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Do I tell the truth?

Answer: Memoir writing is a skilled form of storytelling based on fact.
Did you know the word 'memoir' has its origin in the French word for 'memory' or
'reminiscence?' Memory certainly doesn't have a reputation for being infallible. Like memory, a
memoir isn't fool-proof either. A common criticism by memoir readers is that they doubt the
details of the story without understanding it as the art form it is.
Some earlier reviews from Overlay, read:
“How could anyone remember these details?”
“A great deal of literary license taken unless we are to believe such detailed recall by a child.”
“I imagine she did keep journals but I am sure some of the events were embellished.”
Those looking for factual accounts of life should read autobiographies.
Memoirs are personal collections of memories told from a life that can cover aspects, themes,
events, and choices in life. They can start or end at any point.
Anyone considering their memory will see they can and have been wrong in their impressions
when compared to factual reality. I think while we can safely assume all the characters in a
memoir existed; it is the memoirist's impression of them we read.
A memoir will contain impressions of people, circumstances, and places, and no one can argue
with a person's perception. (Or at least we shouldn't.)
One rule I teach memoirists is to publish nothing you don't feel comfortable reading to the
person you're writing about.
In Angeles, my second memoir, I ran a chapter by an ex-boyfriend whom I dated for quite a few
years. He didn't even want his family mentioned, so they are absent from the story.

Question: Can I take creative license and make stuff up?
Answer: Yes!

My latest memoir, Rest In Places: My Father's Post-Life Journey Around The World, tells the
story of my experience taking my father's ashes on a healing journey with my 16-year-old son.
I've included chapters that my deceased father 'wrote' when I sat before my laptop and asked him
aloud what he thought about the latest place where we had disseminated his ashes. My father had
passed and did not write these chapters. However, in my mind, he did. That, to me, is the point of
Being a memoirist requires skill in weaving, and if you don't have it to start, you'd be wise to
develop it while writing your memoir. Creating art from actual life requires storytelling talent, a
good memory, and skill in combining the two.

Professional Memoir Writing Tips

It’s often said that everyone has a book inside of them. While that may be true, it’s not true that anyone
can write a professional memoir—at least not without some help. If you’re interested in writing a
memoir geared toward mass publication, the following tips can help you strategically consider your
steps, organize relevant material, and create an income-earning memoir.

Begin at the action, not at the beginning. Keep in mind you are writing a memoir – not an autobiography.

A memoir
● Is about an aspect, theme, event, or choice in a life
● Can start or end anywhere in a life
● Is personal, not entirely factual
● Can be written by anyone
An autobiography
● Details an entire life
● Starts at the beginning and progresses chronologically to the end
● Is historical, factual and date-specific
● Is usually about famous people
Consider the aspect, theme, event or choice that will be the heart of your memoir, and focus on the
relevant material.

Use your settings as tools to tell your story.

Consider the time, place, house, city, country, and world where your memoir takes place. Growing up
poor in California would be a completely different story if the character grew up rich in Dubai. Explore
unique flavors by considering what is particular about your story and using it to help you speak.
The era matters too. The world of our grandparents differed from that of our parents, and our era differs
from that of our children’s. How were people expected to behave in your setting/era? What can you
suggest with your characters keeping with or breaking from the norm of their time?

Combine facts with story-telling.

Being a memoirist requires skill in weaving, and if you don’t have it to start, you’ll develop it while
writing your memoir. Creating art from actual life requires story-telling talent, excellent memory, and
skill in combining the two.
While it’s easy to record events, thoughts, feelings and interpretations in a diary or journal, the
recording of actual events and people isn’t always interesting. You must weave the threads of reality
into a tale that others will find compelling. You can interlace facts with creative description, and events
with ring-side interpretation. Characters and events can be presented and sometimes shaded as the
memoirist sees fit. You needn’t tell the reader anything in particular, and can merely present, or just
partially describe without definition.

Get creative when locating material.

I keep an informal computer journal, just as I kept a handwritten diary for thirty years. No one reads it

but me, and it’s not fancy. When I’m ready, I copy the entries into what will become a memoir. Then I
rewrite, delete or decorate the words, ideas and thoughts as needed. Very few entries, if any, are
interesting as originally written. They have no style in the beginning: they take form and develop
substance as the style of the memoir develops itself. Only sometimes (okay, never) is the style initially
and consistently apparent in a first draft.
I copy emails I’ve written into my memoirs. I have a close friend I regularly email and when I’m
struggling to recall how a moment felt, or what was said, I can often find it in our email exchanges.
Letters and photographs are also excellent sources of material and of great help in finding your voice.

