Heather Weidner Talks About Her Writing

Virginia is for Mysteries cover-final

What’s the theme of the story you wrote for the anthology Virginia is for Mysteries?

My story, “Washed up” is about a mysterious suitcase that is discovered on Chic’s Beach at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. And it takes on a life of its own when it starts trending on social media. Thousands flock to the beach to see where it happened.

What’s the most autobiographical writing you’ve done?

My journal writing is definitely the most autobiographical, but I use life experiences and anecdotes in my short stories and longer works.

How much of your personal history gets revealed in your fiction?

I keep a small notebook with me, and I jot down interesting notes and bits of conversations. These often end up in my work. You hear great dialogue standing in line at the DMV, sitting in a restaurant, or just going about your daily routine.

If you were to write a full-blown memoir, what might the theme be?

I have never really thought about a full-blown memoir. I think if I did that it would be a collection of humorous anecdotes and experiences. Some people’s lives are a drama or a docu-drama. More often than not, mine tends to be a sit-com.

Originally from Virginia Beach, Heather Weidner has been a mystery fan since Scooby Doo and Nancy Drew. In addition to mysteries, she writes the blog, Crazy for Words. She currently lives in Central Virginia with her husband and a pair of Jack Russell terriers. When she’s not reading and writing, Heather enjoys kayaking, photography, and visiting the beach as often as possible.

 She earned her BA in English from Virginia Wesleyan College, and her MA in American literature from the University of Richmond. She has been a technical writer, editor, college professor, and software tester.

 Her short story, “Washed up” appears in Virginia is for Mysteries (Koehler Books). She manages the Twitter account and blog for the anthology. She also guest blogs for discuss.design.develop.

 Heather is a member of Sisters in Crime International, SinC-Central Virginia, SinC-CV Critique Group and Guppies writing group. She is the programming chair and vice president for the SinC-CV chapter. Heather is also on the executive team of Bethia UMC’s Upward Basketball and Cheerleading program.


Linda Thornburg: Write the First Draft of a Great Memoir in Thirty Days, Part Four


Linda Thornburg runs the Memories Into Story website. This is the last part of a four-part series on writing the first draft of your memoir.

Roman numeral 5000 I reversed CC

Roman numeral 5000 I reversed CC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Day Four: Writing an Outline

Don’t panic. This isn’t the Roman numeral one followed by capital A type of outline that you were forced to use in elementary school. This is an outline that will make use of your unconscious and subconscious as much as your conscious faculties. You’ve seen how branching works and if you’ve done the work of the first three days, you have some idea of a theme by now. The purpose of the outline is to give you a plan for moving forward.

It’s time to think about how you want to structure your material. First, write at the top of a page the general theme you think you may be working with. Under that write a few “subtopics,” leaving space between the entries. For example, in my case the theme was “Living in an Age of Transitional Femininism.” While that might not be the optimal way to phrase it, I mean that my idea of what a woman is supposed to be and do is vastly different than that of my mother and that has helped to define my life’s journey and the roads that I chose. My subtopics are the relationship that I have had with my mother, the quest for my own individuality, why I was lucky to have lived in the place and time that I did, birth order and siblings, men I knew in my twenties and thirties, men I knew in my forties, men I knew in my fifties, and finding empowerment. Under each of these subtopics I listed items that came to me, in no particular order. That gave me an idea of how to make a more formal outline, a process we will cover shortly.

Do this simple exercise and let the subtopics you have listed sit in your head for a day. Tomorrow you will refine and add to the list.

Day Five: Reviewing Your Outline

If you are like I am, you will quickly see that you have too much material to cover in one memoir, which is why refining your theme is so important. Your challenge will be to pick those incidents from your life that illustrate your theme the best, give up the most evocative picture of your experiences and evoke the most empathy in your readers. Some people can launch into their stories at this point, as I did. Others will need to outline more consciously and have a stronger sense of  theme and the direction  before they launch in.

I wrote what was basically a recitation of my life at this point. In about two weeks I was able to cover my whole life. The themes I might choose from in my next draft became apparent as I wrote. They included wanting to break the boundaries that my parents’ lives and attitudes seemed to have set for me and trying to think outside the box. I am now ready to take this raw material and produce short stories that will be woven into a longer narrative. I will have to fictionalize the names and characters because otherwise I might get sued. But my direction is clear. As I choose those elements of my life that illustrate the themes I am working with, I will know what to put in and what to leave out.

I think you will find an enormous satisfaction in simply reciting the facts of your life. While this would have seemed an overwhelming task before the earlier work  I did, it was not painful or laborious because I had prepared for it by facing my fears, exploring and refining possible themes and writing an informal outline. I shared my work with a writing group, so I knew who I was writing this first draft for, three other people who I felt safe sharing my life with. This gave me the momentum to finish because I had readers, and eliminated the fear of exposure, because they were people I trusted. One woman in the group told me it was the best thing I had done for the group.

