You are viewing pamelamemoir

Dorothy Parker

By Pamela Jane BellRegular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently finishing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic is now available.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
When compiling this list I realized that most of the recommendations are books about plotting.  This makes sense because good memoirs employ a sound story structure ­– one similar to yet distinct from novels (more about that later).  Though some of the books listed are unlikely choices for a memoir-writer’s self-help list, they have proved enduringly helpful to me.  Through the years each one has become an old friend and trusted writing companion.
1.         The Weekend Novelist
by Robert J.  Ray (
The Weekend Novelist lays out a plan for completing a novel (or memoir) in 52 weekends, a strategy the author used for writing his first book while teaching during the week.  But whether you are a weekday or a weekend writer, this book is a guide in that it provides a blueprint to help you articulate and direct your creative energy.  (I almost said “crazy creative energy,” but I don’t want to project here.)  The author’s diagram for plotting using Aristotle’s incline is especially valuable.  If nothing else it gives one side of your brain something to play with while the other side cogitates on possible story designs.
2.         Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting
by Robert McKee  (
When I took Bob McKee’s screenwriting course years ago, the auditorium was packed not only with screenwriters, but with editors and writers of every genre.  All of us wanted a better understanding of the principle and function of story.  Bob McKee describes it this way:
“The source of all art is the human psyche’s need for the resolution of stress and discord through beauty and harmony…”
In my mind, any film or piece of writing that takes the mess of real life and shapes it into a story is a thing of beauty!
In Story, McKee elucidates the principles of story design, including “beats” which he defines as “an exchange of behavior in action/reaction.  Beat by beat these changing behaviors shape the turning of a scene.”  Beats, McKee explains, build scenes,  and scenes build sequences.
In my writing group, when one of us has written a scene that feels flat, it’s often because the scene is missing a beat or two.  Slow down, and give each character a chance to react to an action, even it’s just a double-take.
Another helpful device McKee defines is “opening the gap” between expectation and result.  To open the gap, ask yourself “What’s the opposite of that?” or “What’s off the wall from that?”  Of course you can’t force this kind of reversal to happen in a true-life story, but you can recognize when it does.  Here’s an example from my life:
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
“In my women’s consciousness-raising group, which was composed of students and newly-weds like myself who met at the back of the health food store, we talked about how to rewire men biologically so they wouldn’t be pigs.  Love between a man and a woman was all bourgeois bullshit anyway.  I stopped shaving my legs and threw away my bras.
“And then, right in the middle of my most militant man-hating phase, I fell in love with Eddie.”
(As you may have guessed, Eddie was not my new husband.)  The gap was there, I just had to prune anything extraneous to the storyline to uncover  it.  And reflect; discovering the resonances and reversals embodied in the theme of your memoir requires much contemplation.
One last point – just because Bob McKee is talking about writing screenplays, doesn’t mean your story has to be big:
“Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told versus profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly.”
3.  To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction
by Phillip Lopate (
My Pride and Prejudice and Kitties co-author, Debbie, summed this book up nicely:
Bookstore shelves are stuffed with excellent books on fiction and screenplay writing, but for years I searched in vain for a similarly excellent book on nonfiction writing. Then in 2013 came Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell, and my search was over.
Lopate covers all the issues: the need to turn yourself into a character, conflict in nonfiction, the ethics of writing about others, and on and on. His best bit of wisdom, though, is that the familiar “show don’t tell” dictum should not apply to essay and memoir; an essay should not read like a short story. “The story line or plot in nonfiction consists of the twists and turns of a thought process working itself out,” he observes. For my money this is all you need to know!
He also devotes an entire chapter to the importance of reflection in memoir. The memoir should have a double perspective, he says: one showing the experience as lived and one reflecting the wisdom of the author’s present self. “This second perspective, which takes advantage of a more mature intelligence to interpret the past, is not merely an obligation but a privilege and an opportunity.” –Deborah Guyol and
4.  Your favorite memoir
Your favorite memoir is an invaluable blueprint, a map that you can study and return to as often as you like.
A River Runs Through It
by Norman Maclean is my own favorite*.  This is not a book you can dissect easily; it is unique in language, structure and story, and eludes analysis.  But I did consult it when I wanted to see how Maclean wrote so compellingly about the father’s reaction to the death of his son:
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
“After my brother’s death, my father never walked very well again.  He had to struggle to lift his feet, and, when he did get them up they came down slightly out of control.”
The words are simple, matter-of-fact.  But the impact of the image is devastating, and much stronger than if Maclean had written, “my father became hysterical and threw himself on the floor yelling and pounding his fists.”  Or even “my father was shattered.”  We see that vividly in the image of his father’s stumbling.
5.  How to Write a Movie in 21 Days: The Inner Movie Method
by Viki King.
Like The Weekend Novelist, Viki King’s book provides a structure and schedule for getting the writing done.  But what I found most helpful is the concept of a “logline” – “your story reduced to an ad copy blurb that tells what your movie is about and makes us want to see it.”
I know, that sounds crude and commercial.  Who wants to reduce her memoir to a logline?  Who can?  (Try it; it’s really hard!)  But if you can do this before you write your first draft, the logline will help you define the parameters of your story, and prevent you from getting seduced by your own words – in other words, lost (unless that’s your process, but that’s a subject for another post).
When I was beginning a young-adult thriller based on Snow White, I came up with the logline “She can’t find peace of mind, until her step-daughter rests in peace.”  I love that logline!  (I never wrote the book, but I can’t help wishing there were a market for loglines.)
A cross-pollination of writing advice – i.e., seeking wisdom in different genres – can be highly productive.  A book on screenwriting
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
can help you see your memoir more clearly, especially if you are a visual writer.  Your favorite memoir is a treasure map if you spend the time to decipher it.  But the best resource is yourself – your passion and resolve to tell a story only you can tell in a way only you can tell it.
*Though heavily autobiographical, A River Runs Through It is classified as a novel because Maclean altered the timeline and details of his brother’s death.

