June 14th, 2021

Memoir Writing: What I Wish I Knew Before I Started – Part 2

By Linda Ruggeri

A few months ago, I posted my Memoir Writing 101 Series: Getting Started Part 1. Today I’m sharing Part 2, where we discuss with the same authors I wrote about, the positive things and surprises that came out of their memoir projects—the unintended consequences memoir writing can have in our lives.

When I work with memoir writers as their editor and/or writing coach, there is an inherent bond of trust that is forged. They promise to share their best work with me (which usually nobody has seen), and I promise to listen, read, and give them honest and helpful guidance that can make their manuscripts stronger.

It’s a delicate act and not one for the faint of heart (for either of us). I know I’ll be treading through different and sometimes difficult stories: some painful, some rewarding, some that took years to write, and some that are born out of pure passion—so what I say, and how I say it, can break or strengthen a person’s soul, or both.

Universal Writing Truth

In all manuscript revision processes, there are hard moments of truth we need to acknowledge (things we missed or omitted, points we never got across, sections we could have written differently). But there are also moments of great joy, where the writer finds themself in the words they’ve written and a sense of pride permeates the pages. The writer has found their voice and their story.

Here is part two of our conversation, printed here with their permission.

Linda: Can you tell me three positive outcomes that came from writing your memoir?

Christina (inspirational memoir)

I found writing my memoir to be very therapeutic. It allowed me to understand and work through some of my traumas. That isn't to say that I've completely fixed myself, but writing it all out was a good start. When I finally did go to counseling I knew exactly what I needed to work on and heal from. 

Writing also forced me to sit down and focus on one thing for a certain amount of time every day. I work as a certified nursing assistant, so my mind is usually racing and cluttered, but when I had to sit down and write, I had to be very intentional and grounded with what I was doing. This approach worked and I enjoyed the process very much.

I also kept a promise to myself:  That before I died that I would write a story about my life in hopes that it would inspire others out there who are going through a rough time. I also want to be able to share my story with my future children someday. When I finished writing it, I felt very proud of myself for not giving up, and for being honest with all the parts of my life.

Takeaway:

  • Writing memoir can be therapeutic and grounding.
  • Being disciplined, and writing every day, guarantees you’ll finish your manuscript.

Carolyn (memoir author about a 40-year friendship)

The most positive thing that came from writing my memoir, was that I finished it and saw it through to publication. When I started writing it I wasn’t sure I’d be alive by the end due to many medical conditions, so that part went exceedingly well! My memoir is about a forty-year friendship I had with my neighbor Doris, and I didn’t realize how meaningful that friendship was until she passed away. It was this realization that moved me to write this memoir. I was afraid of how her family would take the book, but they had a very positive reaction, far better than I ever could have hoped for.

All the artwork in the book is mine, and that is something that I am immensely proud of. This memoir has brought new friends into my life and discussing my book has deepened friendships. Hearing that someone has changed their thinking and felt something more deeply has been a powerful reward I never had expected to have.

Takeaway:

  • Memoir affects other people’s lives and deepens relationships.

Ed (historical memoir)

What I enjoyed the most while I wrote my memoir was how many events I was able to recall triggered other memories. The "triggered memories” helped make connections to understand "how" and "why" some things happened. I was able to see my past with different eyes, and that of my parents and grandparents with so much more perspective, curiosity, and compassion.

I also enjoyed visiting historical societies and learning the specifics of certain things. How and why an early 1900s photo of my grandparents had been staged a certain way. What every item in that image meant. Touching historical documents and artifacts from the late 1800s—like a stereoscope, or a Twinplex blade stropper like the one my grandfather used—was very moving as well. I was able to revisit my past in a very tangible way and appreciated every minute of it.

 Takeaway:

  • Memoir writing helps you develop perspective.
  • It also makes you appreciate the small things in life.

Shelli (inspirational memoir)

From what I'd heard about "editing" I didn't think I would like or appreciate the suggestions and critique I received nearly as much as I did. This part of the writing process (revising my work after a developmental edit) was actually the MOST helpful and I appreciated it the most—even though sometimes it was very challenging to think through and figure out what I am/was really trying to say and how to say it more clearly.

I never realized how much chapter order—or the order of what is presented—can add to or detract from a story. The input I received on this was eye-opening for me.

I enjoyed experiencing firsthand that having someone edit your work isn't just for the mechanics of writing, it can help you be a better writer. I wasn’t expecting to learn so much. It’s made me a better writer.

 Takeaway:

  • Working with an editor can help you become a better writer.

5 Mindsets for a Successful Memoir Writing Experience

Writing a memoir can seem overwhelming but with a game plan in place, not only is it doable, but it can be extremely rewarding. The following five tips/mindsets can increase the enjoyment of writing memoir:

  1. Writing memoir is therapeutic, even healing (and not every memoir needs to be published!)
  2. Writing our memoir will likely trigger other memories, and make us appreciate our lives—and how far we’ve come—a lot more.
  3. Writing memoir allows us to see the past with a new set of eyes, gain perspective, even learn something new about ourselves/our life.
  4. Our memoir can have an effect on the lives of others.
  5. A good editor will correct more than just the mechanics of writing, they can help you strengthen your manuscript so your message is clear, but also reaches your intended readers.