If you don’t feel you are quite ready for the recitation of the facts of your life yet, keep working at the outline over the next couple of days. Sometimes just letting your unconscious work on it for a little while will be enough. Happy writing!

Linda Thornburg: Write The First Draft of a Great Memoir in Thirty Days, Part Three

Blue Sky Growing a Tree Branch in the Garden o...

Blue Sky Growing a Tree Branch in the Garden of Success (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Linda Thornburg runs the Memories Into Story website. Suggestions for how to approach the first draft of a memoir are offered here and in related articles on the site.

Day Two: Exploring Possible Themes

In order to complete the first draft of your manuscript in thirty days, you need to know your theme before you start writing. Themes in memoir are broad subject areas that certain aspects of your life embody. Some examples of memoir themes are:

The artist within

Living with Papa

A garden for each season

Growing up in small-town America

The writing life

Travels in Japan

List the things you are grateful for in your life. Take a broad approach so that you don’t end up focusing only on the present. What forces made you the person you are today? Can you see the value in even the darkest parts of your life now? This exercise can be quite powerful. It will help to clear your mind of negativity and fear and get you ready to begin outlining.

To find a theme that will help you focus your writing, try this process. Take a blank sheet of paper and write the words “me” in a circle in the middle. Without thinking about it too hard, draw a line radiating from the circle and write something about your life. Then draw another line radiating from the circle and do the same thing. Draw a third and fourth line with things about your life on each of them. Which line is the one that you can make “branches” off of most easily? That is, which one do you have most to say about? Draw branches off that line and write something on them.

The branching technique is a quick way to “mind map” and discover the area of your life that holds the most interest and energy for you as a writer. The topic with the most branches may reveal a theme, or at least hint at one.

After you’ve had a chance to do the branching exercise, rest for the day and let the ideas that have surfaced find their way through your subconscious. On the third day, you will work with some of those ideas.

Day Three: Refining Your Theme

By now you should have an idea of whether you are writing for family and close friends or for a wider audience. You also should be aware of some of your fears about the writing process and have some idea of the theme of your memoir.

When I tried the branching technique I ended up making a lot of lists. One was of people I had known intimately, one was of groups I had joined, one was of jobs I had held, and one was of men I had known. It became evident to me that what I needed to do was to find a device that would let me incorporate all my lists into a single memoir. That led me to some introspection about how I had defined myself as a woman, especially during my twenties and thirties. I realized that social norms — or fighting against them — had pushed me in certain directions.

By working with your branching from the previous day, you will find that certain themes emerge in your life’s trajectory. Consider these questions as your review your branching work:

1. What things about your past would you change if you could? If you find that your life experiences made you the person you are today, you won’t want to give up much. This is what happened to me; I realized that I am quite satisfied with who I am and have few regrets about the life that I have lived. What a wonderful revelation that was! I have almost always been a person who focused more on the future than on the past, but knowing that my past serves to make me who I am and that I like myself makes me happy.

If you find that there are a lot of things you would change about your past if you could, look for themes there. For example, if you had a bad marriage and wished you hadn’t married the person you did, what led you to that choice? How did your choice fit into the other patterns you exhibited in your life? Why did you stay in a bad marriage? Is there something that would serve as a theme for your memoir?

2. What was your subconscious telling you when you did your branching exercise? By thinking now about the things you left out or didn’t write down, you should have some clue about what has been most important. What do those first branching lines have in common? Is there a germ of a theme there?

3. Imagine that you are a little girl or boy and have the power to see into the future. When you were six years old, what about the life you lived would have been the most surprising? What would have been the most expected? By answering these two questions, does the beginning of a theme emerge?

4. I once heard a new age guru say that everyone has one or two questions they are trying to answer with their lives. Does your branching work suggest what those questions are? Does that help you define a theme for your memoir?

If you still don’t have a good idea for a theme, don’t worry. Work with a possible theme and it will become clearer as you progress. Take what you think might be your theme and do another branching exercise using that theme inside the circle in the middle of the page. Don’t think about it too hard; just write things on the lines radiating from that circle. This will be the skeleton for your memoir. But don’t worry. You don’t have to get it right; just let both sides of your brain work together to create branches for your newly discovered theme. Remember, you are looking for one branch that calls to you and that you can branch off of easily.

Your new branches should bring you closer to the subject material for your memoir. If you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere, try this exercise several times. Eventually the patterns will emerge. When you think you have a clear idea of what you will write about, rest for the day.

