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.

Diana Edwards: Looking for Winter

Diana Edwards remembers an approaching winter in Massachusetts. She now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

The November landscape was beige and brown, and once-soft grass crunched as we crossed the hill toward the pond. We went down to the water’s edge where we could see the ice crystals in the mud and the thin layer of winter forming around the pond’s edge.

“It’s coming!” we shouted.

Then each of us broke off a thin piece of ice and popped it onto our tongue.  The wind and cold whistled up our jacket sleeves and down the space near our collars, but we didn’t mind too much.  We made our way along the shore pushing past the stiff, brittle remains of summer. We served as the ride for the hitch-hiking seeds of fall; while the thorns on the wild berry branches scratched our cheeks and the back of our hands.

We tromped along the shore to the dam at the edge of the pond near the road that fall, when I was nine or ten. Our father built the dam that formed the pond. Many times we watched him pull a wooden slat from the top of the dam when the water was high – spilling some of the pond to the brook that ran under the road, past the orchard, to a lower pond and still another dam. I’d seen him standing on a near-dry brook bed right below the dam one summer, when he said Massachusetts was desperate for rain. That cold 1950s day, we stood at the edge of the dam and stuck a toe out toward the top plank that held the water in place. The surface was slippery and we decided not to balance the short distance to the other side. In the summer, with bare feet, it was an easy feat.

We retraced our steps along the shore and sat for a while on cold board benches that faced the fire pit at the edge of the pond.  We talked about ice skating – spins and skating backwards. I dreamed about velvet, fur-trimmed skating skirts.  We poked the fire pit with long sticks and balanced atop the benches. We longed for marshmellows, hot chocolate, and popcorn. In the distance, we heard Mother ringing the bell for us to come in.  We tossed the sticks aside and raced across the field to the house.

“I hosie telling about the ice!” my sister shouted.

Linda Thornburg: Tribute To Kay

Linda  Thornburg runs the Memories Into Story website.

My friend Kay died Saturday April 21 at 3:20 a.m. I spent three hours with her about seven hours prior to her death. When her roommate Nick called and said she was dying and could I get to the hospital, I have to admit I thought about not going. And then I thought that if it were me in that hospital bed, I would want her there. My presence probably made no difference to her; she was heavily sedated and not conscious. But her open mouth moved when someone said something interesting. Nick and his girlfriend Katie talked to her as if she could hear them. I found it harder to do. The only thing I could think to say was that I loved her. Then I squeezed her hand.

Having that time with her was a way to say goodbye, even though I didn’t know I needed that. There were only two chairs in the hospital room. Nick and Katie wanted to stay until she passed, which provided an excuse for me to leave. I don’t think I would have been able to stay until the end because of the stress. I wanted to do something and there was nothing to be done.

It happened so fast, this unexpected death. She died of a cancer that spread to her organs and her bones from her lungs. Her doctor told her she could have chemo but it would prolong her life only a month. She said she was ready to go, and then she did.

Kay was one of my best friends these past few years. I cannot yet believe I will not see her again in this life. When another good friend, seventeen years my senior, died of lung cancer ten years ago, I knew it right away even though we had not seen each other for months. She came to me in a dream and lectured me about getting more stability in my life. Kay had been sick and I had spoken with her at least twice a month over the past year and yet her rapid decline and death took me completely by surprise. She thought she had beaten the cancer. I even wrote a column on her recovery for a popular women’s magazine. She begged for more time to review it before we submitted it, saying she had taken a strong antibiotic for a sinus infection and was too dizzy to read the text. Then came an email from Nick saying she had been taken to the ER, where they found cancer in both lungs.

Her declining health started with a colostomy last year. Then there was a hysterectomy, and finally the lung cancer, which, although discovered earlier, she ignored. I asked her after the hysterectomy and radiation treatment for uterine cancer if maybe she should join a cancer survivor support group. She said, no, she didn’t think of herself as a cancer survivor. It wasn’t that she didn’t think she was a survivor; she didn’t want to believe she had cancer. But for her, cancer was not a disease that you could treat only with a positive attitude.

I met Kay at a writer’s event in her hometown and we quickly became friends. She told me in one of our early conversations that her life was devoted to learning about the idea that people create their own reality by the way they think. She was probably one of the most knowledgeable people in the world about many aspects of what she called conscious creation and was writing a book about it. She gave me some exercises to help me see how much of our reality we do indeed create – things like thinking of a color or a piece of music and then finding it everywhere. She also gave me a list of books to broaden my perspective, educate me about how conscious creation was supported by cutting edge scientific research, and get me to think differently about the effect my thoughts could have on me and on others. She told me stories of her friends who had used conscious creation techniques to change their lives.