- See more at:
Dorothy Parker

“A writer needs to know death is at her back, otherwise the writing becomes brittle, full of fear.” Natalie Goldberg, Long Quiet Highway

I learned about death in 1953, when I went to see the movie Titanic, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb.  I’ve seen the film many times since and though it lacks the dazzling special effects and over-wrought storyline that characterize the 1997 Titanic, the earlier version still packs a punch.
I was five when I first saw Titanic.  Before we left for the theater day, my mom explained that we were going to see a movie about a boat that hits an iceberg.
“What’s an iceberg?” I asked.
“Its an ice cube as big as a house,” my mom answered.  My mom believed in simple explanations.
I went outside and looked up at our little ice cube-shaped house, one of hundreds of identical houses in our post-WWII housing development in Madison, Wisconsin.
“Now that,” I thought, “is one big ice cube.”
Of course the iceberg that hit the Titanic was a lot bigger than our house, but that’s not what impressed me about the film.   What impressed me, and has stayed with me all my life, was how happy and carefree everyone was on the first night of the voyage – friends and families singing and dancing – and how suddenly they were plunged into darkness and death.
I’m sure my mom had no idea that the movie made any impression on me at all.  To her I was a
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
little girl with curly blond hair and a ribbon taped to her head, not a highly impressionable person with a rich and complex inner life (adults rarely get this about kids).  It wasn’t that my mom didn’t care – she just had no idea what was going on inside me.
I was never the same after seeing Titanic.  But in spite of the shock, I’m glad I saw it.  Like other dark movies I watched as a small child, Titanic animated my imagination, enlarged my perspective, and encouraged me to reflect.  It made me more me.
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
Karen Pendleton on "The Mickey Mouse Club"
Once I found out about death, I started worrying about my own death and the frightening specter of non-existence.  It seemed to me that if you wanted to be 100% certain that you existed now and forever (anything else was unthinkable), you had to exist for other people – lots of other people.  In other words, you had to be famous like Nancy Drew or Karen on the Mickey Mouse Club, (I didn’t distinguish fantasy from reality), to become a living presence in the minds of others.  Being famous not only safe-guarded and secured your existence, in a sense it also created it.  Everyone thinks I am, therefore I am – and will always be.
Feeling the way I did about death and non-existence (and still do, from a different perspective), why do I find comfort and aid in Natalie Goldberg’s quote about writing with death at your back?  Maybe it’s because the shadow of death is something I’m always aware of peripherally, so it is a relief to acknowledge it openly.  Anything that relaxes you is good for your writing.  Paradoxically, an awareness of death can lighten the burden of weighty expectations and keep you from taking yourself and your writing too seriously.  What the heck, you’re going to die anyway so why not write your heart out?
In her novel Middlemarch George Eliot writes of the scholarly cleric, Edward Casaubon.  Her portrait of a dying man entangled in a web of bitterness, ambition, and nagging self-doubt was as chilling to me at twenty-one as it is to me now more than forty years later:
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
Poor Casaubon had a sneaking suspicion he might not be the brilliant scholar he posed as
“Having made his clerical toilet with due care in the morning, he was prepared only for those amenities of life which were suited to the well-adjusted stiff cravat of the period, and to a mind weighted with unpublished matter.”
George Eliot herself knew well the weight of unpublished matter.  She was fifty when she wrote her masterpiece and, like Casaubon, she was tormented by the thought that she might never write it at all.  Casaubon labored with death at his back in the worst possible sense; he was paralyzed by it.  George Eliot felt the awareness of death as an imperative.  Just do it.
I remember the morning of 9/11; I was sitting at my desk struggling to plot a children’s book.  I had a contract and a deadline but the plot was going nowhere. Then a neighbor called and told me a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers.  Events unfolded swiftly after that, but in between watching TV, calling my husband, John, to make sure his bus to New York turned around, and trying to reach friends who lived near the World Trade Center, I sat down ­and plotted my book. I did it effortlessly, if numbly, because in light of what was happening, it didn’t matter anymore.  My book wasn’t important in the larger scheme of things.
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
If you make a deep commitment to your writing while accepting that you and it (most likely) will vanish one day, you will successfully strike the balance between “nothing matters” and “everything matters,” between holding it close and tossing it all away.   Then you will write freely, with your sails full and the wind at your back.

