syd Field’s 3-act Structure

Now let’s get to the structure. I use Syd Field’s paradigm story structure worksheet. It’s meant for screenplays but it will work for any type of book structure with a beginning, middle, and end. You can find a pdf of that here. (If you’re interested in an example of how to fill out the paradigm you can click here.) But for the memoir project, the paradigm structure is to show you the story arc. If you want to break it down further, you can look into the 4-act structure as is in Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. If you clicked on that page, you could also check out Rachael Herron’s books, one of which is on memoir building.

Larry Brooks’ 4-act Structure

Now on your outline, divide up the chapters according to either the 3-act structure or 4-act structure. Think: beginning, middle, and end. If you want even further instruction, you can check out Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. It breaks down the 3-act structure into 15-points or beats, think scenes or minor events. Again, it’s meant for movie screenplays but can easily be adapted for our purpose: memoir.

I suggest before you begin writing your memoir, according to the structure you chose from above that you plan your writing out on a calendar to keep you accountable and motivated. Cross out the days as you see your results. Some days will be better than others as is life. Whatever you do, don’t stop caring. Because when you do, the readers will stop reading. It’s easy to tell when an author gets bored say somewhere in the middle. Try to keep your motivation up.

Every ending is arbitrary, because the end is where you write The end. A period, a dot of punctuation, a point of stasis.

Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride

TIP: Why not write the beginning then the ending? You already know what it is because you lived it. This makes it easier to fill in the rest, or at least to break it down into more manageable bites. Then write to prompt a reaction. Make the reader care, cry, laugh, or empathize. When you’re excited about your writing, so are we. It comes through each page. Just like when you talk on the phone and you can sense the person is smiling, reading the written word is similar. Have you ever read David Sedaris’ work such as Me Talk Pretty One Day or Holidays on Ice? You can just sense the smile on his face as he recounts certain scenes in his life.

Now before you go off to write that memoir that world is waiting to read, here are some other suggestions to help you get to the pulp of the matter. Writers Helping Writers Series (8 book series) that includes such titles as The Emotion Thesaurus, The Conflict Thesaurus, and The Emotional Wound Thesaurus, plus more are extremely helpful during the writing process.

Writers Helping Writers Series

Just think how far you’ll be and how soon you’ll finish if you write just one page a day. That’s 182 pages in half a year which is close to the size of most readable memoirs. If you go to 365 you’re having the reader make a big commitment learning about your life. But if you’ve got that much to say, go for it. There’s always time to edit it down to a manageable size during revision.

For now, write quickly. Get those thoughts out of your mind and down on paper. You can always come back later. But you can’t edit a blank page. So, get to it. And check back for my book reviews of such memoir writing titles as Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays and Life into Literature by Bill Roorbach, or The Truth of Memoir: How to Write about Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity by Kerry Cohen.

The point is, you never know what you can do until you really put yourself out there and try. Do it. Whatever it is. Challenge yourself. If you can’t imagine the finish line, the first step is to just show up. And don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Run your own race.

Angie Martinez, My Voice: A Memoir

Enjoyed this post? Why not check out my YA novels about mental illness, my memoir writing, or even my Native American mystery series on Amazon, or follow me on TwitterInstagramFacebookGoodreadsLinkedInBookbub , BookSprout, or AllAuthor.

Memoir Writing for Mental Health (Details—Part One)

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According to memoirist, Jack Gantos, “Don’t be that writer who waits all day for the perfect first sentence,” he advises, “or you will grow old while learning to hate yourself and writing.”

Writing a memoir helps us understand who we are, where we come from and where we are going. It creates a legacy. It strengthens the bond with your family down through the generations. It’s a way to leave a memory of us for our loved ones. Anyone can capture their family’s pivotal moments, favorite vacations, family get-togethers, family history delineating individual members and experiences, and conduct solid research to produce a compelling book re-creating your past and that of your loved ones.

Rich, funny, and moving personal narratives depend on a few key moments in time, experiences, lessons learned, failures, triumphs, poignant memories, little snippets of action or humor to anchor the story and give it impact. Is it coming of age, maybe confessional, or even spiritual? Writing a memoir can also suit to reconcile your past’s painful moments and allow your personal growth to create new goals.

As I wrote in the previous post, you first need to determine what aspect of your life you want to write about such as childhood, teen years, young adult and so on. But chronological writing may come across as boring or read like a record of your family’s genealogy. Instead, you want to capture the spirit of moments that surprise or make you cry. Let’s get down to the basics:

Who is this book for? Is it a gift of your milestones for your descendants to treasure? Is it simply for your eyes only to put pains on paper to release them from the mental hold they have on you? Is it to understand life in hindsight? Sorting out timelines and events may unwrap the jumble of memories that our lives entail and allow us clarity and purpose. We need to find your “them” who you’ll be writing to in order to amplify the basics. Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell: recall experiences through all your senses. Delve into the confidants, support structure, or acquaintances of the past. Why did they come into your life? And what did they teach you?