Every time I was with Kay I enjoyed her, even when she was the sickest. She almost always had courage to face her situation and strive for intellectual honesty. She was a loving, complex and humble person who reached out easily. She opened up my world. She believed there is life after life, and I know that whatever she is experiencing at this moment is good. She told Katie she would be the one waiting in the purple hat to welcome her to the other side. I plan to see her in that hat too.

The loss I feel is tempered with a gratitude for having known her. I have experienced the death of others close to me and had reactions not so sanguine. But today, although I feel loss, I also feel relief that Kay’s suffering is over and that she is on to a new adventure. Perhaps this type of feeling comes with age; perhaps with wisdom. Or perhaps, we just get more selfish as we age and so I don’t feel her death as deeply as some of those earlier deaths. But I don’t think that’s true, because my sense of her is so strong and I feel her love.

Diana Edwards: Season’s End

Diana Edwards is a writer based in Charlottesville, Virginia. This creative non-fiction piece is a  portrait of her grandmother.

Season’s End

Nellie balanced herself with two canes and snailed along the corridor as morning poured through the windows of the worn farmhouse. The sunlit runner warmed her bare feet as she shuffled forward. Her once svelte frame had thickened round the middle, and like a flower nipped by frost, her head tipped slightly forward and her limbs were stiff and angular. Her still keen eyes scanned the old familiar runner that covered the hardwoods in the upstairs hall; she had hooked the floral pattern and the runner held strong after all these years. Deep violets and varying shades of peony wool were still full-bodied and the nap solid. Soft gray hair fell below now-hunched shoulders, caressed the stretch of worn, floor-length lawn, and was corralled by a soft pink ribbon.  Fresh undergarments flopped from her wrist and jerked with each step of the cane, and three hairpins were pinched between her lips. Wood smoke wafting up from the kitchen said that her husband Whitty had stoked the stove and set the kettle on to boil.

The house shuttered softly when the door slammed and the old man left the kitchen, and Nellie heard the crunch of gravel as he crossed the drive toward the barn and chores. She smiled and turned into the bathroom.  Beyond the claw foot tub and the flutter of organdy, she could see acres of new-mown hay waiting for teddering and bailing.

Just inside the door she hooked one cane on the brass rack that held the toilet paper, and supporting herself with the broad lip of the marble sink-surround, she shuffled a few steps across the cool linoleum and hooked the other cane on the right-hand side of the sink before setting her under garments on a chair that was still within reach.  She released the hairpins to a silver dish on the edge of the sink.

Soaking a cloth with warm water she took little notice of the lines of life and laughter reflected in the oak-framed mirror, and with eyes closed against the warm cloth, she counted her blessings. Warm water – fresh out of the tap – was always right up there with all that she treasured. Whitty, of course, was always at the top of her list!  Again, she dipped and squeezed the cloth. Turning gingerly, she hitched up her nightgown before settling onto the solid wooden chair to the right of the sink.

Nellie draped her nightgown over the edge of the tub and pulled her slip on over her head and down to her hips. Then, one leg at a time, she eased her box-like panties over the stiffened ankles and knees, and supporting herself with the edge of the sink, she stood and pulled them to her waist.

“There, that’s that.” She spoke softly to no one and looked out over the meadow as she settled back on the chair.

It hadn’t always been this difficult – this business of getting dressed.  There was nothing to it in the early years – before age and arthritis.

Newly-wedded energy had transformed chores to fun during the early years on the farm. There’d been a pump near the wood shed – a bowl and pitcher, and a copper tub for a full washing.  A porcelain slop-jar sat in the corner.  The floor was wooden then – Whitty hadn’t yet laid the linoleum.

Again, the house shuttered softly – interrupting her thoughts.

She wrapped the pink hair ribbon around the faucet on the tub so it wouldn’t slip away as she brushed the tangles from her hair. With one proficient twist and twirl Nellie pinned the silken tresses to the nape of her neck. Straining against age she stood to hang her nightgown in the narrow closet that was tucked in the corner. Then, standing behind the chair, she waited and remembered.

For seven seasons Whitty did the work of two and saved enough money to buy their farm.  With deed in hand and on bended knee, he’d asked Nellie to be his bride. She and Albert – her Whitty – arrived in the spring of 1899 to begin married life on the hilltop of the small Massachusetts town.