Dorothy Parker
Memoir Writing Advice from Shakespeare and Four Other Authors

By Pamela Jane BellRegular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently finishing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic is now available.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
1.  Isak Dinesen:  Don’t wait for the perfect frame of mind to begin writing
“When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, without faith and without hope…suddenly the work will find itself.–” Isak Dinesen.
When I searched on-line for the above quote just now, I found that the words “without faith and without hope” had been deleted, as though they detracted from what Dinesen is saying.  But to me, those words are what make the quote so heartening.  We can get ourselves worked up, stressed out and generally frustrated by trying to achieve the perfect positive frame of mind.  It’s reassuring to know that though a positive outlook may be a great addition, it isn’t indispensible.  It works just as well to sit down and write, regardless of mood.  The positive attitude will follow!
2.  Julie Andrews: Persevere
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music"
“Perseverance is failing nineteen times and succeeding the twentieth.” Julie Andrews.
I once submitted a children’s book to a major publisher who turned it down on four separate occasions.  Among the four who rejected it were the publisher, the vice president, and two senior editors.  A third editor accepted the book, and it has gone on to do very well.  But think what would have happened if I’d decided that the publisher or vice president was the ultimate authority on what would succeed, or even what to publish.
Failure simply means that things didn’t work out in one particular instance.  There is no larger meaning or significance, at least not one you should attach to it.
Of all the elements that make up success, perseverance is the most critical.  A writer with a slender talent accompanied by a robust drive will be more successful than one with a rich natural gift and no ambition.   Of course, it’s best have both if you possibly can!
3.  Toni Morrison:  Write the book you want to read
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Toni Morrison
Writers are people who see what is not readily visible to others.  They see humor in darkness (the light side of the dark side), the bizarre in the mundane, the possible in the dream.  Your memoir is the fullest, richest expression of yourself you can possibly put into words.  When you have finished it to your own satisfaction, you’ll find that it’s also the book you’ve always wanted to read.
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
4. Anaïs Nin:  Create your own world
“I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me… I had to create a world of my own, like a climate.” Anaïs Nin
When you are writing your memoir, deciding what to put in or take out, or searching for the language to reflect your perspective and particular cast of mind, you’re creating your own world.  What could be more fun than that?  For me writing – the freedom to create my own reality – is the lollipop of life.  The rest is what you have to go through to get it.
5. Shakespeare: Tell yourself the truth
“To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet).
It’s impossible to be truthful to someone else when you haven’t told the truth to yourself.  But telling yourself the truth can be tricky.  We all have our own internal ministry of propaganda and if you aren’t vigilant, you can start believing your own rationalizations. George Eliot describes a chilling example of self-deception through the character of banker Nicholas Bulstrode in her novel Middlemarch:
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
Shakespearean actor, Peter Jeffrey as Bulstrode in the BBC "Middlemarch"
“Mentally surrounded with that past again, Bulstrode had the same pleas…his soul had become more saturated with the belief that he did everything for God’s sake, being indifferent to it for his own.”
This is an extreme example (Bulstrode is thoroughly corrupt) but it is brilliantly perceptive precisely because he’s so recognizably human.
Once you have told yourself the truth, you can decide with confidence and clarity what to tell your readers.
Dorothy Parker

Post #109 – Memoir Writing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
Putting Your Weird Perspective to Work in Memoir Writing

By Pamela Jane BellRegular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently finishing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic is now available.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
Marcel Proust
As writers, we each have our own way of looking at the world.  French novelist Marcel Proust was notoriously neurotic.  For example, he insisted that anything that touched his skin– bath water, clothes, bedding– match his body temperature.  He hated noise, so he lined his room with cork to keep it at bay.  Not surprisingly, he subsequently developed an allergy to cork.  Stendhal, another French writer, suffered from what has come to be known as the “Stendhal Syndrome.”  This is described as “a psychosomatic disorder that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful…”*  (When living in Florence, I was careful to take in the Botticelli paintings in small doses.)  But the personal traits that made these writers’ lives difficult – in Proust’s case, nearly impossible – were inseparable from what made them great.
Following are writing tips for putting your unique perspective to work.  In other words, give your weird take on life something to do besides driving you crazy.
Writing Tip 1. Fake PTSD
At dusk the other evening, I was driving along a highway with no shoulder when I saw a man in dark clothing walking along the side of the road.  As I passed him slowly, giving him a wide margin, I imagined how my life would change irrevocably if I had accidentally hit him.  I heard myself calling my daughter, whom I was on the way to pick up at the bus stop.
“Hi, honey…”
Hi honey?  Shouldn’t I call 911 first?  Is the guy even breathing?  By this time I was starting to feel traumatized by the whole experience.  I had PTSD over something that never happened.
I hope nothing like that ever does happen to me or anyone else, but the ability to imagine a scene vividly and immediately is an invaluable writing skill.
Writing Tip 2.  Vivid internal monologues or dialogs
Most people hear a voice in their heads and possibly two, such as a critical or pessimistic voice, and an opposing voice challenging that view.  If you listen deeply and consistently though, I suspect you’ll discover a whole chorus of voices, many of which have been ignored or overlooked.  Or maybe you just haven’t taken the time to tune in.  For example:
Your mother’s voice (“Pamie, you go from one extreme to the other!”)
The other sex (male if you’re female)
A voice whispering a difficult truth
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90

These are the voices of your characters as well as of your various selves; they ignite conflict and propel plot, whether you’re writing a novel or a memoir.  Let them loose and see how they interact with each other.
Writing Tip 3.  A different kind of Déjà vu.

