Memoir Writing for Mental Health (Details—Part Three) Mapping Out Memories

Where do you get the details to put in a memoir? How do you remember things from so long ago? Which ones are the correct memories to use? How do I connect them?

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You will now gather the particular details and make them universal so your reader can connect with the words you write. Use one part exertion to one part grace as you engage all your senses and summarize the events when you need to pick up pace and intersperse narration with scenes, dialogue, and action to allow the reader to experience your life through their eyes. Be sophisticated and subtle but don’t get preachy.

First things first, let’s set out your timeline of important events in your life.

  • Aha moments
  • My wake-up calls
  • Event that I’ve survived
  • What I know now that I’d wish I’d known back then
  • Think eight-word logline
  • Moments of epiphany
  • What you’d be willing to sacrifice to protect your deepest truths
  • What would you die for?
  • Times of crisis, losing all hope and how you recovered
  • Experiences that have shaken your sense of meaning
  • What you must bury

Don’t forget to add local and world events to give the reader a sense of history. Our timeline (time + space) is our setting. Use your chosen theme to find elements to illuminate your setting then sprinkle the elements of plot. Don’t forget that an easy life is a dull life so add turning points or obstacles or conflict that caused us to scurry in a new direction. These trials and tribulations where your life didn’t run smoothly give your story flavor. Allow your character passions and obsessions reveal your theme. Remember that you’re not writing an autobiography (life to death) but a memoir (highlight of a given time). You want to be deep yet selective. On this timeline, you’ll determine where to start your story, which point of view to use to emphasize plot, eliminating backstory and focusing on plot, where to sprinkle flashbacks and memories, emotional pacing, and where to end your story. Begin with 5-8 key points and then turns those into 40-50 scenes.

Keep in mind that you can tell the story in a linear fashion (moving forward through time), begin with the ending and work backwards, the twist where we invert expectations we’ve been building all along, a sequence of events moving through fascinating experiences, a story within a story, or non-linear (moving between past and present). While you proceed in the way you chose, remember to tease with tension (foreshadowing events, deadlines, warnings, premonitions, withholding information, building anticipation, and surprises or secrets) to keep your reader on their toes.

Now use your universal voice to gather those details to emotionally activate your reader. The first thing we write is our gateway to delve into our truth or felt experiences, where it may even be scary to say out loud, instead take a risk, and make your heart race. Use your opening lines to hook your reader, make them care, and feel they are in a reliable storyteller’s hands. Shock, grip, or compel them to fascinate in your words. If you lose your way, the real work starts, and your journey begins. Examine the complexity of multifaceted events (great, tragic, desperate, and undetermined). Use your voice to create a connection from your personal to the universal so your reader will understand the significant meaning. Feel deeply to evoke the emotional experience. Allow the reader to connect their own stories with our experience.

Now it’s time to tighten and trim your manuscript by editing it. Analyze the pace, setting, point of view, structure, plot holes, character arcs, and voice. Then it comes the time to seek out constructive feedback. Let it go and it will come back to you with suggestions that will put it in a new light. It was a long, tenuous road but you mapped it out which made it easier. Voila!

Until my next 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.

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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