She remembered now when they ran the indoor plumbing for the bathroom and Whitty had scared her half to death the first morning after the pipes were run. With the lid-iron from the wood stove, Whitty had tapped out “I Love You” in Morse code on the hot-water pipe leading from the kitchen stove to the bathroom. She thought the pipes were breaking apart! For years he’d doubled-up laughing about it, and she’d reminded him that it wasn’t she who’d worked as a telegrapher, and would have had no way of “deciphering anything from that racket!”

Decades later Nellie stood near the pipe that snaked up the wall to connect to the tub.  It was silent, but she waited in the corner, hairbrush in hand, for she’d learned to respond with the same sweet song.

Clank!  The first note came from the old man in the kitchen.

Again, Clank! Clank! The lines on Nellie’s gentle face beamed upward and she nodded in tune to the poetry of some sixty years.  Her blue eyes sparkled!

Clank!  Her heart kept time!

Whitty had sent this message nearly every morning since the plumbing went in, and Nellie had been responding in kind for just about as long.

She knew nothing about Morse code, but she was sure she knew enough about music to translate Whitty’s dots and dashes into notes. A few days after that first hair-raising message was sent, Nellie stood ready, pencil poised for the transcription. The next morning she compared his message against the notes she’d made. She knew she had it right!  And wasn’t Whitty startled when she tapped out a response!  He’d run up the stairs and taken her in his arms, laughing all the while!

Again, Clank!

And then Nellie heard a clatter in the distance. For a moment she didn’t move.  Then – in a split second –she dropped her hairbrush, reached for the chair with one hand and unhooked the cane from the sink with the other. Floundering past the toilet she reached her other cane, and headed – stiff joints straining -toward the stairs. A solid banister met Nellie’s iron-clad grip.

“Oh Dear God!” she prayed aloud, “Help me!”

“Whitty!  I’m coming!  I’m coming!” she hollered down the stairwell.

With one cane hooked over the arm that gripped the rail, and using the other cane for balance, she began her descent.

“I’m half-way down!” she shouted.

“Whitty! I’m off the stairs!”

Nellie's House

Nellie turned the corner towards the kitchen, calling for her husband as she went. She kept her eyes on the floor as she negotiated the route, but nearing the kitchen she paused to look up.  Only then did she see the coffee spilling slowly from the cup on the floor and Whitty’s arm. At the threshold, she let fall one cane, and clinging to door and knob, lowered herself to the floor and struggled towards her beloved.

With silver hair breaking free of its pins, and draped in her silk-soft slip, she wailed, “Oh, Whitty, don’t leave without saying good-by!”©

Beverly Ann Brown Ball: “Back Home Again in Indiana…” Along the Elkhart River

Sometimes memoir takes the form of poetry. Beverly Ann Brown Ball wrote this poem for her family using a technique called branching after a workshop on writing memoirs in the summer of 2011.

I was born in Elkhart Township,

in Elkhart County,

along the Elkhart River

(in north-cental Indiana),

when my father was Elkhart County

Agricultural Agent –

My mother used to tease me saying

that

She almost named me ‘Elkhart’!

‘Along the Elkhart River’ …

is where I was born;

It’s where, after dark & a long dusty day in the fields,

it’s where,

70 years or so ago,

I remember the excitement of being afloat & paddling –

my very first swimming.

Along the Elkhart River,

on Grandpa Brown’s adjoining farm barnyard,

on Sunday afternoons,

Amish courting couples parked their buggies,

went across the bridge to Bruces’

& rented  rowboats –

Brown cousins, too,

played catch in the Elkhart River,

then went running to Bruces

because

(accidentally?)

their ball was floating down the river!

In cold weather

these Brown cousins ice skated

beside the shore of the Elkhart River –

Years later,

(in the 90s’),

when we both worked in the

the Elkhart County Courthouse,

during lunch break,

Alice took me to her home,

‘Down by the Riverside’,

where we had played

& called to one another across the river

when we were girls growing up –

(as had  her mother

& Aunt Catherine,

Until Grandma stopped them,

saying it was “undignified”)

In the early 30s’,

during her cross-country auto trip,

My mother wrote in her diary that

the Elkhart River

was the loveliest spot that she had seen,

&,

When she died,

some 60 years later,

I was glad to stay

with Alice & her husband

so near the Elkhart River

‘Elkhart River’, ‘Elkhart River’,

Elkhart River in Elkhart Township,

Elkhart County, Indiana –

Elkhart River: Here runs some of my Fondest Memories of

Back Home Again in Indiana”