Mary Lynn Archibald is a freelance copywriter, editor and author of two memoirs: Briarhopper, (a woman’s odyssey from Kentucky’s coal country to California in1945 at the end of World War II); and Accidental Cowgirl: Six Cows, No Horse and No Clue, a cautionary tale about the rigors of country living and cattle ranching. “With one stroke of the pen, we became the proud owners of six cows, two cats and a flock of wild turkeys.”
As the cheerleaders used to say…READY? OKAY!
(To start your memoir that is).
(Image: Edward Hopper painting on cover for latest Redwood Writers’ Anthology-available on Amazon)
Let’s Get Started:
- MIND MAPS. The easiest way for me to organize my thoughts is with a mind map. This is a free-form record of the thought processes for constructing your memoir that you can add to or subtract from easily.
- To begin, find yourself a large sheet of drawing paper and place your main thought in the center. For instance, let’s call it “My Memoir” for now.
- Draw a circle around your title/main thought.
- Next, draw lines that look like the spokes of a wheel, out from your main circle. Not too long. Leave room between them, because you are going to write down your thoughts about your memoir along these lines. Whatever comes to you.
- Then, see if you can think of a few other thoughts on each subject. Draw branches for these secondary thoughts, and then branch from them, just like the branches of a tree. Don’t overthink it at this point, just write down whatever comes to your mind. One thought or subject will lead organically to another.
- Pretty soon you’ll see something resembling a spider web or tree. Have fun with it. Add color and unique shapes. Play.
- Now on a separate piece of paper, make a few notes on each subject you’ve been able to identify. And so on.This technique works best for right-brain dominant folks (artists and flower children, perhaps). Now let’s look at how to begin your memoir if you’re a left-brain type (say a mathematician or an engineer):
2. OUTLINE (you remember how to do this from high school, don’t you?) It goes like this:
- Me-(during the period defined by the memoir—not your whole life, that’s an autobiography)
- My Family
- How they affected my life, etc.
a. strong memories about them
c. funny stories
…and so on. I guess you can sorta tell into which camp I fall.
The most important thing, remember, is to “just do it!”
No more excuses.
Until next time…
So now that the excitement is over and I can think again, let’s get back to business—the business of writing, that is.
Here are the three tips I promised you. I believe they will help you to do the hardest thing: get started:
- If you’re going to be interviewing sources, especially those in your own family, it’s best to be professional.
You don’t want to get stuck in an emotional morass before you even know what hit you.
By this, I mean it’s best to have a checklist or interview questions in front of you when you begin. That way you don’t get sidetracked, and you get the information you need.
Ask questions like, “How much do you remember about our childhood, say when you were about two to the age of five?” if you’re dealing with brothers or sisters.
Or perhaps, “Mom, remember that funny story you always told us about uncle Jake at the Thanksgiving feast? Would you tell me that story again so that I get it straight? I have trouble remembering all the details.”
That way, you can sort of ease into your memoir without letting on just yet what you’re doing. Sometimes, when you tell people you’re writing a memoir, they may tend to freeze up. You don’t want that.
2. Give them a choice.
Once you’re well launched on writing your memoir, it’s safer to let them in on what you’re doing.
Tell them you need to refresh your memory, and you’d like some help in writing about yourself and the family.
Ask them if they’d rather you talked to them in person, or if they would rather write some things down and give them to you; or would they rather you use a tape recorder to get the gist of their memories. That way, if you have a reluctant subject, he or she has a way out of a direct confrontation. Depending on the matter you are writing about, that may be a good thing.
3. Always be courteous and nonconfrontational.
You don’t want to get into an argument with someone about a remembered event. Just say, Oh thanks for that. It’s funny I remember it differently. I guess I’ll have to research it a little more. Thanks for the feedback.” And gracefully exit, stage left.
Because in the end, it’s your memories that count. It’s your memoir, after all, but you might mention somewhere in your manuscript or introduction or preface, that your sister or mother or father, say, remembers it differently.
In your writing, you must always know that individual memories are not infallible. Not even yours.
