Speak Memory. Oliver Sachs's fascinating long essay in the New York Review of Books is must reading about the nature of memory--of particular interest to those writing life stories or helping others do so. It's about how we remember, misremember, and construct memories -- and borrow from what we read!

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. And when we bring what lies within us out into the world, miracles happen." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

"May our books be read in 2060!"
~ James McGrath Morris, biographer and founder of Biographers International

Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative by Hershel Parker, about which Carl Rollyson wrote: "a fascinating study of biography as a genre and why it has incurred so much hostility."

Things Don't Have To Be Complicated: Illustrated Six-Word Memoirs by Students Making Sense of the World by Larry Smith. "Can you tell the story of your life in six words?" Story on TED blog: The evocative world of the six-world memoir (A Q&A with new TED ebook author Larry Smith.


"People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." ~Maya Angelou

"Everyone tells stories. And all story-tellers are liars--not to be trusted. They have an excessive need to make sense of experience, and so things get twisted and shaped to suit. It need not be deliberate, but it's as well to admit that it happens. We fumble about in the fog, and patterns come to us eerily like distant foghorns over water. We put forward versions of ourselves. And versions of others."
~ Jennie Erdal, from Ghosting: A Double Life

"I am writing biography, not history, and the truth is that the most brilliant exploits often tell us nothing of the virtues or vices of the men who performed them, while on the other hand a chance remark or a joke may reveal far more of a man's character than the mere feat of winning battles in which thousands fall, or of marshalling great armies, or laying siege to cities."
~Plutarch's Lives ( "Alexander," Sec. 7)

This page is undergoing renovation, very, very slowly!


“This is how the past comes to us, not neatly but like a knife, always unexpected. And it comes in fragments. You try to put the pieces together, but you can only understand it if you accept its irretrievable and fragmentary nature.”
~ Azar Nafisi inThings I’ve Been Silent About: Memories

Check out The Life Report,. First of many "fascinating and addictive" life stories sent in response to David Brooks's request on the NY Times Op Ed page (10-27-11): If you are over 70... I’d like you to write a brief report on your life so far, an evaluation of what you did well, of what you did not so well and what you learned along the way." The first life reports were followed by Life Reports II (11-28-11).

In Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, Louise DeSalvo cautions that writing is no substitute for medical care. But, having written about her own pain, anxiety, and depression in Vertigo: A Memoir), DeSalvo recommends writing five pages a week, uncensored, in spare moments, reporting every detail, to speed healing -- and sharing with other empathetic writers, to sharpen narrative. She refers often to James W. Pennebaker's Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, based on his 10 years of clinical research. "Dr. Pennebaker has demonstrated that expressing emotions appears to protect the body against damaging internal stresses and seems to have long-term health benefit," wrote Daniel Goleman, in the NY Times.

"There is an old saying that most men would rather have you hear their story than grant their wish." ~ from opening pages of Marion Roach Smith's The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life

"What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens."
~ Robert McKee, author of Story: Substance, Structure, Style

"Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory."
~ Benjamin Disraeli


"Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book."
~ Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 BC

Glamour's "My Real-Life Story Essay Contest" ($5,000 plus publication in Glamour)


My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History

Order from Amazon.com or from Personal History Press: My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History. Read this Story Circle Network interview by Susan Wittig Albert, about the story behind this entertaining and instructive anthology.



"There are at least three great stories in every family."
~ line from Almost Strangers, a savorable BBC miniseries about a reunion between various branches of an extended family

"Not to transmit an experience is to betray it."
~ Elie Wiesel

"Men tell stories of how they changed the world. Women tell stories of how the world changed them."
~Jill Ker Conway (quoted by Matilda Butler in Women's Memoir Workshop)

"Shields (echoing Alice Marshall) is disappointed in James Frey not because he lied in his book, but because when he appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show he didn’t say: “Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created a person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be.” After all, just because the novel is food for worms doesn’t mean that fiction has ceased. Only an artificial dualism would treat every non-novel as if it were reportage or court testimony, and only a fear of the slipperiness of life could perpetuate the cult of the back story. 'Anything processed by memory is fiction,' as is any memory shaped into literature."
~ Luc Sante, in The Fiction of Memory, a review of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by Charles Shields

"Every time an old person dies, it's like a library burning down."
~ Alex Haley

I came to see that our memories aren't really patchy; they're patchworks, oddly and randomly retrieved bits and scraps that we weave together into something we believe to be a more integrated, seamless fabric than it really is....Do I -- do we -- remember only those scenes that fit neatly into the central narrative in which we're most invested, the one that dovetails most cleanly and neatly with the sense of self that we've chosen or that's been imposed on us by the people around us?

Do we in fact have other, equally interesting life stories that we're unaware of and unable to tell, simply because their building blocks are the memories that fell by the wayside? Possibly. And while those memoirs might undermine the ones we've written, they also might just improve on them.
~ Frank Bruni, Memoirs and Memory (by the author of Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater

"Ms. Karr has described how she sent the manuscript of 'The Liar’s Club' to all the major characters, to fact check her memory, but emphasized that no honest writer — or reader — expected a memoir to reflect anything other than the author’s inevitably slanted view on the truth.
'There’s a kind of recursive loop in memoir, she said.
'Imagination informs memory, and memory informs imagination. People are concerned that the events are fabricated, when what’s most lethal is the slant you put on it.' "
~Jennifer Schuessler, in Frank McCourt and the American Memoir (Week in Review, New York Times, 7-25-09)

"Family and personal history have always figured prominently in [Alice] Munro’s reckonings, but The View from Castle Rock makes some of the sources of her earlier stories much clearer....

"Whether they are the literal truth is beyond irrelevant. The point of storytelling, as Munro practices it, is to rescue the literal facts from banality, from oblivion, and to preserve — to create — some sense of continuity in the hectic ebb and flow of experience. 'We can’t resist this rifling around in the past,' she writes in an epilogue, 'sifting the untrustworthy evidence, linking stray names and questionable dates and anecdotes together, hanging on to threads, insisting on being joined to dead people and therefore to life.' "
~ A.O. Scott, NY Times Book Review

"A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song."
~ Maya Angelou

"Like the wind crying endlessly through the universe, Time carries away the names and the deeds of conquerors and commoners alike. And all that we are, all that remains, is in the memories of those who cared we came this way for a brief moment.
~ Harlan Ellison, in Paladin of the Lost Hour (1985)

How short can a story be and still be effective? Consider Hemingway's offering:
"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

See Smith College's Six-Word Memoirs

"How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!...If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out."
~ Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (Fanny Price speaking?)

"People think that because a novel's invented, it isn't true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they cannot include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that."
~Anthony Powell

“It's surprising how much of memory is built around things unnoticed at the time”
~ Barbara Kingsolver

"I'll be eighty this month. Age, if nothing else, entitles me to set the record straight before I dissolve. I've given my memoirs far more thought than any of my marriages. You can't divorce a book."
~ Gloria Swanson

“A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, because all life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”
~ George Orwell

"Memoirs are the backstairs of history."
~George Meredith

"In the writing of memoirs, as in the production of shows, too much caution causes the audience to nod and think of other channels."
~Gerald Clarke

"When you put down the good things you ought to have done, and leave out the bad ones you did do well, that's Memoirs."
~humorist Will Rogers

“Time and again one sees the young exhilarated and restored by the revelation that someone understands them, feels as they do, has gone through it and survived, can articulate it and give it form.
~Peter Marin and Allan Cohen, Understanding Drug Use

"Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever."
~ Napoleon Bonaparte

"Your firm's history is a secret weapon that's especially useful in hard times....During a recession, customers want assurance that your organization has a strong track record and will be there for them. Employees want that assurance, too. If your firm has lasted a respectable amount of time, no doubt you have survived downturns and emerged stronger. The trick is to tap into that institutional knowledge and share it. Your history is a stranded asset until you put it to work. It's a potent, cost-effective tool for marketing, community relations, and worker morale."
~ Marian Calabro, "History as competitive edge," CorporateHistory.net

“Pain reaches the heart with electrical speed, but truth moves to the heart as slowly as a glacier.”
~ Barbara Kingsolver

"If you don't know history, you don't know anything. You're a leaf that doesn't know it's part of a tree."
~ Michael Crichton, in Timeline

"...social historians themselves are beginning increasingly to discover how much can be learnt about an entire society, a wider historical moment, through following with close attention the trajectory of a single life, a single family, a small group of individuals whose lives, though seemingly unusual, are also in some sense exemplary."
~ Ian Donaldson, in "The Return of Biography"

"Don't start by trying to make the book chronological. Just take a period. Then try to remember it so clearly that you can see things: what colors and how warm or cold and how you got there. Then try to remember people. And then just tell what happened. It is important to tell what people looked like, how they walked, what they wore, what they ate. Put it all in. Don't try to organize it. And put in all the details you can remember. You will find that in a very short time things will begin coming back to you, you thought you had forgotten. Do it for very short periods at first but kind of think of it when you aren't doing it. Don't think back over what you have done. Don't think of literary form. Let it get out as it wants to. Over tell it in the matter of detail — cutting comes later. The form will develop in the telling."
~ John Steinbeck

“The best stories are the ones we're the most thoroughly ashamed of.”
~ William Faulkner

"Anyone who believes you can't change history has never tried to write his memoirs."
~David Ben-Gurion

"Memory revises itself endlessly. We remember a vivid person, a remark, a sight that was unexpected, an occasion on which we felt something profoundly. The rest falls away. We become more exalted in our memories than we actually were, or less so. The interior stories we tell about ourselves rarely agree with the truth. People do it all the time: they destroy papers; they leave instructions in their wills for letters to be burned. In the novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell writes, 'Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.'"
~ Alec Wilkinson, Remember This? in The New Yorker

“They say the loss of your mother will cause you to sing the old songs.”
~Jill Ker Conway, Written by Herself

"The first 25 years of my life are something I would rather forget, but the contrary has taken place. The older I get the more alive those years have become."
~ Harry Bernstein, 96 when his memoir The Invisible Wall was accepted for publication

“Every man has within himself the entire human condition.”
~ Michel de Montaigne

"Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography."
~ Oscar Wilde

“Memories are stories, just waiting to be told.”
~ Marcia Orland, Afterglow Media

"Never doubt that you can change history. You already have."
~ Marge Piercy

"History will be kind to me, because I will write it."
~ Winston Churchill

"Just how difficult it is to write biography can be reckoned by anybody who sits down and considers just how many people know the real truth about his or her love affairs."
~ Rebecca West

"There are two classes of authors; the one writes the history of their times, the other their biography."
~ Thoreau, Journal

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Memoir, biography, and corporate history


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WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A MEMOIR AND AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY (OR MEMOIRS)?

I am often asked, ‘What is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?’ As Marc Pachter, leader of the Washington Biography Group, puts it, an autobiography is a complete life—often but not always moving in a line from birth to fame—which may or may not be the author's inward journey. As Judith Barrington (Writing the Memoir) puts it, "An autobiography is the story of a life: the name implies that the writer will somehow attempt to capture all the essential elements of that life." Publishers increasingly call autobiographies memoirs (plural).

A memoir (singular) is not the larger story of a life (from birth to death), but may be a slice of that life, a window into the life (through the author's lens), the shaping of a single piece of experience, a crystallized version of “I remember.” In the view of William Zinsser, “memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it. The writer of a memoir takes us back to a corner of his or her life that was unusually vivid or intense—childhood, for instance—or that was framed by unique events. By narrowing the lens, the writer achieves a focus that isn’t possible in autobiography.” Or in Barrington's words, memoir "makes no pretense of replicating a whole life. Indeed, one of the important skills of memoir writing is the selection of the theme or themes that will bind the work together."

The nature of the memoir, says Marc Pachter, is to be more outward than inward: “myself among others,” “myself in the world,” “my view of my public self.” You are the frame through which we meet other people. You are saying effectively, “I am a pretty interesting person. These are the lives I’ve intersected with.” Pachter doesn't think it’s about a “corner” of a life only. At the other extreme, says Marc, is the confession—all about one’s internal journey through life. The autobiography is somewhere between the two. “The Life and Letters,” say Marc, is what biography used to be, before a narrative form developed.

"The memoirist explores a subject in order to define a self and a world, shaping life experience into story, into personal myth," writes Susan M. Tiberghien in One Year to the Writing Life. "Jung asked, 'What is your myth--the myth in which you live? What is your world view? How does your life fit into it? In short, what is the meaning of your life? A memoirist recounts a life experience and tries to make meaning out of it. In the contemporary world, there is a need to testify, an urgency to share real-life stories and to learn from one another. It is through memoir--writing memoir and reading memoir--that we discovere our connectedness, our oneness with another, our common humanity. Each time you discover meaning in your life, you contribute to the greater meaning of human life."

In many ways a memoir resembles a piece of fiction, in being a single story, often using techniques from fiction.

Peter Petre, in a symposium on collaboration sponsored by the Authors Guild, said, "It’s one thing to represent something as a memoir, where the rules are somewhat looser, than to say this is going to be a full-blown autobiography that will stand as an historical document and therefore has to meet the rules of history." Gore Vidal makes a similar distinction in Palimpsest: A Memoir: "a memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked."

"A memoir, if you want someone else to be interested, should really be [about] an area of expertise within that life," said Marion Roach Smith in an interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation. Less is expected of the reader of a memoir, which focuses on one of the memoirist's "areas of expertise." It takes someone like Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to write an autobiography. "[She] can write that whole trajectory of [her] life story because I'm willing to run those bases of [her] life with [her]," Roach Smith says [quoting the transcript/​summary].

A confession, says Marc Pachter, is an account of one’s personal, totally inward progression (or regression). An early example: the Confessions of St. Augustine. Here is a quotation from someone who has written a modern version of the confession, Sue William Silverman:

“The lessons learned in memoir aren’t as evident in autobiography. In autobiography the author may no longer be president of the United States or a box-office attraction, yet emotionally, he or she hasn’t necessarily changed—at least on the page. With rare exceptions, autobiography isn’t about exploring the subject’s psyche. Memoir is. Autobiography isn’t about turning a life into art. Memoir is. The autobiographer justifies “mistakes.” The memoirist explores them. The autobiographer focuses on success while the memoirist tries to decipher how or why life events often go wrong. Memoir, therefore, is not a simple narcissistic examination of self—as some critics claim. By employing many of the same techniques as fiction, poetry, and belle lettres, memoir achieves universality.

“Also unlike autobiography, memoir relies almost solely on memory. Memoirists may research old letters, conduct interviews with family members, examine family documents and photographs, but the reliance on one’s subjective perceptions of the past is at the heart of memoir. Whereas autobiography tells the story of “what happened” based on historical facts, memoir examines why it happened, what the story means.” ~ Sue William Silverman, in "The Meandering River: An Overview of the Subgenres of Creative Nonfiction" (which you can read on her website or in her book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir. She is also the author of Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, a memoir of incest.

To write a memoir, she writes in a letter quoted in Brevity's In Defense of Memoir, "is not a simple act of regurgitation or spitting out facts to an 'interesting story' along the lines of 'first this happened to me, then this happened, then this next thing happened.' Of much greater interest, and at the heart of memoir, is the story behind the story, the memoirist’s courageous ability to reflect upon the past, thus artistically recasting his or her experience into one that’s transformative."

Here's an interesting passage from an excellent interview with Patricia Hampl, published in River Teeth: "I think that the reason memoir is a dynamic form today is not because we happen to be a tell-all society...What I think really has given torque to the genre, has made universities suddenly make room for this genre has to do with...this thing called a story, a narrative that has got that 'Then what?' and 'Oh that’s an interesting character.' It’s got all that stuff we connect with fiction, which is then interrupted or connected to a need to talk about the material. The big fiction advice is 'Show, don’t tell,' but this is not what memoirists are embroidering on their pillows and sleeping on. It’s instead 'Show and Tell.' It’s the idea that you can tell unless you can show, but you don’t just show. You have to talk about it. You have to somehow reflect upon it. You have to track or respond to it, this thing that’s happening. And in the intersection of these two things is the excitement we feel about this genre. Too much show and 'Why aren’t you writing fiction?' Too much tell and 'I’m not going to listen to you because you’re boring.' The narration is the thing that lets you do the other." ~ excerpt from “We Were Such a Generation”—Memoir, Truthfulness, and History: An Interview with Patricia Hampl (interviewers Shelle Barton, Sheyene Foster Heller, and Jennifer Henderson), published in River Teeth Spring 2004: 129-142. Click here for an extract.

