Hope and Healing


I recently had a conversation with a fellow editor who is working with a client on her memoir. Our discussion centered on her client’s desire only to write vignettes of her life, painful stories of her past. Apparently, she is insistent that they can stand alone.

While I think I understand her reasons, I suggested that my colleague try to turn the discussion to the potential of healing through memoir, rather than solely recounting the pain.

I suggest this on behalf of her client, as well as on behalf of the client’s readers. While misery loves company, misery also knows its own many faces. It is my belief that memoir can help those who have experienced misery to find hope and healing in the sharing of stories.

My suggestion was that her client continue to write her vignettes, but then the two of them could step back and see if they could find a common thread between all of the stories, perhaps finding a thread of hope or healing that the client had not discerned before. After all, she has survived. That shows tremendous hope.

In addition, though our triumphs within struggles are not always permanent, they are nonetheless permanent steps toward healing. Our lives might be two steps forward, and one step back, or two forward and almost two back, but by looking at our stories, we can see incremental advance toward permanent triumph. It is those tiny steps that can give us hope, and that measure our healing.

Elsewhere, I have written about the importance of using vignettes to help writers to find the backbone of their story. That is no less true when their story is one of great pain or misery. Vignettes can be mile-markers, signposts of advancing on hope.

We write memoirs as legacy, but we also encourage memoirs for healing. This requires digging deep within, below the pain, to find the hope.

Venting, Vaunting, and Value

There are many reasons that people write memoirs. Some people have a visceral need to vent about their lives. Other people wish to vaunt their achievements and lay a pathway to success for others. There are myriad reasons why people turn to memoir, and all have value.

As a memoir writing coach, it is my first task to understand the why of the memoir, because only through understanding the why can I be of greatest help to the author. If the memoir is a venting, it is my job to help the author find the story in the pain or anger. If the memoir is a declaration of achievements, it is my job to help the author turn from boast to affirmation of effort.

No matter what the initiating force, all memoirs serve a purpose, for both the author and readers. Memoirs are snapshots of life. Each is unique, and each can have value for the reader who happens upon it.

Memoirs can relate stories of hardship and endurance, or can celebrate success or examine failure. Within each, readers should find nuggets of truths that speak to them, regardless of the readers’ own stories. The courage of the emigrant might echo the courage of a first-time soldier. The loss of a loved one might recall the loss of home or homeland.

We never know how our stories will affect others. We cannot plan how they will affect others. What we must do is speak the truth of the events. That truth will resound within the readers. To what effect, you shouldn’t care. The thrust of your memoir is to record your life truthfully, and open understanding to your readers.

It’s my job to help you achieve that truth.

Family Reflections


If you are having trouble starting your memoir, don’t fret. You don’t have to start at the beginning–where you were born, who your parents were, etc. Instead, your memoir can start at any point in time.

What I find works best is just beginning to tell stories about your life. Put these vignettes on paper, and after a while, the form of your memoir will begin to take shape. Sometimes, unconsciously, we shape our memoirs by the stories we choose to share as vignettes.

One way to launch your writing is by using prompts. I use prompts for different times and aspects of life, such as about childhood or the teen years, or the things that challenged or frightened you.

Another great source of stories are reflections about your family. Here are some prompts to get you started:

  • Who was the power on the throne in your family? Why? And did he or she wield that power wisely and with love, or was it used to crush and control others? Or was power shared?
  • Were you aware of money matters in your childhood, or did your parents shield you from money concerns? Would you rather have had such topics handled differently in your family?
  • Do you feel like someone in your family was your greatest guide or mentor? If not a family member, who would you say had the most influence on your growing years?
  • Describe a time when your mother or father or other special adult spent time with you, either an individual event or an ongoing interaction.
  • What is one of your favorite memories from childhood?
  • What is one of your worst memories from childhood?
  • What is one of your favorite memories from your teen years?
  • What is one of your worst memories from your teen years?
  • What pet(s) did you have? Tell a story about your pet.
  • Who was your best friend when you were growing up? Tell a story about that friend.
  • If you had siblings, do you have a story or two about those siblings?
  • What was a strong family trait in your home when you were growing up?
  • In your family who listened to you the most?
  • Did you have a family tradition that you liked or disliked? Why?

