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Memoir, biography, and corporate history

Memoir or personal history, biography or autobiography,
oral history or interview, corporate or organizational history —
resources on various forms of life writing a/k/a life story writing


• What is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography (or memoirs)?
• Memoirs, memoir writing, and autobiography (writing a life story)
• Become a personal historian--help ordinary people tell their life stories
The art and business of personal histories
• More on the life story business and market (the bespoke memoir)

• Organizations for biographers, memoirists, and other life story writers
• The craft of life story writing
The art and craft of memoir and biography (books about)
• The art, craft, and politics of biography
• The hybrid memoir
• The Paris Review Art of Biography series
• The nature and malleability of memory
• Voice, persona and viewpoint in memoir
• Memoir writing workshops in prison
• The ethics of memoir writing
• Writer's Digest series on memoir writing
Profiles More stories about the art and business of personal history
• Personal and family histories and legacy memoirs
• Diaries
• How to find a personal historian (links to local organizations)
• Blog posts (Pat's) on memoir, personal histories, and life story writing
• Corporate and organizational histories (company storytelling and commissioned histories)
• Doing oral histories
• Organizations for biographers, memoirists, and other life story writers

• Books to help you get started writing
your own (or someone else's) life story

---Writing personal and family histories
Memoirs, healing, and self-understanding
Memoir writing as discovery
Writing from memory prompts
The art and craft of memoir and biography
Anthologies of life story writing and reminiscence

• Books for life story writing or reminiscence groups
• The Self We Tell Ourselves We Are Influences Our Decisions
• U.S. history timelines



Contents repeated, but in alphabetical order:
• The art, craft, and politics of biography
• The art and business of personal history
• Become a personal historian--help ordinary people tell their life stories
• Blog posts (Pat's) on memoir, personal histories, and life story writing
Books about the art and craft of memoir and biography
• Books to help lead life story writing or reminiscence groups
• Corporate and organizational histories (company storytelling and commissioned histories)
• The craft of life story writing
• Diaries
• Doing oral histories
• The ethics of memoir writing
• History timelines
• How to find a personal historian (links to local organizations)
• The hybrid memoir
• The life story business and market
• Memoirs, memoir writing, and autobiography
• Memoir writing workshops in prison
• The nature and malleability of memory
• Organizations for biographers, memoirists, and other life story writers
• The Paris Review Art of Biography series

Personal and family histories and legacy memoirs
• Voice, persona and viewpoint in memoir
• What is Guided Autobiography (GAB)?

• What is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography (or memoirs)?
• Writer's Digest series on memoir writing

Books to help lead life story writing or reminiscence groups
• Books to help you get started writing your own or someone else's life story

---Anthologies of life story writing and reminiscence
The art and craft of memoir and biography
---Memoirs, healing, and self-understanding
Memoir writing as discovery
---Writing from memory prompts
Writing personal and family histories

• The Self We Tell Ourselves We Are Influences Our Decisions

See also:
Interesting author profiles and interviews (Book news, reviews, and interviews)
Venues for author interviews, book readings, glimpses into the literary world

"The idea of being forgotten is terrifying. I fear not just that I, personally, will be forgotten, but that we are all doomed to being forgotten—that the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed. If you gaze into that bleakness even for a moment, the sum of life becomes null and void, because if nothing lasts, nothing matters. It means that everything we experience unfolds without a pattern, and life is just a wild, random, baffling occurrence, a scattering of notes with no melody. But if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know that you are a part of a larger story that has shape and purpose—a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future. We are all whispering in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string."

    ~ Susan Orlean, in The Library Book

What Is the Difference Between a Memoir and an Autobiography?


I am often asked ‘What is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?’


Both are typically true stories from a person's life, typically written (or co-authored) by that person, told in first person ("I then went..."), though sometimes co-authored by someone else (typically a professional writer). As Marc Pachter, beloved 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. (Similarly, a biography is a complete life told by someone else.)

A memoir (singular) is not the larger story of a life (from birth to death) then, but a story or a theme from the life. It may be a slice of that life, a time in that life (the childhood, say, or a particular summer in the childhood), 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 Judith 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."


William Zinser says, “Unlike autobiography, which moves in a dutiful line from birth to fame, memoir narrows the lens, focusing on a time in the writer’s life that was unusually vivid, such as childhood or adolescence, or that was framed by war or travel or public service or some other special circumstance.” 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).

David Nasaw, who chaired the Biography/Autobiography Committee for the Pulitzer Prizes in 2015, perplexed that in 2016 and 2017 the Pulitzer board had selected "memoirs two years running for the Biography/Autobiography category," said this had "sparked a debate among biographers" (James McGrath Morris, Pulitzer Stirs Controversy by Awarding the Biography/ Autobiography Prize to Memoirs, BIO blog, 6-14-17). Said Nasaw, "...I did a little bit of research, and we all did, on what was an autobiography. How is this defined? And, it was the opinion of the three of us that an autobiography was distinct from a memoir. An autobiography is the writing of a life by the person who lived that life. It does not necessarily have to be cradle-to-grave, but it is written to show how influences of place and time, childhood, adolescence, parenthood, affect the coming-to-age, and the activities, character, personality, and achievements of the adult. It is, in other words, a biography written by the person who is the subject of that biography.

"It was our understanding that a memoir is a piece of a life, a moment of a life, a part of a life, and it is not documented. There is no corroborating material, there are no additional interviews, there are no newspaper articles, and there is no context provided. A memoir is a work—as the title makes clear—of memory. Autobiography and biographies are not works of memory."

"You can imagine my surprise when, the following year, a book that we would not even have considered for the award, given our reading of Finnegan’s book, was given the prize. And the Stiles book, which was a biography, was moved out of the category, into History. And the second runner-up was a memoir. The following year, this year, there were no autobiographies or biographies. The prize was given to another memoir, and again the runners-up were memoirs."

So clearly, not everyone agrees on the nature of and difference between the genres. Do read Jamie's piece about the controversial, perhaps inexplicable Pulitzer choices.. Finally, David Nasaw concludes, "And again, memoirs are important enough as a genre in the twenty-first century, that they should have their own award." See BIO's letter to the Pulitzer Board (7-12-17)

In December 2016, the Washington Biography group celebrated its 30th anniversary. Commenting on that party, Paula Tarnapol Whitacre wrote: "Keeping someone alive across time"--that's the biographer's charge, Marc summed up. To do that, we should look for the human details, the juice of life. In that way, biographers have something in common with gossips."

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 discover 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.

Types of autobiographic writing (Center for Autobiographic Studies). Broadly, "A Full Autobiography covers an entire life from birth to the present. A MEMOIR puts a frame onto life by limiting what is included." An excellent overview of types of memoir, with examples (coming of age memoir, memoirs of place, ecological memoir, memoirs about family relationships, including portraits), memoirs with a theme (including adventure, thrilling events, war stories, dealing with adversity, and near-death encounters), vocational and occupational memoirs, philosophic memoirs, religious or spiritual autobiography, confessions, complaints, personal essays, travelogues, ethnic autobiography, and so on.