Related articles

Linda Thornburg: Write The First Draft of a Great Memoir in Thirty Days, Part Two

Linda Thornbug runs the Memories Into Story website. See her bio under Writing and Editing Services.

"Writing on the wood is prohibited."...

“Writing on the wood is prohibited.” DSC07600 (Photo credit: Nicolas Karim)

If you have discovered that your primary motivation in writing your memoir is to right a wrong, you need to dig deeper. Writing about the past may change it in your mind, but it won’t change circumstances and it generally won’t help you to gain revenge. There is nothing wrong with writing as a form of therapy, but the writing ought to be directed toward expressing and learning from your experiences, not toward feeling vindicated by exposing the actions of others. If that is your primary motivation, you are, quite frankly, stuck, and you need to find a way to get unstuck. The need to right a wrong is a victim mentality that will result in a poorer memoir.

Have you known people who keep making the same mistakes in life again and again? Who see the world through a lens so colored with their own sense of victimization that no matter what happens in their life they see it as bad news? They actually attract misfortune by the way they think. If you are one of these people, it’s unlikely you can break this cycle by yourself, because it is so powerfully reinforcing. Writing can help, but only if you approach it with the attitude that you will gather new insights about yourself as you write, and learn from the experience of writing, as well as from the experiences your life has presented to you. The lessons are there for you; think of them as rich material for your memoir, accept responsibility for your life and use your life experiences to create a memoir of hope.

I used the plan described in these blogs to write the first draft of my own memoir, A Different Drum, in exactly a month. I hope it will serve you equally well. If you follow the plan you will complete a manuscript in a month and be ready for the revision process. Revisions are the most important part of any writing project and they take time. But by having a completed manuscript, you will find you have the interest and energy to revise.

Happy writing!

Day One: Finding Out What You’re Afraid Of

Your first assignment is to confront your writing fears. Anything that is frightening can be made manageable by articulating and understanding it. And you do have fears about writing — because everyone does. So let’s review some common fears of memoir writers and figure out how to conquer them, or at least to tame them.

Fear number one: My life is too ordinary to be interesting.

You are unique and that makes you interesting. But if you believe your life is ordinary, dig deeper. List your accomplishments. You will be amazed by everything you have accomplished and you probably only remember a fraction of it.

This doesn’t have to be a complete or exhaustive list. Its purpose is to remind you of what you think are your greatest accomplishments. But notice something that happens in the process. The trajectory of your life begins to emerge, and that will bring you closer to discovering a theme for your memoir. In my life, writing has been important. So has accomplishment.

If you are having trouble with this exercise, ask yourself the following questions:

What am I most proud of?

What are the obstacles I had to overcome to achieve these things?

If you are fortunate enough to have so many accomplishments that you couldn’t possibly list them all, summarize the most important. You may want to use this list later to help you discover a memoir theme.

Fear number two: I’m not a good enough writer.

You are the expert on your story, which gives you an enormous advantage over others who might want to write it. To gain confidence in your writing ability, some short exercises may be in order. Here are some ways to boost your confidence:

·Write a letter to the editor on a topic you are passionate about. Edit it carefully. Send it and see if the paper will publish it.

·Write a story about something that happened in your life. Read it to your children, grandchildren or a friend. What kind of questions does your audience have?

·Write one paragraph describing a scene of your choice. Write it over and over until you are completely satisfied. Then read it to someone to see how that person reacts.

The truth is no one is a good enough writer. Writing is an activity that requires revision after revision. The secret to being a good writer is writing – and then revising. As a professor I had in graduate school said, there is nothing magical about the process. You may start with certain strengths, as I did, but you will quickly find that your weaknesses outweigh your strengths, no matter who you are. I think one of the reasons I love the activity of writing is that it is continually challenging. You can get better, but only if you continue to write.

Fear number three: It will be painful to review certain aspects of my life.

Writing is a solitary activity. Generally there is no one there but you and the computer or that blank piece of paper. You are in control of the process. If you are afraid of facing pain, do it a little at a time. Take one aspect of your life that you know you are comfortable dealing with and write a paragraph about it. Then write another paragraph that goes a little further into the painful area. For example, someone who suffered the death of a husband or wife might write a paragraph remembering a special holiday during the marriage and then write about what it was like to face that holiday alone. You will discover that when you are able to write about the painful periods, it feels good to get your memories and feelings down on paper. Writing about pain is therapeutic. In the process of writing, you find a release that would not have been possible otherwise. Try this exercise a few times and you will no longer have trouble writing about the painful periods of your life.

Fear number four: I don’t have anything original to say.

This is a variation of the fear “My life is too ordinary.” Worrying about not being original when you are writing about your own life is silly. Your experiences are unique; therefore telling about them will produce a unique manuscript. Your fear may be based in the fear of going deeply enough into your life experiences to find the interesting parts.