Stay true and reminisce. Listen to music from that era in order to get the writerly juices flowing. Write what happened and how you perceived it. Heal yourself. But also question yourself: how much truth should you and do you want to tell? Every painful moment in life is a story waiting to be told but do you want to do that? It goes back to who this book is for and what is the intent.

How many secrets can be exposed? Again, who will see it? There are also legal ramifications here like libel or defamation, should you decide to send it out into the public. What if the truth is not as you remember it? Whose account do you reveal? Look for conflict to find your story. Write freely, with humor, and often. What reactions do you want to stoke in your readers? Focus on humility, tolerance, and wisdom. Believe in what you are doing. Sometimes no one else will but you need to persevere. Spilling secrets may have repercussions. For example, will you be revealing past abuse, an affair, a teen pregnancy and subsequent adoption that your kids know nothing about, or alcoholism in the family. Be mindful of the words you choose to use. Avoid sarcasm and hyperbole; instead use irony and humor. Keep your attitude and tone in check. As you end your memoir, maybe look at your spiritual side, or look towards the next chapter in your life.

If you’re looking for solid memoir writing manuals, I strongly suggest you first read Stephen King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It is insightful and humorous. Then, perhaps Mary Karr’s, The Art of Memoir is a good second suggestion. If your goal is travel writing in your memoir, Lavinia Spalding’s Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-writing Traveler, is a good choice and offers tips for writing in general. Lastly, I’d suggest reading Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature.

Enjoyed this post? Why not check out my YA novels about mental illness, memoir writing, or Native American mystery series on Amazon, or follow me on TwitterInstagramFacebookGoodreadsLinkedInBookbub , BookSprout, or AllAuthor.

Book review for On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

If anybody has the right to give writerly advice based solely on success, Stephen King is one of them. With so many novels and short stories under his belt, King offers the collected wisdom, both learned and discovered. King’s memoir is part life story or memoir and part writing manual. The field guide is smart, instructive, and often amusing. It’s full of wise advice from the viewpoint of a seasoned veteran of the work. King’s writing shines through in both places. He can tell a good story, and he can make potentially boring writing guidelines fun to read.

The opening half is a look back on major events that helped to shape King as a writer, and you can see how even the little things, things seemingly unimportant or silly, can influence somebody and really leave a mark on them. From silly stories to ones that make you laugh or even cringe, the first half of this book is a treasure trove of personal experience. Many authors write books about writing, but King emphasizes memoir in this piece of nonfiction.

The second part of this book offers answers to commonly asked questions. King tells us several secrets about writing, which mistakes it’s okay to make and which ones you should avoid at all costs. For example, it’s not good if everything is described in passive by you. King describes writing as a toolbox. You fill it with different useful things like grammar, vocabulary and others. Then, you use them to express your ideas. But don’t let the toolbox get too big or it might as well lose its value as a toolbox! What I liked the most in the book was that it managed to continue being interesting throughout itself.

Anyone who reads King will appreciate this book for the backstory of several of King’s more popular novels. What an unexpected pleasure it was to read this book! I must say I was hesitant to pick it up years ago, but a fellow bookseller recommended it to me. I’m not a big fan of Stephen King’s novels (not really the horror and gore genre I usually read). However, this book was lots of fun, informative, and interesting. I enjoyed learning about Stephen’s curious childhood antics and how his writing developed over time. It is highly recommended for a budding writer.

Memoir Writing for Mental Health Overview

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I’ve written about journaling for mental health before; but this time let’s go over memoir writing in long format, possibly book style. I received an email and a Twitter DM about how to start a memoir. Here are some tips, prior to starting, during the writing phase, and after you finish.

  • Identify a strong opening point
  • Figure out you central hook relatable to readers
  • Structure your memoir to maximize readability
  • Incorporate dialogue and pacing to enhance intimacy
  • Approach your writing with honesty and truthfulness
  • Identify a strong closing point
  • Build a successful author platform
  • Get an agent’s attention vs. Get published 

So, you’ve decided you’re going to write a memoir for one of a host of reasons: satisfaction, the joy of giving, healing, self-discovery, etc… First, you need to determine what theme or time frame the memoir will span such as your whole life, childhood and teen years, fears and courage, friendships, sibling rivalry, dance or theater, embarrassment, poverty, sexual trauma, music or literary influences, major historical event, military, cultural heritage, married life, artist vs. connoisseur, health scare in family, life miracles, career, affluence, pets life and death, natural disasters, life values, passions, sporting life, grudges and forgiveness, travel writing, grandkids, spirituality, bucket list, or retirement years. You’ll determine this in order to find a strong opening point.