• Sue William Silverman on The Meandering River: An Overview of the Subgenres of Creative Nonfiction, distinguishes between biography, autobiography, memoir, and personal essay, meditative essay, and lyric essay as subgenres of creative nonfiction
Time in Memoir (Kim Adrian, Write On Newsletter) writing about Sven Birkerts's wonderful and succinct book.

Memoir versus Autobiography: What’s the difference? (Association of Ghostwriters, on distinctions and skills important in hiring/working as ghostwriters)

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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 was a pioneer in life story and reminiscence groups.


The detour into misery that makes your story more compelling

(or why not to be just a Goody Two-Shoes)
"It takes a rare kind of courage to live like a character in a story, and not many real-life human beings have the nerve to try it—perhaps because the elements that make a narrative compelling also make life miserable," writes Adam M. Bright in a story for Good Magazine about Lea Thau and the Moth, a live story telling organization based in New York City.

"Most people are too attached to the things that make them happy (honor, love, and friendship) to appreciate the subtle appeal of those things that might make them into more interesting protagonists (disgrace, heartbreak, and loneliness)," writes Bright in the story Burned by Desire (3-22-08). "Luckily, though, even prudent people will occasionally commit spectacular acts of mischief in pursuit of happiness. And when they do, the Moth is waiting—with an audience and a microphone. Since 1997, the storytelling organization has helped more than 4,000 people tell their tales of crimes, misdemeanors, and epic lapses in judgment. Few of the stories are downers—most, in fact, have uplifting messages—but it’s hard to pull off a heartwarming finish without making at least a brief detour into misery."

"The best stories are born from the moments when we got our wings burned or clipped a little," said Lea Thau, executive director of the nonprofit organization.

Go to the Moth's website to learn about their highly affordable upcoming performances.

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What Is Guided Autobiography?


"If you know something about your neighbor's soul, you might be less inclined to cut her off in traffic or throw trash on his lawn. You'll begin to see others as 'us' rather than 'them.' We are more alike than what we see on the surface. The only way to see this is to share little parts of our souls. And by sharing these parts of our souls, we unite, become one, and heal our planet together." 

~ Shari Vogt  2003


Guided Autobiography (aptly nicknamed GAB) is the late James Birrens' brainchild: structured memoir writing, two pages at a time, shared in a small group. "Sensitizing questions" focus on common life themes (such as Branching Points, Family, Money, Work and Career, Health and Body, Philosophical or Spiritual Journey, Death and Dying, Goals and Aspirations), and participants write two pages on a given theme, to write outside class but read aloud to the group.

        Birren compares “reminiscence” and “life review” (essentially "conversation and exchange," whose underlying purpose is generally to "relieve loneliness in life") with GAB, which is "defined and structured, permits evaluation, and is in fact being evaluated." Elsewhere he calls it a "guided tour of your life," and "Like having a cup of coffee or tea with a friend that leads to new insights and life changes, guided autobiography can be therapeutic without being regarded as therapy.”

       Evaluation, in my opinion, is not what's important for GAB groups and leaders. In my experience the chief value of the groups is that members have a weekly deadline, an interested audience, helpful writing prompts, and a good leader -- a combination that keeps them writing (which, when not meeting with a group or mentor, they are less motivated to keep doing). Sharing the stories aloud is an essential part of the value of these groups. Listening to each other's stories also helps them hear and strengthen their "voice" (or lack thereof) -- by hearing the difference between stories with a strong or clear voice and those without -- and develop a sense of what a good story is. But at the same time, they are sharing their lives -- in the process, very often forming friendships. (I often think this would be a better way for friends to get to know each other quickly, but in a way it is at first easier for some participants to share their stories with friendly strangers; there is less self-censorship and anxiety.)

       Great (in the sense of literary) writing is not what is aimed for. "GAB is not a talent show," said Richard Campbell, co-author of one GAB book. It's more about looking at themes in one's life, and allowing them to elicit stories. There are both in-person and online GAB classes, which you can find here: GAB Worldwide Network.

        During the pandemic, many of us taught online GAB courses. The focus is totally on the story itself, to begin with. Feedback is never about the writing, incorrect grammar, sentence structure, syntax, or how the story is framed; it's about your experience. Yet something happens: the writing gets better. The handouts ("sensitizing questions") are popular with my writing students at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. They get memory and the imagination going. Belonging to a group provides a safe audience and in listening to each other somehow everyone starts writing better! Having a deadline makes us do the work.


Read more about GAB here:

Guided Autobiography (The Birren Center for Autobiographical Studies) 


Telling Their Life Stories, Older Adults Find Peace in Looking Back (Susan B. Garland, New York Times, 12-9-16).

A Guided Tour of the Past (Paula Span, New Old Age, The New York Times, 7-18-11)

• Lisa Smith-Youngs' Why I love teaching Guided Autobiography (on Pat's Writers and Editors site)

A Tale in Two Pages (Peggy Rosen, Personal Historians Northeast Network, 11-3-22) Four things get you going: the collective power generated by a group of people with a shared interest; universal themes and prompts lead to relevant stories anywhere on your life’s timeline; writing stories in short segments makes the process more manageable, less daunting; sharing stories and caring about the others' stories helps participants find common ground while celebrating differences.

Guiding Autobiography Groups for Older Adults: Exploring the Fabric of Life, a book by James E. Birren and Donna E. Deutchman.

Telling the Stories of Life through Guided Autobiography Groups, a book by James E. Birren and Kathryn N. Cochran Instead of telling stories about your birth, childhood, schools, marriage, jobs, and children, discuss themes in your life: family, geography, work, spirituality, etc.

Feasibility of a Simplified Version of Guided Autobiography in Community-Dwelling Older Adults: A Pilot Study (Sachiko Yamazaki, Mayuko Ono, Chiho Shimada, Cullen T. Hayashida, Michiyo Tomioka, Hisao Osada, Tomoko Ikeuchi, The International Journal of Reminiscence and Life Review, 2024, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp. 1-5) This study suggested that the shortened GAB can be feasible for positively accepting the self and finding meaning in life among Japanese older adults.

The Show Must Go On (Lindy Pfeil, West Vancouver) "We call ourselves Mothers on Ink. Mostly because we started out as a writing group. But also because it’s a slightly more socially acceptable name than Mothers on Ativan."

Guided Autobiography: Stimulate Your Brain, Enhance Well-Being, Develop Community, and Create a Legacy (Cheryl M. Svensson and Bonnie L. Bernell, The California Psychologist, Nov./Dec. 2013, Vol. 46, No. 6, pp. 15-18.

Guided Autobiography (The Birren Center for Autobiography and Life Review)
     Guided autobiography groups (James Birrens' brainchild) are structured memoir writing groups, in which participants write and read aloud two pages at a time. Many of us got instructor training through that group and learned that friendships may indeed be forged over the Internet.

The Examined Life with Guided Autobiography (audio, Dr. Bonnie Bernel‪l‬ on SuperPsyched with Dr. Adam Dorsay) Listen starting at minute 8 for an excellent explanation and story of how the guided autobiography approach works. Participants are asked to write a two- or three-page story in response to a writing prompt and bring it to the next meeting to read aloud. In one writing group, in response to the prompt "treasures that matter (an experience, a person, or a thing)," one contributor describes how a participant told the story of a valued pair of old shoes that brought tears to the listeners. In an accepting group, he got supportive feedback (with an emphasis on support, not critiques and challenges, which shut some people down). The group as a whole "is its own source of energy... because it's set up as a place to be safe." You are not going to be criticized; you are going to get support. It is not group therapy, in which you are going to be challenged. Good prompts are important -- they stimulate the brain and help elicit memories and stories. 

