Guest Blogger: Margot Starbuck

A Few Do’s & Don’ts of Writing Memoir

This summer I’m traveling around promoting my new spiritual memoir, The Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for a Father Who Does Not Fail. (As much as any mom of 3 elementary-school aged kids can “travel around”) Folks have gathered in living rooms, church fellowship halls, and even the occasional hip urban art gallery to snack and listen politely. Typically I’ll read four or five excerpts and then open it up for questions. I let the audience know that the life, the book, and the writing are all fair game.

Inevitably, a tentative hand goes up. It might not be the first hand, but before the evening ends, the hand will rise. The mouth that goes with the hand will ask, “So…how’s your family doing with it?” The asker wants to know how the people I’ve described in the book have responded to its publication. She realizes that unless a writer grew up in isolation…on Jupiter…a memoirist inevitably ends up narrating the stories of those around her. This, of course, can be terribly dicey business.

I’m grateful to report that though I did dodge a bullet with the “potentially-enraged-family-member-situation,” I can’t take credit for it. Long before I wrote The Girl in the Orange Dress, I was noticing the experience of memoirists who’d gone before me.

In the hopes of being useful to you on your journey, here are a few things I’ve learned on mine…

Don’ts

People: Don’t Overexpose Others
At the Calvin Festival of Faith & Writing, 2006, I attended a panel discussion with three memoirists. One had shared the memoir with those mentioned in the book as he wrote. There was no exciting “reveal” upon publication, but there also weren’t any big surprises for his loved ones. Another panel member, who’d “converted” from the faith of his family to a radically different expression of Christian faith, went the “big reveal” route. Sadly, this turned out to be quite damaging to his relationships. So the moment I finished my first draft, I ran it past the six eyes that mattered most to me. Two of these folks were pleased/relieved and the other made some valid points which I was ultimately able to incorporate.

Pain: Don’t Be Whiny
As the protagonist in your own story, you want the reader to be for you. From my experience parenting the aforementioned young un’s, fussing isn’t necessarily conducive to that. I am much more likely to respond sympathetically to a child who’s just had a flatulent explode in her face (after I finish laughing) if I witness it than if I hear the whiny report. In memoir, whining is “telling” your pain. You want to “show.”

Picking Language: Don’t Overdo the Christian Jargon
As I wrote, I had it in my mind that I wanted my Christian readers to be able to—and want to—hand the book to a non-Christian friend or relative. Although they might actually have done that if I’d used Christianese language to detail “grieving the Spirit” in my “walk with the Lord,” I doubt the curious friends and relatives would have hung on for long. Warning: Those of us who are pretty “churchified” often don’t even hear the degree to which we use religious language. Get a reader who can sniff it out for you.

Do’s

Protection: Do Be Wise & Gentle With the Stories of Others
When Jesus told his followers to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves, I’m pretty sure he was thinking about memoir. Your cutting edge is to tell the truth in love. Convincing your brother to sign a release form for your publisher is one thing, but honoring and preserving the relationship is a whole other deal. Be generous to those about whom you write. A rule of thumb I tried to use as I was writing was, “Could the person about whom I’m writing feel good about handing this book to her next-door neighbor?”

Pathos: Do Give “Just Enough” Tragedy
Have you read The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls? If you haven’t, please do so immediately. Though Walls’ childhood was filled with more chaos and uncertainty than any child should have to face, her matter-of-fact telling allows the reader to be outraged on her behalf. Rather than detailing injury after injury, giving the reader “just enough” leaves more room for her to identify with you.

Point: Stay Focused on a Single Theme
No matter how fascinating your life has been, your memoir isn’t an autobiography. Share the experiences that contribute to the particular arc of your story. A temptation I faced was to include some of my favorite experiences – even when they didn’t add to the Father-thread holding the book together. (So hooray for wise editors!) In the end, the book was much tighter, and more meaningful to readers, than it would have been if I’d included the gratuitous stories.