Fear number five: It will take too long and be too much work.

One of the reasons I wrote this blog is to show you that you don’t have to spend years writing a memoir. This fear is a sort of cost/benefit analysis statement that actually gives you a false estimate of the cost and benefit. By putting in a little bit of time, I promise you that you will reap a satisfying harvest. You may find that the habit of writing serves you well for the rest of your life.

Fear number six: The genre is already crowded. What if everyone wrote memoirs? The world would be flooded with bad literature.

If you are afraid of adding bad material to an overcrowded genre, you want to stand out. You want your memoir to be better than average and you want to develop a wide reading public. It’s good to know this at the beginning. You will have to work harder and do more revisions than those who are writing only for family and friends. The genre has been called overcrowded by some critics, but publishers have seen an appetite for memoirs. This presents an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

Fear number seven: I’m afraid people will see how imperfect I am.

Aren’t we all? If perfection is your goal, you’re probably living on the wrong planet. Think of the people you know. Are those you consider the most perfect also the most interesting? I doubt it. Our defects and blemishes make us human and they are what people are interested in. Or, I should say, they are interested in seeing how we overcome or surmount our imperfections. So in some sense, the less perfect you have been, the better your story can be, if you can show us how you dealt positively with  your imperfections.

Fear number eight: I’m afraid I’ll hurt people.

This is the most legitimate fear out of all those listed. One of the most difficult things about writing a memoir is telling an honest story without doing harm to others. There are a number of different ways that you might proceed. You could fictionalize parts of your story by creating composite characters that represent two or more of the people in your life. You could show your manuscript to the person or persons who you fear might be hurt and get their permission to use the material. You could change names and write under a pseudonym so that no one knows who the people in your story are. You could find metaphorical substitutes for certain incidents. For example, if you had a sibling with a disease and you were afraid of announcing or publicizing it to people outside your family even though that affected how you grew up, you could invent an uncle who lived with you who had the disease or one that was similar. There is no one right way to avoid hurting others. Each situation has to be evaluated on how truthful you feel that you must be at that point in the story and how important the information is.

Fear number nine: I’m afraid the people that I write about will try to punish or sue me.

Use the techniques discussed in fear number eight to work around this. Also, familiarize yourself with the slander and libel laws. The website http://www.enotes.com/first-amendment-law-reference/libel-and-slander is a good resource.

Fear number ten: I’m afraid of losing my privacy.

Then you obviously want to write a book that will be read by a wider audience than just your family. Consider writing under a pseudonym.

What fears do you have that I have not mentioned? By articulating your fears and finding strategies to quiet them, you will be able to write more productively.

Linda Thornburg: Write The First Draft of A Great Memoir in Thirty Days, Part One

Bean curd person of high skill

Bean curd person of high skill (Photo credit: Wm Jas)

Linda Thornburg runs the Memories Into Story website. See her full bio under Writing and Editing Services.

Your life story is unique. There is no one else on this planet with the same memories and experiences. That makes you a fascinating person, so start with the knowledge that your life is worth writing about. It doesn’t matter whether you know you are fascinating, you think you’ve had the dullest life imaginable or you see yourself as a ne’er do well. You have a story that will captivate readers and can teach them a thing or two.

After thirty years working as a writer and editor and coauthoring a number of books for pre-teen and teenage girls I started a memoir writing business. I work with people who want to tell their unique stories to produce the best memoirs possible. The process described in this and subsequent blogs is the one that I used in writing the first draft of my own memoir. It was an intensely satisfying experience.

 In order to write fast, you have to have an understanding of what you want to achieve, so take a little time to prepare  for the writing ahead.

If you believe, as I do, that one of the primary reasons we are given this life is to learn and that you have indeed learned, then you have something valuable to share. One reason the memoir genre has become so popular is that it gives us a glimpse into the minds of those who are both similar to and different from us. We like relating to others through their stories. It takes us out of our own narrow perspective and yet we find things to identify with in the stories of others, things that teach us lessons as well as satisfying our curiosity about how others live

It is worth spending a little time thinking about this as you prepare to write. What do you see in your life that is unique, and what do you see that is common to others? For example, if you grew up with an exotic learning disability that made your life more challenging, that would be something that is, if not unique, at least different from the majority of people who will read your story. But if you found a way to learn and took joy in it, that characteristic is one you share with others and one that readers will easily relate to.

Just as each life is unique, so too is each person’s reason for writing. But we can attempt categorize memoir writers’ motivations. You might write as a form of therapy, hoping to find in the act of recording your life that you will better understand the things that have happened to you and find some peace. You might be someone who has to work through pain and or guilt. You might write as a form of self-validation, seeing your life more wholly and finding meaning in remembering. You might write to discover how you feel about certain themes or experiences, using the writing opportunity to gain more self-knowledge. You are the person who knows the most about your life, the primary expert, but by putting your recollections on paper you might discover aspects of your life you hadn’t considered before. Listen to these authors on memoir:

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory.