Because I teach life story writing (My Life: One story at a time, at the Writer's Center in Bethesda), and help people write their memoirs (and organizations write their histories), there is a long section on life story writing on my personal website. Click here or on link above, to Saving lives, one story at a time (APH's motto) to get to that page. Click here to get to one of two pages I've posted on writing ethical wills, or legacy letters — the stories and sentiments you want to leave behind in writing or on audio or video, to tell your survivors about what you have loved, valued, and especially remember about your life and the people in it. Meanwhile, on this page you will find
• The craft of life story writing (articles)
• The art and history of biography
• Memoirs, memoir writing, and autobiography
• Writer's Digest series on memoir writing
• The life story business and market
• Personal histories and legacy memoirs
• Become a personal historian--help others tell their life stories
• Corporate and organizational histories
and corporate storytelling
• Organizations for biographers, memoirists, and other life story writers
• Books to help you get started writing your own (or someone else's) life story
• Books to help lead life story writing or reminiscence groups
• The Self We Tell Ourselves We Are Influences Our Decisions
• U.S. history timelines and oral histories


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The Craft of Life Story Writing

Ask the editor: Constructing the "narrative arc" (Alan Rinzler, The Book Deal)
Audio and audio-visual equipment for interviewing (Writers & Editors links)
Backstory vs Frontstory ( Martha Alderson, Plot Whisperer) "Writers want to cram everything right up front....Not telling everything makes the reader curious....Tell the reader only what they need to know to inform that particular scene...."
Backstory ( Vicki Hinze, Fiction Factor-- ...You add in backstory by dribbles." (for fiction, but principles can apply in memoir writing)
Braiding and Backstory ( Memoir Writer's World)
Beginnings. Matilda Butler's final blog on memoir beginnings that will grab the reader. Includes segments from interviews with various memoir writers. One of a series of blogs on Opening Salvos on Story Circle Network's blog Telling Her Stories: The Broad View.
Biographer's Rules by Jonathan Eig (essay for Powells.com)
Biography Maker (help for students in Bellingham Public Schools)
How to organize research on a heavily researched subject (Jean Strouse, in an interview for bookreporter.com--scroll down for that Q&A)
How to Write About What Troubles You the Most (writing coach Melinda Copp on why not to just bash your idiot ex-husband or wicked witch mother, and other tips for retaining credibility and empathy).
How to write about your life (Penelope Trunk)
How to Write a ‘Lives’ Essay (Hugo Lindgren, The 6th Floor, Eavesdropping on the NY Times Magazine, 3-8-12)
The Implications of plot lines in narrative and memoir. Victoria Costello's essay on storytelling approaches to illness narratives (Nieman StoryBoard 7-11-11). Costello (the author of A Lethal Inheritance: A Mother Uncovers the Science Behind Three Generations of Mental Illness ) writes about illness narrative as an interactive experience, and about three common plotlines: the restitution narrative, the chaos narrative, and the quest narrative.
Killing Them Softly David O. Stewart (10-21-13) on how death scenes in his biographies helped shed light on his subjects.
Loosening Lips: The Art of the Interview (Eric Nalder, Seattle Times
My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History, ed. Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees
Nailing the Essence, or focusing on a detail that captures the essence of a person or relationship (from Sharon Lippincott's blog, The Heart and Craft of Life Writing
Narrative nonfiction (excellent links, with examples)
Opening Salvos blogs about beginnings, on Story Circle Network's blog Telling Her Stories: The Broad View.
Paris Review interviews (a wonderful free archive of interviews with authors; you can also buy the Paris Review anthologies (a great gift for a practicing or aspiring writer)
• Saving documents and files
~Preserving Digital Hostory (the future of our digital past). The basics of preserving our family memories, stories, and mementos.
~Probing Question: Can we save today's documents for tomorrow? (Adam Eshleman, PennState News, 2-9-09). Will today's digital documents be readable in the future?
• Scanning old photos. Find useful info on how to make a digital file of an old photograph here: Scanning Basics 101 (Wayne Fulton's useful site), which includes such pages as Scanning and Printing Resolution Calculator. Scanning old photos properly is essential in a life story that includes photos (don't you love it when there are lots of photos?). Fees for licensing rights to use photos from professional sources can add up, and publishers typically expect authors to cover those costs (so try to negotiate a budget for them in your contract).
Setting Up a Filing System (Dona Munker on a skill/​strategy essential for good biography writing)
Stalking the Elephant (Dona Munker's blog about writing biography and imagining a life). See especially Staying on Track: The Red Thread of the Narrative
The Terkel Rules: Translating from speech to prose. Michael Lenehan's fascinating conversation with Studs Terkel on when and how much it is okay to cut and paste (rearrange) material from an interview to make it seem as if that's the way the interview subject said it.(Chicago Reader, 10-31-08)
Therapists Wired to Write (Sarah Kershaw, NY Times, 6-3-09, on a group of therapists who, together, tackle ambivalence about writing)
This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It) by Benedict Carey (NY Times Science Section 5-22-07
T.J. Stiles on telling good stories and asking big questions (Laurie Hertzel, Nieman Storyboard 1-25-10)
True To How I Am In The World: An Interview With David Shields (Jay Ponteri, Tin House blog, 5-10-10). Shields is author of one of my favorite books, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead
Twelve Ancient Storytelling Elements You Can Use to Attract and Hold Your Readers (Stephen Blake Mettee, Quill Driver Books)
What's the Big Idea? Lucy Knight on the Importance of 'Firsts' (guest entry on Dona Munker's blog, Writing a Biography). Noting the first time your subject did various things is one way to organize a life.
Write Personal Without Hurting Your Relationships (Kim Schworm Acosta, Writer's Digest 11-23-09)


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The nature and malleability of memory (and stories)


How reliable are our memories (how close to the truth)? This blog post) on Writers and Editors includes extracts from the following:

The riddle of experience vs. memory. Daniel Kahneman: (TED talk, February 2010). Using examples from vacations to colonoscopies, Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics, on how our "experiencing selves" and our "remembering selves" perceive things differently. A must-listen TED talk (or read this transcript

Speak Memory. Oliver Sachs's fascinating long essay in the New York Review of Books on the nature of memory--how we remember, misremember, and construct memories -- and borrow from what we read!

• Frank Bruni, Memoirs and Memory (by the author of Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater. "Do we in fact have other, equally interesting life stories that we're unaware of and unable to tell, simply because their building blocks are the memories that fell by the wayside? Possibly. And while those memoirs might undermine the ones we've written, they also might just improve on them. ~ ~

Scott Fraser: Why eyewitnesses get it wrong "All our memories are recreated memories. They are the product of what happened originally and everything that has happened since. The accuracy of our memories is not measured in how vivid they are or in how certain you are that they are correct."

The fiction of memory (Elizabeth Loftus, an expert on false memories, speaking at TEDGlobal 2013. "Many people believe that memory works like recording device,” says Loftus. “But decades of research has shown that’s not the case. Memory is constructed and reconstructed. It’s more like a Wikipedia page — you can go change it, but so can other people.”

Personal Narratives and the Life Story (PDF, Don P. McAdams, Chapter 8 from Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research). You may find PDFs of other interesting academic papers on McAdams' website for The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (that title available from Amazon., among other vendors.)

• Fanny Bryce speaking: "How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!...If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out."
~ Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

• "Memory revises itself endlessly. We remember a vivid person, a remark, a sight that was unexpected, an occasion on which we felt something profoundly. The rest falls away. We become more exalted in our memories than we actually were, or less so. The interior stories we tell about ourselves rarely agree with the truth. People do it all the time: they destroy papers; they leave instructions in their wills for letters to be burned. In the novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell writes, 'Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.'"
~ Alec Wilkinson, Remember This? (The New Yorker, 5-28-07)
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The art, craft, and politics of biography
(including some letters)

‘And So It Goes’: A Portrait of Vonnegut (this Kirkus Q&A with biographer Charles Shields reminds us that getting a subject's casual go-ahead on an authorized biography might not hold up when he dies and his estate doesn't like the project)
A new age for the literary biography, without yesterday's men of action (Arifa Akbar, The Independent, 12-15-12). Among other interesting points: "Where letters have been a vital source for literary biographers, with all their ostentatious revelation and pronouncement, the smaller, casual intimacies of emails, which are increasingly being donated to public archives – Harold Pinter's and Wendy Cope's to the British Library – will offer insights that might, accidentally, be even more enlightening than a stash of letters can be."
The Art of Biography. How do you pin a life to the page? Listen to Ray Monk, biographer of Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein, Richard Holmes, biographer of Shelley and Coleridge, A.N. Wilson, biographer of Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis and Dante, and Andrew Graham-Dixon, biographer of Caravaggio and Michelangelo, discuss their techniques and obsessions in discussion moderated by Peter Godwin (Jaipur Literature Festival, 2014)
Biographile (Random House's online site for news about biography and memoirs and their authors and subjects).
On the same topic, but from another sdlant:
Examined Lives by Phyllis Rose (American Scholar, Autumn 2013). A mystery exists at the heart of all literary biography: How does the mush of experience get turned into glittering artifact?
Biographer Explores Character, Pathology, and Achievement (Mark Moran, Psychiatry News, 1-4-13) Biographer Joshua Kendall explores the interplay between character—and character pathology—and achievement. “Biographers are tempted to either slime their subjects or idealize them,” Kendall said. “But people are so much more complex.”
Challenges to Biography (Biography Network, Arts & Humanities Council Research Center, UK). Explore this website and you'll find audio recordings of many interesting academic talks and some transcripts.)
For Unauthorized Biographers, the World Is Very Hostile (Janny Scott, NY Times, 10-6-96) " These may be boom years in the biography business, but the economics of publishing and popular tastes have put pressure on writers to select living subjects instead of the kind one biographer calls ''nice and dead.'; The problem is that the living ones tend to say no."
The art of biography is alive and well (Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian, 2-15-13). "Five years ago, after the appearance of several lacklustre lives, it seemed the biography was dying. But thanks to a number of striking innovations, the patient has made a complete recovery." In contrast, read this report from 2008: The death of life writing (Hughes, The Guardian, 6-27-08) Celebrity memoirs, breathless lives of 18th-century socialites and countless royal mistresses - whatever happened to the golden age of biography? And what is the future for a genre in which the best subjects have already been written about, time and again, asks Hughes
Should traditional biography be buried alongside Shakespeare's breakfast? (Alison Flood, The Guardian, 2-7-13). When you can get so much from Wikipedia, is the market for biography declining? Kathryn Holeywell, organizer of a British conference of writers and academics on how biography should evolve in the age of the internet and Wikipedia, "believes there has been a shift in biography away from traditional 'life' narratives to what she is calling 'partial lives,' stories that look at a group, a particular event or an age. In recent years, the UK's major non-fiction prize, the Samuel Johnson award, has gone to a range of innovative, sideways takes on biography rather than cradle-to-grave narratives."
The Art of Biography (Paris Review Interviews). You can read several of these online:
---Leon Edel, The Art of Biography No. 1 (interviewed by Jeanne McCullough, Winter 1985 issue)
---David McCullough, The Art of Biography No. 2 (interviewed by Elizabeth Gaffney and Benjamin Ryder Howe, Fall 1999 issue).
---Michael Holroyd, The Art of Biography No. 3 (interviewed by Lisa Cohen, summer 2013)
---Hermione Lee, The Art of Biography No. 4 (interviewed by Louisa Thomas, summer 2013)
A boxed set of four volumes of these wonderful interviews is now available: The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1-4. Q&As with Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Kurt Vonnegut, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Price, Joan Didion, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Philip Larkin, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Stephen King, Robert Lowell, Ralph Ellison, Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Maya Angelou, Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster, Marilynne Robinson, and more.
The Art of Biography (Mahala Yates Stripling's six-part series, first published in The Independent Scholar (Summer 2007--Fall 2009), describing her work-in-progress, The Surgeon Storyteller, a literary biography of Richard Selzer.
The Art of Biography (Peter J. Conradi, FT, 8-10-12)
The Art of the Obituary (listen to Walter Cronkite, on NPR)
The Biographer’s New Best Friend: digitized newspapers, especially for earlier periods (Stephen Mihm, Gray Matter, NY Times Sunday Review 9-10-11). "Several campaigns to digitize newspapers — Readex’s “American Historical Newspapers,” available by subscription at research universities, or the free “Chronicling America” collection available at the Library of Congress — have the potential to revolutionize biographical research. Newspapers are often described as the “first draft of history,” and thanks to these new tools, biographers can tap them in ways that an earlier generation of scholars could only have dreamed of."
The Biographer’s Dilemma (Joe Nocera, NY Times Op Ed, 10-24-11). In Nocera's view, Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, written about a difficult man who was dying in his presence, lacks the distance that would have given him a chance not just to recount the life but to evaluate it. Given the perspective of more time, someone else (or Isaacson later) can try to "make sense of it."
Biographers' Rules (Jonathan Eig, author of Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, for the great online bookstore Powell's Books
BIO's Compleat Biographer Conference, reports from and on:
---The Power of Place: Robert Caro on setting (Andrea Pitzer, Nieman Storyboard, 5-24-11, on the keynote speech at the 2nd annual congress, 2011 at the National Press Club in DC)
---Agent Janet Reid reporting on "Dealing With Black Holes in Your Subject's Life" (5-21-11)
---Jean Strouse's talk about biography, Kitty Kelley's comments on permissions, and other talks and panel presentations (on YouTube video) at the first Biographies International conference, March 2010.
---KC's Corner on the 2011 conference (including what goes on in the hallways)
Biography: A Brief History--Whose Life Is It?-Scott Stossel's NYT book review of Nigel Hamilton's book (Biography: A Brief History)explores the history and nature of biography
The Biography Channel (Biography.com) (true stories, video and TV-style)
The Biography Maker, a Bellingham Public Schools site
Biography, the Bastard Child of Academe by Steve Weinberg, (Chronicle Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5-9-08 -- requires subscription)
Ken Burns on the Power of History and Creativity (brief video)
Celebrity Memoirs Are Awful. Here Are 4 Ways to Fix Them (Phil Edwards, Huff Post, 3-14-14)
Chernow's speech on receiving BIO award (AP, Washington Post, 5-19-13). "Chernow spoke about some of his most famous subjects, from John D. Rockefeller to George Washington, and how their public reputations often concealed a far more interesting private person....Chernow’s advice: Prepare to change your mind."
A Conversation Among Legal Biographers (Focus on Law Studies, Spring 2008), about writing biographies of eight legal figures, including several Supreme Court justices and pioneering woman lawyer Belva Lockwood)