And there you have it. I hope this helps you to get started and best of all do you keep going, as discussed in a previous post, it’s hard to begin again once you’ve lost your momentum. Take it for me I’m a great procrastinator.
I hope you were able to watch my interview with Ray Lucia yesterday on the Ray Lucia Show, and can take advantage of the free offers on this website. I haven’t seen it myself yet, so I’m not sure if it’s worth a look. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’ll let you know.
Until next time, when we will discuss how to organize the actual writing of your memoir, ciao!
Mary Lynn Archibald will be appearing on the Ray Lucia Show, July 31, 2017 10:50 , Tune in to listen to the interview live. Click Here. You can also find the podcast on iHeart Radio or iTunes.
Listeners: Email me at <email@example.com> for a free excerpt from my upcoming book, Sir! I’m Not That Kind of Girl, Or, Goody Two-Shoes Goes To Town. I will also send a free copy of my latest ebook, Accidental Cowgirl: Six Cows, No Horse and No Clue, to the first ten folks to email me at <firstname.lastname@example.org>. And thanks for listenin’.
To Pre-Order the new book, Sir!, etc., and the free ebook, Accidental Cowgirl, please fill out the form below.
CATCH ME ON TV MONDAY, JULY 31ST: (I’m Talking Memoir, etc.)
Meet me in person at 10:50 a.m. on the Ray Lucia Show (BizTalkTV/BizTalkRadio) or stream it live on your computer or smartphone. I’ll be covering some points of interest to memoir writers, friends and just the curious, when I will have a short interview with Ray Lucia, on The Ray Lucia Show. It’s on the Biz Television Network. In addition to his own show, Lucia has appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America, Fox News Channel‘s Your World With Neil Cavuto and The Cost of Freedom, and CNBC‘s On The Money. Tune in tomorrow, or stream it live!
Truth In Memoir
I’m pretty stoked! But enough about me (thought I’d never say that, didn’t you?) On to memoir issues. I know one of the major stumbling blocks for all of us writers of memoir and family history is telling the truth, how much truth to tell and how to tell it. On that subject, I subscribe to memoirist Haven Kimmel’s (A Girl Named Zippy https://www.amazon.com) school of thought:
If it’s revelation I’m worried about, I wait and wait until the energy compelling me is not impulsive but sure; when it’s failing the book or my readers stopping me, I remind myself that I can always throw it all away and begin again; and when it’s an ego-corruption of the sentences themselves, I simply slip my ego a roofie and write while it’s unconscious.
I’m never afraid of what will be revealed…As Thoreau said, “The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths the mind travels. Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
…And Truer Words Were Never Spoken
Haven Kimmel has written much about her life, and if you don’t know her work, the memoir cited above is a great place to start. And she tells the truth. Here’s the bad news: You must tell your truth. Nobody else’s truth will do. But rest assured, there are ways to soften the blow, which I will discuss in future posts. Stand by.
(I love that word, “issues,” don’t you? It covers multitudes). Anyway, some housekeeping. For the moment, my <marylynn@winecountrywriter> email is not working (quelle surprise). So please if you wish to contact me, try my iCloud account, which seems to be okay, at least for now. That email address is <email@example.com>. That works on my iPhone as well. Good luck, and wish me luck, too.
“Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.”—Barbara Kingsolver, author of Flight Behavior and many other wonderful books.
There are lots of reasons folks put off writing a memoir. One of the most difficult to overcome is the nagging fear that their memory of events is not exactly right.
Of course, nobody’s is exactly right.
So Let’s Talk About Memory
Memory is a subjective thing, as Kingsolver correctly notes. If you’ve ever watched three witnesses describing the same event, you’ll get the idea. No two memories are alike.
Here’s the Thing: Your Memories are Your Own
What does this mean for you? Well when somebody you talk to about specific memory—especially someone in the family—says, “No that’s wrong. It didn’t happen that way,” don’t be deterred.
It’s the way you remember it. That’s what’s important. Why? Because it’s your own memory, not someone else’s. Stick to your guns and write down your memories as you remember them. That’s what counts. After all, it’s not going to be their memoir. It’s going to be yours, and yours alone.