“Each of us is a book waiting to be written, and that book, if written, results in a person explained.” Thomas M. Cirignano, The Constant Outsider.           

You might write to revisit certain times and understand why you made the choices you did. Maybe you write to answer big questions, like “Why am I alive and what is my purpose?” Many people write to leave a legacy, either for their families or for a wider audience. Others write because they want attention or fame, others to earn money.

What are your reasons for writing? Take some time now to understand your motivations and you will be guided in how you organize your material and the subject matter and word choices you make. Here are some questions to consider:

Who am I writing for?

What is my primary motivation?

What are my secondary motivations?

What do I hope to discover in the writing process?

Am I trying to justify my actions to someone?

What is my relationship to my past?

Most of us cannot fully articulate how we feel about the past. However, by trying to put our feelings into words, we open doors into our writing. If you believed only that  “the past is dead, time to forget it,” you would not be reading this. You have an interest in your past. Do you look on it nostalgically, regretfully, angrily or philosophically? There is no right answer and no single answer, but articulating how you feel will help you to see and understand your motivations for writing.

Diana Edwards: Scones on the Cutting Edge

Diana Edwards writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.

Perhaps it was four major moves in one year or it might have been the floor-to-ceiling mountain of cartons – all labeled kitchen – that loomed from the far side of the already crowded room. Whatever it was, it rendered me senseless that sultry August afternoon three years ago.  Chances are I’ll never know what produced that absent-minded moment, but I like to blame it on the heat.

In any event, I had decided to mix up some scones for an afternoon tea.  The basics were unpacked – cookie sheets, bowls, food processor, parchment – and my favorite whip-it-up-quick cookbook of muffins, scones and treats was at the ready.

I’d pulsed the flour, salt and butter.  The lemon was zested and the cream was chilled when I realized that my stash of sunflower seeds was gone.  I’d ignored my own #1 Rule – read the recipe and gather the ingredients before you begin.

I yanked off my apron, grabbed my car keys and headed for the store a mere three minutes away.   As I sped up the hill, I thought “Good, the oven will be up to temp when I return.”  I raced toward the baking isle – nearly skidding past the sundries, flavorings and the Teva-sporting, hairy-legged man whose face I never saw, in my lightening-speed dash for seeds.  “Raisins, dates … where are the sunflower seeds?”  I must have been speaking aloud for the baritone in Tevas was now at my side.

“I saw sunflower seeds at the check-out,” he said softly as his tanned arm stretched shelf-ward in an irritatingly slow and mellow reach.

“Ah, thanks …” I sputtered, attempting nonchalance.  Turning and resisting the urge to run, I headed to the registers where the sunflower seeds were stacked neatly on the top shelf of the candy rack at – Thank God – the express register.

Crossing the patio at home I was met with ear-splitting scream of our smoke alarms.  Burnt, and now smoky, remains of peach-blueberry cobbler spill on the bottom of the oven had triggered alarms on all levels of the house, and I raced about opening windows while pausing every fifteen seconds or so under an alarm, twirling a tea towel over my head in ceiling fan fashion to help quiet the screeching.  Finally there was silence.

Retrieving my abandoned package from the patio, I tried to refocus on my original task.  I transferred the flour mixture to a bowl and tossed in the zest.  Next, I tore open the package of sunflower seeds and tossed them with the flour and zest mixture before making a well for the cream.  I reached for a spatula, filled the well and gently blended everything before turning the mixture on to a floured board.  Chaos was becoming perfection.  I divided the dough, formed two rounds and sliced a dozen lovely scones.  Into the oven they went.

I cleaned up the baking items and the sweet-savory aroma began to replace the slight smoky remains of the burnt cobbler.  It was 3:30; my husband was due home soon.  I unearthed a tablecloth from a carton marked dining linens and set two places.  The tea was steeping and two minutes remained on the timer when Newt walked through the door.  “Mmm … smells wonderful. I see you can’t stay away from baking, too long.” he teased.  He went to wash up.  I smiled with satisfaction.

“These smell just a bit different from the ones you usually make,” he said as he spread jam on his still-warm scone.

“I thought I’d surprise you with sunflower seeds.”

I was tucking the teapot under its cozy when Newt let out the worst sort of sound and began spitting his mouthful of scone onto his plate.  He reached into his mouth and pulled out a bloodied sunflower seed shell.

“What the heck. What’s in these?” he said, now moaning and soothing the roof of his mouth with his tongue.