Dealing with black holes in your research (Dona Munker's write-up 6-19-13 of a session at 2013 Compleat Biographer conference, with panelists Anne C. Heller, Neil Baldwin, Deirdre Bair, and Carol Sklenicka)
Dipity (lets you create timelines that you can share with the world)
The Dual Lives of the Biographer (Stacy Schiff, Draft, Opinionator, NY Times, 11-24-12). "In one realm you’re moving forward in ignorance. In the other you’re moving backward with something resembling omniscience. What manifests as suspense on the page feels disconcertingly like anxiety in real life."
Ephemera, Run: Why authors' archives—like Updike’s—just aren’t that useful (Ruth Franklin, The READ, New Republic, 6-30-10)
Executors or Executioners? (Joseph Thomas, Slate, 10-11-13). Why can’t my biography of Shel Silverstein quote the works of Shel Silverstein? His censorious estate.
The Final Possession? by biographer Clare Mulley (author of The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville, on History Girls, 8-18-13). "As a historical biographer, I aim to capture the spirit of people on paper. And yet my latest subject, Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, has taught me to respect her freedom too..."
Five Tips on How to Write Biographies (Paul Beckett, Wall Street Journal, 1-22-12)
For Biographers, Leaving Subjects Behind Is Hard (Robert K. Massie, Parting Words essay, NY Times 3-2-2012)
Frank Brady discusses the complex life of Bobby Fischer (Joe Roberts, Other People's Business, 3-16-11) Can we separate the genius of Bobby Fischer and the contributions he made to the world of chess from the Bobby Fischer who praised Mein Kampf and lived out a very troubled existence of his own design?
Marcia Ann Gillespie on writing Maya Angelou's biography
Getting organized (1. We bring order to chaos, part 1 of 2 entries on setting up an online filing system to store primary research findings -- Dona Munker, on her blog Stalking the Elephant: Writing biography and imagining a life)
~2. An easy path to your files
~3. Writer-friendly software
~4: Locking in those thrilling discoveries

A Historian's Code by Richard W. Stewart
James McGrath Morris (Randy Dotinga's interview for ASJA Monthly). Jamie's practical observations about writing biography, such as what's hot, how to make money, what he thinks about academic publishers and self-publishing, etc.
How to organize research on a heavily researched subject (Jean Strouse, in an interview for bookreporter.com--scroll down for that Q&A)
Internet resources for biographers (Barbara McManus, Women Writing Women's Lives)
In the Footsteps of Giants (Michael McDonald interviews biographer Michael Scammell about the peculiar challenges and delights of his craft, Wilson Quarterly Autumn 2011)
J.D. Salinger's Private Letters (Ruth Franklin, The READ, New Republic, 4-21-10)
Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography by Ian Hamilton. Although many writers leave instructions regarding posthumous publication and designate official biographers, conflicting interests between heirs and the public often overturn the expressed wishes of the deceased, writes Hamilton. Estates that Hamilton looks into include those of John Donne the Younger, Shakespeare, Marvell, Milton, Pope, Boswell, Robert Burns, Byron, Dickens, Tennyson, Swinburne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Hardy, Kipling, Joyce, Eliot, and Sylvia Plath.
Leonard Bernstein Asked About Hemingway, So Martha Gellhorn Set the Record Straight (letters between Leonard Bernstein and Martha Gellhorn, The Daily Beast 10-27-13--from The Leonard Bernstein Letters). Bernstein: "I met Ernest Hemingway at Sun Valley last week, and was taken totally by surprise. God, what goes on there under his eyes? What’s that lovely adolescent tenderness?" Gellhorn: "Tenderness is a new quality in him; but people do luckily change all their lives and the luckiest ones get better as they grow older."
Lives of Others (a review of Shoot the Widow Meryle Secreste's book about a career in biography, and an interesting discussion of the biography business), by Louis Menand, in The New Yorker, 8-6-07
The man behind the great Dickens and Dostoevsky hoax (Stephen Moss, The Guardian, 7-10-13). When writer AD Harvey invented an 1862 meeting between Dickens and Dostoevsky, it was for years accepted as fact. So why did he do it – and why did he also create a series of fake academic identities? Fascinating profile of a man whose speed at finishing his dissertation and publishing a book made him suspect in academia.
The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Sarah Churchwell. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Steve Weinberg (author of Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller) recommends that students of biography read Churchill's book about Monroe. "Churchwell compares every biography ever written of the dead actress. She shows persuasively, and with flair, that not every biography of Monroe can be true in all the details, because they contradict each other profoundly. Her book will burn into students' minds the lesson that biographical truth should never be taken for granted." See also Marilyn Monroe through the eyes of her business partner and friend Milton H. Greene (James Nye, Daily Mail, 7-11-13, illustrated with photos). Fashion and celebrity photographer Milton H. Greene was only 26 years old when he photographed Marilyn Monroe for Look magazine. He went on to take thousands of photos of the Hollywood siren, capturing both her vulnerability and her sex-bomb persona. His incredible collection of negatives are going up for auction
Mary Gordon's "circular biography" -- Rachel Hartigan Shea's review of Circling My Mother (Book World 8-14-07)
Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative by Hershel Parker. Carl Rollyson wrote: "a fascinating study of biography as a genre and why it has incurred so much hostility." Paul Maher wrote: "This book stands as a stoic testament to a field of research flamed solely by zeal and Spartan tenacity. Parker's process arrives to the truth of the matter in a field littered with the rambling surmises of New Critics hoping to eradicate authorial insight in favor of critical skewerings. Parker not only stands for the tried and true ways of literary tradition, but also embraces the potential of the Internet and blogging to enable the potential of new information as well as finding new ways to reach an audience that continues to expand generation after generation."
• Menand, Louis. Excellent New Yorker essay, The Historical Romance: Edmund Wilson's Adventures with Communism ( 3-24-03), in which Menand writes: "Intuitive knowledge—the sense of what life was like when we were not there to experience it—is precisely the knowledge we seek. It is the true positive of historical work."
How a biography’s timing influences its content (Joe Roberts, Other People's Business, 4-4-11)
Oh, He’s Just a Biographer *Bradley J. Birzer, The Imaginative Conservative, 5-3-13). "As a graduate student, I found–much to my surprise–that few professional historians viewed biography as anything other than a way of selling out to popular desires and public appetites. Biography, it seems, carried about as much weight in the scholarly world as did a People magazine article."
Joyce Carol Oates (FORA.tv video of her speaking at Book Passage about her novel The Gravedigger's Daughter, much of which is based on her grandmother, Blanche Morningstar.) "The Irish break your heart," she says. She learned a lot about her grandmother through her biographer's research. She would never have learned it herself, she says; you don't think about investigating your grandmother.
On Writing Biography. Ian Ker (Oxford University Press blog, 7-1-11) on writing academic critical biographies -- which capture the subject's intellectual and literary lives:
---G. K. Chesterton: A Biography
---John Henry Newman: A Biography
On Biography and Malpractice. Dwight Garner, reviewing T.J. Stiles accusing Edward J. Renehan Jr. of biographical malpractice (NY Times Arts Beat 12-4-09). Stiles had just published The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
Online timeline of the lives of H.A. and Margret Rey, authors of the Curious George books, from birth through life in and escape from Paris, made interactive by moving avatar of them on bicycle (Jewish Museum, NYC)
On Memoir, Truth and 'Writing Well', NPR interview with William Zinsser and excerpt about memoir writing from his book On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
Portrait of Hemingway by Lillian Ross. Ross wrote this now-classic fly-on-the-wall "profile" after following Hemingway for two days while he and his wife Mary were stopping over in New York enroute to Venice. It was a model others, including Gay Talese, would follow.
Paris Review interviews (a wonderful free archive of interviews with authors; you can also buy the Paris Review anthologies (a great gift for a practicing or aspiring writer)
The power of place: Robert Caro on setting in biography (Andrea Pitzer, Nieman Storyboard, 5-24-11, reporting on the keynote talk at the 2nd annual Compleat Biographer Conference in DC, 5-21-11). Using East Texas and Capitol Hill as examples, Caro explains how important setting was to understanding and conveying Lyndon B. Johnson's life.
The Quandary for Biographers: Get Up Close, but How Personal? (Leslie Kaufman, NY Times Books, 11-13-12). "When Doris Kearns Goodwin was still young and unknown and writing her biography of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, she stayed at his Texas ranch....Walter Isaacson was at Steve Jobs’s bedside as Mr. Jobs was dying of cancer... Contemporary biography has always been a tricky balancing act, even before Paula Broadwell demonstrated with her book about David H. Petraeus how the scales can tip decisively the wrong way." The perils of writing an authorized biography.
Sixty Minutes interview with Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs' biographer (posted on Joe Roberts' blog, Other People's Business)
Staying on Track: The Red Thread of the Narrative (Dona Munker's blog, Writing a Biography). Plus Some Writing Advice to Myself
Robert Caro’s Big Dig (Charles McGrath, NY Times Magazine, 4-12-12). "Caro is the last of the 19th-century biographers, the kind who believe that the life of a great or powerful man deserves not just a slim volume, or even a fat one, but a whole shelf full. " He has been working on LBJ's life story for forty years. Look at the slideshow of Caro's painstaking process, especially slides 7 through 11.
Telling Lives (Guardian, UK 1-29-05). Lyndall Gordon anticipates a new 'golden age' of biography: "If biography is ever to shape an art of its own, it will have to surrender the swollen tome of "definitive biography" ...We need to co-opt the narrative momentum of stories, the inward intensity of poetry, and the speed of drama, without surrendering the authenticity that is biography's distinct advantage."
Ten Tips for Writing Biography (film biographer Beverly Gray, on Stalking the Elephant, Dona Munker's blog about Writing Biography)
Tipped Off (Megan Marshall, Opinionator, NY Times, 3-23-13). What happens when a biographer learns about potentially explosive information after the book is finished.
The Trouble with Biographies(Richard Prouty, One-Way Street)
Unauthorized, But Not Untrue by Kitty Kelley (The American Scholar.org, Winter 2011). "The real story of a biographer in a celebrity culture of public denials, media timidity, and legal threats."
Untied Threads: Henry Cowell and San Quentin Prison (Joel Sachs, Oxford University Press blog, 7-11-13). Unidentified key players are the bane of biographers, who cannot resist the urge to tie all the knots. After publication, Sachs receives information about one such player from a reader fluent in genealogical research--and also learns he should have gone down one peripheral path of research he had chosen not to pursue.
Updike on Literary Biography (John Updike, NY Times). First chapter, excerpted from Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism
U.S. government secrecy making historical research difficult (James McGrath Morris, Aljazeera America, 10-23-13). By redacting all documents, no matter how benign, the government is throwing its past down the memory hole.
What We Can Learn from a Biography of Helen Keller's Teacher (Kim E. Nielsen, HNN, on Anne Sullivan Macy)
Why readers love big biographies (Scott Porch, Salon, 10-27-13) It's aspirational. Says one publisher, we hope "there’s something about genius [...] that can rub off"
Writing biography in the age of Wikipedia – removing a shadow from the life of Justice Tom Clark (Alex Wohl, SCOTUSblog, blog of the U.S. Supreme Court, 9-23-13). What he did about a controversial quotation that left an unwarranted blot on the life and legacy of Justice Clark.)
Writing Lives: Biography and Textuality, Identity and Representation in Early Modern England by Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker. (In earlier days, biographies were created a variety of forms and with different purposes from today: to edify and instruct, to counsel and polemicize.)
The Year of Saying "Yes" (Barbara Babcock on writing and selling a biography of a little-down figure, Legal History Blog, 1-4-12). Her book, Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz, is about the first woman admitted to the California Bar.

What's she really like
With each biography the challenge has been to answer the question John F. Kennedy posed when he said, "What makes journalism so fascinating and biography so interesting is the struggle to answer the question: 'What's he like?'" In writing about contemporary figures, I've found the unauthorized biography avoids the pureed truths of revisionist history — the pitfall of authorized biography. Without having to follow the dictates of the subject, the unauthorized biographer has a much better chance to penetrate the manufactured public image, which is crucial. For, to quote President Kennedy again, "The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive and unrealistic." Excerpt from the foreword to Oprah: A Biography by Kitty Kelley. See fuller excerpt with Karen Grigsby Bates' story on NPR about the book: Oprah the Icon Gets the Kitty Kelley Treatment

[Go Top]

Memoirs, memoir writing, and autobiography


Affirmation of a Father's Love, Etched in Vinyl (Walter Mosley, Home & Garden, NY Times 11-2-11)
All About Me? Memoir Week at Slate (many interesting pieces about memoirs, memoirists, and memoir writing)
Almost Famous: The rise of the "nobody" memoir by Lorraine Adams (Washington Monthly, April 2002). By "nobodies" Adams means those who are neither generals, statesmen, nor celebrities. Frank McCourt and Mary Karr were the breakout nobodies who spawned many imitators. Adams sees 2002's memoirs as falling into three groups: the childhood memoir ("incestuous, abusive, alcoholic, impoverished, minority, "normal," and the occasional privileged"); the memoir of physical catastrophe ("violence, quadriplegia, amputation, disease, death"); and memoirs of mental catastrophe ("madness, addiction, alcoholism, anorexia, brain damage").
Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg. "Annie's Ghosts is perhaps the most honest, and one of the most remarkable books I have ever read. It is an exploration into a family's past, a relentless hunt that unearths buried secrets with multiple layers and the uncertain motives of their keepers, and one son's attempt to fully understand the details and meaning of what has been hidden . . . From mental institutions to the Holocaust, from mothers and fathers to children and childhood, with its mysteries, sadness and joy--this book is one emotional ride." ~~ Bob Woodward, author of The War Within and State of Denial
An oral history of myself (on Stephen Elliott's blog, in seven parts), an interesting way to do memoir!
The Art of Memoir No. 1 (Mary Karr, interviewed by Amanda Fortini)
Ask the editor: 6 steps to writing a memoir (Alan Rinzler, Book Deal)

Beginnings. Matilda Butler's blog on memoir beginnings that will grab the reader, with links to interviews on the topic with Sue William Silverman, Linda Joy Myers, Hope Edelman, Jessica Bram, Betty Auchard,Mary Gordon Spence, Maralys Wills, Kim Pearson, Becky Levine, Joyce Boatright. (Just listening to these interviews may be a memoir-writing course in itself.) Beginnings is one of a series of blogs on Opening Salvos on Story Circle Network's blog Telling Her Stories: The Broad View.
The Beneficial Effects of Life Story and Legacy Activities by Pat McNees (Journal of Geriatric Care Management, Spring 2009, online text) or as PDF file (61.9KB)
Beth Kephart on Writing Memoir, interviewed by Andy Ross, on Ask the Agent: Night Thoughts About Books and Publishing. Check out Kephart's book Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir "I think we have to stop imprisoning memoirs in marketing categories. The minute we start to think that we are writing an illness memoir, say, or a grief memoir, is the minute that we’ve lost sight of the bigger possibilities of the personal story. It’s never just about what happened. It’s about what it meant."