Prompts such as these will lead you to other ideas, new avenues to follow in your writing. It’s a good idea to keep track of your own prompt ideas as you follow these. Keep a piece of paper at hand every day to write down new thoughts and prompts.

Perspective: It’s Your Story, Your View


Perspective: a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something; a point of view.

I often hear from people that they would love to write their life story, but they are afraid what other people might think, specifically family members. This is particularly true if they have a painful story to tell.

My answer to them is that they have every right to write their own story, and if it involves other people, then it involves other people. That is life, unless you are a hermit living on a mountainside.

But there is a way to write the story that will protect others (if you wish), and that will keep others from feeling under attack. That doesn’t mean that you leave out the truth. It simply means that you present the story from your perspective, acknowledging that others might see things differently.

I just had an experience that illustrates this. Going down an ice slide with my best friend in Quebec City, I felt her sliding off of the sled, so I reached down to grip her and hold her on, risking my recently injured back in the process. But she has no memory of my actions. Instead, all she knows is that her snow pants caused her to start slipping on the plastic sled and she fought tooth and nail to stay in the sled as we careened down the hill. If I had written my memoirs of that moment before discussing the event with her, she might have called me a liar, declaring that I had done no such thing. (My back would say otherwise.)

Life is a matter of perspective.

So, don’t fear writing your life story and hurting someone in the process. I can certainly help you find a way to tell your story without unnecessary finger pointing or revenge.

Your life is your story. Let no one stop you from telling it.


Writing Honestly About Family


I think the biggest challenge to a memoir writer is concern about what family and friends will think of what we’ve written. That’s true in fiction as well as in memoir: when people think they recognize themselves, they can become quite affronted. Or they can belittle the piece, claiming, “That’s not the way it happened at all.”

With fiction, people tend to be a bit more accepting of what you write, since it IS fiction, after all. But with memoirs, oh, watch out. Toes will be tread on, guaranteed. And feelings will be hurt, and accusations will be made.

Should this stop you from writing a truthful memoir? I hope not. What happens to you in your life is YOUR story. You can ask permission of those you wish to include, but that won’t solve the problem. My only suggestion is that you write the truth, as you see it, the pure truth, and let it stand. If others are offended, then you can explain that the memoir is YOUR memories, YOUR impressions, YOUR life.

Anne Lamott regards the difficulty of writing about family and friends as a non-issue: “You own everything that happened to you,” she wrote in Bird by Bird. “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

What you write is a personal decision. There might be some stories that are too painful to write about, or too harmful to others. There are laws about liable and defamation, and so on, so you might want to review those laws before you publish.

Or, you can always choose to leave out some events in your life. Find the defining events, and perhaps choose wisely among those so as not to hurt or offend.

But if you write your memoir from the aspect of truth and memories as best as you can recall, then you are on firm foundation. Don’t be cruel, don’t be vindictive, but tell your story.

Memoir: Giving Roots to Those Who Follow


There’s an African proverb that tells us, “When an old man dies, a library burns.” It’s a powerful observation—and all too true. The experiences of our parents, grandparents, and ancestors are lost to us when they pass on if we haven’t taken the time to discover and document their stories. Unfortunately, many of us don’t realize what treasures those family histories might hold until we reach “a certain age” ourselves.

In Western society, we sometimes view the greatest legacy as the wealth we inherit from our parents or grandparents. With this inheritance, we are likely to feel more secure in our lives, less fearful of being unable to care for ourselves and our children in the future.

But is financial security the best inheritance? I believe not. I believe that family cohesiveness is one of the best legacies we can leave to our families: a sense of who they are and how they belong in the family unit. This security of place and welcome is a key foundation to happiness.

Stories provide roots for a family, and as the success of the 1970s show Roots and later genealogy shows illustrate, we all want to know where we come from.