I looked at his plate and then I broke open my scone.  I ran to the trash, pulled out the empty package and took a closer look.  I’d tossed an entire packed of un-shelled sunflower seeds into the recipe.

I sank back onto my chair, tossed the empty wrapper in the air, and said “shells – the seeds are still in their shells!”

Through his pain, Newt began to laugh, too. We’ve been sticking to scones with currants ever since.




Barbara Morrision: Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother

Barbara Morrison is the author of a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, and a poetry collection, Here at Least. Her award-winning work has been published in anthologies and magazines. She conducts writing workshops and speaks on women’s and poverty-related issues. Visit her website and blog at bmorrison.com. See a review of Morrison’s book in the book review section of this website.

I never planned to write a memoir. My efforts all went toward poetry and fiction, short stories and the beginning of a novel. Plus, my life seemed pretty unremarkable; I wasn’t the First Lady or a movie star.

Then I met Marita Golden, author of After and other amazing novels and memoirs. We talked about opening up stereotypes, and I confessed that part of my mission as a writer was to show the real lives of people living in poverty, having myself been on welfare as a young, single mother. She suggested that writing a memoir –telling my real story– would be more powerful than fiction. The truth of this was brought home to me a little while later when I started reading what I thought was a memoir. About halfway through I realized that it was a novel, and immediately the huge power I’d found in the narrative just melted away.

Writing a book-length manuscript requires a different kind of approach than short forms like stories or essays. I floundered around redoing the first chapter a zillion times until a member of my critique group finally advised me to push through the first draft, no matter how awful it seemed, and the shape of the book would become clear to me, the threads that I’d want to weave through the story, the way I needed to begin and end it.

She was right! The critique group was also hugely helpful  in that I used our monthly meetings as a deadline: I had to have a chapter ready for each meeting. Plus their comments and our discussion helped me see where I was going astray. Once I finished the first draft, I stepped back and looked at the not-very-detailed outline I’d been following. I revised the outline and identified the threads that would provide some consistency, like motifs in a piece of music. It took multiple drafts to get the manuscript where I wanted it, and my long-suffering critique group faithfully read and re-read chapters as well as one final read-through of the whole thing.

I thought writing the book was hard, but it was nothing compared to selling it. I knew I’d have a hard time finding a publisher. A memoir about welfare was not an intuitively popular subject, and with the economy tanking and the publishing industry in an uproar over e-books, publishers were unwilling to take a chance on a book that would take a while to find an audience.

Also, I had no platform. I had no reputation as an author or as an authority on poverty. So I set to work to fix that. I began a weekly book blog which I continue today and got involved in several social networks. I self-published a collection of my poetry in order to learn how to approach bookstores and set up readings. I became active in my local writer’s association and volunteered to staff our booth at book fairs. I submitted excerpts of the manuscript as stand-alone essays for contests and publication. With a few prizes and publication credits to my name, I finally had the credentials to begin selling the book.

I queried agents. I queried editors. I received many rejections and came to treasure the few with hand-written notes on the form letter saying how much they liked the manuscript even though they couldn’t publish it. I went to a pitch conference to perfect my approach. I ran down any contact offered by a friend. I took advantage of opportunities to meet with agents and editors at writing conferences. Some asked to see the manuscript, but even if not, talking with them was still good practice. I even paid a professional editor to review the manuscript and provide comments on how it could be improved, though that was a waste of money, the comments being quite minimal and not much use.

When I finally found a publisher, I could hardly believe it. In fact, I didn’t believe it for a long time because the tiny detail of a contract somehow slipped through the cracks. In retrospect, I should have asked much earlier, because when I did finally — hesitantly!– ask about the contract it was sent to me immediately. Obviously if I’d had an agent, she or he would have dealt with all that, but now that the book was sold, I didn’t see much purpose in approaching an agent, especially  since I couldn’t find one to represent me before. I still don’t know if that was the right decision, but I’ve certainly enjoyed working directly with my publisher.

If selling the book was hard, getting people to buy it has been ten times harder. Like most small presses, my publisher expected me to promote the book. And, even though selling is not my strong point, I had planned ahead and so was ready to jump right in. The problem is that there are a thousand and one ways to promote a book, so it is pretty much a never-ending task. However, it all doesn’t have to be done at once, so I keep plugging away at it.

And I also am well aware that having to promote my published work is a good problem to have! My book has been published, and that’s pretty great. However, if it were not for the support, both emotional and technical, that I received from my critique group and my colleagues in the local writer’s association, I never would have made it this far. The book is their accomplishment too. So my advice to writers and to other young, single mothers is: surround yourself with supportive people; speak from your heart; and never give up.

Linda Thornburg: 30 Ways To Write A Memoir

Linda Thornburg runs the Memories Into Story website. 