Burning Your Diaries (Dominique Browning, First Person, NY Times 9-30-11). Wince-inducing but maybe it's easier if you've incorporated parts of them into your memoirs.
But Enough About Me What does the popularity of memoirs tell us about ourselves? Daniel Mendelsohn's review of Ben Yagoda's Memoir: A History (New Yorker,1-25-2010)
Caroline Kettlewell on the difference between memoir and personal essay ( from her narrative nonfiction blog)
Comics as Literature, Part 2: Memorable Memoirs (Jonathan H. Liu, Wired, 5-8-12). He writes of Harvey Pekar (American Splendor and Our Cancer Year), David B. (Epileptic), Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis and Persepolis 2), Parsua Bashi’s Nylon Road, Craig Thompson (Blankets), Alison Bechdel (Fun Home), David Small (Stitches).
Coming-of-age memoirs (a recommended-reading list)

Compelling Stories, if Not Literature (Abigail Zuger, MD, NYTimes, on the nature, benefits, uses, limits, and appeal of personal health-or illness-related memoirs, including tales of survival)
Confessing for Voyeurs;The Age of The Literary Memoir Is Now (James Atlas, NY Times Magazine 5-12-96)
Decades Later, Revisiting a Death in the Family Christopher Kelly, Texas Monthly, reprinted in Wash Post, 6-8-13). The story behind David Berg's memoir, Run, Brother, Run: A Memoir of a Murder in My Family.
Do memoirs have to be so unhappy? (Sophie Roell, The Browser, via Salon.com, 1-14-13). Legendary critic and memoirist Calvin Trillin discusses his favorite books of the genre. He writes that memoir is "a form that’s existed for a long time. What may be different about a lot of the recent memoirs is the writers are not necessarily well known. Mary Karr is a poet and poets in the United States, you don’t even have to say they are not well known because there aren’t any well-known poets. So I think that’s one difference between a memoir and an autobiography – the person doesn’t have to be a household name to write a memoir. Maybe Mary Karr’s book started that – the idea of somebody just having an interesting story." Trillin also suggests that memoirs tend to be short, and many autobiographies are "huge doorstops."
Don’t Drown in Anonymity, Kendra Bonnett, on noncelebrities marketing locally (guest blog on Straight from Hel)
Emigrants [i.e. Immigrants] Landing at Ellis Island, 1903 (video only, no sound, one of many wonderful items available free on the World Digital Library)
Evoking My Days With JFK Jr. (Christina Haag, WSJ 1-14-12). "The real question for me as a writer was not so much how to remember but what to leave out. I once heard writing fiction described as planting a garden in the desert, and memoir as weeding in the jungle. What I experienced was more akin to chiseling, as if all that had happened was stone, and I had only faith and a small bit of metal to find the shape, to tap out the places where meaning might lie." She goes on to say, "I found that memory was like a muscle: The deeper I went, the stronger it became. Invariably, to jot things down, I learned to carry a pen and index card with me wherever I went—even on beach walks clad only in a bikini."
Face to Facebook with the past (Erika Schickel, L.A. Times, 4-25-09, on people from our past banging on our cyberdoors, looking to set us straight on our memories). "For those who write memoirs, memory is not a mere recollection of facts; it is a ragbag we pick through, salvaging scraps to craft into literature. We take half-remembered events and stitch them together to form a larger story that will, we hope, resonate with others and help them make sense of their own scraps."
Falsehoods or False Memories: Where’s Charlie?, afterword to the Kindle edition of Chaplin: A Life
First Person Arts, a Philadelphia nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming the drama of real life into memoir and documentary art (holds an annual festival)
First Person Singular: It’s not just about you by Adam Hochschild. "Many memoirs don’t work because the things that most of us tend to celebrate about ourselves are less interesting than those things that hold readers’ attention....A first thing to ask yourself about personal narrative is: What portion of my experience will resonate with other people?"
Five Things I’ve Learned About Memoir Writing (Meghan Ward, 6-13-12)
Frank McCourt and the American Memoir (Jennifer Schuessler, NY Times Week in Review, 7-25-09)

The Fry Chronicles. Stephen Fry (twitter address: @​StephenFry), as Fast Company puts it, transforms how we read by producing the first book truly designed for the Internet (his memoirs).
Getting Personal: An estate plan should include should include stocks, bonds —— and a life story (Ed McCarthy, Wealth Manager, May 2007)
A Ghostwriter Who Struggled to Accept Life in the Shadows. Stephen Miller (WSJ 7-29-09) on Sanford Dody, ghostwriter of many celebrity memoirs. Sanford Dody's own memoir of ghostwriting: Giving Up the Ghost (1980).
Guided Autobiography (or GAB. James Birrens' brainchild: structured memoir writing, two pages at a time). You can get instructor training through Cheryl Svensson (I did it when she and Anita Reyes taught together, and it was great fun). See A Guided Tour of the Past (Paula Span, NY Times, 7-18-11).
Laurie Hertzel on writing her memoir of a life in journalism, News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist (Nieman Storyboard)
History used to be the study of great men. Now it's of Everyman. Tristram Hunt, The Observer, 11-21-10). "The quest for identity and empathy has taken over: explanation has become less desirable; understanding has assumed centre-stage." (Check out the comments.)

How Memoirists Mold the Truth (André Aciman, Opinionator, NY Times, 4-6-13). Excellent essay. "...what happens to the past after the writing process is done with it, after all our epiphanies have cast their radiance?. . . Writing not only plays fast and loose with the past; it hijacks the past. Which may be why we put the past to paper. We want it hijacked.
How memoirs took over the literary world (Laura Miller, Salon.com, reviewing Ben Yagoda's Memoir: A History)
How to Write a Memoir: Be yourself, speak freely, and think small, writes William Zinsser (American Scholar, Spring 2006)
How to Write Your Memoir (Joe Kita, Reader's Digest, January 2009), an excellent piece

In memoirs, varieties of truth (William Loizeaux, Christian Science Monitor, 2-8-06)
Is There a Real You? (video of TED talk by Julian Baggini, Manchester, Nov 2011, 12+ minutes)
Journal to the Self: Open the Door to Self-Understanding by Writing, Reading, and Creating a Journal of Your Life by Kathleen (Kay) Adams -- "a classic that has helped define the field of journal therapy. See her website: Center for Journal Therapy.
Kill Your Darlings: Is writing a memoir like murdering your family? (Marco Roth, New Republic, 2-19-13, writing about Alexander Stille's book The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peace, the story of his parents' "immediate attraction and tumultuous marriage...part of a much larger story: the mass migration of Jews from fascist-dominated Europe in the 1930s and 1940s"). See excerpt, "The Body Under the Rug," which ran in the NY Times 2-9-13.



The Liar's Club (Mary Karr, Slate, 3-17-07). "How I told my friends I was writing about my childhood—and what they said in return." See also: Mary Karr on truth: “the least of my problems as a memoirist, as a writer, is getting my facts right” (Mary Karr at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, 2010, as posted on Nieman Storyboard)
Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir No. 1 (Paris Review, Winter 2009, interviewed by Amanda Fortini).
Lessons from Woody Allen (Matilda Butler, Women's Memoirs, 9-4-12)
Lessons from Woody Allen (Matilda Butler, Women's Memoirs, 9-4-12)
• Phillip Lopate. Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story (The Fourth Genre, Spring 2005). "In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self."
Make History: The 9/​11 Museum (add your story to the collective telling of the events of September 11). Here's Steve Rosenbaum, with I've Got My 9/​11 Story. What's Yours? (his account of the filmed records he collected and donated)

Memoir (and) (prose, poetry, essay, graphics, lies, and more -- a literary journal with "short but terrific memoirs")
Memoir: A History by Ben Yagoda (Jonathan Yardley's Washington Post review). An interesting read.
Memoir Journal (prose, poetry, photography and more). Proceeds from the sale of an anthology I Speak From My Palms: The (In)Visible Memoirs Project Anthology help support the (In)Visible Memoirs Project, a project of no-cost, community-based writing workshops in communities underrepresented in literary publishing and programs.

'Memoir Project' Gives Tips For Telling Your Story. "Start your memoir with a relatable story." Listen to NPR interview with memoirist and memoir writing instructor Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life.
Memoir: Real-Life Characters and the Who Cares? Question (program on SheWrites, BlogTalkRadio 6-21-11). "The greatest challenge for a memoirist: to create work that’s meaningful to others. How can we achieve both uniqueness and universality? Another challenge: dealing with characters who really exist. How can we maintain our real-life relationships without compromising the stories we need to tell? Are family loyalty and literary integrity necessarily at odds? Memoirists Sarah Saffian, Alexandra Styron, and Kathryn Harrison discuss these issues, in pursuit of a form of expression that we can support as both authors and daughters."
Memoirs and Memory By Frank Bruni, author of Born Round: A Story of Family, Food and a Ferocious Appetite (Huffpost 9-16-09). "Time and again over this last year and a half, as I finished the book and then fielded relatives' and friends' reactions to it, I confronted the spottiness of memory, but not the spottiness I had expected to confront. What was missing and forgotten was less often crucial or even trivial details of events than the events themselves, gone in their entirety."
Memoirs of illness, crisis, differentness, and survival (a reading list)
Memoirs transcend personal experience (Beth Kephart, Printers Row, Chicago Tribune, 11-21-13) 'I believe that the best of memoir, so often (but not always) written with an "I" is, in truth, about the "we." I believe our very finest memoirists are philosophers, risk takers, sentence forgers, structural innovators, language shapers. They alert us, calm us, reach toward us. They say implicitly, Yes, I have hoped, and yes, I have wanted, and I know that you have, too.'
Memoir’s truthy obligations: a handy how-to guide (Ben Yagoda and Dan DeLorenzo, Nieman Storyboard 7-28-11)
Memoir Writing (Kate Zentall, Los Angeles Editors & Writers Group)
Memory Miner (John Fox's digital storytelling software lets you discover threads connecting people's lives across time and place through photos annotated as to people, place, and time)
The Me My Child Mustn't Know by Dani Shapiro (NY Times 7-14-11). Can a memoirist write with total honesty if she is worried about what her son might think? (The book Shapiro doesn't want her son to hear her read from is Slow Motion: A Memoir of a Life Rescued by Tragedy)

Me, myself and I: How easy is it to write confessional poetry? (Christina Patterson, The Independent, 1-23-13). Sharon Olds' account of her marital break-up made her a deserved TS Eliot winner. But that doesn't mean confessional poetry is easy to pull off. Confessional poetry, says critic Mack Rosenthal, is poetry that "goes beyond customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment."

Me, the overly sensitive child (Anne Lamott, Salon, 10-28-13) My family thought I was nuts for being so openhearted. But compassion is wildly rewarding, if you learn to survive (adapted from her exploration of how we can make sense of life’s chaos: Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair)

Memoirs about grieving and loss:
Why We Write About Grief (Joyce Carol Oates and Meghan O'Rourke, NY Times, 2-26-11)
Janet Maslin vs. Joyce Carol Oates's "Widow's Story" (Deb Weinstein, Spatwatch, Atlantic Wire, 2-14-11). See also The Shock of Losing a Spouse (Janet Maslin, NY times, 2-13-11). Or how not to write a grief memoir, in her view.
Should Joyce Carol Oates have revealed her second marriage? Tempest in a teapot? (David L. Ulin, Jacket Copy blog, L.A. Times, 3-15-11)
Grief, the Cruel and Fickle Muse (Bill Morris, The Millions, 3-8-11). "I decided to look at three literary couples in which one partner died unexpectedly and the other lived to tell about the experience and its aftermath. Two of the writers withheld important facts and wound up producing inferior books; the writer who held nothing back produced a masterpiece." Why Joan Didion's book is the masterpiece, and why Joyce Carol Oates and Leonard Woolf's memoirs did not satisfy. Joan Didion "understands that if you want to write about yourself, you have to give them something. Actually, Didion understands a far larger and deeper and darker truth. She understands that if you want to write about your grief, you have to give them everything."
Mememoirs of bereavement, grief, and recovery and other books that offer comfort or understanding (Dying, Surviving, and Aging with Grace)

Narrative Gold (in the Memoir Swamp) Talking to Seattle’s Elissa Washuta, who provides a great reading/​listening list for memoirs on audio

Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness by Rita Charon. See also Narrative Medicine (on LitSite Alaska).

Non-Commercial Memoirs (literary agent Janet Reid guest-posting on Bibliobuffet), with follow-up comments on Reid's blog
Not Quite What I Was Planning, NPR's delightful slideshow of images and text from the book Not Quite What I Was Planning:Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, edited by Rachel Fershleisher and Larry Smith, based on the six-word memoirs of the storytelling magazine Smith.


One Family, Three Memoirs, Many Competing Truths. Lynn Neary's interview (and article) on Morning Edition (NPR) about one family's experiences as remembered by first Augusten Burroughs in Running with Scissors: A Memoir (viewpoint: Mother was crazy and neglected us and our childhood was nuts); then by sibling John Elder Robison in Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's and more recently Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers (you too can rise above a bad start in life); and now by their mother, Margaret Robison, in The Long Journey Home: A Memoir, writing honestly about her difficult life and "hard-earned journey to sanity." Absolutely perfect example of how truth in memoir writing is unique to the memoir writer and not a precise goal that can be shared by others involved in the same life.

On Memoir, Truth and 'Writing Well', NPR interview with William Zinsser and excerpt about memoir writing from his book On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

Peace Corps memoirs:
Peace Corps Memoirs Not All They're Cracked Up to Be (Paula J. Stiles, Yahoo! Voices)
Peace Corps Worldwide (where returned Volunteers share their expertise and experiences). See also Peace Corps Writers
BOOK-LENGTH PEACE CORPS MEMOIRS
Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle by Moritz Thomsen
The Village of Waiting by George Packer
Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village by Sarah Erdman
Mango Elephants in the Sun: How Life in an African Village Let Me Be in My Skin by Susana Herrera
The Ponds of Kalambayi by Mike Tidwell

Philip Roth Goes Home Again. Scott Raab's article for Esquire, based on an interview with the novelist in the town that provided the setting for so much of his fiction, is a Notable Narrative, as featured on Nieman Storyboard: Esquire goes home with Philip Roth (5-27-11)

Plot Twist: Philip Carlo, true crime writer with Lou Gehrig's disease, is working on his memoir. His deadline: his own death.

The Power of a Family Secret (Ruth Zaryski Jackson, guest blogging on Allyson Latta's memoir writing site). On her own site see also A Family Secret (Memoir Writer's World) and More on Family Secrets

The Power of Vulnerability (Brené Brown, TED Talk June 2010) Brené Brown studies vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame--the human connection.

The Privilege of Teaching Memoir (Annette Gendler, Washington Independent Review of Books, 11-6-12) "Listening to the Kindertransport survivor, I realized that not everyone who has a story can tell a story. And therein, to me, lies the privilege and also the challenge of teaching how to write memoir. It’s a privilege because it is a joy to witness literature in the making; it’s a challenge because it is incredibly hard to create a story out of life’s messy details."

The Problem With Memoirs (Neil Genzlinger, NY Times, 1-18-11). Anybody and everybody are writing memoirs these days. Before you join the crowd, suggests Genzlinger, in reviewing four memoirs. do this: Make sure your life is interesting. Don't write for sympathy. Don't be a copy cat. And consider making yourself the "least important character" in the story. "That’s what makes a good memoir — it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery."

Mary Karr's keynote speech about memoirs (watch video) at the Mayborn Nonfiction Conference
Reminisce (the magazine that brings back the good times)
Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story (Phillip Lopate)
Robert Butler's Legacy Lives On (Andrew Achenbaum, Aging Today, July/​August 2011)
The Signifying Life: In Praise of the Outward-Looking Memoir (Beth Kephart's essay, The Millions, 9-3-13) "Memoir at its very best is the start of a conversation. It makes its interest in readers explicit, offering not just a series of life events, but a deliberate suggestion of what it is to be a human being – to experience confusion, despair, hope, joy, and all that happens in between."
Telling Your Story -- Pat McNees's links-rich web page on telling your life story or your family story, good interview tips and questions, video tributes and documentaries, sources for music and images, preserving your family treasures (archiving, conservation, and preservation), timelines, genealogical resources, doing oral histories, oral history collections online, obituaries and obit writing, tips on audio recording equipment (and software, tools, tutorials), and books to help you tell your story.


Secrets of Memoir panel. Video of panel discussion held 11-2-11 at NYU Bookstore, sponsored by National Book Critics Circle. with Tin House editor Rob Spillman, Lindsay Harrison, author of Missing; Scribner’s editor Colin Harrison, Sheila McClear, author of The Last of the Live Nude Girls; WME literary agent Rebecca Oliver, literary agent Ryan Harbage, Publishers Weekly editor and author of Amore Mark Rotella, moderator NBCC board member & Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking, and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex memoirist Susan Shapiro.

Speak Memory. Oliver Sachs's fascinating long essay in the New York Review of Books on the nature of memory-- how we remember, misremember, and construct memories -- and borrow from what we read!

Starting as a Journalist, Ending as a Memoirist (Lucette Lagnado, Nieman Reports). She learned that obsessive precision is not the greatest quality in a would-be memoirist. "Imagination, the ability to recall and bring to life lost people and lost worlds, are far more valuable." But she also "became a true believer in the power and potential of reported memory."
Sting. "Most of us have an urge, maybe more as we age, to circle back to the past and touch the places and things of childhood. When Sting did this, his creativity was reborn. Songs exploded from his head." ~Going Home Again (David Brooks, NY Times, 3-20-14). Sting's memoir: Broken Music

The Stories That Only Artists Can Tell (Daniel Grant, HuffPost, 5-10-13). Only a handful of artists have told their own stories -- Thomas Hart Benton, Man Ray, James Rosenquist, Leroy Neiman, Larry Rivers, Margaret Bourke-White, Eric Fischl, Anne Truitt. More should do so because artists write about what matters to artists, so it is helpful to new artists.