 • How Do I Think I Got Here? (James E. Birren, the LII Review, Fall 2006)

Where To Go From Here ed. by James Birren and Linda M. Feldman Questions such as "Where have I been, How did I get here, Toward what am I headed ?" lead to the ultimate question: "How would you live your life if you were truly free ?"


The Birren Guided Autobiography Method
Telling Your Story, hundreds of examples of capturing one's own own or someone else's life story.
Books to help you get started writing your own or someone else's life story
Books to help lead life writing or reminiscence groups


Informal GAB anthologies:
Landed: Transformative Stories of Canadian Immigrant Women, ed. by Gayathri Shukla and Elena Esina
Onward! True Life Stories of Challenges, Choices & Change ed. Emma Fulenwider


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Ghostwriters aren't only for celebrities.

"What gets recorded gets remembered."
"It's not death we fear. It's being forgotten."
"If history were taught in the form of stories,
it would never be forgotten."  ~ Rudyard Kipling

"A personal history costs about the same as a vacation. It just depends whether you want to go camping in the Rockies or take a world cruise on a luxury liner." -- personal historian Jennifer Campbell, author of Start & Run a Personal History Business: Get Paid to Research Family Ancestry and Write Memoirs. Or listen to her here in an an old interview for the Genealogy Professional podcast.

     Until April 2017, when the Association of Personal Historians folded and declared bankruptcy (after doing quite a nice job of getting people together over 20 years, thanks to Paula Yost and many others), you could go to the annual APH conference to learn the various ways members were helping others tell their life stories. Overnight the website closed down, to meet the rules of the bankruptcy court, so a lot of us felt abandoned. But it is still possible to do the work of personal history and you can learn a lot about it from former members of the national organization -- who vary in their specialties, which may include print, audio, and/or video personal histories-- another phrase for memoirs, a more familiar term. Some of us teach classes. (My workshop at the Writer's Center in Bethesda MD is called "My Life, One Story at a Time.")

     Personal historians help other people--ordinary people, not celebrities--tell their life stories in print, in audio, and/or on video. The Association of Personal Historians folded in 2017 (here we were in photos from APH conferences, but more local APH groups are now gradually springing into existence. Plenty of us provide services and a few regional organizations have formed. So far you can find local personal historian groups here:
---How to find a personal historian  And remember, it makes a difference if you want a book, an audio-recording, or a video.
---Life Story Professionals of the Greater Washington Area (DC, Maryland, and Virginia), but always looking for a better name.
---Personal Historians Northeast Network (PHNN) Holds live meetings four times a year in the Boston area, covering five New England States (CT, MA, ME, NH, RI, and VT)
---Personal Historians (a Facebook group)

---Personal Historians Northeast Network (a Facebook group)
---Personal Historians Northwest
---Personal Historians NW (in the Pacific Northwest)
---Life Stories Australia (personal historians, biographers, editors, etc.)
---NYC Personal Historians (a Meetup group).
---Personal Historians (LinkedIn group, possibly inactive, except for one fellow!)
---Biographers Guild of Greater New York (BGGNY) Facebook page (different from personal historians) ---Other regional groups of APH members are sure to form. Let me know if you already exist and how clients may reach you, and I'll add you to the list.

The old APH website (before the national group disbanded): APH, The Life Story People, Association of Personal Historians: https://personalhistorians.org/

It's a great time to become a personal historian (Pat McNees, Writers and Editors)
***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.

Notes from a Funeral (Dawn Roode, Modern Heirloom books, 4-27-17) Sometime we learn more about someone at their funeral than we knew when they were alive. Hearing others' memories is comforting when you're suffering a loss, but wouldn't it be nice to hear the stories when the people are still alive? Hence the newish field of "personal histories," life stories for noncelebrities.
The Business of Personal Histories by Pat McNees (PDF, American Society of Journalists and Authors newsletter, 2008)
Jacking Up History (Michael Dolan, Washington City Paper, 7-28-95) McNees had deflected many inquiries from ASJA's matchmaking service, Dial-a-Writer, but this time she followed up. Warren Webster reminded her of her own father, an ironworker and staunch union man, though Webster was management in a manufacturing firm. “Mr. Webster had come up at a time when certain kinds of Everyman could rise to the next level and stop working in the factory,” McNees says. “It was possible to go from the shop floor to being an engineer, and he did.”
What Is Personal History? (podcast, Amy Woods Butler, The Life Story Coach) "What gets recorded gets remembered."
• Got questions? Check out 21 frequently asked questions about personal histories and historians, as well as the Personal historians code of ethics.
Preserving Family Histories (Jenn Report interview with personal historian Jennifer Campbell, 9-27-16) Good overview of what a personal historian does and how Jennifer got into the field. Many of us start doing the work, then discover the term "personal historian" and recognize ourselves.
From Gates to Rockefeller, Wealthy Families Hire Personal Historians to Preserve Their Legacy (William Middleton, Town&Country, 10-26-18) Want to archive your letters, scrapbooks, and photos? There are people for that.
How I Learned to Write Life Stories, Part 1 (Amy Woods Butler, Life Story Coach, 3-24-18)
Teaching Life Story Classes and Opening a Life Story Studio
Telling Their Life Stories, Older Adults Find Peace in Looking Back (Susan B. Garland, New York Times, 12-9-16)
***My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History, ed. by Paula Stallings Yost and Pt McNees, 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?" You can buy from Amazon. 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.
Fighting Dementia With Memories of Childhood and Happy Times (Christopher F. Schuetze, NY Times, 8-22-18) It is part of an unorthodox approach to dementia treatment that doctors and caregivers across the Netherlands have been pioneering: harnessing the power of relaxation, childhood memories, sensory aids, soothing music, family structure and other tools to heal, calm and nurture the residents, rather than relying on the old prescription of bed rest, medication and, in some cases, physical restraints.
Life story: Falmouth memoirist teams up with beloved local retailer (Sarah Murphy, Falmouth Bulletin, 3-21-17) Over her 30-year career Debra Levy assisted writers, publishers, and commercial clients with book production, which she loved, but she never forgot the impact of a college internship writing obituaries for the Boston Edison company newsletter. So she started a memoir-writing business. "I've always had a job but for the first time, I feel as if I can make a real impact. Thirty years from now, Nate's great-great-grandchildren will be able to pick up this book and know him," she said.
Should we call ourselves personal historians if we want clients to find us? (Amy Woods Butler, The Life Story Coach) "Personal history, life stories, memoirs? The words we use matter....Let’s face it, the term 'personal history' isn’t the greatest."
Telling Your Story (Pat McNees -- links to many more angles on the topic).