Think of the innumerable moments of consciousness you’ve experienced in your life, each one made up of complex sensations, perceptions, and half-formed thoughts.  How likely is it that you will stumble upon one identical to another you’ve experienced ten, twenty or thirty-five years ago – or recognize it if you did?  I call this special form of Déjà vu “matching states of consciousness.”  Your present state of mind matches perfectly with one you inhabited in the past.
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
Last week I was lying on the table during an acupuncture treatment when suddenly, in my mind, I was twenty-one, newly married, and living in an old country house, sewing.  I wasn’t just thinking about being twenty-one, I was there; I could smell the crisp new fabric under my steam iron, hear flies buzzing at the windowpanes, and feel that peculiar combination of melancholy, apprehension and hope that characterized that autumn.  Lying on the couch, I relaxed into the rich sensation of going back in time.
Returning to a familiar state of consciousness appears to be spontaneous, but you can trigger the experience with music or smells, such as the smell of an apple pie baking in the oven, or the fragrance of fallen leaves in the autumn woods.
Writing Tip 4.  Excessive intensity
Do you ever feel that your emotional reactions are over the top?  Every life transition or incident feels huge – my daughter returning to college after vacation, a worrisome physical symptom, a nostalgic-feeling holiday with old friends.  It’s all nearly unbearable– too much.  This too-muchness can make for a bumpy ride.  But it also makes for strong writing.  When life punches you, punch it right back (on the page).
Writing Tip 5.  Impulsivity
I can be impulsive, so I call one of my more prudent friends when I’m about to leap into something with that intoxicating feeling of abandonment.
“No, don’t call her!” whispers the imp.  “You’ll spoil all the fun!”  (My drug of choice is the “place your order” or “send” button.)
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
That mischievous imp can get you into trouble, but when I’m writing she perches on my shoulder, spinning out plot detours or dialogue I never would have thought of on my own.  Be kind to your inner imp.  She’s your ally – most of the time.
Try to Remember
When you’re not writing these “super abilities” can be a burden.  But turn the focus of inquiry, attention and imagination on your work, and you’ll unleash their hidden energy and inventiveness.
After all, that’s what makes you a writer.
Dorothy Parker
“Move over, Mrs. Danvers – This is My Story!”
By Pamela Jane Bell
Regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently finishing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic is now available.

Sometimes, for recreation, I take a few minutes out from writing to play brain games on the computer. A favorite game is one in which you have to guide a seed through a maze to its proper planting place, avoiding all the obstacles (ladybugs) along the way. I like this game because it’s not timed, so you don’t feel hurried; you can relax and work out the most expeditious path for the seed, while calculating the least number of moves needed to clear the bugs out of the way. Just like life.
All of us are continually bumping up against obstacles to our goals, compelling us to invent ways to get around, through, over or beyond them. Or maybe just kick them out of the way.
The same is true of writing a memoir – we inevitably encounter hurdles that could potentially slow or even stop our progress. Following are some of the most formidable and also familiar obstacles (such as rejection, time constraints, or cosmic discouragement) and strategies for overcoming them. I guarantee these are all genuine, high-quality obstacles, and their solutions have been thoroughly tested!
Obstacle #1 An editor or friend whose opinion you value tells you there is something wrong with your manuscript.
OK, take a deep breath. You are not in cardiac arrest – your manuscript may be, but guess what? You can fix it.
Let’s imagine a discerning reader says, “You are not telling me enough about your father.” At first this criticism may sound daunting, especially if you are not inclined to write at length about your father. On the other hand, your reader may have a point in terms of the need to provide a richer context for your story, or greater clarity. If so, ask her how many sentences she imagines would be needed to accomplish this. You might be surprised when she answers “three or four.” Suddenly a discouragingly amorphous task is reduced to a few sentences. You can do that!
Obstacle #2 Someone tells you you’re hiding something from the reader.
I’ve had this experience. “You’re not telling the whole story,” or “I have the feeling you’re hiding something about your aunt.”
Ask yourself, are you really hiding something or are you simply choosing not to write about it? There is a difference. If your aunt’s

mental illness is not essential to your story, don’t write about it. Doing so might pull the narrative off course, or disrupt the continuity leaving loose ends you’ll have to tuck in later.
Obstacle #3 You don’t have enough time to work on your memoir.
You can think about time linearly,­ that is, horizontally – how many minutes or hours do you have available for writing? It’s a finite amount. But you can also think about time vertically by using the time you have to go deeper into your story, with more intention and greater focus, expanding the time you have to write.
Obstacle #4 You keep getting rejections on your query or manuscripts.
I’ve written here about my co-author’s and my 75 agent rejections for our book, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties. I have a children’s book I sold after 125 submissions, and I’m sure I will break that record in the future. (You can read about the funniest rejections ever – mine and other writers’.)
The solution to rejection is simple; never give up. It isn’t an option. You can revise your manuscript, if you’re receiving a lot of similar criticism from agents and editors. You can research alternative publishing options. But you can’t give up.

During the years we marketed Pride and Prejudice and Kitties to agents, I remember many empty days, gray days, defeated days. Days when no one in the world seemed interested in our book. Nothing was happening. Not just nothing, but, as a young friend of mine says, “a big fat nothing” – a huge yawning emptiness, failure. If I’d listened to the universe on those days, I’d swear it was telling me to give up, like wicked Mrs. Danvers whispering to Max de Winter’s young wife in Rebecca: “Go ahead. Jump. He never loved you, so why go on…” Or, as I heard it, “Go ahead, give up. No one likes your book, so why keep trying?”
Just tell that evil Mrs. Danvers to go jump in a lake, and keep sending your manuscript out.
Obstacle #5 There really is something wrong with your manuscript.
There’s something wrong with nearly everything. Take a movie you love and have watched dozens of times, and Google its title and “holes.” Most likely your search will reveal flaws, illogical sequences, mistakes and inconsistencies in the film. Yet these didn’t diminish your enjoyment in watching it. Discovering your favorite film’s defects may endear it to you even more.
I’m not suggesting that you ignore flaws in your story, only not to be disheartened by an apparent lack of perfection.
I learned an efficient method of dealing with flaws or “holes” in films or books from screenwriting teacher, Bob McKee.
“If you have a hole,” he said, “take it out and wave it around.”
J.D. Salinger did this brilliantly in the famous opening of Catcher in the Rye:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Salinger does weave in his character’s backstory throughout Catcher in the Rye, but in his own way and his own time.
Finally, tell the story you want to tell. Find your own way to solve problems in your narrative (though readers can be helpful in

identifying where those problems lie). Just as your story is a reflection of the particular way your mind works and sees the world, how you resolve flaws and weaknesses in your memoir will be unique to you. Keep advancing steadfastly towards your goal while you move those little bugs out of your way.