Story Circles, a Guide for Facilitators (Story Circle Network). A Story Circle is a group of women who come together on a regular basis to write, read, share, and celebrate the stories of their lives. Clearly the method can be adapted to other types of groups.

StoryDriven. Dona Munker on Writing a Biography, Imagining a Life (archived articles 2005-2010)

Telling HerStories (The Broad View) Story Circle Network blog

The tell-all memoir I decided not to tell (Emily Deprang, Salon, 8-28-13). I was ecstatic when I sold a book about my sordid first marriage. "What stopped me was that a memoir’s quality correlates to its honesty, and my book deal would be built on a kind of lie. I would only be pretending to be at peace with my past and ready to share its lessons with the world. I’d only be acting like I thought it was okay to dish my ex’s dirt.... I thought becoming a writer was a Cinderella, all-or-nothing type deal. But it turns out to be more of a Velveteen Rabbit situation."

The 10 Best Movies Adapted from Memoirs (Emily Temple, Flavorwire)

The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead , David Shields' excellent autobiography of his body, is a fascinating little book about life and death and about what's happening to your body enroute from one to the other. Don't read it if you don't want to hear the bad news, but it does help explain things like why you have to make more trips to the bathroom as you age.

This Is How You Write a Memoir (Katie Roiphe, Slate, 1-9-13). Rules for the much-maligned form. In brief (but read the article!): Be critical of yourself; feel honest; entertain the reader; write well and include vivid, unsettling, surprising moments; keep your writing standards high--this is art, not therapy.

Thoughts on Finding a Memoir’s Narrative Arc (Gary Presley, author of Seven Wheelchairs: A Life Beyond Polio on Brevity's Nonfiction Blog

Three Views of Memoir and Truth. Part 1 by Matilda Butler, Women's Memoirs blog, 4-26-11 (about truth being affected by relative age and wisdom); Part 2 (about differences in vantage points and information); and Part 3 (about the difference between two people's emotional truths).

Why a writing workshop did more for my preaching than a preaching conference (Teri McDowell Ott, The Christian Century, 11-5-13) "In other words, my genuine self emerged—a self that, to my surprise, wrote about faith with a depth of honesty I had never before dared. It was liberating to write so truthfully. It was also effective. My teacher finally smiled at me, and he said my words held wisdom. My classmates told me that if I wrote sermons like that, they’d come hear me preach."

Traversing the Mystery of Memory by Richard A. Friedman (NY Times, 12-30-03). About the accuracy of nostalgia and how the brain records memories. Friedman concludes: "if anything marks us as human, it's more our bent for making sense of things than for discovering the essential truth about them."

Vetting Memoirs A Tricky Problem for Publishers (NPR, Talk of the Nation 4-25-11). Neal Conan interviews Sam Tanenhaus (Editor, The New York Times Book Review) about serious errors reported in such books as Greg Mortensen's Three Cups of Tea and James Frey's A Million Little Pieces.

Video tributes and documentaries (links to examples)

Voices on Writing (Randy Dotinga interviews James McGrath Morris about the practical realities of biography writing, ASJA Monthly, Oct 2012). For example: "The single biggest change in recent years has been the dramatic drop in advances for most biographies. While this may seem shortsighted in the long run, it makes financial sense when considering the declining state of books. Biographies, like most forms of nonfiction, have a hard time earning back the kind of money necessary to research and write them."

Welcome to Pine Point. The story (part book, part film, part family photo album) of Pine Point, a mining town that existed only long enough to give a generation or two some memories--and was then erased from the map. Created for IDFA DocLab by filmmakers Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge (the Goggles). (Scroll to bottom and click on Visit Website.)

"We Were Such a Generation"--Memoir, Truthfulness, and History: An Interview with Patricia Hampl by Shelle Barton, Sheyene Foster Heller, and Jennifer Henderson, in River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative 5.2 (2004) 129-142

What do you need to do to become a personal historian? (WikiAnswers)

What Is Real Is Imagined (Colm Toibin, Opinionator blog, NY Times, 7-14-12). He's writing about fiction but offers helpful insights how memory is affected by details from reality.)

What the Little Old Ladies Feel (Alison Bechdel on How I told my mother about my memoir, Slate 3-27-07)

What Your 'Life Story' Really Says About You (Carolyn Gregoire, Huffpost, 11-18-13) Six principles from narrative psychology to help you better understand your “life story.”

When Writers Expose the Dead (Ken Budd, Opinion, NY Times, 11-30-13) How do we handle the painful truth in our memoirs?

Why’s everyone so down on the memoir? (J. Nicole Jones, LA Review of Books via Salon.com, 1-14-13). Critics take grim satisfaction in tearing the genre to pieces. How quickly they forget Nabokov and Karr and Wolff. "Maybe there is at least one more reason for memoir, ever so slightly more legitimate than an extended therapy session: because a story is better that way. While some require the freedom of fiction, what if some stories need the pressure of truth — not because a writer perceives reality or confession as more interesting or so different from fiction, but because there is a unique dialogue that happens only in memoir between the present and the past."

The Why of Memoir Writing (Martha Jewett, 4-7-09)

Why Writing Memoir Might Actually Make You Happier (Theo Pauline Nestor, Huff Post, 2-12-13). Writing and publishing a memoir requires us to reveal and share your authentic self. and that has brought Nestor an increased connection to others. Nestor's newest book: Writing Is My Drink: A Writer's Story of Finding Her Voice (and a Guide to How You Can Too)

Women's Memoirs (Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnet's terrific site, with a blog, book reviews, and tips for writing memoirs--a site developed to support their seminar on writing women's memoirs)

Writing A Memoir Is Not The Same As Writing “My Memoirs” (Miss Snark 6-14-07). See also What Is the Difference Between a Memoir and an Autobiography (or Memoirs)

Writing Jazz Biographies (YouTube video of webinar held 9-19-12, sponsored by Jazz Journalists Association). Three jazz biography authors --Peter Pullman ( Wail: The Life of Bud Powell ), Robin D. G. Kelley ( Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original) and Paul de Barros (Shall We Play That One Together?: The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland) join moderator Howard Mandel in this online panel to discuss the challenges of researching, writing and publishing their books. What were the challenges of working with their subjects and their families? How did they get access to archives and research materials? How did they find publishers? These experienced writers share stories and tips that will enlighten both jazz biography readers and would-be biography authors. This webinar is part of a monthly series produced by the Jazz Journalists Association.

Writing the Personal Essay, an excellent quick guide to structuring a narrative essay, by Adair Lara (writer, teacher, writing coach, and author of another good guide: Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay)

Your breakup is boring (James Camp, Salon.com, 11-12-12). David Foster Wallace was inspired to write about a breakup. So are a lot of memoirists. It's not always worth it

Finally, Tamim Ansary, author of the memoir
West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story, provides the following explanation of how memoir differs from other genres (reprinted from his website with his permission):

"Memoir–it’s the intersection between memory and story. Both ingredients—memory and story–are equally vital. Like a journal, a memoir is a passionate account of your experiences–but like a novel it has narrative structure. Therefore you use all the tools and skills and tricks of a novelist to create suspense, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, and generally make the story come alive. Unlike a novel, however, a memoir is a story that really happened: the very word asserts that the story is already there, it’s in the facts, and what you’re doing is not creating it but revealing it. A journal may be eloquent, and you may choose to share it with selected others, but it is essentially a conversation with yourself. A memoir is inherently a conversation with others. When you undertake to write one of these, you’ve already decided to make your private story visible to people who don’t even know you, and this quest can have consequences; writing a memoir is not therapy, it’s artistic work, but it may well prove to be a transformative emotional experience, for in this genre, writing well and breaking through to significant and possibly emotional discoveries about yourself are not two separate things; each process informs and supports the other and when they fuse, believe me, you’ve really got something."

Tamim Ansary leads the San Francisco Writers Workshop and offers workshops on memoir writing and other subjects.
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Writer's Digest has published a couple of excellent series on memoir writing, including the following articles:
Should You Write a Memoir? (The Memoirist's Dilemma) by Matt Rothschild (2009), author of Dumbfounded: Big Money. Big Hair. Big Problems. Or Why Having It All Isn't for Sissies
5 Ways to Start Your Memoir on the Right Foot by Steve Zousmer (2009, excerpted from You Don't Have To Be Famous: How to Write Your Life Story
Evoke Emotions in Your Readers, in which Steve Zousmer (11-09) urges memoir writers not to become a slave to chronology.
Elements of an Effective Arc by Adair Lara (PDF file, at her website),legendary S.F. columnist, writing teacher, and community-builder, and author of Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay . (Read a sample chapter here.)
Do Memoirs Have to Be True? by Jenny Rough (2010). Can memoirists take liberties with the truth? Apropos which, be sure to read
Write Personal Without Hurting Your Relationships by Kim Schworm Acosta (2009)
A Writer's Guide to Defamation and Invasion of Privacy by Amy Cook (2010)
The Market for Memoirs compiled by Jessica Strawser (2010), a roundtable with agents Lanie Katz Becker, Mollie Glick, Jeff Kleinman,Bird Leavell, and Sharlene Martin on "what you need to know to break in--and what you need to do to break out. With a sidebar on Memoir Queries and Proposals
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The life story business and market


"Getting into the Memoir Biz"
An Agent Does the Math: Why Do Memoirists Face Such a Rough Market? by Kate Epstein (Backspace--The Writer's Place)
As Author, Obama Earns Big Money and a New Deal (Jeff Zeleny, Politics, NY Times 3-19-09)
Audio and audio-visual equipment and sofrware for interviewing (Writers & Editors)
Biographers fear that publishers have lost their appetite for serious subjects (Vanessa Thorpe, Guardian Observer, 11-14-10). In a shrinking market (of big advances) for serious biography, are publishers "only interested in familiar figures like the Brontës"? Is the industry "undergoing a backlash after a long spate of huge advances for books that were always unlikely to make much money"? Interesting discussion, which concludes: Downgrade your expectations.
Bonding with clients through their ancestors (Jennifer Hoyt Cummings, Reuters, 8-10-12). Firms that target ultra-rich investors (including wealth management firms) have increasingly been tapping into personal history projects as a way to attract clients. They say it's a meaningful way to bond with clients and their offspring, often leading families to entrust more of their money with the firm.
Celebrity Memoir Glut (Ben Yagoda, The Daily Beast 11-24-09)
Getting into the Memoir Biz (Ellen Hawley Roddick, Open Salon, 8-24-12)
Getting into the personal history business (Paul Roberts, Fortune Small Business, 2-21-08). Demand is growing for personal historians who can help clients craft polished narratives - but actually making the time-intensive projects pay off is challenging, pros warn.
How Not to Get an Agent, Part II (PDF). In this article for ASJA Monthly (Nov 2008, p. 7), literary agent Linda Konner explains that writers constantly want to send her their memoirs, which she discourages, because "...a memoir must answer to two writing gods: the god of storytelling and the god of extraordinary writing. These gods take human shape at editorial meetings all over publishing offices in New York and elsewhere, and they are a demanding lot. Whereas a book on, say, diabetes need only (only?) have top-notch, breakthrough information and good, accessible writing, a memoir must have a drop-dead-great story to tell and be told exquisitely... or side-splittingly... or movingly... or whatever is suitable to that particular tale. The memoir gods are often unkind; at least they have been to me and my clients over the years. [As someone else wrote], agents may love books but they also want to—need to—make money. So,like many agents I know, I shun memoirs."
Literary Agent Regina Brooks on How to Publish a Memoir: 3 Must Haves (on Lisa Tener's writing blog, 2-22-11).
Memoir Guidelines (agent Rachelle Gardner 6-3-09)
Realistic chances of success for a self-published memoir (Paul Krupin's Trash Proof Marketing and Publicity Blog, 9-22-08, on testing and re-testing your book on on possible buyers before releasing it--thanks to Women's Memoirs for the lead).
Ordinary People (Chris Wright, Boston Phoenix 1-17-02). Memoirs used to be the territory of the famous, the intrepid, or the afflicted. Today, everyone's getting into the act, often with the help of a personal historian.
So Many Snapshots, So Few Voices Saved (Verlyn Klinkenborg, NY Times Sunday Review, 12-29-12_). "I remember the regret I felt after my mom died, years ago, that we had no recording of her voice on tape. And yet when my dad died in 2008 — same thing....While capturing sound is now so easy, make sure you record the voices you will want to hear again. The sound alone will say everything someday."
Tales from the Past, Preserved for Families (Patricia R. Olsen, Fresh Starts, NY Times 10-11-08)
Launch a business, cheaply! (Dan Bortolotti, More.ca). Scroll down to read Jennifer Campbell's story of starting a personal history business.
10 Tips for Blogging Your Memoir or Any Book (Kendra Bonnett, Women's Memoirs blog 10-24-10)
Trading a Pink Slip for a Passion by Carrie Sloan (Elle, 4-7-10). How an untimely layoff led four women to a whole new career--including Jennifer Campbell's shift from public television to personal history work.
10 unique jobs that keep the world working (Kaitlin Madden, Guampdn.com 7-10-11). When Jennifer Campbell says she's a personal historian, people think she's a ghost writer or genealogist. She tells them she is neither. "What I do is help people tell their life stories by interviewing them and writing a narrative from their answers."
What's Your Platform? Another Way of Asking, Who's Going to Read Your Book? Kendra Bonnett, on Telling Her Stories (Story Circle Network). Read also Building a Memoir Writing Platform: What Is Your Message? Part 1 and Part 2 (Kendra Bonnett, 2-28-10, on Women's Memoirs). What's your message is part of figuring out who is your audience, which means who will buy your books! A very helpful discussion.

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***Want to become a personal historian, helping others tell their life (or family) stories? Pick up a copy of Start & Run a Personal History Business: Get Paid to Research Family Ancestry and Write Memoirs by Jennifer Campbell. Jennifer is active in the Association of Personal Historians. Members of APH can also purchase four special toolkits for personal historians: 1) Get Your Personal History Business Up and Running; 2) The Interview: Record and Develop the Story; 3) Products and Services; 4) Marketing: APH Members Share Ideas That Work (I found the 4th toolkit, on marketing, the most helpful.)

***Anyone can attend APH's annual conference, to be held in Bethesda, Maryland this year (Nov. 8-12,2013)
***Listen to personal historian Stephanie Kadel Taras explain What personal historians do and why (audiofile of an interview on the Ann Arbor program "Everything Elderly." Here's the program description. Stephanie is active in the Association of Personal Historians.