Palatability: Do Employ Humor
Honestly, if I had to read my own story stripped of the humor, I doubt I’d have the will to press on—even though the book would have been pared down to just three thin pages. I don’t mean “wear a clown face and pretend like everything is hunky dory.” (Been there, done that, don’t recommend it.) You give your readers a gift, especially when the story is a hard one, by lubricating it with a touch of humor.

And the last one is so big, it doesn’t even have to start with a “P”….

Authenticity: Do Be “Real”
Readers want to know they’re not alone. Even if your story is wildly unique—which of course it is—readers will resonate with an author who’s willing to be honest about his or her struggles and broken places. Allow your readers to identify with you by letting them peek behind the curtain at what’s going on inside of you. (But don’t just tell them, show them. Duh.)


Margot Starbuck is a WordServe client, writer and speaker living in Durham, NC. Learn more about Margot, and hear what readers are saying about the book, at http://www.margotstarbuck.com/.

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  • kitty

    >Thanks for the tips! And your book looks really good.

    Two small things:

    1) I thought your book looked so good that I clicked on the book image to go to Amazon (or your website) to learn more about it. But the cover image wasn't a link–it just took me to a larger version of the jpeg. Rachelle, maybe you could make the cover jpeg link to somewhere? I'm sure I'm not the only person who thought, wow, I'd like to read what she writes–and then got nothing. Wouldn't want to miss the opportunity to attract more readers!

    2) So I scrolled up to the link in the title in the text, and got to Amazon. I was really excited to find out what the book is about. And there was no description. Excellent reviews, but no back-cover-blurb telling what the story is. I still have no idea.

    Update: If you click on "see ALL editorial reviews" and scroll way down, you can finally find a description. I strongly urge someone on the book's team–Margot? Rachelle? publisher?–to make it a priority to get that onto the main page.

    And, Margot, thanks again for your excellent advice.

  • Unpublished Writer

    >These are golden nuggets and certainly useful in many other areas of writing. Thank you so much.

  • RefreshMom

    >Thanks for the great tips. Memoir may be the most difficult genre to do gracefully.

  • writer jim

    >QUESTION:
    Thanks for your info; I may need to add more humor to my book in progress.
    I ask this because your book tile brought it to mind. Your book may not even do this; but your title seems that it may be refering to failures of your Dad, etc. If it does, how do you write certain things…and also honor your parent, as Bible says? If my question is understandable…anyone have some guidelines? Thanks again.

  • Jessica

    >Very helpful post. I've always wondered how a memoirist's family handles their private details being spilled for the world. Esp. if the family member is the villain in the story. But then again, maybe they're not in contact with the writer? Either way, I think your tips are really good.
    Congrats on the book!

  • Kristie

    >This is wonderful and timely advice for me as I ponder writing more of my own story. Thanks for your wisdom and counsel.

  • Katy McKenna

    >Wonderful tips for memoirists, Margot! Thank you. I am writing fiction currently, but have considered myself something of a memoirist during my ten years of blogging. I've even had discussions with a couple of editors about pulling entries with one clear subject (parenting teenagers, caring for The Moms, growing up Catholic, etc) and shaping them into a book manuscript. Your advice here gives me plenty to consider! Can't wait to read your book….

  • Alexis Grant

    >Great tips here! I love your distinction between theme-enhancing scenes and favorite memories — that's one I struggle with sometimes.

  • Hillary

    >EXCELLENT POST!!!! I can't wait to read this book, Margot!

    Writer Jim,

    These are my humble observations:

    Writing memoir and / or narrative non-fiction, and honoring parents, are not mutually exclusive. I struggled with this as well, but after much prayer and counsel, came to the conclusion that telling truth brings honor to the ones who raised you, because telling the truth 1) does not glorify the father of lies 2) breaks patterns of denial 3) opens veins of healing–both for yourself and others.

    Many people assume that honoring others, parents specifically, is a feeling. This is not always the case.

    Writing painful truth should be tempered with grace(and humor, which I need to incorporate) but it can be done. Showing (versus telling) helps. Tone can convey respect.

    God bless you on your journey!