3 Tips for Letting Time Work for You

Dorothy Parker
By Pamela Jane BellRegular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently finishing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic is now available.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
Claudette Cobert in "It Happened One Night"
A well-known physician noted that the most respected doctors, “are those who can step back and look at the big picture rather than simply react. In situations like this, it is best to: ‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’ ” *
Sounds like a smart doctor to me.  I have lots of stories about doctors who should have just stood there, but that’s another story.  The point here is that in some circumstances “just standing there” is the best advice for writers as well.  But I have a hard time doing it.
“Time is on my side,” the Rolling Stones sang.  But is time our friend, ­or our adversary?   Perhaps, because of the complexity of human life, it is both.  Still, my idea of a writer is someone who writes, not someone who waits.  I jokingly describe myself as a self-employed writer with a strict boss, but it’s not really a joke.  I have a difficult time putting aside a piece of writing or turning to another project when I’ve hit a roadblock with my manuscript.  Instead, I sit anxiously by its side, taking its temperature every five minutes.  But sometimes, in fact many times, walking away, at least for a while, is exactly what you need to do.
Below are three tips for letting time work its magic on your memoir, and why you should:
Writing Tip #1.  Nothing stays the same
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90

Even when life appears to be standing still, it isn’t really.  It’s like the stream that always changes yet always stays the same.  It flows on, bringing new experiences and perspectives that enable you to see your story with fresh eyes.  Many things ­– a forgotten photograph, an unexpected trip, a dream – can yield a memory or insight that will help round out and deepen your story.
Writing Tip #2.  Let your subconscious work
Madeleine L’Engle, author of the famous children’s book, A Wrinkle in Time and several sequels, decided to give up writing on her 40th birthday after receiving yet another rejection notice.
“This was an obvious sign from heaven.  I should stop trying to write,” she wrote in A Circle of Quiet. “All during the decade of my thirties I went through spasms of guilt because I spent so much time writing, because I wasn’t like a good New England housewife and mother.  When I scrubbed the kitchen floor, the family cheered…with all the hours I spent writing, I was still not pulling my own weight financially.”
L’Engle proceeded to cover her typewriter and give in to misery only to discover later that her subconscious was at work on a novel about failure.
Trust yourself; your subconscious is working even when you aren’t.
Writing Tip #3.  Let time perform its magic
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90

In 1965, Katherine Anne Porter sat down to write a forward to her new collection of short stories.  She wrote about an unfinished story she had discovered in a box of old manuscripts.
“‘Holiday’ represents one of my prolonged struggles, not with questions of form or style, but my own moral and emotion collision with a human situation I was too young to cope with at the time it occurred; yet the story haunted me for years and I made three separate versions, with a certain spot in all three where the thing went off track.  So I put it away and…forgot it.  It rose from one of my boxes of papers, after a quarter of a century…as for the vexing question which had stopped me short long ago, it had in the course of living settled itself so slowly and deeply and secretly I wondered why I had ever been distressed by it…”
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
Time is, indeed, a magic elixir.
What These 3 Writing Tips Mean to You
I’m not suggesting you wait a quarter of a century to finish your memoir or your novel!  It’s the willingness to step back, even for a day, that is important.  As my husband, John, always tells me: “Possess your soul in patience.”
For me, that’s an even greater challenge than scrubbing the kitchen floor.
*Douglas A. Drossman M.D.
Dorothy Parker
Post #102 – Women’s Memoirs, Book Business – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?
By Pamela Jane BellRegular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently finishing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic is now available.
[Note from Women's Memoirs: Kendra's had cats for as long as I can remember. Now that we frequently Skype, I even get to see her one remaining cat -- Sabrina. Sweet Sabrina long ago used up the last of her supposed nine lives. We're convinced she has been given an allotment of 18 or so.
Well, as you can imagine, we just had to check out Pamela's new book and we're sure you'll like it as much as we did. To give you a preview, we've put her book trailer at the bottom of her list of 5 Memoir Marketing Tips.]
My friend Debbie teases me about the stacks of self-help books I’ve collected over the years.  I admit that many of them have proved to be less than helpful, but for me finding one new book to add to my self-help library – one that changes the way I think and see the world – is worth the search.
One of those finds is The Highly Sensitive Person by psychologist Elaine N. Aron.  Dr. Aron defines a highly sensitive person (HSP) as someone who is more aware than others of subtleties in her environment, and also more easily overwhelmed by stimuli.  If you are unusually sensitive to loud noise and bright lights, for instance, or even to comments overheard while touring a museum, you may be highly sensitive. (My husband turns on the dining room light so bright it looks like he’s preparing to operate rather than sit down to dinner.  I don’t like light bulbs brighter than 25 watts; candles are even better.)  A complex inner life is another HSP characteristic.  I’m sure many writers, especially memoirists, have that one!
Being highly sensitive doesn’t necessarily mean you are more understanding or empathic ­than others – it simply relates to how you process stimuli.  In fact when you are feeling overwhelmed, you are probably anything but kind and understanding.  To find out where you fall on the highly-sensitive continuum, you can take Dr. Aron’s self-test here.
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
I just want to type! (Jean Harlow)
So how does marketing work for an HSP?  When a friend of mine got a new computer a while back, he protested that he didn’t need the Excel spreadsheet software or the Skype app; he “just wanted to type.”  I know exactly how he feels.  It reminds me of a call I got from a cable TV company recently.
“How would you like 150 more cable channels?” the sales rep asked brightly.
“Actually,” I replied,  “I’m looking for fewer channels.”
There was total silence on the other end of the line.
5 Book Marketing Tips for Writers
It may be hard for non-HSPs to realize that some people really do want less.  For me, marketing my book falls under the “I can completely do without this” category, but it is part of today’s writing and publishing world.  So here are five marketing tips especially for HSPs:
1.  Don’t try to out-market your non-HSP colleague
There will always be better networkers, smarter marketers, or those naturally gifted at promotion.  Their ideas can inspire you (or drive you crazy).  Hopefully, it’s the former, but either way don’t set yourself up for frustration and disappointment by implementing an impossibly ambitious marketing campaign.  Instead …
2.  Decide what you will do
It’s helpful to decide ahead of time how much and what kind of marketing you want and would enjoy doing.   I love public speaking.  To me it feels cozy and intimate; it’s just the two of us – me and the audience.  If you don’t enjoy live interviews or public speaking, you can send out postcards, e-newsletters, or organize a blog tour, where various blogs feature your book on consecutive weeks.
3.  Give yourself some “inward” time
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90