***As co-editor, with Paula Stallings Yost, of My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History, with a foreword by Rick Bragg, I'm biased, but this is a great gift for that person whose life stories should be recorded or told but who keeps saying, "Who cares what happened in my life?" Read excerpts here and order here to order directly from APH, or here to order from Amazon (we get a small commission). Backstories about the process of getting the stories into print will be helpful if you want to help others tell their life stories. "At last, a collection that shows the 'why, what, and how' behind memoir as legacy." ~ Susan Wittig Albert, author of Writing from Life and founder of Story Circle Network.
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More About Personal Histories and Legacy Memoirs
(stories, explanations, and examples)


A convert to family history . (BBC News, A Point of View 12-2-11). The discovery of a tape recording shed light on a puzzling family photograph which was taken in 1906 - and changed historian Lisa Jardine's views about the genealogy boom. "What a thrill, then, to encounter the miracle of oral history - of having a person in front of you who was actually there."
Association of Personal Historians (APH). Personal historians help other people--ordinary people, not celebrities--tell their life stories in print, in audio, and/​or on video.
Bonding with clients through their ancestors (Jennifer Hoyt Cummings, Reuters, 8-10-12) Firms that target ultra-rich investors have also increasingly been tapping into personal history projects as a way to attract clients. They say it's a meaningful way to bond with clients and their offspring, often leading families to entrust more of their money with the firm.
Tales From the Past, Preserved for Families (Patricia R. Olsen, Fresh Starts, NY Times 10-12-08). The field of personal history can be a good fit for retirees embarking on a second career.
Getting Personal. An estate plan should include should include stocks, bonds —— and a life story (Ed McCarthy, Wealth Manager, May 2007)
The Beneficial Effects of Life Story and Legacy Activities by Pat McNees (Geriatric Care Management Journal, Spring 2009)
Aha Moments (the brilliant Mutual of Omaha campaign to record people's stories about moments of clarity, defining moments when they gained the wisdom to change their life)
Dignity Therapy. For the Dying, A Chance to Rewrite Life (Alix Spiegel, Morning Edition, NPR 9-12-11). Listen or read transcript.
Example of a tribute book (We Remember Donna)
Turning Kind Deeds to Writing Income: Helping Funeral Homes Minister to Families (Melanie Jongsma, guest post on Peter Bowerman's blog, The Well-Fed Writer, 5-5-11)
Me and the Gals by Steven Slon (first appeared in AARP The Magazine). Accompanying his mother to her 60th college reunion gave him insight into the young woman she once was.
Ordinary People (Chris Wright, The Phoenix, Jan 17-24, 2002).Memoirs used to be the territory of the famous, the intrepid, or the afflicted. Today, everyone's getting into the act--often with the help of a personal historian.
The story of our lives (Imane Kurdi, Saudi Gazette, 3-30-13). "In France alone, there are now an estimated 1200 private biographers who earn their living by writing the stories of ordinary people." For cancer patients, getting their memories down on paper takes their attention away from their illness and "for a short while at least they are not defined by their illness." And they end up with a book to leave to their families.
Local veteran recalls service in mountain division (Steven Ryan, Gatehouse News Service, 5-28-09). A Newton personal historian is recording the stories of local veterans for the Veterans History Project sponsored by the Library of Congress, which seeks to preserve the veterans’ personal histories.
10 unique jobs that keep the world working (Kaitlin Madden, Guampdn.com 7-10-11). When Jennifer Campbell says she's a personal historian, people think she's a ghost writer or genealogist. She tells them she is neither. "What I do is help people tell their life stories by interviewing them and writing a narrative from their answers."
Preserving Family History, One Memory at a Time (Claire Martin, NY Times, 3-15-14). "StoryWorth provides a selection of questions, chosen by Ms. Leiken, for her mother to answer each week. It then emails the questions to Ms. Mills, and when she replies, her answers go to her family and are stored on a website where they can read them privately. " “It was a very easy way to write a little bit every day."
The Science of Older and Wiser (Phyllis Korkki, NY Times, 3-12-14) "...researchers recommend classes in guided autobiography, or life review, as a way of strengthening wisdom. In guided autobiography, students write and share their life stories with the help of a trained instructor."
• STING: "Well, I've never thought that I would write a book, frankly. I was honour-bound really to dig deep and bring memories, perhaps, that had been suppressed for a long time, that I would have preferred, perhaps, to remain in the sediment of my life. But having done that and having got through this process, I now feel so much better. I've really forgiven people in my life and forgiven myself. And I feel much lighter because of it. So the process has been wonderful. And I'm advising everyone I meet, all of my friends and everybody - people in the street, 'Write your own book.' Whether you publish it or not, it feels really good."
~ from Katie Couric's interview with the musician Sting, about his book Broken Music
A Therapist in the Mist: Where Therapy and Personal History Meet (Teri Friedman, blog of APH, the Life Story People, 10-9-13). "While personal history is not, strictly speaking, therapy, it is my experience that the two have many things in common. Telling the story of one’s life can be a hugely cathartic and exhilarating process of self-discovery, and sometimes redemptive, regardless of context." She provides examples from her own experience, which should encourage other personal historians to be willing to work with people with partly painful life histories.
All About Me (the state of the modern memoir, conveyed through various essays for Slate in March 2009)
History used to be the study of great men. Now it's of Everyman by Tristram Hunt (The Observer, 11-21-10). "The quest for identity and empathy has taken over: explanation has become less desirable; understanding has assumed centre-stage." (Check out the comments.)
Use Motivational Fit to Market Products and Ideas . Heidi Grant Halvorson and Jonathan Halvorson, author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, on The Science of Success: a blog about strategies that work) explains the difference between promotion motivation (striving for gains) and prevention motivation (avoiding losses). "To create motivational fit, you always want to keep both the qualities of the product and the motivation of your audience in mind, particularly when you are trying to position a particular product to a target population." For example, to persuade an elder, who is primarily concerned about preventing loss, to tell you his life story, it might be best to emphasize those stories that might be lost, that go with all those photos that will be left with his grandchildren. Even the elder's kids, the generation it makes sense to market to, might be motivated by that fear of losing stories and the names of people in the old family photos. But you can also emphasize the rich experience that working with a personal historian can provide your parent, or the great stories such a person can elicit, perhaps even better than someone in the family might do.
Stories We Tell (Sheila O'Malley review, RogerEbert.com, 5-19-13). "...Polley experiments with the expected narrative structures, pushing us to consider not just the meaning of stories but how the way we tell the story can change its impact."
Paula Stallings Yost on what she does as a personal historian (Story Circle Network, interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert 9-15-01)
Telling Our Own Stories, Becoming Better Journalists (Mallary Jean Tenore, Poynter, 5-6-08). "Some journalists have found ... that the best way to bring light to important issues is to write mini memoirs — not in the form of a book, but on the pages of their newspapers and Web sites. Writing their own stories, they say, strengthens their reporting by helping them look harder for details, be more sensitive to the people they interview and develop a deeper appreciation for the work they do." Tenore did just that for a series on rape.
Life Story Wisdom from Steve Roberts Debbie Brodsky's report from the APH conference in Bethesda, 11-2013. “Your grandmother never says ‘No comment’” and research in the Old Man's Registry, among other plums.
Ethical Wills 101
Video Tributes and Documentaries (links to a variety of examples)
Welcome to Pine Point. The story (part book, part film, part family photo album) of Pine Point, a mining town that existed only long enough to give a generation or two some memories--and was then erased from the map. Created for IDFA DocLab by filmmakers Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge (the Goggles). (Scroll to bottom and click on Visit Website.)
Visual Storyteller Stefani Twyford Reaches Far Beyond Celebrity Life Stories (Pam Vetter, American Chronicle, 12-02-09, in a profile that explains the process of doing video biographies)
The pros and cons of books and videos. Books and videos each have strengths and weaknesses, as formats for personal histories, writes personal historian Andrea Gross, who clearly outlines them here. (You don't need to choose: You can do both.)
Family Oral History Using Digital Tools (Susan A. Kitchens' helpful site)
51 Birch Street (Doug Block's fascinating documentary--an investigation into the mystery of his parents' marriage, available on Netflix)
You Might Remember This (Jeff Scher, Opinionator blog, NY Times 6-18-11), a father's animated portrait of his sons Buster and Oscar show there is more than one way to chart a child's personal history).
The Life Review Process in Later Adulthood: An Introduction by Linda Woolf (readable online)
StoryCorps Do-It-Yourself Instruction Guide (National Day of Listening)
Start & Run a Personal History Business: Get Paid to Research Family Ancestry and Write Memoirs by Jennifer Campbell (who tells her story from another angle in Trading a Pink Slip for a Passion by Carrie Sloan (Elle, 4-7-10)
My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History. "At last, a collection that shows the 'why, what, and how' behind memoir as legacy" ~Susan Wittig Albert, founder of Story Circle Network

Story Circles:
Peer Spirit, founded by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea. Downloadable gifts include Basic Guidelines for Calling a Circle (in several languages)
Story Circle Network (for women with stories to tell). The blog: Telling HerStories (The Broad View)
Story Circles, a Guide for Facilitators (Story Circle Network). A Story Circle is a group of women who come together on a regular basis to write, read, share, and celebrate the stories of their lives. Clearly the method can be adapted to other types of groups.
Peer Spirit, educational website of Christian Baldwin, author of Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story. Peer Spirit, Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea's company, facilitates a group process with rotating leadership. On its site, you can download Basic Guidelines for Calling a Circle and other handouts, including one on Storycatching.
Center for Digital Story Telling
Resources for Digital Storytelling,including links to several do-it-yourself guides (Prairienet)

Journaling, popular books about:
Journal to the Self: Twenty-Two Paths to Personal Growth by Kathleen Adams
The New Diary by Tristine Rainer
Writing Down Your Soul: How to Activate and Listen to the Extraordinary Voice Within by Janet Conner
At a Journal Workshop: Writing to Access the Power of the Unconscious and Evoke Creative Ability by Ira Progoff (a psychotherapist's guide to the intensive journal process for gaining self-insight--but gets mixed reviews)


“An amateur knows what to do. A professional knows what not to do.” Attributed to Eric Berne, MD

The Ethics of Memoir Writing


How much is too much truth? And whose truth is it to reveal? Those are two of many questions addressed in a fascinating issue about the ethics of memoir writing (4-4-11) in a wonderful online magazine, Talking Writing. Can we trust ourselves to tell our stories truthfully? asks the editor. How far can we carry the fine art of embellishment? The stories in this issue are worth reading:
How Much Should We Reveal? (Arlene L. Mandell on Baring Ourselves for Public Viewing).
Writing Someone Else’s Memoir (Hawley Roddick on The Ethical Quandaries of a Coauthor)
Don't Write About Me (John Manchester writing about When Family and Friends Ambush Your Past).
What Belongs to Her and What to Me? (Karen Steiner on Why I Hate My Bipolar Child)."What’s the difference between honest confession and self-indulgence?"
Writing Literary Memoir (Are We Obliged to Tell the “Real” Truth? asks Michael Steinberg) Did it really happen that way? How can you remember all that? On reconstructing dialogue and other concerns.
You Do Not Know My Family (Karen Nichols on the Ethics of Adoption Writing, for which another version is available online).
Accidental Memoir (Lorraine Berry's review of Half a Life, about the aftermath of an accident that changed Darin Strauss’s life -- and about writing in the aftermath of the unthinkable.

"Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book."
~ Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 BC

BOOKS TO HELP YOU GET STARTED WRITING
OUR OWN OR SOMEONE ELSE'S LIFE STORY



Writing Personal and Family Histories (a booklist)


These are books for people who (generally) do not see themselves as writers but want to write something about their life or their family. Buy anything from Amazon after clicking on a link here and we get a small referral fee for your purchases. This helps cover fees for site hosting and link-checking, and the opportunity costs of time spent care-tending the website
Breathe Life into Your Life Story: How to Write a Story People Will Want to Read by Dawn and Morris Thurston. Advice and examples on “showing” rather than "telling," creating credible interesting characters and settings, writing from the gut, alternating scene and narrative, and generating suspense.

For All Time: A Complete Guide to Writing Your Family History by Charley Kempthorne. Charley’s wise, loveable, encouraging personal style and long practical experience make this a good book to give to someone you want to encourage, if only to write for the family. He makes it all seem human and doable. “The facts, or at least the important facts, of mom and dad’s marriage were not where and when it took place but what they made of it.”

The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing: How to Transform Memories Into Meaningful Stories by Sharon Lippincott. A personal historian's "roll-up-your-sleeves" guide to writing and publishing your own (or someone else's) memoirs or autobiography.

Keeping Family Stories Alive: Discovering and Recording the Stories and Reflections of a Lifetime by Vera Rosenbluth. Interviewing and recording techniques helpful for family histories.

Legacy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Personal History by Linda Spence. A very popular guide for doing oral histories and personal and family histories, with memory prompts that encourage storytelling more than fact-finding: What were you like as a child? What did you think? What did you do? Organized by topic, from earliest memories, school life, young adulthood, marriage, children, grandchildren, through later life.

The Legacy Guide: Capturing the Facts, Memories,and Meaning of Your Life by Carol Franco and Kent Lineback. Moving from facts to memories to meaning, this book takes you through the seven stages of life: childhood, adolescence, young adulthood (roughtly 20-30), adulthood (roughly 30-45), middle adulthood (roughly 45-60), late adulthood (roughly 60-80), elder (roughly 80 onward). Fairly sophisticated writing prompts, and examples from fine writers, invite you to recall forgotten moments and discover their significance.

Living Legacies: How to Write, Illustrate, and Share Your Life Stories by Duane Elgin, Colleen Ledrew. Emphasizes illustrating your stories with photographs, memorabilia, and other images (including digital format).

The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life by Marion Roach Smith. In this slim volume, Smith emphasizes writing with intent, writing about what was important about a particular event. Listen to NPR's interview with Roach Smith about her new book on Talk of the Nation. (That may be enough.)

Start & Run a Personal History Business: Get Paid to Research Family Ancestry and Write Memoirs by Jennifer Campbell. How to make money doing something you love. Members of the Association of Personal Historians can also purchase four special toolkits for personal historians: 1) Get Your Personal History Business Up and Running; 2) The Interview: Record and Develop the Story; 3) Products and Services; 4) Marketing: APH Members Share Ideas That Work.

Still Here Thinking of You: A Second Chance with Our Mothers, stories by Joan Potter, Susan Hodara, Vicki Addesso, and Lori Toppel about the mother-daughter relationship, from a four-woman writing group -- a good model of what a writing group can do to bring out the best on a topic.

Turning Memories into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories by Denis Ledoux. Workshop in a book, encouraging nonwriters to write their own stories, by a founding member of APH.

You Can Write Your Family History by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, who, starting from a genealogy base, offers tips on how to bring characters and social history to life and present stories about people on the family tree.
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Memoirs, Healing, and Self-Understanding: A reading list


Another Morning: Voices of Truth and Hope from Mothers with Cancer by Linda Blachman. A book for parents challenged by serious illness, to help and inspire them to leave stories and messages for the children who will survive them.

Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir by Sue Williams Silverman. In addition to covering traditional writing topics well, Silverman encourages writers to transform their life story into words that matter. She advocates finding the courage to speak truth about issues on which others might prefer silence. Her own confessional memoirs are about incest (Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You) and sexual addiction (Love Sick).

The Healing Art of Storytelling by Richard Stone. This classic and insight-provoking guide to finding coherent narratives in our life experiences, recently out of print, is now available again. Not about memoir but about understanding the storylines of our lives.

Healing With Words: A writer's cancer journey by Diana M. Raab (foreword by Melvin J. Silverstein, MD), a wry self-help memoir that urges early cancer detection and conveys the power of writing as a healing and well-being therapy.

Living to Tell the Tale: A Guide to Writing Memoir by Jane Taylor McDonnell. In this little book, McDonnell focuses here on how to write "crisis memoirs," finding "our own meaningfulness, even in the midst of sadness and disappointment." In addition to teaching a related college course ("Witness Narratives: Memoirs of Survival," she has written about life with her autistic son and about her own problems with alcoholism.

Narrative Medicine by Rita Charon. The idea behind the field of narrative medicine, which Charon helped create, is that the doctor's job is to listen and by hearing the patient's story to know the patient more fully than numbers on a chart can convey. You'll find more resources on narrative medicine here, including books by Arthur Kleinman, Lewis Mehl-Madrona, and Arthur Frank.

The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story by Linda Joy Myers. Step-by-step memoir writing, with healing from emotional pain as a goal; full of interesting psychological insights.

The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self by Dan P. McAdams. McAdams argues that we are the stories we tell. As children we begin gathering material for our "self-defining stories," and as we age we can revise and claim our personal stories. Narrative psychology.

The Story of Your Life: Becoming the Author of Your Experience by Mandy Aftel. Geared more to self-understanding than to memoir writing, this book is still useful for life writing. Focusing on what Aftel calls the three major life plots (love, mastery, and loss), she provokes reflection on things like How Money Complicates the Love Plot, How Children Complicate the Marriage Subplot, and How Escape Complicates the Mastery Plot.