  • Jess

    >I'm fictionalizing stories (faction) from my family and childhood. All your suggestions are wonderful. Love the title of your book!

  • Matilda McCloud

    >Great post. I've read a lot of memoirs and sometimes they slip into autobiography–ie, writing about a lot of stuff that isn't relevant to the main theme of the memoir. I'm going to go over now to Amazon and buy this one–sounds really interesting.

  • Julie Gillies

    >Such sound advice, Margot. Thank you. Though I've never wanted to write a memoir, God seems to be pushing me in that direction. I've been invited to share my testimony at church this Sunday–the truth that few people know. It's a scary step, but God is in it.

    I'm placing your book on my wish list for Christmas.

    Thank you, Rachelle, for yet another inspiring guest!

  • Lynnda – Passionate for the Glory of God

    >Good morning, Rachelle and Margot!

    I appreciate your advice for writing good memoires. Your thoughts are useful in other genres as well.

    The advice on Chrisitan jargon was particularly helpful for me. I have a difficult time editing that vocabulary out of my writing. I recognize that words like edify, manifest, and sanctification are not part of everyone's working vocabulary, but I had not thought to be sensitive to Christian phrases as well.

    Thank you for your help.

    Be blessed!

    Lynnda

  • Wendy @ All in a Day’s Thought

    >Margot, Rachelle, Thank you!

    I'm printing this one out. I don't feel the green light from God yet to write my memoir, but nodded my head on every point you made, Margot.

    I read the Glass Castle and agree with your findings. Writing a memoir is a delicate, but powerful way to tell a story. Excellent advice about sharing experiences that contribute to the arc.

    The Girl in the Orange Dress (great title) will likely be my next purchase on Amazon.

    ~ Wendy

  • Jungle Mom

    >The timing of this post is perfect for me! Thank you!
    http://jungle-hut.blogspot.com/2009/08/stringing-pearls.html

  • Rachel H. Evans

    >Margot,

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I can't tell you how helpful this post was for me.

    My first book, a memoir, will be released in June by Zondervan. It's about growing up in one of the most conservative towns in the country – Dayton, Tennessee – only to question my faith as a young adult.

    My immediate family has read the manuscript in its entirety, and they loved it. But, as I prepare to send out about a dozen release forms, I'm starting to worry about how other people from around town will respond.

    Do you think it is wise to allow everyone who is featured in the memoir to read their "parts"? How did you broach the subject of release forms?

    I second your advice about steering clear of victimization and Christianese, and about employing humor in just the right places. (I've noticed that in memoirs, a little self-depreciating humor can go a long way; no matter how serious the story, readers don't want you to take yourself TOO seriously!)

    Great, great post. Thanks so much for your willingness to share.

    Best wishes on your travels.

  • Lea Ann McCombs

    >Thanks, Margot! Well said. Memoirs by nature tend toward over-introspection. It must be difficult to find the balance so that others want to read it.
    Yours sounds like a winner!

  • Cheryl Barker

    >Great post, Margot. Very helpful tips. Will be saving this one…

  • Heather Diane Tipton

    >Great advice, Margot! Thank you!

  • Joanne Sher

    >This is so INCREDIBLY helpful for me. I'm writing a memoir-ish book, and these are concerns I've just begun considering. This was very, very timely for me. Thank you – and to Rachelle for hosting you here!

  • T. Anne

    >A post worth re-reading for sure! Thanks for the great advice!

  • writer jim

    >Hillary:
    Thank you; you are sweet. I can tell your interest is in pleasing God. Your helpful remarks are refreshing. Most remarks aimed at me previously were sarcastic, and helped no one.

  • Reesha

    >Ah, good. A friend of mine who is writing a memoir asked me this same question not too long ago. Now I have a place to direct her! Thanks!

  • Robbie Iobst

    >Thank you Margot! Reading your writing in this post has convinced me to read your writing in your book! Gonna go get it! :0)

  • Cassandra Frear

    >About staying focused on a single theme . . .

