|Write a Memoir
Thought is the sculptor who can create the person you want to be.
- Henry David Thoreau
Presented at the ICSA Annual Conference, Louisville, Kentucky, July 1, 2023
Click here to watch the presentation.
The stories we tell ourselves are important and have a huge influence on our mood, temperament, and our attitudes.
Writing a memoir is an opportunity to put a lot of thought into our stories.
The default mode of the brain is to daydream, dream, and make up stories.
Our thoughts and stories can make us feel better or make us feel worse.
Storytelling is an art. A good story includes a beginning, middle, and end. Life is not like that so where do you start?
In your first draft write everything you remember about your life. Put everything into words.
Writing down your stories can lighten up the load you.
Keep copies of your early drafts in case you need to refer to them later.
You are the artist. Imagine you are at the top of a mountain with a 360 degree view of your life. You want to translate this onto a canvas, but no matter how large a canvas you use, you cannot fit everything. As the artist of this memoir, you choose what you want to include to tell your story.
Complaining - After leaving a cult we certainly have valid complaints about they way the cult treated us, hurt us, used us, or caused trauma in our lives. However, memoirs are not a good place to complain. We want the reader to go with us into the experience so they can experience what we experienced. The reader should be the one to conclude "that wasn't fair."
Rushing A memoir may take years to write, but the work you put into it is therapeutic. The process can take you from hating your experience to loving yourself. You can rush through the first draft, but getting to the final draft can take a long time.
"Too Close" to the story Many of us are still tied up inside the experiencing, not looking back on it. This limits our perspective and will make it difficult to write. You can certainly journal and write about what you're going through, but it will be impossible to make it a story since it's still unfolding. Your writing may sound naive like you don't realize what you went through.
Detachment As ex members we tend to gloss over the difficult experiences. I recently wrote about my life and shared it with an editor. She told me "This feels detached and glossed over. Emotion is missing." Years ago I got professional feedback on a collection of people's stories and the reviewer said, "The writers appear somewhat detached in their recitation of even the most horrendous events. I've really puzzled over this effect and wondered if the sense of detachment I experience in their accounts is an effect of the abuse itself."
Recitation of Events When we write a first draft of our life story, there's a good chance we will write the stories we've memorized. The memorized stories may become rigid and stuck and may hold our hostility and negativity in place.
Editing Your First Draft
Look deeper into your story. Instead of settling for the engrained story you have memorized, go back and find out more about your experience. This will allow you to tell the story in a more realistic way.
Decide on the story you need to tell. Once you have a beginning, middle, and end to your story, you are ready to go through your first draft and turn it into a story.
This time with your story in mind, you will recognize parts that drive the plot forward. Use those parts and cut out the rest.
Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.
The working title tells your story in a few concise words. It helps you focus on what you want to say.
Edit your working title when needed to get closer to what you want it to say.
Rewrite Your Memories
Writing a memoir is a chance to piece together all your experiences to form a more accurate perspective of your life. Rewiring and repairing your memories is the therapy you get from writing your story.
* Memoir Worksheet
* What to Include in Your Memoir
* Memoir Story Arcs (Writer's Digest)
* A Few Words About Writer's Block
* The Ins and Outs of Publishing
* How to Write a Book Proposal
* Other Questions
by Nori Muster *
What to Include in Your Memoir
Include major turning points in your life story.
Describe major characters in your story.
Consider how readers will react to your story.
Even though they may never read it,, consider how characters you discuss will react to your portrayal of them.
Find the flow and balance between scene, narrative, and exposition.
Embrace your good and difficult emotions.
In your first draft write out the backstory, even though you may not need to include it in your memoir.
Memoir Story Arcs
This information is quoted from an article by Allison K. Williams, "Writing the End of Your Memoir," Writer's Digest magazine November/December 2022, pp. 38-41.
Redemption arc The narrator learns the ways they hurt other people and genuinely changes. The final chapter shows the moment where the narrator's mindset shifts, ending with how that change lasted and affected the writer's life, often in an epilogue.
Triumph arc Triumphant memoirs come in two flavors. In a story of emotional triumph, the narrator overcomes their circumstances to reach a glorious (or at least normal) present. They end by realizing their full self, often in front of an audience or in a group that includes people who doubted them. That doesn't mean those people now accept them, thought. In the physical triumph arc, the narrator undergoes a literal journey. The book ends right after the finish line - the top of the mountain or checking off their bucket list. A strong ending also shows a new way of being in the world when they return.
Acceptance arc In acceptance arcs, the memoirist comes to terms with great loss or great challenge and ends with the narrator's new state of mind confronting challenges they weren't strong enough to face before.
Discovery arc The narrator grows from unearthing the mysteries of their past.
Expansion arc These memoirs unearth larger cultural meaning through the memoirist's eyes. Expansion arcs begin when the bad situation gets personal, giving the writer a strong reason to seek change. They often end with an "editorial" feeling - the narrator has established the problem, extrapolated outward from their own experience, and now argues for social change.