Writing and Healing: “The Best Therapy I’ve Had” (Sharon Lippincott's article about how a memoir writing class helped recovery from a brain injury, Women's Memoirs 6-26-11)

Memoirs of illness, crisis, disability, differentness, and survival (a reading list)


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Memoir Writing As Discovery (a booklist)


Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir by Lisa Dale Norton. A slim, well-written book focused on the slice-of-life memoir. Norton encourages you to find "memory pictures," find your voice and the heart of your story, identify one potent period of your life, and “explore it through vivid imagery, honest voice, stunning compassion, and a deep awareness of the larger issues at play that guide your story in a subliminal way—myth, metaphor, and current issues of the day.”

Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives Through the Power and Practice of Story by Christina Baldwin. Says Baldwin (whose workshops are inspirational): “Our life story is our constant companion, the litany that guides our every move and thought. So we need to make our lives a story we can live with, because we live the life our story makes possible.” She encourages storytelling to build community, webs of connection, bridges to understanding, using the “voice of story” to call us to remember our true selves.

Memoirs of the Soul: A Writing Guide by Nan Merrick Phifer. An excellent how-to guide, on digging into who you are and have become, and on writing a readable memoir about what you discover. "Phifer urges amateur writers to write of the inner life, or times of joy or crisis or profound contentment."--Library Journal, which highly recommends it for public libraries.

White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory by John Kotre. Fascinating insights into the nature of memory, including how we often reconstruct in our memory what really happened -- so that, for example, a horrid experience becomes a funny one. Changes the ways you view your own memory or the memories of eyewitnesses, and gives incentive to investigating the facts as a reporter would, on critical stories about your life. More recently Kotre has published Make It Count: How to Generate a Legacy That Gives Meaning to Your Life

Writing from Life: Telling Your Soul’s Story by Susan Wittig Albert. Albert (founder of Story Circle Network) encourages women to discover their voices and grow spiritually by putting their stories into words. Her guide invites women on a voyage of self-discovery, by exploring eight thematic clusters: beginnings and birthings; achievements, gifts and glories; female bodies; loves, lovers, lovings; journeys and journeying; homes and homings; visits to the Valley of Shadows; and experiences of community. She also explains how to form women’s Story Circles.

Writing Life Stories: How To Make Memories Into Memoirs, Ideas Into Essays And Life Into Literature by Bill Roorbach. Intelligent commentary and exercises to help you access memories and emotions, shape scenes, develop plot lines, populate life story with "characters," and bring depth to your memoir or personal essay.

Writing Your Life: A Journey of Discovery by Patti Miller. A helpful companion for structuring book-length life writing, with wise counsel on remembering (and selective memory), emotional healing, finding one's voice, choosing details, creating drama, and imposing structure. Australian writer, but the book seems easily available online. By the same author: The Memoir Book, which one writing student said was exactly what she needed to get going on her memoirs.

Your Life as Story: Discovering the "New Autobiography" and Writing Memoir as Literature by Tristine Rainer. This highly recommended guide, full of exercises, asks you to think about your life and about how best to write a life story. Some object to her de-emphasis on historical accuracy, but many praise her for her handling of such topics as story structure (how best to organize the story of your life), how to handle the passage of time, and the ethical problems of writing about family and friends, values, and self-concept)
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Writing from Memory Prompts (a booklist)


Those for whom writing seems a daunting task can often respond to simple, straightforward, or inspirational memory prompts. Books featuring such prompts vary greatly in the style of prompts (from simple fact-finding questions to prompts that probe for emotional memories to prompts that liberate the imagination).

Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg author of the popular Writing Down the Bones. Message: Put pen to paper and write as fast as you can for ten minutes, in “writing ‘sprints’ that train the hand and mind to quicken their pace and give up conscious control.” For those having trouble getting started.

Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas. A tiny volume of writing prompts which encourage writer to write brief bits, coming at your life at an angle, through the "side door," as she does in her slim, fine memoirs (A Three Dog Life (about caring for her husband after a hit-and-run accident shatters his skull) and Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life show how vignettes and snippets artfully arranged can convey the arc of a changing relationship, or relationships.

To Our Children's Children: Preserving Family Histories for Generations to Come by Bob Greene. A small book of writing prompts for oral or written family histories -- one of the first of its kind.

Writing Your Life: An Easy-to-Follow Guide to Writing an Autobiography by Mary Borg. A slim, spiral-bound, illustrated, easy-to-maneuver workbook (good for senior centers) with questions and memory joggers to tease out a life story, and excerpts from real autobiographies.

You Are Next In Line: Everyone's Guide for Writing Your Autobiography by Armiger Jagoe. A slim, simple do-it-yourself guide with brief extracts from famous life stories to illustrate certain themes: In the Beginning, Family Affairs, First Home, Early Years, Grown Up, Adult Life, Special People, Humor, Important Events and Life Passages.
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The Art and Craft of Memoir and Biography (a booklist)


The Art of Time in Memoir (Then, Again) by Sven Birkerts. The great memoirists often break the rules, especially about mixing present and past tense. “Apart from whatever painful or disturbing events they recount, their deeper ulterior purpose is to discover the nonsequential connections that allow those experiences to make larger sense; they are about circumstance becoming meaningful when seen from a certain remove.”

Biography: A User's Guide, by Carl Rollyson. For the reference shelf.

The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries by Marilyn Johnson. A delightful account of how those final stories get told.

Essays in Biography by Joseph Epstein. Here's a rave review in WSJ ("A Referee of Reputations" by Carl Rollyson, 10-5-12). Joseph Epstein has a genius for discerning and defining a subject's essence in a few thousand words in the Wall Street Journal. Rollyson writes: "Mr. Epstein's ability to capture a subject in a memorable 3,000 words should be the envy of biographers, who write at greater length but sometimes with no greater effect. Biographies are vats of facts that take patience to digest; Mr. Epstein's essays are brilliant distillations."

Extraordinary Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography ed. William Zinsser. Thoughtful talks (and biography shop talk) by Robert A. Caro, David McCullough, Paul C. Nagel, Richard B. Sewall, Ronald Steel, and Jean Strouse.

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart, who meditates on how memoir gets made, on what it means to make it, on the searing language of truth, on the thin line between remembering and imagining, and, finally, on the rights of memoirists.

How To Do Biography: A Primer by Nigel Hamilton (a brief interpretive history of life stories, or at one reviewer called it, "a zesty romp through millennia of biographical portraits")

I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory by Patricia Hampl. Explores the act of memoir-making, the tension between memory and forgetting (inventiveness as part of the search for emotional truth), the art of storytelling, and the value of the first draft, as a mystery dropping clues about the narrator's feelings.

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. William Zinsser. Practical wisdom from nine notable memoirists about their process (often about what to leave out) and the hurdles they faced. Featured are Russell Baker on Growing Up, Jill Ker Conway on The Road from Coorain, Annie Dillard on An American Childhood, Ian Frazier on Family, Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Colored People, Alfred Kazin on A Walker in the City, Frank McCourt on Angela's Ashes, Toni Morrison on Beloved, and Eileen Simpson on Poets in Their Youth.

Memoir: A History by Ben Yagoda. This interesting overview of trends in memoir and taxonomy of types of memoir reveals one constant: the "inherent and irresolvable conflict between the capabilities of memory and the demands of narrative."

The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative by Thomas Larson (reflections on memory, honesty, assumptions).

The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life by Marion Roach Smith. In this slim volume, Smith emphasizes writing with intent, writing about what was important about a particular event. Listen to NPR's interview with Roach Smith about her new book on Talk of the Nation. values, and self-concept)

Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay by Lara Adair. Chief advice from this popular columnist and writing coach: “Apply butt to chair.” Write 500 words every day, period. This slim volume contains frank tips for writing better columns, personal essays, and memoirs.

Telling Lives: The Biographer's Art, ed. by Marc Pachter. This book grew out of a two-day symposium on "The Art of Biography" sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Participants Leon Edel, Justi Kaplan, Doris Kearns, and Barbara Tuchman were joined by Alfred Kazi, Theodore Rosengarten, and Geoffrey Wolff as contributors to the book. Marc Pachter, director of the NPG at the time, moderated the symposium.

Writing a Book That Makes a Difference by Philip Gerard. Though not geared to memoir-writing, Gerard presents insights and examples that could help elevate your memoir above a string of anecdotal memories.

Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past by William Zinsser. Using his own story as an example, this expert on writing well shows how to be selective in choosing the stories to tell and the details to use.

Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington. Memoir-writing basics (present vs. past tense, first vs. third person, balancing the needs for accuracy and good storytelling, etc.)

Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story (Ron Capps, CreateSpace). Written by a veteran for veterans, it details the elements of craft involved in writing both fiction and non-fiction. The Veterans Writing Project uses the book in its co-cost seminar and workshops for members of the armed forces, active and reserve, who want to learn about writing in order to tell their stories.

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ANTHOLOGIES OF PERSONAL HISTORY

Check out these anthologies filled with examples of reminiscence and personal history:


My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History edited by Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees. Foreword by Rick Bragg. (Personal History Press, Association of Personal Historians, $19.95) Go here to purchase a copy.

Listening Is an Act of Love, edited by Dave Isay (stories about home and family, work and dedication, journeys, history and struggle, and 9/11), from the StoryCorps Project

Born Before Plastic: Stories from Boston’s Most Enduring Neighborhoods (Vol. 1: North End, Roxbury, and South Boston) and My Legacy Is Simply This (Vol. 2: Charlestown, Chinatown, East Boston, and Mattapan), from Grub Street’s Memoir Project (giving seniors a chance to turn their memories into published narratives).

New from Personal History Press:

My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History ,
ed. Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees, with a foreword by Rick Bragg ($19.95).
Read excerpts here.
Read a review here.


"At last, a collection that shows the "why, what, and how" behind memoir as legacy. Spanning more than a century, these intriguing reflections of personal as well as global social and political history are told in the unique voice and viewpoint of each storyteller."
~ Susan Wittig Albert, author, Writing from Life, founder, Story Circle Network

“This anthology sings with Walt Whitman’s spirit of democracy, a celebration of our diversity. Each selection is a song of self; some have perfect pitch, some the waver of authenticity. All demonstrate the power of the word to salvage from the onrush of life, nuggets worth saving.”
~ Tristine Rainer, author of Your Life as Story and Writing the New Autobiography


The Beneficial Effects of Life Story and Legacy Activities by Pat McNees (Journal of Geriatric Care Management, Spring 2009, online text) or as PDF file (61.9KB)

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BOOKS TO HELP LEAD LIFE STORY WRITING OR REMINISCENCE GROUPS


Reminiscence and life review, especially guided by someone who knows how to make the most of the experience, is an important developmental phase, in which we older adults take stock of our lives and, with luck, begin to see both pleasant and unpleasant memories as part of what shaped our identity. With aging, retirement, divorce, widowhood, and separation from our children, we lose roles we once played and may experience less sense of identity and self-worth. Life review, however done, can be therapeutic, and in groups, under a masterful leader, can also be enormous fun. Good groups bond. Creative juices flow. Hearing each other's stories brings back our own often forgotten memories, good and bad, which in the presence of sympathetic others can be healing.

Here are some book you may find useful. Buy anything from Amazon after clicking on a link here and I get a small referral fee for your purchases. This helps cover fees for site hosting and link-checking, and the opportunity costs of time spent care-tending the website.

The Uses of Reminiscence: New Ways of Working with Older Adults ed. by Marc Kaminsky. Interesting reading even if you don't plan to lead a reminiscence group for elders, and useful if you do.

Guiding Autobiography Groups for Older Adults: Exploring the Fabric of Life by James E. Birren and Donna E. Deutchman, Provides helpful groups of questions and memory prompts on different themes and transitions: On the major branching points in your life, on family, on major life work and career, on the role of money in one's life, on health and body image, on sex roles and sexual experiences, on experiences with and ideas about death, on loves and hates, on the meaning of life (aspirations and goals), on the role of music, art, or literature in your life, and on your experiences with stress. Participants in GAB groups write a two-page story each week, on one of these themes, typically to be read aloud to the group. (Cheryl Svensson and Anita Reyes offer online classes as well as online training for GAB instructors in the Birren approach, a ten-week session that gives you a sense how the process works. A great place to start.)

Telling the Stories of Life Through Guided Autobiography Groups by James E. Birren and Kathryn R. Cochran

Writing Alone and With Others, by Pat Schneider (an update of The Writer as an Artist, by the founder of the Amherst Writers and Artists Press and workshop method in Amherst, Massachusetts)

The Legacy Guide: Capturing the Facts, Memories,and Meaning of Your Life by Carol Franco is also useful in leading groups.

Transformational Reminiscence: Life Story Work, by John A. Kunz, Florence Gray Soltys, and others, provides professional insight into the process of helping older adults with reminiscence and life review. Describes individual, group, and art-based approaches to constructive, even therapeutic, reminiscence. (Kunz heads the respected International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review.

Less useful for teaching life story writing, but of possible interest academically: Teaching Life Writing Texts, ed. Miriam Fuchs, Craig Howes (chiefly of academic interest).

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Memoirs, Healing, and Self-Understanding



Writing and Healing: “The Best Therapy I’ve Had” (Sharon Lippincott's article about how a memoir writing class helped recovery from a brain injury, Women's Memoirs 6-26-11)

Some books that may be helpful:
• Aftel, Mandy. The Story of Your Life: Becoming the Author of Your Experience. Geared more to self-understanding than to memoir writing, this book is still useful for life writing. Focusing on what Aftel calls the three major life plots (love, mastery, and loss), she provokes reflection on things like How Money Complicates the Love Plot, How Children Complicate the Marriage Subplot, and How Escape Complicates the Mastery Plot.

• Charon, Rita. Narrative Medicine. The idea behind the field of narrative medicine, which Charon helped create, is that the doctor's job is to listen and by hearing the patient's story to know the patient more fully than numbers on a chart can convey. You'll find more resources on narrative medicine here, including books by Arthur Kleinman, Lewis Mehl-Madrona, and Arthur Frank.

• DeSalvo, Louise. Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. Cautioning that writing is no substitute for medical care, DeSalvo (who wrote about her own pain, anxiety, and depression in Vertigo: A Memoir) recommends writing five pages a week, uncensored, in spare moments, reporting every detail, to speed healing -- and sharing with other empathetic writers, to sharpen narrative. She refers often to James W. Pennebaker's Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, based on his 10 years of clinical research. "Dr. Pennebaker has demonstrated that expressing emotions appears to protect the body against damaging internal stresses and seems to have long-term health benefit," wrote Daniel Goleman, in the NY Times.

• McDonnell, Jane Taylor. Living to Tell the Tale: A Guide to Writing Memoir. In this little book, McDonnell focuses here on how to write "crisis memoirs," finding "our own meaningfulness, even in the midst of sadness and disappointment." In addition to teaching a related college course ("Witness Narratives: Memoirs of Survival," she has written about life with her autistic son and about her own problems with alcoholism.

• Myers, Linda Joy. The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story. Step-by-step memoir writing, with healing from emotional pain as a goal; full of interesting psychological insights.

• Silverman, Sue Williams. Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir. In addition to covering traditional writing topics well, Silverman encourages writers to transform their life story into words that matter. She advocates finding the courage to speak truth about issues on which others might prefer silence. Her own confessional memoirs are about incest (Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You) and sexual addiction (Love Sick).

• Stone, Richard. The Healing Art of Storytelling. This classic and insight-provoking guide to finding coherent narratives in our life experiences, which was out of print, is now available again. Not about memoir but about understanding the storylines of our lives.