Everybody wants a minute of fame. Here are thirty suggestions for recording parts of your life for family, friends and posterity.

1. Hire a ghostwriter. This is probably the easiest way to get your memoir done, but also the most expensive. Look for someone who will quote you a maximum price, and then find out what you will get for the amount quoted – writing, editing, rewrites. Plan to spend some time in interviews.

2. Hire a personal historian. Search on Google and you’ll find plenty.

3. Mine your journals for stories and inspiration. Or begin writing a journal and later turn it into something public.

4. Speak into a tape recorder and get someone to transcribe it. Then edit.

5. Ask your mother to speak into a tape recorder and talk about your life. Use as much as you want and fill in where necessary.

6. Join a memoir-writing group and write once a week. You can find them through community colleges and adult education facilities.

7. Spend one hour a day before you go to work on your personal story.

8. Target an online or print publication for an article. While you might not think of it as a full-blown memoir, it could be the beginning of something big.

9. Write yourself a bunch of letters over the course of a year and publish them.

10. Make a video memoir. Sit down in front of a camera and talk. Then edit.

11. Make a short video memoir of a minute or two. Publish it on YouTube.

12. Look at old photos and letters to trigger ideas.

13. Take short breaks at work and write a paragraph at a time.

14.  Write a six-word memoir like “Beautiful phoenix rising from the ashes.” See www.smithmag.net/sixwords/.

15. Write a column on some aspect of your life for a local newspaper.

16. Write short essays and string them together.

17. Take a tape recorder on long trips and speak stories about your life; then pay to have them transcribed. Hire an editor to string your stories together.

18. Write about pain. It’s therapeutic and it will give your writing energy and momentum.

19. Write about anger to discover new themes.

20. Stop writing when you know you have more to say. You’ll come back to the writing the next day.

21. Write a letter to the editor in which you describe a personal experience that supports your opinion.

22. Participate in an oral history project for a local library or community center.

23. Try something you’ve always wanted but were afraid to do, and then write about the experience.

24. Take a trip and write about it. Be personal in the way you tell your story.

25. Write about your cooking experiences.

26. Write about your eating experiences.

27. Write one scene from your childhood. Then write another.

28. Pretend you’re the hero of a comic book. What does the book say?

29. Pretend you’re an actor and the subject of the play is your life. What do you say?

30. If you were a wild animal, what would you be? Write something with that animal in mind. Hey, it’s just a starting place.

Judith Dickerman-Nelson: A Former Teen Mom Talks About Writing Her First Book

This is Young Single Mothers’ Month on Memories Into Story. Below, Judith Dickerman-Nelson, the author of Believe in Me: A Teen Mom’s Story, writes about how she completed her first book, which as of Mother’s Day  is number one in Amazon Kindle’s Parenting Teenagers and Women’s Studies categories.

See the Book Reviews section on this website for a review of her book and two other memoirs by young mothers.

What advice would you give to young single mothers today?

When I was in elementary school, I wrote poems and stories and kept a diary, my love of words beginning early on. The thrill of telling a good story grew when I gossiped with girlfriends about who liked who and what had happened in the woods after school—spin the bottle and quick kisses underneath the pine trees.

Later, when I fell in love in high school, I still kept a diary, but I also kept a journal and wrote letters to my boyfriend. He became my fiancé the summer before my senior year, and we began to imagine a life shared together. We talked about our future and the children we would have.  I went to a Catholic all-girls high school, and when he went away to a prep private school in another state, even though we’d just found out that I was pregnant, I felt like my world was falling apart.

The events that unfolded that year became the basis of my first book, Believe in Me: A Teen Mom’s Story that was published this year by Jefferson Park Press. The story looks closely at that time through the eyes of my sixteen-year-old self. I explore the hard choices I had to make and how much I wanted to believe in the young man I loved. In writing the book, I chose the voice of my teenage self. To get back to my younger point of view, though, I had to sit quietly and recall my life as a teen.

I am thankful that I saved the letters my then-fiancé wrote and the pictures of our proms and of our times together. I am thankful to have my journals and diaries from that time. These items helped me when I started to write the book, allowing me to get inside myself and remember the feelings from when I was sixteen and seventeen.

Going back and reliving that time helped me to get to a place where I could write the book. Now that the book is published people have asked me how long it took to write. At first when I’ve answered, I’ve faltered because, in many ways, I feel like I’ve been writing this book since my son was born. I turned the events over and over again in my mind, remembering. It was a way of saving details until later, until I could actually sit down and put pen to paper.

I had dreamed about being a published writer, but when I became pregnant the summer before my senior year, it felt as if everything was suddenly uncertain, as if the things I’d imagined couldn’t possibly come true. I was afraid I might not graduate from high school let alone go on to college. How could I be a single teen mom and still go to college and continue to write?