Include conversations, and make them realistic.

It’s unlikely you’ll be including the exact wording of conversations as they happened, so designing
conversations is a fantastic opportunity to be creative. Once you’ve written your conversations, read
them aloud to ensure they make sense. Pay particular attention to:
Using the character’s names should not be more often than one does in genuine conversation (which is
usually only upon greeting, trying to get someone’s attention, or departing.)
Using slang should be realistic and not overdone unless it’s important for character development.
Using verbs such as said, hinted, whispered, should not be included with every statement.
Using any word other than ‘says’ or ‘said’ should be very limited. Words such as exclaimed, shouted,
emoted, pouted, cried, yelled, screamed, whispered, etc. should only be used when absolutely

Consider your audience as you’re writing.

What do you want to communicate? What are your goals? Imagine the emails you’d like to receive
from your readers. Are they thanking you or identifying with you? Have you taught them something?
Did you make them laugh or cry?
It’s never too early to think about your audience. Consider who will buy your books. Who is the typical
reader you have in mind? Is the reader male or female? Young, teen, middle-age, mature? Where do
they live? What do they do? What is their history? What is their economic status? Consider their daily
lives. Their hobbies. Hopes. Dreams. Fears.
How will reading your book affect your reader? Are you teaching or enlightening? What would your
reader like to get from your book: lessons, sympathy, empathy, inspiration, healing, entertainment,
Now write directly to them.

Allow your characters their privacy.

Publish nothing you couldn’t read aloud to the very person you’re discussing. Think of the adage ‘you
can’t unring a bell.’ Once you’ve put the words out into the world, they are there forever.
The biggest challenge I’ve found as a memoirist is hiding a character’s identity. This issue has proven
so impossible in several instances that I’ve had to cut some really juicy story material from my book for
fear of exposing someone I did not wish to identify. Unfortunately, burying a character in another
period or another country just doesn’t prove to be enough of a disguise.

Now write your draft.

Think of the draft as the fun part of planning a memoir. It’s where you get to lay out your ideas about
how you think your story will progress. Think is the key word, as you will undoubtedly need to make
some changes along the way – so be easy on yourself. Consider this draft a rough-sketch of how you
plan your story to be. Don’t be afraid to dream: your draft is your own private playground where no
bullies exist and you will win every game, run the fastest and be chosen first for every team. This is
your field of victory—so be wild, go big and lay it all out there.

Keep your memoir within the parameters.

According to my research, books are approximately 50,000 words on the short end to 110,000 words on
the longer end. Memoirs run around 70,000 to 80,000 words. Of course there are exceptions. If your
memoir is one of them, make it worthwhile.
Don’t fall into the trap of including absolutely everything that happened just because it did, and you
feel you need to be truthful. Remember, you are creating a work of art with your life story and it should
compel and entertain your readers.

The final and most important step will differentiate ‘the story everyone has inside them’ from a
professional memoir: hire other professionals to do what they do best.

When I was in the marketing consulting business, we called this, ‘Pay others to do their best and
highest good.’ Don’t waste your time trying to do a less than first-rate job. These professionals include
at the very least an editor and a cover designer.

Story Structure

Every story has five primary ingredients. While you may hear this for the first time, you know
via conditioning by Hollywood what to expect to see in a story.

1. Character: a protagonist and an antagonist;

2. Conflict: what would happen if …

3. Scene: the setting where the action expresses the conflict;

4. Overall Structure: 3 acts, which include the beginning, the middle, and the end;

5. Theme: the point–which is usually deduced at the end.

Let's briefly dive into each element of story structure.

First, you must have powerful characters which include a sympathetic protagonist and a
challenging antagonist.