Just because you’re in a marketing phase doesn’t mean you can’t take a little introverted vacation.  Stagger your “in” and “out” times so you don’t become disheartened or discouraged with the demands of marketing.  Children’s author Deborah Heiligman has a note on the wall of her office that says, “Long view, light touch.”   With marketing I tend to do just the opposite – hurl myself into a promotion campaign as if there’s no tomorrow, then crash.  Deb’s strategy is much more intelligent.
4.  Team up with your non-HSP friend or colleague
Being highly sensitive doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot  of original and creative marketing ideas.  In fact, as an HSP, you probably have more ideas than you have time or inclination for.  So let your more stimuli-loving friend chat up editors at a conference, while you do on-line market research.  The introverted-extroverted collaboration is an ideal partnership.*
5.  Slow down when you’re feeling pressured
When you start to feel pressured or flustered, resist the urge to speed up.  Not only will you maintain your balance (literally – I tripped and broke my foot last year hurrying to get some information while talking on the telephone) but when you slow down, you’ll actually accomplish more.
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
Understanding the HSP trait has helped me tremendously.  For example, when my family and I moved to Florence, Italy, for a year, I spent the first scorching August days on my hands and knees, scrubbing the floor of our apartment.  If I hadn’t just read The Highly Sensitive Person, I might have concluded I was crazy and forced myself to hurry out and start soaking up the culture and beauty of Florence. But because of Elaine Aron’s book, I understood that I was exhausted and overwhelmed from the intense, protracted effort of preparing to leave home for a year.  The floor-scrubbing phase, though short-lived, was extremely therapeutic and even pleasurable.  Physical work, done in a quiet place, “knits up the raveled sleave of care,” as Shakespeare wrote about sleep.
One last point: I’ve found over the years that for your book to do well, a little luck or magic has to kick in –  something, in other words, that is completely out of your hands.  Accept this, take time to consider your marketing plan and, most importantly, enjoy the ride!
CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90
From Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace. Illustration by Lois Lenski
Are you an HSP?  If so, what are your marketing strategies?  Please leave us a comment; we’d love to hear from you. Non-HSPs are welcome too!
*Though I’ve used the terms “HSP” and “introvert” interchangeably, in truth only about 70% of highly sensitive people are introverts; 30% are extroverts.
Below is the trailer for Pamela Jane’s new book: Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic

- See more at:
Dorothy Parker
Note:  This and all other posts on this blog were original published by
Dreams of Being a Princess

By Pamela Jane, regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently finishing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic is now available.

          I have a confession to make. I’m horribly jealous of Princess Kate* but not for the reasons you might think. It’s not because she’s wealthy, or because the royal family owns several yummy country estates (one of which will be Kate and William’s country home). Nor is it because Kate can do anything she wants (princesses never can). It’s not even because of her hats. No, I’m jealous of Princess Kate because she has access to armies of super-attentive physicians, day and night. (As Woody Allen said, the best thing about being a celebrity is having doctors call you back on the weekend.) And that’s just the beginning! The Queen’s own gynecologist postponed his retirement to deliver Kate and William’s new baby, Prince George. What doctor would do that for a commoner?

          I was thinking about this yesterday while sitting in the orthopedic doctor’s office, waiting for the doctor to come into the exam room. I broke my foot last summer while talking on a recorded line with my health insurance company. (They later claimed they lost that particular recording – not that I was going to sue them or anything.) Now I was afraid I’d re-fractured my foot exercising a little too zealously on the treadmill.