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Lines from "Little Gidding"
by T.S. Eliot

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
...
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

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Articles on the subject

How to Become Your Company's Storyteller (Jennifer Wang, Entrepreneur, 1-10-12). A company can position itself against giant competitors through storytelling. "A lot of business owners fall in love with their own product and forget that other people need to be romanced by a story," Bisceglia says. "A brand should make you feel something when you say the name. Without context, it's just stuff."
Writing Corporate History (Amanda Lynch interviews Jack El-Hai, Writer's Digest, April 2002).
CorporateHistory.net. Marian Calabro's company site has useful FAQs and downloads about commissioning a corporate history, and the CorporateHistory.net blog has interesting analyses of (and grades for) various corporate websites, among other things. Her slogan: "What is written is remembered."
Why Your Company Needs A Moving Start-Up Story (Mike Michalowicz, WSJ 4-3-12). "There are two components of a great "company" story. First, you need the history.... Next, you need hardship, the tales of woe and wonder that you're either extremely proud of or totally embarrassed to tell. Everyone loves a good underdog story, or a good nick-of-time story, or a good wing-and-a-prayer story, so dig one of those up." Good advice, and: Make it a "we" story, not an "I" story. And related to that:
3 Reasons to Master the Art of Storytelling (Riley Gibson, The Start-Up Lab, Inc., 4-9-12). Most entrepreneurs don't realize the art of storytelling can help you succeed in the start-up world. Stories are memorable, they travel far, and they inspire action.
You Want ME to Write the Institutional History? (Steve Weinberg, Inside Higher Ed 4-17-08). See also Steve's piece in The Writer: Commissions challenge journalistic principles (4-8-08, starts on p. 37 -- How can writers of institutional histories balance the requirements of a good story with the desires of their employer?). Check that issue out at the library (try Interlibrary Loan) or pay to read it online.
Keeping history relevant, 150 years after Gettysburg (Mohana Ravindranath, Washington Post, 7-3-13) History Associates -- a 60-person firm headquartered in Rockville, MD -- has "created a series of free virtual battlefield tour apps helping smartphone users identify strategic points on the battlefield using GPS....Increasingly, the company’s projects have had less to do with retelling history and more to do with historical techniques, such as organizing and troubleshooting electronic records for the National Park Service. History Associates also does historical litigation — the company’s research techniques can help settle contractual disputes, intellectual property cases and treaties."
The Next Wave of the Future: History (David Stamps, AllBusiness 12-1-99 -- annoyingly displayed for maximum exposure to ads)
Family business culture continuity via storytelling (David Adelman, William Alexander, in Family Business: The Guide for Family Companies, Nov/​Dec 2012)
Historian for Hire. A conversation with Philip Cantelon, co-founder of History Associates (Humanities Jan-Feb 2009, Vol. 30, No.1)
Past rites. How companies can benefit from looking backwards as well as forwards (The Economist, 9-7-07)
Confessions of a Ghost (Anonymous, on Inc., 5-15-99) A best-selling ghostwriter explains the making of business books, and what you don't want to know about it.
A rummage in the corporate attic (Alicia Clegg, Financial Times, 7-24-08). Interesting on the difference between academic histories and "heritage management," which is not always "history lite." (If this link doesn't work, Google the title.)
Celebrate the past by looking forward (Rhymer Rigby, Financial Times 8-7-08).
12 Most Motivating Business Memoirs of Our Time (Doug Rice, 12 Most)
The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age (William Cronon, Perspectives on History, January 2012)."...one could almost say that especially for those of us in the humanities, the essence of a university consisted of a group of professors and students gathered around a great heap of books. Those days are gone forever." Fascinating discussion.
Corporate storytelling
This Get’s In Your Way, But You Can Fix It: Nonprofit Storytelling Part 1 (Nancy Schwartz, Getting Attention! 11-27-12, on mission statements)
6 Story Types to Tell: Nonprofit Storytelling, Part 2 (Nancy Schwartz, 1-16-13)
How To Tell Your Founding Story: Nonprofit Storytelling, Part 3 (Nancy Schwartz, 1-23-13)
Digital storytelling: A tutorial in 10 lessons (JD Lasica, Socialbrite, Social solutions for nonprofits, on How to create a polished, powerful digital story for yourself or your nonprofit-- with links to many useful resources)
Visual storytelling checklist (JD Lasica, Socialbrite)
How nonprofits should be using storytelling (JD Lasica, SocialBrite)


Samples of brief online corporate histories:
Aetna
Coca-Cola Bottling
Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream Oral History Project (this University of California, Berkeley, oral history project makes available online 28 interviews with the company’s former owners, investors, and employees discussing everything from the development of Dreyer’s market-changing “slow-churned” ice cream to the company’s unique business philosophy)
GlaxoSmithKline
Goodyear
Häagen-Dazs
Henkel
Hershey's
HSBC
Pepsi, simple, and
Pepsi, the legacy book (PDF)
Simmons Mattresses

Samples of corporate or organizational histories: Here are a few of mine that you can purchase through Amazon (such titles are rarely sold in bookstores):
By Design is the story of the Crown lift truck, which snuck into its market and captured a major niche through a clever design strategy. It is a good example of the new approach to corporate history -- using stories and profiles of employees at all levels to make a company history come alive (and it's worth looking at the book for design alone). .
An American Biography is a biography of the industrialist who came up with the idea of Crown's first lift truck. Those two books led to another: YPO: The First 50 Years, a history of the Young Presidents' Organization (rushed to production, it contains no photos, but is LONG on good stories).

Next came Building Ten at Fifty, a history of the NIH Clinical Center (selections here), American's pioneering national research hospital (totally dedicated to clinical research), which totally hooked me on stories of medical patients. That led indirectly to Changing Times, Changing Minds, a history of psychiatry in the United States wrapped around the story of one unusual department of psychiatry (geared to serving and researching patients with serious and persistent mental illness, especially schizophrenia, among people who can't afford private treatment). I was engaged to do an oral history-based history of 50 years, but an unpublished manuscript about psychiatry from the years 1910 on turned up, a planned twenty interviews turned into eighty, the story doubled in size and quadrupled in complexity. Instead I tried a narrative nonfiction approach to the fascinating medical and social history of the department of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. (Lesson learned: Don't get carried away by an interesting story, or you may donate an extra year of your life to one project.)

More resources:
Directory of Corporate Archives in the United States and Canada (Society of American Archivists)
Book of Lists (bizjournals.com). These annual lists offer essential information on the leading buyers, businesses, and employers in any of 60 U.S. markets; use them to find who is celebrating 50th, 75th, or 100th anniversaries within the next few years (if you're scouting to write a corporate history).
• From Marian Calabro, a master of the genre/​business, at CorporateHistory.net, you can read answers to Frequently asked questions about corporate histories. On that same page, you can download 9 Questions to Ask Before You Invest a Cent in a Business History Project and 7 Reasons to Use History in Your Marketing. Explore that site to read about Marian's many projects.

This site participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, earning commissions on purchases made after linking to Amazon through this site. These small fees help support the cost of maintaining this site.

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The Self We Tell Ourselves We Are Influences Our Decisions


"I have learned from autobiography that humans are adaptable and it is quite likely that more attention will be given to integration of information from the viewpoints of science, society, and individuals. Autobiography represents a 'soft area' for research, one that would not have been very respected in past years when the behavioral and social sciences were trying to emulate the advances in physics and chemistry. More recently, however, there is growing opinion that our interpretations of our lives influence the decisions we make. The self we tell ourselves we are, the narrative self, appears to influence what decisions we make in life. I had the opportunity to interview a leading psychoanalyst in Los Angeles when he turned 75. I asked him about his psychoanalytic theory and how it related to individuals. He said, 'That is my theory, you have to realize that every person has a theory about his or her own life.' This seems to me a very integrative statement for my approach to autobiography; autobiography reveals the individual's theory about himself or herself, how they explain their life. It leads to the idea that one's self, the self we tell ourselves, is in a sense a personal theory, a theory that provides direction for decisions and actions in everyday life. Here lies a possible connection between the autobiographical stories of life and the decisions that individuals have made and the directions their lives have taken."
~ James E. Birren, How Do I Think I Got Here? (The LLI Review, Fall 2006)

Birren is a pioneer in life story and reminiscence groups.
Read his life story here.


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Not listed here are the many "memoir writing" and life writing workshops around the country, which serve the important function of getting you writing, keeping you writing, giving you an audience and a deadline--the two best motivators for putting words on paper. I lead "My Life, One Story at a Time" workshops at the Writer's Center in Bethesda--and love them. Here's a story one of my writing students (retired Episcopal clergy) recommended: Why a writing workshop did more for my preaching than a preaching conference (Teri McDowell Ott, The Christian Century, 11-5-13)

A/​B: Auto/​Biography (a journal of scholarship dedicated to expanding the discourse on life narrative in all its diverse forms)

alt.obituaries (online group for obituary lovers)

Association of Personal Historians (APH). Personal historians ("The Life Story People") help both celebrities and ordinary people tell their life or family stories. Listen to personal historian Stephanie Kadel Taras talking about Personal historians: What they do and why (podcast of an interview on the Ann Arbor program .

Biographers' Club (UK) has fairly frequent meetings, with speakers. Check out its Archive of

Biographers International Organization (BIO), founded in 2010 to represent the everyday interests of practicing biographers: those who’ve already published the stories of real lives, and those working on biographies – in every medium, from print to film.
BIO held its first Compleat Biographer conference March 26, 2010, in Boston. Click here for videos from the 2010 conference --including panels on trends in biography, on selecting your subject, and on marketing your biography; Justin Kaplan, Kitty Kelley, and others speaking about permissions, copyright, and authorization; introductory remarks about BIO; and an excellent keynote address by Jean Strouse, a "biographer's biographer," author of biographies of Alice James (a women afflicted by mysterious illnesses, whose life casts light on the lives of her older brothers, the famed William and Henry James) and financier J. Pierpont Morgan. (Strouse speaks of dealing with "known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns" about the lives we study.) Full membership available only to "professional biographers" (as defined by BIO board); memoirists may join as associate members. BIO's founding was reported in The Biographer's Craft, James McGrath Morris's newsletter, now available to BIO members with their subscription. Jamie is BIO's executive director. Get membership application here.
The second BIO conference was May 21, 2011, at the National Press Club in DC. (Here's video of Robert Caro's excellent keynote address on the power of place in biography.) The third conference (2012) will be held in Los Angeles.

Birren Center for Autobiography and Life Review (provides training and workshops on Guided Autobiography, aptly nicknamed GAB)

Center for Biographical Research (University of Hawai`i at Mānoa) New site under construction.

Center for Digital Storytelling (nonprofit that helps young and old use the tools of digital media to craft, record, share, and value the stories of individuals and communities)

Centre for Narrative & Auto /​ Biographical Studies (NABS, University of Edinburgh)

Centre for Narrative Research (University of East London)

Corporate History Initiative (and Affinity Group) (professionals within corporations or corporate museums who collect and interpret history or use history to market corporations, a project of the American Association of State and Local History). You can listen to podcasts from the conference.

Center for Digital Storytelling, which publishes a Digital Storytelling Cookbook to get you started (scroll to bottom of page and you can download a 40-page PDF sample from the book). Many excellent resources on this site.

Healing Story Alliance (exploring and promoting the use of storytelling in healing)

International Association for Journal Writing (IAJW)

International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review (IIRLR)

Institute of Biography Biografie Instituut), Nederlands)

International Oral History Association (IOHA)

International Society of Family History Writers and Editors (ISFHWE, formerly Council of Genealogy Columnists)

Leon Levy Center for Biography (Graduate Center, City University New York)

The Listening Project (BBC, Capturing the nation in conversation to build a unique picture of our lives today and preserve it for future generations)

National Council on Public History (NCPH)

National Genealogical Society (NGS) (a national nonprofit society for everyone from the beginner to the most advanced family historian). Check out the excellent NGS videos, aimed at anyone tracking down family history or curious about genealogy (as hobby or career)

Les nègres pour inconnus pour "l’écrivain biographe." See story about them.

New Books in Biography (Facebook page)

New York University Biography Seminar (mentioned on the website for The Center for the Study of Transformative Lives, where it says, "The New York University Biography Seminar was founded by Aileen Ward, the highly acclaimed biographer of John Keats, in the 1970s. It has been a distinguished location for discussion of issues and projects in biography. From its origin, it has been a place where biographers in the academy could meet and discuss issues in biography with established career biographers. Its leaders have included Fred Karl, Kenneth Silverman, Joan Peyser, and Patricia Bosworth."). It doesn't seem to have a page of its own, but here is a story about the group (indirectly): For Unauthorized Biographers, the World Is Very Hostile.


Oral History Association (OHA, the national group). See also:
---Regional and international oral history organizations
---H-Oralhist, a network for scholars and professionals active in studies related to oral history.
---Human subjects and IRB Review
---OHA Network
---OHA Wiki
---Oral History Review
---Principles and Best Practices for Oral History

Program in Narrative Medicine (College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University). Periodically holds interesting workshops.

Society for History in the Federal Government (brings together government professionals, academics, consultants, students, and citizens interested in understanding federal history work and the historical development of the federal government). Offers several awards.

Society of Professional Obituary Writers (Writing About the Dead for a Living), which has an interesting list of obit-related books

Story Circle Network: For women with stories to tell (nonprofit Texas-based group helping women explore and record their life stories). Offers conferences, online courses, book reviews, and more, including Telling HerStories (The Broad View) the Story Circle Network blog.

StoryCorps. "Every voice matters." Since 2003, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 30,000 interviews from more than 60,000 participants. StoryCorps interviews are featured every Friday on NPR’s Morning Edition or you can listen here, or subscribe to podcasts.

StoryVault (a UK-based website, social media for oral history)

Veterans History Project (VHP, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress), collecting and preserving memories of American war veterans and civilian workers who supported them

Veterans Writing Project . Offers no-cost seminars and workshops for members of the armed forces, active and reserve, who want to learn about writing in order to tell their stories. Their core curriculum is Ron Capps's book Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story. Written by a veteran for veterans, it details the elements of craft involved in writing both fiction and non-fiction. The Veterans Writing Project publishes a blog and a literary journal O-Dark-Thirty .

Washington Biography Group (with links to biography groups forming elsewhere)

Women Writing Women's Lives (WWWL), a long-standing, ongoing seminar of about sixty women engaged in writing book-length biographies and memoirs, under the aegis of the Center for the Study of Women and Society and the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.



"Writing about [events in my life] has been a way of processing them. Not only tragedies like the deaths of my sons, but other things like learning of my adoption as an adult and my search for my birthmother. These are life-altering experiences and writing about something is a good way to figure out what to make of it.
"Patients, of course, are an endless source of inspiration and stories. Psychiatry is a performance art. We talk with people; they tell us their secrets and their pain. They benefit from the conversations or not. But it’s all words in the air; our case notes are sealed and unless we write something down, the experiences are lost except to our memories. But we’re changed by these stories just as our patients are and the truths they lead us to are worth preserving. Writing down what we have learned also constitutes a kind of “ethical will,” something to convey to succeeding generations in the same way that we distribute our property. I think that we have some obligation before we die to enunciate whatever we think we’ve learned about life. So that was also a motivation to write these books, because I thought that whether anybody buys them or not, my children and their children will have this gift from me."
~ Gordon Livingston, MD, author of Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now and And Never Stop Dancing, interviewed by Bruce Hershfield for Maryland Psychiatrist

Websites, organizations, and other resources

A GREAT READ
Blog roll, too
and communities of book lovers
Best reads and most "discussable"
Fact-finding, fact-checking, conversion tables, and news and info resources
Recommended reading
long-form journalism, e-singles, online aggregators
BOOK AND MAGAZINE PUBLISHING
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Blogs, social media, podcasts, ezines, survey tools and online games
How much to charge and so on (for creative entrepreneurs)
And finding freelance gigs
Blogs, video promotion, intelligent radio programs
See also Self-Publishing
Indie publishing, digital publishing, POD, how-to sources
Includes original text by Sarah Wernick
WRITERS AND CREATORS
Plus contests, other sources of funds for creators
Copywriting, speechwriting, marketing, training, and writing for government
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Translators, indexers, designers, photographers, artists, illustrators, animators, cartoonists, image professionals, composers
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Groups for writers who specialize in animals, children's books, food, gardens, family history, resumes, sports, travel, Webwriting, and wine (etc.)
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ETHICS, RIGHTS, AND OTHER ISSUES
Contracts, reversion of rights, Google Books settlement
Plus privacy, plagiarism, libel, media watchdogs, FOIA, protection for whistleblowers
EDITORS AND EDITING
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