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The life story business and market

The Rise of the Bespoke Memoir


Getting into the Memoir and Biography Biz

3 Common Pitfalls in Memoir Queries (Jane Friedman, 6-23-22) The three biggest pitfalls she's seen in memoir queries, regardless of pitching strategy: Listing events rather than telling a story (providing someone to care about, a problem to explore). Going heavy on theme or abstraction. Focusing on backstory--back to the very beginning; better "to start in medias res, in the middle of things, and fill in the gaps as we go."
How Two Authors Collaborated on a Biography (Isidra Mencos on Jane Friedman's blog, 3-29-23) 'To collaborate can be hard. When it’s going well, it’s great, because you’re sharing the excitement and discoveries with someone else, but it can be problematic when you start thinking, “Who’s doing more work than the other?”
How to Craft a Compelling Memoir: 5 Ways to Engage Your Readers Duncan Koerber's 35-minute video on Facebook is both helpful to would-be memoir writers and a good way to market his own personal style, skills, background, and approach.
Political biographies are dislodging celebrity books (The Economist, 10-15-2020) Dysfunctional politics, it turns out, is rather entertaining.

Notes from a Funeral (Dawn Roode, Modern Heirloom books, 4-27-17) Sometime we learn more about someone at their funeral than we knew when they were alive. Hearing others' memories is comforting when you're suffering a loss, but wouldn't it be nice to hear the stories when the people are still alive? Hence the newish field of "personal histories," life stories for noncelebrities.
The rise of bespoke memoirs — how much would you pay for the book of your life story? (Jake Helm, The Sunday Times UK, 9-28-21) More Britons than ever are paying up to £7,500 for ghostwriters to pen their memoirs. “Anyone considering it should just go for it,” says Luke Hallard, 49, from London, who has no regrets about giving his father a memoir-writing service as a 70th birthday present. “You never know how long relatives are going to be around or how long they are going to be mentally able. Anything could happen, and this preserves their memories for ever.”

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Succeeding with Self-Published Memoir: Q&A with Ashleigh Renard (Jane Friedman, 9-16-21) "I worked really hard on social media for years, with super slow growth, and I wondered what hacks or strategies I needed to employ to connect with more people. What I didn’t realize was that the people I was watching grow were buying followers and likes. I was comparing myself to something that wasn’t real. It’s not about building a feed that looks good, it’s about creating and connecting in a way that feels good..."

     Jane: "Ashleigh agreed to lift the veil on her marketing and promotion for Swing, and let us know how she made the magic happen." The title probably helped: Swing: A Memoir of Doing It All. But marketing a memoir is tough because there is so much competition....Unlike most self-publishing debut authors I know, you focused on pushing pre-orders and trying to build word of mouth in much the same way a traditional publisher might—which can be challenging without a publisher's support. There are two aspects of this I'd like to explore. First, you invested in a traditional bookstore partnership and trying to get wider bookstore community support, so that pre-orders wouldn't be exclusively through Amazon. I believe you sent stores advance review copies (ARCs) along with a personal note. How did this go? (Answer: Look at all the advance quotes on the Amazon site.)

     In an Authors Guild discussion, a few authors complained that they sent out a lot of ARCs to get comments on Amazon but those copies went out before the book's official launch date so after a couple of comments (praise) were posted, Amazon started blocking the others, apparently thinking something fishy was going on.
I Spent Nearly Two Decades Writing and Editing My Book. It Finally Found a Publisher. by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Elizabeth McGowan, who tweeted "Perseverance isn't just about finding the right agent or publisher--it's also about refining your work into the best version of itself." McGowan’s adventure memoir, Outpedaling “The Big C”: My Healing Cycle Across America, was released in September 2020 by Bancroft Press in Baltimore. Major publishers turned her down. "Agents and editors come off as unfeeling and rather horrible people for basically saying what amounts to, 'No one cares about your cancer story,'" Jane Friedman told her. "But they're nearly impossible to sell, and while as humans we care, we're also aware of the business reality." But she persevered.

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How I Wrote and Sold My Memoir (Cecilia Aragon, 6-25-19), by the author of Flying Free: My Victory Over Fear to Become the First Latina Pilot on the US Aerobatic Team.
Doctor, teacher, bestseller: why real-life memoirs are such a hit (Rob Walker, The Observer, The Guardian, 5-4-19) "A Great Ormond Street nurse has sold 100,000 books in a few weeks by joining a growing trend of writers to recount heartfelt first-person accounts of their own lives. Her agent suggested she try something different – telling her own story of life as a nurse in the first person, a “narrative non-fiction” as Watson calls it.... The result is a moving and at times haunting first-person account of life on hospital wards.' “Celebrities aren’t inspiring any more, and people don’t want to be them”, says Helen Garnons-Williams, publishing director at 4th Estate, which is owned by HarperCollins. “What readers want is people who are normal and who they feel they can trust.
Getting a Memoir Published in a Difficult Market (Jane Friedman's Q&A with Margaret McMullan, 5-1-19) The industry has changed. There used to be twenty-three big publishing houses and still others to send to. Now there are fewer than half as many. Luckily she had an agent who believed in her, who knew where to find that small press that might love her ms.
Mini-Biographies Help Clinicians Connect With Patients (Bram Sable-Smith, Kaiser Health News, 6-10-19) Bob Hall was recovering from yet another surgery in March 2014 when a volunteer walked into his hospital room. It had been a rocky recovery since his lung transplant three months earlier at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, Wis. The volunteer wasn’t there to check on his lungs or breathing. Instead, she asked Hall if he wanted to tell his life story. When the story is finished, it’s attached to the patient’s electronic record, where a doctor or nurse working anywhere in the Veterans Affairs medical system can read it. Today more than 2,000 patients at the Madison VA have shared their life stories. Project organizers say it could change the way providers interact with patients. See also Storytelling Helps Hospital Staff Learn About the Person, Not Just the Patient (Bram Sable-Smith on Morning Edition, NPR, 6-3-19). Listen or read the transcript, or both.
An Agent Does the Math: Why Do Memoirists Face Such a Rough Market? by Kate Epstein (Backspace--The Writer's Place)
The Legal Risks Of Writing Memoirs (Matt Knight, Sidebar Saturdays, 3-31-18) The four areas of legal risk (and the risk is mostly of being sued) are defamation, invasion of privacy, the right of publicity, and fraud. See Wikipedia's List of fake memoirs and journals (surprisingly long, and some of these books were popular!).

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How to Minimize Hurt Feelings When Writing Your Memoir (Allison K Williams on Jane Friedman's blog, 3-7-23)
Have a Story to Tell? Your Personal Memoirist Is Here (Alina Tugend, Entrepreneurship, NY Times, 8-31-16) "Many novices embrace the idea of talking to people and writing about their lives, but are not aware of the minutiae and marketing strategies involved. For example, transcribing interviews is very time-consuming, a minimum of four hours for a “perfect” interview, Mr. Horne said, with time added if the interview is disjointed or if the subject has a heavy accent." ...“A daughter will say, ‘Mother so enjoyed working with you. Can you stop by once a week?’” Ms. Tyrrell said. “And I said ‘No.’ I had to earn a living.” And writers must learn to be ruthless when editing a life story. “A client can go on for half an hour about how powerful his car was in 1920, and that’s going to be one sentence,” Mr. Horne said. “You have to be diplomatic.” But the upside of the business — the gratitude of clients and their families — more than makes up for the difficulties.' See Become a personal historian: Help others tell their life or family stories right after this section.
Life story rights: What’s possible and what’s not (Stephen Rodner, AP, Hollywood Reporter, 1-24-08) While permissions from subjects can go a long way in clearing the way for life story rights, they don't cover representations of other persons or stop rival productions.
As Author, Obama Earns Big Money and a New Deal (Jeff Zeleny, Politics, NY Times 3-19-09)
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. See also a third part, about "who" (3-5-10)
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.

