Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Writing Your Life

"So what are you writing?"

It's a common question among writers. I hear all types of answers — many are genres I don't understand.
Today, I safely say, "Memoir." That's why I attended Karen Albright Lin's workshop on "Writing Your Life" at the Pikes Peak Writers conference last week.

The workshop offered great examples of memoir, autobiography, personal essay and a novelization of your life. I'm writing a memoir, because I'm covering a specific period four-year span of my life — the time between my late husband's stroke and his death. 

During the workshop Lin touched on the issue of truth in our writing through a series of short exercises. We wrote about an event. Later, we altered it by adding in details that did not happen. It was a mini-lesson in memoir vs. novelization of your life.

Telling the truth about our lives was timely as another memoir was in the news for questionable facts.

Lin said a disclaimer is a good idea for memoir. In this, you note that your memory of the event is yours and it may be different from others. For example in my story, I have a completely different experience than others during my husband's ER visits. I dealt with nurses, communicated with my husband through our spelling method and argued with ER staff while a sister-in-law or brother sat in the waiting room.

Her key points on memoir were:
  • Begin at point of change
  • Set scene
  • Set tone, theme and point of view
  • Implicit promise (must keep it)
  • Use vivid details
  • Don't state, illuminate (show don't tell)
  • Don't sugar coat
  • Work toward climax, denouement, hopeful ending
  • Leave reader wanting more
Lin also talked about personal essays. These mini-memoirs, as I like to call them, are marketable through publications and contests. Lin encouraged writers to not hold back while writing. "If you try to be safe, your writing will be flat."


  1. I read this with interest because I'm interested in writing personal essays too. I'm curious what she meant by "implicit promise."

  2. Julie, I understood implicit promise to be the meat of the story. You tell the reader what to expect and keep that up throughout the story. Ms. Lin is from Longmont, so maybe you'll get to hear her sometime. The three-hour session focused a lot on essays. Earlier this year, I took an online course on personal essay. We studied the book "Courage & Craft: Writing Your Life into Story" by Barbara Abercrombie. It was very helpful (and I saw it really discounted on the Writer's Digest site).

  3. It's interesting the key points for a memoir are pretty much the same as the key points for fiction.

  4. Yes Lynda, it's not our grandmother's "autobiography" anymore. People like stories — real or made up — presented in an entertaining form.


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