Family stories can bring a family together. When we share stories, we share a common bond. Without that bond, families begin to drift apart, to feel disconnected from one another. And that is a loss to all members of the family. Perhaps family members feel that they have nothing in common. They don’t live in the same state, they share no experiences, they are not part of each other’s lives. In our mobile society today, this is all to typical.

But get those dispersed family members together, for a wedding or funeral all too typically, and shared stories begin to draw the family together again. Their immediate lives might be so diverse and so polar opposite that they might feel they have nothing in common, but they can discover commonality in stories of those who have gone before, members whom they both share in the family line.

Family stories and the histories they preserve have a remarkable power to bind generations together through their shared connections to the past. I think most of us intuitively recognize that there’s a lot of significance in family lore, but research suggests it has the potential to profoundly influence our children and grandchildren for the better.

Why does family history matter so much? In part, it’s because being a part of something bigger than ourselves helps give us roots. Some experience it as a spiritual connection with their ancestors. It boils down to understanding that we come from a shared past, and that our families will go on after we’re gone. There’s a certain comfort in knowing you’re part of a timeline—or a family tree—that continues to grow and change.

Novelist George Meredith once wrote “Memoirs are the back stairs of history.” Those back stairs preserve a piece of the past for future generations.

You set an excellent  example by documenting your own story. Once you have begin, I suggest that you encourage all family members to be aware of their own unique stories. If you have elderly parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or other relatives, now is the perfect time to ask them to share their stories with you—or better yet, ask them to share them with a member of the youngest generation and let that person report to the whole family.

Remind your children and other younger family members that their own stories are vital to the family collection. People of any age can be the bearers of tradition. Give your family roots off of which they can grow and strengthen themselves and their own families.


Memoir: A Selected Aspect of Life


People often delay writing their memoirs because they don’t believe that they have all of the information required to write their life history. They don’t know the dates and locations of their parents’ births, perhaps, and certainly don’t have that information for their grandparents. How can they begin their own story if they don’t have documentation for what came before?

This might be true for an autobiography, though I think it’s not required, but it’s certainly not true for a memoir. As Judith Barrington wrote in her book Writing the Memoir:

[A] memoir is not an autobiography but rather a selected aspect of life. How you select that aspect is crucial to the success of your piece. You have to know–not necessarily right away, but at some point–what it is that you really want to write about, which in turn will tell you what to leave out.

Life doesn’t have a shapely plot in the way that fiction often does. Instead, it goes day by day with an ever-shifting focus as various themes unfold over time. As you shape your memoir, you will need to select events from this random package in order to capture a narrative.

That is where vignette writing comes into play. When I work with my memoir writing clients, I suggest that they begin by writing vignettes of their lives, those stories that they frequently tell others, or those stories that they hold deep within themselves that must be told. These are the seeds of the future memoir.

Once we have eight or ten vignettes, it is often possible to begin to recognize an inherent story structure, to see what is important in the relating of their lives. Themes often become apparent, such as themes of loss or of movement or of a search for meaning. Often, once we identify the unifying theme, more stories come tumbling out of the writers’ minds, prompted to flesh out the theme.

These vignettes are then tied together with a main theme…much like individual frames of a film.

Of course, a memoir can have multiple themes, but even these will eventually show a structure around a larger, pervading theme. The main theme is like the trunk of a tree, off of which will grow the branches and leaves that give the tree its form.

Some writers know before they begin what their themes will be. Others must discover them through process. But all memoirs will be mere aspects of a larger life. And that is perfectly okay.


Finding Your Story’s Backbone

“The best memoirs, I think, forge their own forms,” writes Annie Dillard, author of An American Childhood. “The writer of any work, and particularly of any nonfiction work, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.”

This is especially true when writing a memoir, not because you don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, or because you couldn’t possibly include everything from your life, but because your life has a natural structure, a backbone narrative, and once you find that narrative, anything that doesn’t belong on that structure will naturally fall away.