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Preserving Wealth By Defining A Legacy -- The Role Of Family Historians ( Bingham C. Jamison, CFA, Forbes, 5-16-17)
'According to Stacy Derby, Founder and Principal of Bind These Words, a Chicago-based family biography firm, “When the wealth creator or current steward connects the next generation to the richness and depth of their personal story, the result is a more cohesive, functional family with co-aligned financial and philanthropic goals…Older generations can rely on the family biography to ensure their heirs have the personal connection and financial literacy to manage, not squander, their inheritance.”'
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."

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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.
Memoir Land, a newsletter featuring:
---Memoir Monday, a weekly curation of the best personal essays from around the web
---First Person Singular, featuring original personal essays
---The Lit Lab, interviews and essays on craft and publishing.

“The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.”

    ~ William James, 19th century philosopher and psychologist


A quick overview. See also (and especially)

      Writing compelling profiles (in section on journalism)

      Interesting author profiles and interviews

How to Write a Profile Article (Master Class) Whether it’s an article about a Supreme Court justice or a piece about a local store owner, profile writing paints a picture of a person with words—who they are, what they do, and what makes them tick.
How to Write a Profile Story (Journalism Education, Cubreportrers.org) Excellent, especially for journalism students.
Introduction to the Profile (Introduction to the Profile, Idaho Pressbooks) Rather than merely reporting facts, a profile works to create a dominant impression. The focus of a profile is on the subject, not on the writer's experience.
Profiles (Stephanie Frame, Editor, Writing in Genres: A guide to composing academic and professional texts, PB Pressbooks)
New Yorker Magazine Profiles Links to some (hundreds) of the best profiles in the business
Introduction to the Profile (Kate Geiselman, English 102: Journey Into Open, Maricopa.edu)
The greatest ever portrait of Frank Sinatra was missing one thing — Frank Sinatra (Mark Rozzo, GQ Magazine, 4-9-21)‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’ was published in 1966 and instantly enshrined in journalism’s hall of fame. But the cat-and-mouse tale of how Gay Talese made Ol’ Blue Eyes sing from a distance is just as astonishing. Today, “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” is considered a high-water mark of the New Journalism, a Hall Of Fame feat of immersive reporting on a non-participating subject. ‘I gained more by watching the reactions of those around Sinatra than if I had been able to talk to him’ ‘Sinatra with a cold,’ Gay Talese wrote, ‘is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel’

---Carol Burnett Interview: Overcoming Rejection, Finding Success & Becoming a Comedy Legend



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The Craft of Life Story Writing

Much of what you will find useful here is about structuring and storyline.

Beyond Betrayal: A Conversation with Laura Davis (Elizabeth Rosner, Los Angeles Review of Book, 11-5-21) Full of insights into how to tell the story of a complex, often terrible, relationship between mother and daughter. "After many failed attempts at story architecture, with the help of several editors, my brilliant coach, Joshua Townshend-Zellner, and 127 early readers, I ended up with a braided structure, moving the reader through time, keeping them guessing, “How could Laura, who had every reason to never speak to her mother again, end up taking care of her?” And, “How could Temme, who had her own reasons to doubt Laura, trust her with the end of her life?” The minute you finish this article you may want to order (as I did) Laura Davis's two books: The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse and The Burning Light of Two Stars: A Mother-Daughter Story.
What Memoirists Can Learn from Historical Novelists (Susanne Dunlap on Jane Friedman's blog, 3-23-23) Writers of both genres have to make decisions that somehow mold real people and events into a story with a shape, an arc, and meaning.
The Big Memoir Pitfall to Avoid (Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola on Jane Friedman's blog, 8-16-19) On the importance of perspective: 'Seek out any sections that too directly explore your feelings about an event rather than the event itself. Where do you say words such as "I hated," "I felt so depressed," "I couldn't stand"? The "I" here will become intrusive, a monologue of old grievances.
6 steps to writing a memoir (Alan Rinzler, Ask the Editor, The Book Deal) "Every memoir should be a journey of change and transformation. So before filling in the details of a chapter-by-chapter outline, I recommend that you think first about the ending. Once you know the climax, where you wind up, you’ll know better what the story is and where to begin."

'If you find yourself telling the reader how to feel, then you're probably headed the wrong way. Channel your creative energy, instead, into constructing the scenes, images, and metaphors that will allow readers to have their own reactions.'

~ See also Miller and Paola's book Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction
The Challenges and Pleasures of Helping Quincy Jones Tell His Life Story (LitHub, 4-2-22) Patricia Mulcahy on Collaborating with a Musical Icon: I remember Q’s words, repeated many times as we surveyed his lengthy career: “Honey, you can’t stay on top forever. All you can do is hustle—and give props: Demonstrate appreciation for every person who’s shown you even a little bit of light.”

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The Worst Thing I Ever Did: Confession and the Contemporary Memoir (Blake Morrison's thoughtful talk about memoir as confession--or what confession is and what's good and bad about it, Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing, 2-4-14). From the OCLW podcast archive (Wolfson College, University of Oxford).
The Art of Biography by Joseph Epstein (WSJ, 1-1-16), a review of On Life-Writing by Zachary Leader. Autobiography, Orwell thought, ‘is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.’ Epstein's interesting essay-review skewers academic writing and confessional literature (to those of us who "would as lief have our thumbs removed than read a memoir about incest, W.H. Auden’s advice about confession remains in force: Be blunt, be brief, be gone.")
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee, as reviewed by Joan Silverman: Alexander Chee pens powerfully, lyrically (Press Herald, 4-15-18) "Chee delivers 16 essays of varying weights and lengths, mostly in the first person and largely in chronological order. The effect is both profound and incremental, of stories that stand alone and work together to unveil a life. And unveiling is very much the point: Chee, a gay, half-white, half-Korean author and teacher, has been wrestling with these disparate identities for most of his life.
Content + Craft = Art. Richard Gilbert on Lessons learned teaching creative nonfiction to non-majors. "Some of my students are almost giddy to discover that this genre called creative nonfiction exists. 'You can do anything you want,' I tell them, 'as long as it works'....my overarching focus this year is the triumvirate of persona, scene, and structure. "
Craft True-to-Life Nonfiction Characters (Bill Roorbach with Kristen Keckler, Writer's Digest, 8-6-09, from Writing Life Stories: How To Make Memories Into Memoirs, Ideas Into Essays And Life Into Literature Many of the techniques of fiction writing can be used in nonfiction--you just use the facts, selectively. Here's a writing exercise.
Richard Gilbert: Teaching Memoir 3.0 Focusing here on structure in personal essays.
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)