    Annie Dillard wrote about her memoir, An American Childhood,

    "In the course of writing this memoir, I've learned all sorts of things, quite inadvertently, about myself and about various relationships. But these things are not important to the book, and I easily leave them out. I leave out many things that were important to my life but of no concern for the book, like the summer I spent in Wyoming when I was fifteen. I keep the action in Pittsburgh. I see no reason to drag everybody off to Wyoming just because I want to tell them about my summer vacation. You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader's arm like a drunk and say, 'And then I did this and it was so interesting.' "

  • PatriciaW

    >Great tips, all of which I thought also apply to writing fiction, especially if one is "inspired by true events".

  • Eric von Mizener

    >This is certainly timely for me as I rework the manuscript and proposal for my spiritual memoir. Thanks!

  • CMOM Productions

    >I really appreciate this post! I'm looking forward to picking up both "The Girl In The Orange Dress" and "The Glass Castle" in the near future!

  • FaithBarista Bonnie

    >Hi Margot.

    I appreciated the "Don'ts – People: Don’t Overexpose Others"

    There is a memoir in me, in the works for a lifetime. And I have written and rewritten it, trying to balance sorrow and story without injury to those I love.

    I will check out your site — and see if you'll be in the Northern CA area (Silicon Valley). I'd love to hang out at one of those hip urban art galleries and munch while you tell your tale.

    Thank you!

  • Shelly @ Life on the Wild Side

    >What a helpful post. Thank you so much. I especially liked your words about not whining, and you're right . . . showing, not telling, will help take care of that situation.

    I was in that same session at the Calvin conference in 2006. I totally remember it. Can't wait for next April!!

  • Margot

    >Rachel,
    I sent release forms to EVERYONE! It was ridiculous. I think it's SUCH a better call to honor people by letting them peek behind the scenes & I think you head off a lot of misunderstandings & hurt feelings.

    I had one person say that she didn't feel comfortable signing the release & so I further disguised that character/scene to be unrecognizable. She was fine with that.

  • Margot

    >Writer Jim…
    Good point: honoring parents.

    Because my dad has done so much work himself, and because he & I have worked through so much together, and because our relationship right now is solid, I don't think telling the truth, as I have, has dishonored him.

    Because of the work he's done, I think he'd agree–if not on a spiritual level, at least on a psychological one–that the truth is necessary to set us free.

  • writer jim

    >Margot: Thanks for your words; God bless you; and I pray your book does super good for you, and serves to help many.

  • Janet Kay Jensen

    >Dorothy Allred Solomon wrote two memoirs (In My Father's House and Daugher of the Saints). In her second she said she'd been too kind and forgiving in the first . . . . so #2 was a re-do of sorts. She's an excellent writer and I found both compelling, but the second feels more honest. I think the two were written about 10 years apart.

  • Genny

    >These are great tips. I especially like the advice of being wise and gentle with the stories of others. I think that applies to other areas of writing as well, like articles or blog posts. I've run across blogs lately that divulge details about family members or friends, seemingly without awareness of how sharing the information could affect lives.

    This book looks really good, and it was obviously written with a great deal of care. Thanks for the information!

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >Thank you.

  • Susan Cross

    >Good advice. I think humor is the key, even to a tragic memoir. Every reader has to get a little break. I'm writing someone else's memoir right now but being careful of not including anything that would cause unnecessary hurt to a character. My subject and I agreed on certain stories being left out of the book.

    As for my own memoir, I finally feel free to consider it now that my close relatives are gone. Until that time, I didn't want to expose my life to those that might feel my pain or disagree with my happiness. It's a fine line.

  • Ann

    Thanks Margot for your timely tips. I’m also adopted and read your book while searching for my birth mom. I’ve also read the Glass Castle, as memoir is my favorite genre. I like how yours is focused on one spiritual theme and how your faith is authentic without being gooey or preachy. I’m in the final edits of a spiritual memoir about my time teaching in an urban middle school. My theme is brokenness. I’d like it to reach a crossover market like yours. Thanks for the great example.

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