            The longer I sat on that exam table, waiting, the more steamed up I got about not being a princess or even a Hollywood celebrity. When I arrived for my appointment, I had been hustled into the x-ray room even before I got a chance to be examined by the new doctor – hardly the protocol for royalty or even sub-royalty. I’m terrified of doctors and medical tests and being hurried along by a brusque impersonal technician was particularly unnerving. What a difference it would make, I thought, as I shifted my weight on the crinkly white paper, if doctors and their staffs treated me like they would Princess Kate, ministering to every tiny pain (I imagined), and every flash of panic. In fact, if I wanted, I could have the whole British commonwealth panicking along with me. How cozy would that be?

          If only my daughter, Annelise, had listened to me! In 1997, when she was three I advised her to marry Prince William when she grew up. Then at least I’d have some royal privileges. But Annelise had just looked at me with her big three-year-old eyes and replied stoutly, “I don’t want that job.”
What a stubborn child, thinking of (and for) herself instead of her mom!

At this point in my ruminations, the door opened and the doctor breezed in.

          “You sure had a bad break last year,” he said, holding the new x-rays up to the light. “But your foot is fine now.”

          “Really?” I said, in surprise. “You mean I didn’t break it again?”

          The doctor shook his head. “It’s fine. You’re fine!” He studied me for a moment. Then he sat down in the chair beside the exam table.

          “You know,” he said, “You should enjoy life more and not worry so much.”

          I nodded. “I’m a warrior worrier,” I admitted. “It’s an honored family tradition.”

          The doctor chuckled. “What kind of work do you do?”

          I told him I was a writer. Then I opened my purse and handed him a bookmark for my new book, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties.

          When he looked at the bookmark, the doctor’s eyes lit up. “One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it,” he said, quoting from Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion.

          Oddly enough, I just used that quote in a recent post for WomensMemoirs.

          For the next fifteen minutes or so we talked about love, suffering – and Jane Austen. For that brief time I felt like a princess, being treated by the Queen’s physician.

          When the doctor stood up to go, he shook my hand.

          “Write a story about this,” he said, “and God bless you.”

          So here I am. There’s no moral to this story, just two tips:

          1) Find the story in your ordinary, daily experiences, and the peculiar workings of your own mind. It’s great practice for writing your memoir. It might even lead to a whole new book.

          2) Take the doctor’s prescription, and enjoy life. When you feel like speeding up, slow down instead ­ – literally move more slowly. Notice things, listen, observe.

          And here’s one last prescription. This one is from me: take time to treat a friend like a princess – the fairy dust will rub off on you.

*Kate’s proper title is “Duchess of Cambridge,” though she’s popularly called “Princess.”

Dorothy Parker
Note: This post and all posts in this journal were originally published by

“When you… want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder — that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly… The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make.” – Anton Chekov

Recently, I was reading a chapter of my memoir to my writing group.  In one passage, another character makes a startling confession, and my response was something like,  “I felt shattered.”  Later, when I was reading the group’s comments on my story, I saw that Joyce, a highly perceptive critic, had written next to that passage, “I don’t feel the intensity here.”  Others agreed.
I thought about this for a while.  Why didn’t my writing convey to readers the intensity of my emotional response?  After all, I had felt shattered  – or had I?  I frowned, trying to remember.  Did “shattered” truly describe what I had felt?  Or was that just a word that had popped conveniently into my head, ­an approximation of what I was experiencing at that moment in my story?
When I pondered this question, I realized I hadn’t really felt shattered as much as horrified.   Yes, “horrified” was the right word, I thought; it described exactly what I had felt.

Finding the right word, led to a realization.  I had felt horrified not only because of what another person was confessing to me, but because I recognized the same feelings in myself.  Now I could go back to my story and build up to that moment of horror by describing and developing events that led up to it.   This gave my response emotional resonance, and allowed me to develop the scene within a richer context.

That’s one of the rewards of writing a memoir.  You not only have to figure out the story.  You have to figure out yourself.   The more successfully you achieve this, the more real your story will be to your reader.
Following are three tips for writing intense, highly-charged scenes that will engross and engage your readers.  Try them out, and see if they work for you!

1.    Let the reader do the work
Below is a passage from A River Runs Through It, by Norman MacLean.  In this scene, Norman has just told his father about the brutal murder of Norman’s younger brother, Paul.

“After my brother’s death, my father never walked very well again.  He had to struggle to lift his feet, and when he did get them up, they came down slightly out of control.  From time to time Paul’s right hand had to be reaffirmed; then my father would shuffle away again.  He could not shuffle in a straight line from trying to lift his feet.  Like many Scottish ministers before him, he had to derive what comfort he could from the faith that his son had died fighting.”
The author doesn’t say, “My father was in shock,” or even “my father was never the same.”  He simply describes, in brief, telling detail, his father’s inability to walk well again.  From this, we realize that Norman’s father is a broken man.  And because we come to this conclusion without being explicitly told, the scene has much greater impact.  Maclean lets the reader do the work.
Norman’s father keeps asking the question about which hand was broken.  It’s only further on in the text that the narrator acknowledges why (although we can figure it out).  Maclean writes: “Like many Scottish ministers before him, he had to derive what comfort he could from the faith that his son had died fighting,” With these words, Paul’s death takes on a deeper dimension of human destiny and human history.

A memoir is a dialogue between author and reader, and it’s the dialogue –  what the reader brings to the work – that makes the story meaningful to her.  In a sense, the reader is creating her own subtext.