Don’t be nervous that you’re telling a lie. You could even say in your introduction that this is the way you remember events, if it makes you more comfortable. The important thing, as Nike™ is fond of saying, is to “just do it.” And keep doing it.
How You Ask?
I’m gonna tell you. But let’s take it one thing at a time. I don’t want you getting overwhelmed right at the start of a project. I know how that works. Then it’s too easy to throw up your hands and say, “Well it’s too much for me. I can’t do it.”
That little devil on your shoulder will remind you it’s too much, whenever he gets a chance. Don’t let him. Make a plan.
In a future post, I’ll show you a step-by-step way to begin. And then, it’s just a matter of keeping at it.
A Valuable Secret
Let me share a little secret with you that I discovered the hard way: it’s the keeping at it part that’s hard. It’s a matter of habit, and habits need to be nurtured. In order for something to become habit, it must be repeated. A lot! According to Charles Douhigg in his book, The Power of Habit, new habits take time to form. In my own experience, whenever I stop writing for a while, it’s bad. It takes loads of self-discipline and “psyching myself up” in order to begin again.
The secret? Just don’t stop! Keep at it. Keep a yellow pad by your bed. Write for ten minutes when you wake up. Or just sit down in front of your computer and write complete nonsense for a bit. It’s important to do it for a period of time so that it becomes habitual for you.
In a few weeks, you’ll have your new habit down. Better yet, you’ll be writing every day. (Think I’ll try that!) Tell the little devil to back off. You may have to use sterner words, but you’ll know best how to handle him. He’s no more than your inner critic in disguise. Don’t acknowledge him and don’t judge what you’ve written while you are writing it, and he can’t block your progress. Give him the boot, and just keep writing. Someday, you’ll be glad you did.
As someone famously said, if you write just one page a day, at the end of the year you’ll have 365 pages. They won’t all be good ones of course, but there’ll be something you can use in all that mass of words. Maybe a lot of somethings.
Trust me. This works!
P.S.: I realize the butterflies in the Dreamtime™ photo above are not monarchs. I think they’re fritillaries. But I’m in a hurry to get this information to you, so forgive me please for not being as accurate as I should be. Mea culpa!
“Writers are the custodians of memory…”—William Zinnser
“One of the saddest sentences I know is ‘I wish I had asked my mother about that.’ Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather. As every parent knows, our children are not as fascinated by our fascinating lives as we are. Only when they have children of their own—and feel the first twinges of their own advancing age—do they suddenly want to know more about their family heritage and all its accretions of anecdote and lore.”
Zinnser goes on to say that if you are to be a custodian of memory then you must tell your story. Write your memoir. If you’re not comfortable with writing, you can dictate it to someone else, to a recording device, to your computer, to a ghostwriter. You can tell your story or your family’s, or both, through recipes. A recipe book with a few happy memories sprinkled throughout to make it interesting might do. Or perhaps a few sad ones.
Since anyone can self-publish now, you’ve got no excuses left. Money? How about crowdfunding? All you need is the will, and a good editor.
Don’t skip that part, or you’ll live to regret it. Lots of folks have learned this lesson the hard way. Nothing is more embarrassing than seeing your silly grammatical mistakes forever memorialized in print.
Said Zinnser in an essay in The American Scholar, titled, How to Write a Memoir: “Be yourself, speak freely, and think small.”
That doesn’t mean you should not anchor your story in history. It just means that not every memory you dredge up will be worthy of sharing. Above all, your memoir must tell a good story or nobody will want to read it. And it will be good, if you have the courage to tell it.
Praise and Reviews
“Rarely do I find a book so enjoyable that I savor it in small nibbles, like fine chocolate. Accidental Cowgirl is such a book.”
Alice Berger-Berger’s Book Reviews
“Mary Lynn Archibald has written a wonderfully whimsical story that will make you laugh. What a great little gem of a book.”
…“I think you will enjoy visiting Twin Creeks Ranch and getting to know the people, cows, cats, dogs, wild turkeys, deer, coyotes, bluebirds, and snakes that call the place home.”Gil Mansergh, Film Critic, Book Doctor, Author