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.

George Bernard Shaw, Immaturity

When figuring out your central hook that is relatable to your future readers you’ll want to take into consideration that your memoir shouldn’t be one long diary or journal entry, instead it’s a well-crafted story about a crucial, often exceptionally difficult, time in your life. For example, I wrote one book about my childhood, another about my teen years, and a different one about my mental health disability.

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Then you’ll want to structure your writing to maximize readability. During NaNoWriMo which is National Novel Writing Month that happens every November, the writers identify themselves as pantsers (flying by the seat of one’s pants), planners (outlining extensively prior to beginning), or a hybrid plantser. In writing mine, I chose to be a pantser and let it flow a little more naturally. However, first time writers may want to have a roadmap of sorts, so the outline is a good security tool. I suggest Writer’s Block software which allows you to block out different timeframes or maybe working chapters then it formats it into an outline for you, the writer. There are other writing software out there such as Scrivener, Dabble, Novlr, Novelpad, Kahana, InkStacks, Campfire, and Save the Cat which is for iPad. Some are compatible with certain editing software such as Grammarly or ProWritingAid.

Incorporate dialogue and pacing to enhance intimacy with your reader. I’ve found it best to write the dialogue then use the text to speech function in word to hear the pacing and find out if the dialogue or writing comes across as choppy or not. And with a memoir you want to approach your writing with honesty and truthfulness for integrity of the memoir itself. You want to give your niche audience what they came for which is your accurate story. Then identify a strong closing point, possibly even a hook to the next chapter in another memoir with an altogether different timeframe. For example, if you’re writing about your childhood, give a teaser to your next book which may be about your teen years.

If you’re just giving this memoir to family members as your legacy, you may decide to add an appendix for such things as a map to burial plots, family recipes, copies of marriage certificates, death certificates, property deeds, a list of who has family heirlooms, naturalization or citizenship papers, even answers to family questions like where you want to be buried or which banks have the will.

And personally, I use a book template in Microsoft Word which allows you to add scanned copies of the above. I use it alongside Writer’s Block and incorporating both Grammarly and ProWritingAid. Since, I know beforehand that I’ll be self-publishing, as well as the company which I’ll be working with to get my writing into book format, I use one of KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) templates that come in a number of sizes. You can always reformat the layout in Word to make a pdf or submission manuscript, if you choose to go the traditional publishing route, or if you’re submitting to a literary agent.

Read your work thoroughly, listen to it with text to speech function, reflect on what you wrote, and then revise it by cutting unnecessary explanations for vibrant passages, and getting to the heart of the matter: the reason you wrote it. Clarify the point of the story which is your conclusion. Go back to your synopsis or pull a quote from your writing and come up with a title.

When you’re done writing, and thoroughly self-editing then sending it out to an editor, and you’re self-publishing, there’s a cover creator tool on the KDP website. I prefer to work with SelfPubBookCovers which has premade covers that you edit yourself for anywhere between $69-$269.00. They also do custom covers as well for somewhere around $50-$100 more. I’ve chosen both cover only and created my back copy myself with the cover creator tool as well as front and back cover which is done nicely. Now that you’ve assembled your compelling narrative into book format, you can treasure your heirloom that upcoming generations can devour to learn about your legacy.

After or even during your writing, you’ll want to develop an author platform with reading groups, organizations like the National Association of Memoir Writers, and the socials (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or YouTube) if you’re going to make videos of interview points or for marketing. It’s through Twitter and Goodreads that I find my beta readers. Search #WritingCommunity in Twitter for likeminded souls penning their thoughts in equally agonizing baby steps. Like I mentioned above, if you’re submitting to a publisher or literary agent, you’ll want to do that before you think about self-publishing, which can be an agonizing wait in itself.

Lastly, I titled this post an overview because I’ll post another one that is geared more for the pulp of the matter, the writing alone. I just wanted to respond to the question about how to write and publish a memoir in paperback, hardcover, or ebook form. Note: ACX-Audible has cost-effective ways to get your memoir on audiobook, too. Mine were around $800. Good luck in your writing!

I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper.

Steve Martin

Enjoyed this post? Why not check out my YA novels about mental illness, memoir writing, or even my Native American mystery series on Amazon, or follow me on TwitterInstagramFacebookGoodreadsLinkedInBookbub , BookSprout, or AllAuthor.

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