A Few Words About Writer's Block
These are the most common forms of writer's block:
1) You don't know what you want to write about. Writing a short summary can help you find your footing.
2) Sometimes you have something to say but other obligations keep getting in the way. For example kids, work, errands, paperwork, visitors, emergencies, etc. Life keeps happening - making it difficult for you to find the time to write.
3) Another type of writer's block is avoidance. You may have a good idea and plenty of time to write, but you look for diversions. For example, "Gee, these closets sure could use a spring cleaning." This could be a waste of time or it could be part of your process. Some writing assignments or ideas take a while to sink in. Gardening, taking a walk, cleaning out a closet, and so on may be part of processing your thoughts. If you feel this could be the case, just give it time to sift through your subconscious mind. Once it clicks, you can sit down and write. This is often the case, and another reason why writing takes so much time. Procrastinating for a couple days may be part of the process.
If your stalling is just out of laziness or procrastination, and you want to get motivated, sit down at your desk and put your hands on the keyboard or pick up a pen. This will get you started, especially if you set up a routine.
The Ins and Outs of Publishing
Nowadays everything is done online. So noodle around on the Internet and look for an agent or publisher who would be interested in your book. It's like finding a needle in a haystack, so keep searching.
Publishers and agents may provide a list of what they want on their website. Try to follow their instructions perfectly. If they are not specific about what to send, start with a letter of inquiry.
Query Your letter of inquiry, or "query letter," can be no longer than one page. The letter introduces your book to a publisher or agent. It's your elevator pitch - short and simple. You may also include the table of contents, but keep it concise. Writing the inquiry letter is a good exercise because it makes you focus on the essence of your book. This is your "pitch" to the publisher. If they like your inquiry, they will ask for more information.
Rejection letters Back in the 1990s before everything went online, I got a lot of rejection letters through the mail. Often the publisher would write a brief comment on their form letter such as "not interested" or "not for me." Some wrote positive things like, "keep trying," or "good story but not for me." .
How many inquiries to send at a time You can send your inquiry letter to as many publishers as you want. They do not expect to have exclusive rights to your book based on an inquiry. If a publisher writes back and requests the book proposal or manuscript, you must hold it for them. They might take up to three months to evaluate a manuscript, but you must wait for their word before showing it to someone else.
Don't send out your inquiry to one hundred publishers, fifty publishers, or even twenty-five publishers at a time. Just try three or four at a time, because you will find that you improve your inquiry letter with practice. You don't want to "use up" every possibility on the Internet in one fell swoop.
How soon to call them Never call a publisher or agent to find out if they got your inquiry. Never ask them when they plan to get back to you. If you get antsy, work on your letter some more and send it to two or three new possibilities. Also continue to refine your manuscript. If your manuscript is ready to go, then start writing your next book while you continue selling the first one. If you call a publisher or agent to inquire about an inquiry letter or nag, they might think you have too much time on your hands. Agents and publishers are very busy people.
Book Proposal For some projects a query letter is enough to get started. If an agent or publisher asks for a book proposal, search their site to find a list of what they want, or search the Internet for what people usually include in a book proposal. Typical things in a book proposal include:
Table of contents or outline - make your headings descriptive.
Synopsis - a summary of your book in one paragraph.
Detailed Synopsis - a longer summary that goes into more detail.
Author's Bio, resume - include something about yourself, for example: what brings you to write this book, other things you've written, education, etc.
Literature review, description of intended audience - a description of your market research. Tell the publisher about your intended audience; give examples of other successful books in this field. Explain what your book adds to the field, why it's unique, how it makes a contribution, why there's a need for your book.
Include blurbs, short statements from people who endorse your book.
Get organized Always keep a copy of what you send out, either hard copy or on your computer. Keep a record of what's "out" and if it comes back with a rejection letter, have a new place to send it. Keep on trying. You only need to find one interested party. That means you can get 100 rejection letters and the 101st letter could be your publisher.
Question: What's the difference between working with a publisher or an agent?
Answer Most big publishers will only accept an inquiry from an agent. The really big agents usually only accept work from "known" authors, meaning someone who has a TV show, a considerable following on social media, or a regular contributor to a respected magazine or newspaper. They may also be interested in books by celebrities, or well-known politicians. Plus, agents take a fifteen to twenty percent cut of anything you make.
Of course there are examples of agents who take on unknown writers and lead them to best-seller-dom. However, more often an agent will take your book and sit on it for a year while you could be out selling it yourself. You can usually do a more effective job for yourself since you are the most motivated salesperson for your own book. I recommend you go directly to small publishing houses or academic publishers yourself.
Question: What is the format for sending a manuscript?