I didn’t know the answer at first, but I knew that I had to keep reaching for my dreams. As someone who has been a teen mom, I would advise all single moms to dream big and to hold onto those dreams. Then make a plan to go out and meet those dreams—step by step, even if you can only take baby steps in the beginning.

I wrote poems about being a young mom. I wrote stories—sometimes from my point of view, sometimes from my son’s birth father’s point of view. I took writing classes at college and in correspondence courses, too. And all the while, I kept holding onto my dreams. It took me longer but eventually I got my bachelor’s degree and then my masters of fine arts in writing.

My book took me a bit longer, too, because sometimes the remembering hurt. But I kept at it. Now when people ask me how long it took to write the book, I say “about six years.” And that’s probably about right, though I am not counting the twenty-plus years when I thought about my story and told my story to dear friends who would listen. Those years, I think the book was taking shape in my mind.

This shape included making use of the writing material that I’d saved. I used letters, diary excerpts and some poems. They give the book a sense of immediacy, I think, bringing the reader into the chaos and confusion of my life at that time. But I had to change the letters, altering originals into something new while keeping the essence of their meaning.

I also changed the names of people and places to protect the birthfather’s family, and I changed the number of kids in his family. My publisher had me change the type of business my then-fiancé’s family worked in—all in an effort to conceal their identity. Then, at the request of my sister, I did not include her in the book.

So my memoir became a book with fictionalized aspects.

I tried not to think about those things while I was writing and re-writing. Instead, I focused on telling the truth, using spare, clean scenes that would draw the reader in. I chose shorter chapters to keep the story moving at a quick clip, knowing that sometimes I get bored if a book gets bogged down with too many details.

But it is the details and the characters that make a story strong, so I had to choose carefully where to cut when it came to editing. At first, I had a number of flashback scenes, but my editor and publisher encouraged me to re-order the book and rewrite in some places. Sometimes it was difficult to let go of what I’d written because I was writing my own life, difficult to accept the constructive criticism, too. But I learned to keep working at it, to make the hard choices, and in the end, I believe, the story I’ve told is stronger. So believe in yourselves. Keep writing!

Order the book from: https://sites.google.com/site/jeffersonparkpress/

Diana Edwards: Remembering Mama

Diana Edwards writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.

Ten years ago this month I lost my mother and yet the fragrance of her attar of roses is as real now as though she’d left moments ago. ‘Your father bought this for me,’ she would say as she dabbed a drop behind each ear. The thought of that rose scented oil has the power to conjure up a myriad of memories that represent Mother.

As Mother’s Day approaches, I smile as I remember the sheer number of flowered handkerchiefs from the local Five & Dime Mother had stashed away; and I wonder how she managed to use up all those small bottles of Trushay hand lotion that accompanied our meager Mother’s Day gifts. Year after year she would delight us with a look of utter surprise at being presented with a hand-picked bouquet of violets. Spring still finds me looking for violets. Her favorite flowers were reflected in her wardrobe of fuchsias and pinks.

Mother spent less time in the kitchen than most women raising children in the 1950s, but she could plan an elegant event right down to the flowers for the table, and she always arranged them herself. While honing culinary skills didn’t appeal to her, she did master a few menu items that are still favorites of mine.  Date squares are one. Mother called them Date squates (rhymes with plates) because she loved being a little bit exotic in her language and style. We were always arriving ‘entourage’; her grandchildren knew her as Grandmamma. If my father’s perspective on something seemed pessimistic, she would predictably declare ‘For Heaven’s sake, stop hanging crepe!’

Optimism was her strong suit. She learned from her mistakes, and didn’t spend a lot of time looking back. She believed in creating opportunities, and she was not easily intimidated. Since my father was an antiquarian bookseller, mother traded books for the school’s library in exchange for our tuition at boarding school. She taught us that education was lifelong learning; one of her pet directives was  ‘Pay attention!’  She travelled to Europe, South America and the Caribbean, sometimes making those trips alone, and always returning with keepsakes or gifts that spoke of the countries she’d visited.

She loved silver and antiques and she turned her passion for both into a source of income as an antique dealer when she was widowed in her fifties. If she was afraid of striking out on her own, she didn’t tell us.

Mother was courageous in life and love. She buried one daughter and guided another through a life tormented with the ravages of schizophrenia. At the age of eighty, after nearly fifty years in the northeast, she packed up and moved to Virginia – away from the long New England winters. She was sharp right up to the end, and she outlived three husbands before leaving quietly at the age of ninety-six.  Carpe diem! That was my mother.  As a young woman from Iowa, Mother crafted a full and interesting life by finding a perfect blend of joie de vivre and Yankee ingenuity.