Book Learning: Some Resources for Memoir Writers

Lit by Elaine Webster, 04/27/10

Last year, I stumbled into a class listed as Autobiography: Memoir Writing―the instructor―Steve Boga. I had no idea what to expect. The idea of writing appealed to me; the thought of writing memoir had never entered my mind. But, what the heck, I'll try anything once . . . well, almost anything―maybe not bungee jumping. Little did I know that writing memoir was a whole lot scarier than jumping off a bridge. Now, my mother, like most of our parents, used the tried and true argument: "If Janie jumped off the George Washington Bridge, would you jump too?" And of course, my standard response was: "No, but . . ."

Well, the "but" of it is that writing memoir is harder than writing fiction. In fiction, the author has unlimited directions to go with as many characters as it takes to get there. In memoir, the author is required to stick close to the truth, although even this issue is debated. Scholars and philosophers have pondered truth for centuries. Everyone sees it differently.

So, where does a struggling memoirist go for help? Well, my first suggestion is―- get thee to a writers group. If this isn't possible, because of soccer practice, work, sleep or any of the other essentials of life, try some book learning.

I'm currently traveling with two books: Natalie Goldberg's Old Friend from Far Away―The Practice of Writing Memoir and Steve Boga's new release, How to Write Your Life Stories―Memoirs That People Want to Read. Aside from the obvious difference in gender perspective, these two manuals complement each other perfectly.

Natalie Golberg has been teaching us to write for over 20 years in a flowing, meditative sort of way. She encourages us to free write in ten-minute increments on a myriad of subjects. She gives examples of how to dig deep and write those difficult scenes. She shows how to keep a reader's interest when presenting similar scenes that follow a common thread. For instance, an abused child may have many similar incidences of abuse, but needs to show each one from a new angle with new feelings, fears and concerns.

Old Friend from Far Away takes the memoirist on an adventure. It is unstructured, yet well organized. To practice, I scribbled pages of text describing everything I knew about mashed potatoes. I described the last time I slept outdoors. I wrote about love, relationships, beauty and ugliness, all in response to suggested prompts. It's a book to haul around just for fun.

Steve Boga has taught memoir-writing classes for twelve years. His book is solid with clear and concise guides. He gets you ready to write and then teaches you to write, systematically. He writes simply, but with power, and encourages his students to do the same. He describes processes, such as crafting gripping leads, establishing settings and mixing in dialogue. He urges us to show, not tell, our stories. To inject sights, sounds, tastes. To embrace conflict as growth and to bring it home with strong verbs. He shows us to keep momentum, tap into our muse.

The second half of How to Write your Life Stories offers publishing tips and help with query letters. The Appendices offer concrete suggestions and workbook pages that will inspire a novice to begin. The memoirs at the end show students incorporating the suggestions and instructions into finished pieces.

These two books together sit opened next to my keyboard. I take prompts from the first and plug them into the workbooks from the second. For me, it's the best of two worlds colliding on my written page.

Elaine Webster, is a staff writer for the on-line publication, Greener Living Today She's part of the Memoir Writing group in Sebastopol sponsored by SRJC and Steve Boga is the instructor. She lives in Windsor, CA and her e-mail address is

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