Want to Write a Memoir? Read These Books . . .

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Now that I published my memoir, I’ve received a few inquiries about how I accomplished my goal.

Good question.

The genre of memoir is tricky. I worked on Sun Shine Down for four years and then spent another two years writing the book proposal, finding an agent, and landing a publisher.

Here are a few questions I get about writing memoir.

“I have a story to tell, but how do I get started?”

“What is your advice about writing?”

“Any words of wisdom regarding the publishing world?”

I am by no means an expert, but here is my best and most basic advice for those who want to write memoir (this goes for breaking into the publishing world as well because if your book isn’t at its best, you won’t break in): 1) Read a lot 2) Write a lot and 3) Find a class or a group of people to read and critique your work.

In this post, I’d like to tackle my first piece of advice: read a lot. Here are three books every budding memoirist must read.

Situation and the story

In “The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative“, Vivian Gornick explains the art of writing personal narrative by reviewing key elements like the persona (or narrator) of the writer, her writing voice, and the importance of knowing who she is at the point of writing. The book is broken up into four parts: Intro, Personal Essay, Memoir, and Conclusion. Gornick draws examples from famous books and essays, explaining the situation and story of each, thus causing the reader to pause not only to appreciate beautiful words, but also to break down and understand what makes a memoir or essay sing .

“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story,” Gornick writes. “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” (page 13)

My copy is covered in red notes and underlining. There is just so much good stuff in this book.

writing the memoir

If your not certain about the ins and outs of memoir, this book is for you. On the cover of Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington, it states the book is “A practical guide to the craft, the personal challenges, and the ethical dilemmas of writing your true stories.” My writing instructor at Story Studio Chicago, where I participated in an advanced memoir workshop for two years, uses this book with her beginners class. In my opinion, it is a book even the most seasoned writer can glean knowledge from. The table of contents includes chapters on finding form, dealing with the truth, writing about living people, and getting feedback on your work. It also has short writing exercises at the end of each chapter.

“Telling your truths — the difficult ones and the joyful ones and all the ones between — is a big part of what makes for good writing. It is also what brings you pleasure in the process of writing.” (page 74)

If you write memoir or want to write memoir, this book must be in your library.

Handling the truth

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart just came out this year and I picked it up a couple of weeks ago. This book is not so much about the ‘how to’ of memoir, but more about the value of the genre of memoir. It is broken up into four parts: Part I: Definitions, Preliminaries, and Cautions, Part II: Raw Material, Part III: Get Moving, and Part IV: Fake Not and Other Last Words.

“If you want to write memoir, you need to set caterwauling narcissism to the side. You need to soften your stance. You need to work through the explosives — anger, aggrandizement, injustice, misfortune, despair, fumes — towards mercy. Real memoirists, literary memoirists, don’t justify behaviors, decisions, moods. They don’t ladder themselves up — high, high, high — so as to look down upon the rest of us. Real memoirists open themselves to self-discovery and, in the process, make themselves vulnerable not just to the world but also to themselves.” (Page 8)

See … you need to buy this book.

Attempting to write and publish a memoir is an arduous task. Start by writing, sharing your work, and reading these three books.

“Penetrating the familiar is by no means a given. On the contrary, it is hard, hard work.” (page 9)

Right on, Vivian.

I would add that it is worth it, if you are up to the task.

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About Gillian Marchenko

The world is full of people who seem like they have it all together. Gillian Marchenko speaks up for the rest of us. She is a Christian, wife, mother, writer, speaker, and advocate for individuals with special needs. She writes and speaks about parenting kids with Down syndrome, faith, depression, imperfection, and adoption. "Sun Shine Down," her memoir about her daughter Polly's birth and diagnosis of Down syndrome in the former Soviet Union will be published with T.S. Poetry Press by the end of 2013. Gillian’s work has appeared in Today’s Christian Woman, Gifted For Leadership, Connections Magazine, MomSense Magazine, EFCA TODAY, CHICAGO PARENT, Story Bleed, CHICAGO SPECIAL PARENT, Thriving Family, and Literary Mama. She speaks to Mothers of Preschool groups, helps coordinate her church’s special needs inclusive children Sunday school and respite, and teaches about inclusive Church with Joni and Friends Chicago. Check out Gillian’s website at www.gillianmarchenko.com or find her at www.facebook.com/GillianMarchenkoPage or on Twitter, @GillianMarchenk.

8 thoughts on “Want to Write a Memoir? Read These Books . . .

  1. Thank you for these titles…something more to read and …. learn … and, well, who knows…write???!!!! i trust your recommendations…all are GREAT books, so i know these will be great as well!

  2. Thanks so much for posting this! I have 1-year old twin boys, one who has Down syndrome. A lifelong journaler, I just started blogging about 6 months ago and am having a ball. I’ve always dreamed of writing memoir, so am off to buy these books!

    Also, I’m looking forward to reading your memoir – congratulations!! Such an amazing accomplishment.

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