Today's stories usually include an ally for each, and a love interest for the protagonist.
I generally introduce the protagonist right in the beginning, and it's around this character that you
will build all the action.
Your protagonist is your hero who performs the actions and undergoes the experiences that
create the story's conflict. Your audience needs to know what the protagonist is about,
understand their motivation, and experience their growth as they move through the story.
You also need a challenging and worthy antagonist to act against the protagonist, as the conflict
created between the two moves the drama forward and keeps your reader engaged. As with the
protagonist, your audience also wants to understand who and what the antagonist is and
experience their changes as the story progresses.
The antagonist does not need to be a specific villain.
In Overlay, The Splendid Things We Planned, and Angela's Ashes, for example, the antagonist is
alcoholism or addiction, and secondarily, poverty and mental illness.
I expressed the antagonists through the characters, as there were several primary alcoholic
characters such as my father, mother, stepfathers, etc. as did Blake Bailey through his brother
and Frank McCourt through his father. Tim Green's antagonist was being parentless and growing
up in foster care and how he developed specific survival patterns to survive.

The second element of a story is conflict.

Expect to see some level of conflict in every scene. There are two key questions to ask to see
how you are expressing conflict:

"What would happen if X or Y happened?"
"What would happen if the person in my book faces a crisis?"
In Overlay, the young protagonist, me, faces the crisis of her parent's continuing alcoholism, and
the variety of problems created by their addiction. The protagonist versus the family alcoholism
is the conflict, and all the other conflicts are just the myriad of awful misfortunes because of the
primary conflict.
The same pattern is in Splendid Things and Angela's Ashes.

Third, you must have scenes, rather than one long vomit.

We need difficulties to keep us engaged.
The scene is where the action expresses the conflict. Scenes can also be called 'the stage within
the stage,' where conflict occurs between characters.
Each scene, or unit, should ideally follow a specific pattern:
● Set in a particular place which is essential to dramatizing the story;
● Has a beginning, a middle, and an end;
● The beginning places a character in a setting with an obstacle;
● In the middle, the character deals with growing complications of the obstruction;
● We extract the character from the scene with a hook to the next scene.
The adage for constructing a scene is:
Act one, get your character up a tree
Act two, throw stones at them
Act three, get them down.
In Another Hill, author Tim Green must confront the reality of his second foster home, which
places him up the tree. The stones thrown at him are the various challenges of living in foster
care with a revolving door of 14 brothers and sisters. Getting down from the tree is aging out of
the system and moving on to college. Each scene must have a beginning, middle, and end.

Fourth, you must have structure throughout the entire story as well.

The logical structure that must exist in a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, or what we
often call the three acts. Again, this is the structure of the book itself.
Act 1: Introduce the protagonist and their weak spot, which should hook the reader. Some
authors start with a flashback. The Glass Castle opens in this way as the adult protagonist,
Jeannette Walls, is in a taxi and looks out the window and sees her mother digging through the

trash. She then transitions into telling the story of her childhood.
The first act should get our attention immediately, as you establish your protagonist in a forward
direction and an antagonist who will become the obstacle. Bring them together in a scene that
turns the protagonist away from his obstacle. In Overlay, I established myself as a young child in
a home with a mother who doesn't pay attention to my drunk father or me.
Act 2: The setup is complete once you hook the audience into the protagonist's situation. Next,
you challenge the protagonist with a mission–which all too often in a memoir is to survive the
antagonist's obstacles.
The mission includes all the crazy-making that happens in a memoir — the roller-coaster ride of
mayhem and stuff that children in unstable homes experience. Act 2 ends when you've brought
your characters to the climax point–where all is resolved.
In Another Hill, Tim Green, after having lost so many dear friends to AIDS, accepts his HIV
status and begins medical treatment.
In Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt has finally saved enough money to get the heck out of Ireland
and moved to New York City.
Act 3: Conclude the mission decisively in a satisfying way. Note: this does not mean a happy
ending, but it should be interesting.
This climax should satisfy the audience's expectations for a conclusive ending, whether happy or
In Overlay, my parents do not stop drinking, so the antagonist isn't beat. However, my character
leaves home and moves to California, and that's where the story ends. Same with Angela's Ashes,
as Frank McCourt ends his memoir having moved to New York.
In Splendid Things, the book ends with the death of the author's brother. It isn't happy – as Scott
doesn't reach sobriety – but it is conclusive. We know that with Scott's passing, that portion of
the family's suffering is at an end.

Finally, you must have a theme.

The theme is the moral or the takeaway from the story, which is revealed once we know how the
story ends. There are the typical themes that are revealed once you resolve the conflict. We
expect happy endings, but most of us know that won't be the case.
In Splendid Things – you can't beat Mother Nature. The author's brother, Scott, was destined to
die from his disease.
In Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls' parents don't have happy endings. Only she does, via her
escape from childhood.