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Liz Massey's excellent series on BECOMING THE FAMILY STORYCATCHER (Listen Closely Productions, Audio storytelling for radio, podcasting and personal history)
Step 1: Getting Permission (how to invite your family member to tell his or her story (3-15-14)

Step 2: Selecting a Format (9-13-14)
Step 3: Getting the story (doing the interview 11-23-14)
Step 4: Gathering Stories at a Distance (when your narrator doesn’t live close to you. 1-14-15)
Step 5a: Getting It Ready – Finding the Storyline (3-29-15)
Part 5b: Getting It Ready – Editing Tips (5-16-15, with excellent suggestions and links to other people's pieces about story structure and organizing your material)

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)
History in Context (Gordon S. Wood, Weekly Standard, 2-23-15) Historians have an obligation to tell us, “in some sequential—that is to say, narrative—form, what has happened in the past, what the struggles were all about, where we have come from....“to explain contextually is, implicitly at least, to excuse.”
How to Make an Outline of a Memoir (Charong Chow, eHow, for novices) See also How to End a Memoir and other subtopics--one leads to another.
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)

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How to Write a ‘Lives’ Essay (Hugo Lindgren, The 6th Floor, Eavesdropping on the NY Times Magazine, 3-8-12)
I'm Ira Glass, Host of This American Life, and This Is How I Work (Lifehacker, 7-23-14)
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.
Letters unravel mystery of the death of Oscar Wilde’s wife (Dalya Alberge, The Guardian, 1-1-15) The sudden death of the wife of Oscar Wilde at the tender age of 40 has long been a mystery. Her grandson unearthed medical evidence in her letters that helped determine the likely cause of her demise.
Loosening Lips: The Art of the Interview (Eric Nalder, Seattle Times)

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My Kingdom for Some Structure (Rob Rosenthal, Transom). Rosenthal, on HowSound, interviews Bradley Campbell on his drawings-on-napkins of story structure, using examples from "This American Life," "All Things Considered,""Transom," "Morning Edition," and "RadioLab."
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
Structure (John McPhee, New Yorker, 1-14-13) In which the great New Yorker writer analyzes his own process of structuring a piece (which became immensely easier when computers came along). "I usually know from the outset what the last line will be....If you have come to your planned ending and it doesn’t seem to be working, run your eye up the page and the page before that. You may see that your best ending is somewhere in there, that you were finished before you thought you were."

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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) If that link isn't working, try this one: The Terkel Rules (on a Google site). See also The Studs Terkel Radio Archive (WFMT.com, coming in May 2018).
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
Trust Me, You Need a Good Editor (literary agent Rachelle Gardner) Self-publishing authors of memoirs: "A good editor has the courage to give you the feedback your buddies won’t....An editor would have eliminated bragging, and suggested ways to convey moments of success or triumph without sounding arrogant."

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Twelve Ancient Storytelling Elements You Can Use to Attract and Hold Your Readers (Stephen Blake Mettee, Quill Driver Books)
Structuring Your Memoir: Literary Structure and Why You Should Give a Damn (Wendy Dale). "A book has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You have rising conflict that culminates in the book’s climax, which you resolve in the denouement." In a long, helpful essay she explains the three-act structure and how to avoid being predictable. "Conflict exists to create suspense. But screw conflict. Just work on creating suspense....Suspense exists the minute your narrator wants something....The basis of structure is figuring out what your narrator wants, but here’s the complication: this primary desire must shift in some way, or else it gets boring for your reader." See also Tips for Improving Your Narrative Voice and Do you really have a memoir in you?
Video Biography Central (Jane Shafron's site offers lots of useful information and reminds you what to think about -- for example, in Dying in the Digital Age - And Staying Alive, who inherits and controls or retires your Facebook (etc) page when you die.
Voice in memoir. See also Voice, persona, and point of view in memoir

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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)


People are complicated,” she said. “Didn’t they teach you that in biography school?” ~ Frederick Weisel, in Teller, his novel about a ghostwriter of best-selling celebrity autobiographies. (Fred and I are related by marriage.)


"Be willing to write badly" if you're writing a family story, writes June Kempthorne of the LifeStory Institute. Even if we "let it go and die with our ungrammatical pants down, the pertinent thing to remember is that in writing for our family our goal is not excellence so much as authenticity."


Here’s the thing about safe, unprovocative material that you’re not afraid of anyone reading: quite often, no one wants to read it anyway.” ~Meghan Daum in Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others)

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The nature and malleability of memory
(and stories and storytelling)

How reliable are our memories (how close to the truth)? This blog post on Writers and Editors includes extracts from some of 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
Mary Karr on navigating memory while writing memoir. (LitHub, 10-19-22) An excerpt from The Art of Memoir.
Are You the Same Person You Used to Be? (Joshua Rothman, New Yorker, 10-10-22) Researchers have studied how much of our personality is set from childhood, but what you’re like isn’t who you are. People have strong, divergent opinions about the continuity of their own selves.