Now it’s your turn. Are you writing a memoir? What positive experiences have you had so far? Please share them with us down in the comments!

[Note: In Part 3 of this series we will discuss different ways to revise our memoir.]

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About Linda

Linda Ruggeri is a full-service editor and project manager based out of Los Angeles. She co-authored the historical memoir Stepping Into Rural Wisconsin: Grandpa Charly’s Life Vignettes from Prussia to the Midwest and can be found online at The Insightful Editor and on Instagram. Her new book Networking for Editors will be released this summer.

14 responses to “Memoir Writing: What I Wish I Knew Before I Started – Part 2”

  1. Jenny Hansen says:

    Thank you for this, Linda! I do write memoir, as do several other contributors here, and the thing we all know is that your memoir is never really about what you think it's about.

    To put this as a simple metaphor, I think the first draft of a memoir is "The Climb." You have to get through the first pass of the story to climb high enough to get the big picture view of what surrounds your mountain. One side might be full of desert and cactus while the other side has a meadow and some hot springs. Another might have a deep mountain lake or a cliff that overlooks the ocean.

    But you can't see any of it, except the path that leads up the mountain until you do the climb. Then you take the cleansing breath at the top, whip out your binoculars and really look around. That's just the way memoir works, and that's why it takes most of the writers I talk to a solid decade to turn their work into the book they really wanted to write.

    • I love "The Climb" metaphor, Jenny. And, Linda--I've experienced almost all of what you describe. One of the most dramatic outcomes of writing my memoir was confronting some truths about myself that I'd kept under my radar. When I wrote what happened and read what I'd written, there was no more pretending. And going public with my story means there's no going back. Memoir is the ultimate vehicle for personal growth.

      • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

        Hi Karen! Thanks for sharing that you too identify with the process. Discovering that "pretending" so many of us do is such an "a-ha" moment.That first draft has to be written openly, not thinking of the audience (just yet). We can always remove the sections we are not ready to share with the world, or modify them appropriately if need be. Writing with that initial freedom that "nobody has to see this just yet" allows us to get to the gist of things and it can be incredibly cleansing/healing. I too think memoir brings growth (for both the writer and the reader!), as well as closure and acceptance. I have yet to meet a memoir writer who regrets writing their memoir 🙂

      • Brittany D. says:

        Thank you for sharing this, Linda! Another thing I like about memoir is that while it can be therapeutic for the writer, it also helps readers feel less alone--and gives them perspective on their own experiences.

    • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

      Hi Jenny! I love your mountain metaphor. Yes, that is so true! And I think that is one of the more valuable aspects of writing memoir (whether its meant for publication or not). Taking that road up to the mountain is the journey, and all the things that get discovered on that path, plus the different and incredible views of things that surrounds us that we might have overlooked before. I can't wait to read yours!

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        Thanks, Linda! I actually am in the middle of a life-changing event that I believe will end up being another memoir. I haven't lived enough of it yet, but I have a gut feeling the universe is slapping me upside the head with that fact that I am a memoir writer, and I need to be more open to these lessons.

        I thought my current memoir was about the stress and rigors of an insanely high-risk pregnancy, but really it is much more about coping and the fallacy of "being in control." There is no "control" over so many things, especially when it comes to the body and chronic hereditary disorders. It is much more about the mindset of coping with, and playing the hell out of, whatever crappy hand of cards you were dealt.

  2. dholcomb1 says:

    I don't write memoir, but I do find them fascinating.

    denise

    • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

      Me too! Nothing like getting to live someone else's life, excitement, pain or adventure in the comfort of my own sofa! Do you have any favorites?

  3. Kris says:

    I enjoyed your examples of how writing memoir has impacted each writer.

    It reminds me to collect my family stories and the benefits it can bring to others. I intend to visit the motherland of Wisconsin soon if all conditions are a green light. Your post is very timely for me.

    • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

      Thank you Kris! Yes! It's important to collect our stories, anecdotes, photos, maps... and to put them into writing in an organized fashion.

      Inevitably, sooner or later there comes a time in life when we all want to know who came before us in our families, what they did, where they lived, why they lived like they did. We realize that who we are, where we are, is always in some way (big or small) a result of those that came before us, and having a book on hand that recounts those stories, as simple as they may be, gives us a sense of closure and understanding (whether we like the past or not).

      I've come to see that this type of work (memoir recollections) affects and is interesting to many more than just our direct family members. Extended family, our/their friends, neighbors, small townships, historical societies, genealogy groups rely on the those stories too because they add valuable pieces to the puzzle of our histories.

      Wisconsin is a wonderful state! And their resources are immense! Good luck on your trip and feel free to reach out if you have any questions or need any pointers! Sounds like a beautiful project!

  4. […] this month, I posted my Memoir Writing 101 Series: Getting Started Part 2. Today's Part 3: different ways we can revise our memoir once we’ve finished writing it. (In case […]

  5. […] called: What I Wish I Knew Before I Started Writing My Memoir: Part 2 of 3 (previously posted on Writers in the Storm on June 14th, […]

  6. […] this month, I posted my Memoir Writing 101 Series: Getting Started Part 2. for Writers In The Storm. Today’s Part 3: different ways we can revise our memoir once we’ve finished writing it. […]

  7. […] Memoir Writing: What I Wish I Knew Before I Started – Part 2 […]

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