Answer If a publisher or agent asks to see your manuscript, send it as a Word doc or PDF. Make sure you have one inch margins, don't use a fancy font they can't read, make sure your name and contact information are on the first page, and set a header throughout the manuscript at the top-right with your book title and name. Be sure to include page numbers in case they print it out.
Include a cover letter addressed to the person who requested it, stating that you are sending the manuscript in response to his or her request. If you email it at their request, you may include "Requested material" in the subject line. Make sure your grammar and punctuation are as perfect as you can make it. Only start sending out the manuscript when you are absolutely sure its the best you can do.
Question: How long should I wait before contacting the publisher to see if they got my manuscript?
Answer Do not contact a publisher to ask if they received your manuscript. In fact, just cool your heels until they contact you. Just trust that the publisher has received, and is considering, your book.
Q. Is it important to publish?
It is not necessary to publish your memoir to get the therapeutic benefit of writing it.
Q. If my memoir catches on and sells well, how much money could I make?
This depends of course, but you can see it like sports stars or rock stars. Maybe one or two people in the field might land a big best seller and make a couple thousand dollars. Others may sell only a few copies every year and receive a check every other year once the minimum of $50 is reached. Other authors may be like the world famous artist Vincent van Gogh who could not sell a painting his whole life. He could barely give them away. It's possible people shunned his art because he painted the common people, not the royalty and rich people. But now that he's been gone about a hundred and thirty years, everyone loves his art. He was just born too soon. Anyways, if your book doesn't sell, just think of yourself as he did. Have confidence, continue to pursue your goals. He would not put down his paint brushes no matter what.
Q. Is there a downside to self-publishing my memoir?
It can be a waste of money, but if you can do it free, at a place like Amazon KDP, that takes a lot of the anxiety out of it. But before you self-publish, review the section on pitfalls* and get an opinion from a sensible writer friend.
Q. If I want to try for a real publisher, should I write the whole memoir then search for a publisher?
Highly recommended. Have something substantial to show them works to your advantage. Things change quickly at publishing houses because acquisition editors come and go, and move around. If you get a hit from a publisher jump right on it.
Q. What if I only want to write a memoir for my children and future generations of our family?
If you have children and grandchildren, it's a good idea to write your memoir for them. Be sure to include the difficult parts with an uplifting voice - after all, you did make it through. Also fill in the positive parts of your life and your favorite memories. In my humble opinion, everyone with children needs to write a memoir for future generations. Your children may not be interested in ancestry, but in the future you may get a little genealogist in your family line who will read your memoir and enjoy learning all about your life.
Q. How do I support myself while writing a memoir?
If you have a means of support, such as family, an inheritance, a savings account, etc., use your time wisely to write as much as you can. If you need to hold down a job while writing, set a routine where you can write early in the morning, on weekends, or after you put your kids to bed. It's tough to find the time to write with a full life including work, but that's the lot we writers face.
Q. Where can I seek feedback?
Best if you can get feedback from another writer or a professional editor, but it can cost money.
Q. Does it help to join a writing group or class?
Definitely. Joining a group or class is a good way to get started and stay motivated. You may meet people who can give you good feedback.
Q. Should I pay someone to help me write it?
This is up to you, but you definitely want a qualified first reader to look it over before you send it to a publisher.
Q. I've heard it's dangerous to tell people your ideas before you write and publish your work. Is that true? Do I need to keep my mouth shut?
Always keep quiet about your book and don't go around talking about it with random people. It's partly about people stealing your ideas. But the main problem is you may end up telling your story to someone, then once you've told your story you may lose interest in writing it. Write first, talk later. Also, be careful who you talk to because many people don't care and may find it boring or give you quirky off-the-wall advice that discourages you. If you must discuss your memoir with someone, make sure your confidant cares about your project and is qualified to give you good advice.
Q. How many drafts will it take to complete my memoir?
Always more than you think.
Q. Is it wise to use a pseudonym?
You can use a pseudonym, but don't expect a pseudonym to provide perfect anonymity.
Q. How do I obey slander and libel laws?
Best thing is to have resources such as newspaper and magazine articles, references from books, legal documents, correspondence, or other sources you can cite. Be aware of how you talk about characters in your story because if they read it they will inevitably recognize themselves even if you change their name and other details. Most cults are a small world in one way or another. Stuff gets around. Write as though you know for sure the person will read it and recognize him or herself. In Betrayal I sent the messages I wanted to send to each character if they were to read it.
Books and Writing by Nori Muster
In 1997, Nori Muster published Betrayal of the Spirit, a memoir about her ten years with the Hare Krishnas. For most of those years, she participated in a cover-up of the organization's secrets. When she realized what was going on, she decided to write a memoir to tell the story. She signed up for the UCLA Extension Writer's Program and by the time she left the temple she had a five hundred page doorstop of a first draft. The final book was 213 pages, and published by the prestigious academic publisher, University of Illinois Press.
Click here to see Betrayal of the Spirit and other books and cultic studies writing by Nori.