       "Try to remember life as you lived it years ago, on a typical day in the fall. Does the self you remember feel like you, or like a stranger? Do you seem to be remembering yesterday, or reading a novel about a fictional character? If you have the former feelings, you’re probably a continuer; if the latter, you’re probably a divider.
       "Working prospectively, the Dunedin researchers began by categorizing their three-year-olds. They met with the children for ninety minutes each, rating them on twenty-two aspects of personality—restlessness, impulsivity, willfulness, attentiveness, friendliness, communicativeness, and so on. They then used their results to identify five general types of children."
Cognitive Skills and the Aging Brain: What to Expect (Diane B. Howieson, Cerebrum, The Dana Foundation, 12-1-15) How mental health functions react to the normal aging process, including why an aging brain may even form the basis for wisdom. Win some, lose some.
Nostalgia of the Misremembered (N. West Moss, Timber: A Journal of New Writing, 1-28-19) "This allowance of the good and bad of the man allowed the saint to mitigate the sinner, and vice versa. By a few years after his death, Dad had become just a guy, albeit one who had influenced me more than just about anyone else. ....I have digested his creativity, as well as his team of warring horses Mighty Hubris and Mammoth Insecurity. He was just a guy, after all, but he was my dad, too, and so his story is my story, or it is the point from which all of my stories commence."
Demystifying Miscreant Memories and Crafting a More Authentic Narrative (Brittany Foster on Jane Friedman's blog, 2-6-24) Memoirists owe it to readers to tell them the truth. But what do you do when the truth isn’t black and white? However you approach it, don’t try to pass off murky, half-memories as full-on facts.
Six Glimpses of the Past: On photography and memory. (Janet Malcolm, The New Yorker, 10-29-18) "If I had known I was going to write about him, I would have asked my mother questions. But now I am like a reporter with an empty notebook....Autobiography is a misnamed genre; memory speaks only some of its lines. Like biography, it enlists letters and the testimony of contemporaries in its novelistic enterprise."
Why We Tell Stories: The Narrative Reconstruction of Reality ((PDF, by Alan Perry), Chapter 3 from his book Story Re-Visions: Narrative Therapy in the Postmodern World Abstract: 'The postmodern era is understood as the “endgame” of a historical experiment in which narrative tradition was abandoned in favor of a metaphor of “Man the Machine.” Machines, however, lack intentions, the domain of narrative. Humans, as intentional, are narrative by nature. We become the stories we tell ourselves then believe as the truth. Such stories create a world that is defended because it upholds our identity. Narrative therapy externalizes these stories so that self-healing resources inherent in the soul can speak to us of its neglected longings and make us whole.'
Memory Hackers (video of fascinating video documentary on PBS Nova, 2-21-16) "Memory is the glue that binds our mental lives. Without it, we'd be prisoners of the present, unable to use the lessons of the past to change our future. From our first kiss to where we put our keys, memory represents who we are, how we learn and how we navigate the world. But how does it actually work? This one-hour documentary, a production of WGBH Boston, examines how memories are formed, what encompasses the act of remembering and the new technologies being used to implant, edit and even erase memories -- a process that could DELETE our worst fears and, one day, may help us to re-write our past with the flip of a switch." One of most striking images: memory is not like a book, where you thumb through pages to find it; it's more like something on a hard drive, where you have to call it up and each time you do you change it. A process called reconsolidation helps 30 patients lose their spiderphobia (testing with a tarantula and even enjoying it -- using a medication to destabilize the memory, block its reconsolidation, and create a new feeling about the tarantula).
The Memory Illusion (Julia Shaw, Scientific American, 6-13-16, drawing from her book The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory) Shaw explores ways in which our memories can betray us, and why you may not be who you think you are. Covers misremembering; being confidently wrong; having false memories implanted by family members, police interview tactics, or in therapeutic settings; "memory hacking" (generating false memories intentionally). Her book covers "how social media influences your memory, why secret agents need memory training, and what you can to do avoid memory errors." See also What Experts Wish You Knew about False Memories (Scientific American blog)
On shared false memories: what lies behind the Mandela effect (Caitlin Aamodt, Aeon) What are some of our culture's most fascinating shared false memories? With examples expanded on by BuzzFeed's 20 Examples of the Mandela Effect That’ll Make You Believe You’re in a Parallel Universe (Christopher Hudspeth, 10-13-16).
The Value of a Flawed Memory ( Sue Shellenbarger, WSJ, 7-26-16) Even inaccurate memories can help people shape their identities and set goals; a new understanding of memory’s role. "A growing number of researchers say memories are not just a storehouse for facts but also a creative blend of fact and fiction that helps people tell meaningful stories about their lives, set goals and envision the future in a realistic way. It is commonly believed that storing a memory is like making a video, but long-term memories are never literal replays. They’re mental constructions of facts, inferences and imagined details that people patch together after the fact... Your choice of people to tell about past memories helps determine whether you remember them accurately—or at all. Sharing stories with listeners who pay attention and are emotionally responsive aids in recall of facts and helps storytellers find meaning in past experiences, according to research..."
Why We Remember the Beatles and Forget So Much Else (Adam Gopnik, New Yorker, 1-7-16)
The Strange Experience of Having My Memoir Turned Into a Movie (Stephen Elliott, Vulture, 4-21-15). And do read the comments! Maybe also read Kate Erbland's Playlist review of the movie.
Was Brian Williams a Victim of False Memory? (Tara Parker-Pope, Well, NY Times, 2-9-15) "Memories don’t live as single, complete events in one spot in the brain. Instead they exist as fragments of information, stored in different parts of our mind. Over time, as the memories are retrieved, or we see news footage about the event or have conversations with others, the story can change as the mind recombines these bits of information and mistakenly stores them as memories. This process essentially creates a new version of the event that, to the storyteller, feels like the truth."
Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer follows Foer's compelling journey as a participant in the U.S. Memory Championship. With the help of experts, Foer learned how to transform the kinds of memories he forgot into the kind his brain remembered naturally.
Is Memory the Memoirist's Worst Enemy? (Madelon Sprengnether, Shapeshifting, Daily Beast, 7-1-15) New research shows that memory may be the most unreliable narrator of all. But what seems like bad news for memoirists may turn out to be their new best friend. "...whereas I used to be focused on how much I lost in the process of growing up, now I am more aware of everything that I gained. I credit the process of memory retrieval—which keeps subtly altering and updating the past in the light of the present—with this surprising and unanticipated result."
How the Brain Stores Trivial Memories, Just in Case (Benedict Carey, NY Times, 1-25-15)
A Study of Memory Looks at Fact and Fiction (Benedict Carey, NY Times, 2-3-07) What is repressed memory and what is normal forgetting?
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. Elsewhere, he wrote
"We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative — whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives, a 'narrative,' and that this narrative is us, our identities. If we wish to know about a man, we ask 'what is his story — his real, inmost story?' — for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us — through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives — we are each of us unique." As quoted in Maria Popova's blog Brain Pickings.
What is your memory style? (Baycrest Health Sciences, 12-10-15) Why is it that some people have richly detailed recollection of past experiences (episodic memory), while others tend to remember just the facts without details (semantic memory)? New research shows that the tendency to remember episodic details versus facts is reflected in intrinsic brain patterns. Those who endorsed richly-detailed autobiographical memories had higher medial temporal lobe connectivity to regions at the back of the brain involved in visual processes, whereas those tending to recall the past in a factual manner (minus the rich details) showed higher medial temporal lobe connectivity to areas at the front of the brain involved in organization and reasoning.
Everybody has a distinct 'memory style' that affects how we recall things (Peter Dockrill, Science Alert, 12-11-15) "...researchers have shown that the different ways people experience the past are associated with distinct brain connectivity patterns that may be inherent to each individual. These life-long 'memory traits' are the reason some people have richly detailed recollections (episodic memory) while others can recall facts but little detail (semantic memory)." ("Let me tell you what really happened.")
Are you a Diachronic, or are you an Episodic? (RONBC, Notes from Aboveground, 5-16-12) "Diachronic people see their entire lives as a story starring a consistent character. They see the events of their lives as connected by the central participation of a single, continuing character.... Episodic people, on the other hand, remember the sequence of events similarly to the way that Diachronic people do, but they don’t see themselves as a single, unchanging protagonist. For the Episodic self, the “I” that I was when I won the high school track meet at sixteen is not the same person who now has four grandchildren." Galen Strawsen, in Against Narrativity, disagrees, writing "My guess is that it almost always does more harm than good – that the Narrative tendency to look for story or narrative coherence in one’s life is, in general, a gross hindrance to self-understanding: to a just, general, practically real sense, implicit or explicit, of one’s nature.... the more you recall, retell, narrate yourself, the further you risk moving away from accurate self-understanding, from the truth of your being. Some are constantly telling their daily experiences to others in a storying way and with great gusto. They are drifting ever further off the truth." Oliver Burkman covers the same distinction in the Guardian: Does life have a beginning, middle and an end? ‘Does every scene of your life – childhood summers, first kisses, bereavements – have a connecting thread? Or are they different chapters?’
There Was a Man in El Salvador Who Owned Four Dogs (Stanley Delgado, Glimmer Train). Whenever his grandmother told the story about the man with four dogs, the story changed, depending on the audience. And whenever Delgado gets writer's block, he thinks about that audience, because " it helps to remember that a story exists to connect one person to another, for however briefly."
Drafting Our Narrative (RONBC, Notes from Aboveground, 1-24-11) If our world is a representation created by our minds, minds that are transactional moments of ever-shifting brain processes — what happened to reality?
Why Are Humans So Drawn to Stories? (David Berreby, Mind Matters, BigThink). Followed by Skepticism About Stories: The "Narrababble" Critique and then by How Stories Mislead Us. An interesting series, worth reading.