I helped an author write about his childhood growing up on a farm in Wisconsin in the 1940s. This was a decade of earth-shaking activities around the world, all of which affected Len’s life on the farm, but they had no place in his narrative, except as immediately experienced by his brother going to war. Len’s life was farm focused at the time, and though the farm changed and was later sold, he didn’t dwell on the changes or the future in his narrative. Rather, he dwelt on life’s lessons learned on the farm. The result was a snapshot of time as lived by a young boy in Wisconsin in the 1940s.


Another gentleman in his 90s wrote a memoir focused on his childhood adventure to see the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Against his father’s wishes, he and a friend hopped a train and journeyed to the World’s Fair, with $3 in their pockets. The majority of the book focused on this ten-day trip, and his eventual return, hungry and exhausted but thrilled, when his father asked him, “Do you have that out of your system now?” The remainder of the book was a reflection on how that adventure helped him to survive World War II and life’s later challenges. The World’s Fair was the backbone, and all else hung off of that story line.

Find your backbone and you’ll know what to hang on it.


Tell Your Story to Your Children


Tell your story, warts and all, and let your children see the humility of parents who have made mistakes, who have regrets, who have loved and lost—parents whose lives have been built on love, luck, loss, and hard lessons just like the lives your kids are building for themselves.

Too often, I think, children (young and adult) think that their lives are much different from that of their parents. While this is true on many levels, there are some fundamental, foundational ways in which their lives are probably similar. Certainly, the pains of growing and becoming independent are similar, in emotion if not in actual fact.


As parents, we tend to tell our kids stories of success, as ways to encourage them. But do we also share stories of failure, of doubt, of struggle? Perhaps these negative experiences might be equally encouraging to our growing children, to show them that their parents aren’t perfect, and that they faced challenges in their lives, as their children do.

Here are some questions to consider as you write your life story. As you answer these questions fully, you will reveal to yourself some vignettes that you might want to consider including in your memoir:

  • What challenges did you have when you were growing up and when you were just starting out in your own life?
  • What stood in the way of your academic, professional, or personal success?
  • How did you overcome those obstacles?
  • What do you feel your personal weaknesses have been in your life?
  • How have you overcome or compensated for them?
  • What life experiences have made you a better person? Why were those events so important?
  • What do you regret in your life?
  • What are you most satisfied with in your life?
  • What do you know now that you wish you could have learned sooner or in a less painful way?

We want to be bastions of hope, models of success, for our children, but sometimes it is in the sharing of troubles, doubts, and obstacles that we can really connect.


Inventing the Truth As You Recall


“With a little help from our imaginations, desires, and experiences,” wrote Willett Stanek in Writing Your Life, “we have the power and the privilege to invent the truth.”

“We construct our pasts in tune with our heart’s desires to become the heroes of our own myths,” she continues.

Memoir writing is not simply retelling the facts, but of constructing story from our lives. Writers weave myths out of memories. Our recollection of an event is certain to be different from someone else’s recollection of the same event: both have viewed it, and then recalled it, from our unique perspective. How often have you recounted an event in the presence of someone else who was there, only to be corrected in the details, details that are vivid in your mind? Are you wrong or is the other person wrong? Or are you both equally correct? You are correct in your perceptions, if not in factual memory. And that is the essence of memoir writing. You write YOUR memory of events, and don’t worry about other peoples’ memories.

Your memoir doesn’t have to encompass your entire life. It can be narrowed and focused, highlighting moments of change, insight, or reflection. You decide what to incorporate into memoir, and write from your point of view alone. Don’t worry about what others might think. You are writing your story, not theirs.

“Although a memoir and an autobiography are kissing cousins,” wrote Stanek, “the similarities can be slight. Most autobiographies tent to spread all over your life, like a runny batter, while a memoir can be neat, tidy, and much easier to handle and contain.

“Imagine your life rolled out in one huge piece of dough, but what interests you at the moment is your ghastly thirteenth summer. Cut out that one piece and roll the rest up for another day. Working with a small piece of your past makes it easier to keep focused.”

Don’t worry if you don’t recall every significant or insignificant fact. Write what you remember, and delve into the impact of that memory on your life. Invent what you must, but tell the truth within.