2.    Let the facts speak

I remember reading a scene of unimaginable horror in Larry McMurtry’s novel, Lonesome Dove.  Recently , I went back to see how he achieved such an unforgettable, haunting atmosphere of menace.  I looked up the episode where the treacherous Blue Duck, the very essence of evil, castrates another man.  What I noticed when I read the passage was the matter-of-fact way McMurtry described the action.  He simply and quietly stated what happened without trying to instill horror in the reader.  (Of course, such an event hardly needs elaboration to be horrifying.)  The author was masterful in letting the facts speak for themselves.

3.   Let the perspective shift

Last week, my friend Debbie, who teaches creative writing, asked me if I could suggest ways to make a character’s grief at a funeral more real to readers.  One of her students had written a story in which a woman is sobbing at her mother’s funeral, but the readers didn’t feel her sadness.

Pondering this dilemma called to mind a funeral of a friend’s father I attended many years ago.  My friend, who was very close to her dad, was grief-stricken, but as she walked out of the synagogue she turned and winked at me.  This made a lasting impression, because it showed spunk and courage in the face of irremediable loss.  In a story, a similar scene can be more moving than having a character break down in sobs, or become hysterical.

I  hope these tips are helpful, and that they will lead you to develop more of your own.  And remember, if someone doesn’t react or respond to an intensely emotional scene you’ve written, take heart!
As with most things we write, this too will pass can be fixed.

5 Great Ways to Flex Your Memoir Muscle

Dorothy Parker
This post was originally published by

cogito ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am” – René Descartes.

To me, flexing your memoir muscle means cultivating a state of mind in which you are aware of being aware.  This requires living an examined life – not in retrospect but in the present, even as at it unfolds.  The deeper and more earnestly you engage in investigating reality, past and present, the more vividly you will be able to recreate a particular reality for your reader.

Following are 5 tips for flexing your memoir muscle – a workout I need everyday! workout

1.  Use music to take yourself  back to “here and now” of the past.
Music touches hidden chords of memory and reanimates long-forgotten experiences and emotions. Fortunately, the internet gives us the ability to find a piece of music or a song in an instant.  This is a great gift for memoir writers.  I arrange my “memoir music” into folders labeled for different chapters of my life.  When I listen to Tracy Nelson’s poignant “Sad Situation” or Bob Dylan’s lilting “To Be Alone With You,” I’m transported back to 1970.  Once again I’m painting the walls of an old farmhouse while approaching a fateful turning point in my life.  The music unlocks and engages all the senses from that time.  I can even smell the wet paint.


2.   Talk to people from your past
We all remember different things, and we all remember the same things differently.  That’s why your memoir is yours!  I rarely make use of others’ memories in my memoir; most of the time their stories are extraneous to mine.  Yet talking to someone from the past can open your mind and generate new insights.

For years, I’ve been returning to the Shawangunk Mountains in upstate New York, to write and think about the past.  But it wasn’t until I unexpectedly met up with an old friend there that I found the ending to my memoir.  His version of a dramatic event that touched us both allowed me to see my story in a richer perspective.  It was just the touch I needed to exit gracefully from my narrative.

3.   Cultivate Lucid Dreaming

A lucid dream is a dream in which you are aware that you are dreaming.  (Dr. Stephen Laberge from The Lucidity Institute at Stanford University has established that lucid dreaming occurs in a true REM state, not one where you are half-awake or simply imagining that you are dreaming.)  Tibetan monks have been using lucid dreaming techniques for centuries to “wake up” and explore the illusory nature of reality.

Part of training yourself to have lucid dreams is performing “state tests” throughout the day to see if you are dreaming.  For example, you might jump up in the air to see if you can fly.  If you’re dreaming, you probably will be able to float at the very least.  (Don’t go jumping off any rooftops, though, until you’re positive you’re dreaming!)  The point of this exercise is to teach you to test your state during the night, when you truly are dreaming, so that you can enter a lucid state. But even if you never have a lucid dream, the daytime exercises, such as state tests, encourage the habit of examining reality instead of rushing unconsciously through the day.  And if you do have a lucid dream, the heightened awareness it brings will spill over into your waking and writing life. See my previous post at for more about lucid dreaming and memoir.

4.   Remember to remember

I keep a little rock by my computer that says “remember.”  It’s not “remember” as in remember to take out the garbage or remember to call the dentist.  It’s remember as in, reflect, contemplate, make time to step back and think about the present as it speeds into the past.   This can be a formal meditation, or just a moment in time when you stop and give yourself mental space, a cushion of silence around you to luxuriate in.  Remember to remember that you are you, and that you are here, alive and living in the world.

"Bedroom Space - Mental Place" by Ted Ramsay
"Bedroom Space - Mental Place" by Ted Ramsay

5.   Notice something different in your environment every day
This is an exercise I invented and really enjoy doing.  I look out my window, or around my writing room, and make a mental note of something I’ve never noticed before.  Yesterday my eye lit upon a green canoe turned upside down behind my neighbor’s woodshed.  I’m sure I gazed at that canoe unthinkingly dozens of times before.  But yesterday I really looked at it.  I committed its color and peculiarities to memory.  Every day, I review the list of things I’ve become aware of, and add something new.  This sharpens my powers of observation, and makes me feel that I am cherishing my time here and appreciating the things around me, especially the ordinary, everyday things.
Long ago, a speaker at a writer’s conference gave me some good advice. “Walk slowly, walk quietly, look deep,” she said.  Sadly, that sounds almost dated now. These days we’re more like to race, race noisily, and not look down.

Please drop us a comment and tell us your strategies for flexing your memoir muscle.  We’d love to hear from you!

Latest Month

May 2014


RSS Atom
Powered by
Designed by chasethestars