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”~ Benjamin Franklin
The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity by Daniel C. Dennett
• 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)
The Science of Lying (Anthony Brooks, On Point, 6-5-17) Guests: Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, essayist and author of National Geographic piece Why We Lie: The Science Behind Our Deceptive Ways and Tim Levine, professor and chair of communication studies, University of Alabama at Birmingham, who researches deception and how to detect it.

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The Paris Review Art of Biography Series

---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)
---Robert Caro, The Art of Biography No. 5 (interviewed by James Santel, Spring 2016
---Stacy Schiff, The Art of Biography No. 6 (interviewed by Ruth Franklin, Winter 2017)
---Richard Holmes, The Art of Biography No. 7 (interviewed by Lucas Wittmann, Winter 2017)
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.

            See Maud Newton's review: 'Paris Review' Author Interviews: 50 Years Of Insight (NPR Books, 11-11-09)

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The art, craft, and politics of biography

(including letters, interviews, and profiles)


Catherine Drinker Bowen kept a simple sign posted above her desk as she wrote her well-crafted biographies: "Will the reader turn the page?" ~ Historian Barbara W. Tuchman on the “Art of Writing”

Biography and Storytelling – A Conversation with Candice Millard (YouTube, her talk for Biographers International Organization aka BIO, 4-3-21) A wide-ranging, thoughtful, helpful talk.
The Making of a New M.L.K. Biography: A Q. & A. With the Author, Jonathan Eig (Benjamin P. Russell, NY Times, 5-8-23) New archival material and a narrowing window in which to speak to people who knew Martin Luther King, Jr. fueled the work, said the author.
Why Read Literary Biography? (Lauren Groff, The Atlantic, 12-14-22) What Shirley Hazzard’s life can, and can’t, tell us about her fiction. Any smart reader understands that no biography could possibly reveal its subject’s true life, which is to say the humming, prismatic, spiky interior one that gives rise to the writer’s works. The best that literary biographies can do is build a good simulacrum: a scrupulously explicated version of events that happened, a valiant attempt at a filled-in outline.
Samanth Subramanian’s 'A Dominant Character' Recounts the Story of J.B.S. Haldane, Whose Life Was Torn between Scientific Integrity and Political Loyalty (Pratik Pawar, The Open Notebook, 10-27-2020) In 2015, Samanth Subramanian started researching the life of JBS Haldane, an English scientist who, in 1948 reached an "inflection point," choosing loyalty to the Communist party over his own scientific integrity. Subramanian tells science writer Pratik Pawar about his historian-approved strategies for organizing and making sense of mountains of archival material, how he turned historic nonfiction into gripping narrative, and why he believes the goal of objectivity in writing is a "misplaced" one. The book: A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J. B. S. Haldane
Nothing is real: The slippery art of biography (Craig Brown, TLS, 9-10-21) An excellent long essay, from which a few gems:
---‘Biography as a form is necessarily artificial. In the end, all biography is a form of fiction. As Peter Ackroyd once said, "Fiction requires truth-telling, whereas in a biography one can make things up." Introducing Burning Man, her extraordinary new book covering ten years in the life of D. H. Lawrence, Frances Wilson writes: "Just as writers of fiction might provide a disclaimer declaring that what follows is a work of imagination not based on real characters, and writers of non-fiction might provide a disclaimer declaring that what follows is not a work of imagination and very much based on real characters, I should similarly state that Burning Man is a work of non-fiction which is also a work of imagination."
---"Biography is at the mercy of information, and information is seldom there when you want it."
---"One would expect people to remember the past and imagine the future", wrote the historian Lewis Namier, "but in fact, when discoursing or writing about history, they imagine it in terms of their own experience … they imagine the past and remember the future."
"Another shortcoming of biography lies in its bias towards coherence. In their drive to create a seamless narrative, biographers are forced to conceal the randomness of life, the contrived nature of "character" and the unpredictability of human beings."
---"There are numerous examples of other biographies that have broken through the genre's dull and dogged obeisance to available information. These biographies pursue a sense of pattern and aesthetic purpose more usually found in a novel. They tend to stress, rather than to hide, the inarguable but so often unacknowledged link between the mind of the biographer and the mind of the subject."
Backstage with Beckett and Beauvoir (Julia M. Klein, Penn Gazette, 12-28-19) Deirdre Bair explores the tortuous process that produced biographies of two literary giants. This interesting review focuses on what Bair says about the writing process for two entirely different biographies, in her book Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and Me: A Memoir

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• *** Biography and Storytelling – A Conversation with Candice Millard (YouTube video of a superb talk for Bio International, 4-3-21) Full of practical insights, and brimming with the joy of writing.
•  Shaping a biography. "One tried-and-true biographical format is chronological: the subject is born on page one, and the story ends with mourners. Or, less conventionally, a writer can reverse the chronology, starting with the subject’s death and working back toward birth, as the late Edmund Morris did in Edison. But Zachary Carter, in his life of the economic philosopher John Maynard Keynes, decided to kill his subject partway through the tale....Carter argues that a thinker of Keynes’s caliber lives on through his intellectual legacy. “I knew I wanted Keynes to die early. I wanted to explore how his ideas had changed over time.”
     Zachary 'Carter credits his wife and his editor with aiding his transition from financial journalist to biographer, helping him “stop writing so much for financial professionals and academics” and focus on the book’s tone, accessibility, and rhythm. Journalism sometimes needs bombast to “break through the clutter of celebrity,” Carter said. “You can’t just write a beautiful sentence and let it be. But in a book, you don’t have to hit the reader over the head. You can be an artist.”'~ Jane Lincoln Taylor, Shaping a Biography, The Biographer's Craft, Nov. 2020.
Can A Presidential Memoir Really Give An Honest Picture? (Steve Inskeep, Morning Edition, NPR, 2-11-2020) Inskeep interviews historian Craig Fehrman, author of Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote, about a few of the books presidents or their ghostwriters wrote. Of the book: “Craig Fehrman takes us from Thomas Jefferson—a president who happened also to be the best prose stylist around—to the age of the obligatory campaign biography, on to the modern blockbuster. Along the way we meet revisionists, ghost writers (Truman went through four), runaway bestsellers (it seems there was a sport at which Calvin Coolidge excelled), surprising flops.  We learn that the Civil War turned the occasional authorial impulse into a flood of literature; that Nathaniel Hawthorne quietly wrote a campaign biography; that the most literate presidents can meet with the worst reviews. Shapely, original, and brimming in anecdote, Author in Chief expertly illuminates, amid much else, how history finds its way into the books.” —Stacy Schiff, author of The Witches
Robert A. Caro on the means and ends of power. (David Marchese's interview, New York Times Magazine, 4-1-19) A must-read for biographers. For example: 'It’s the South that raises Johnson to power in the Senate, and it’s the South that says, “You’re never going to pass a civil rights bill.” So to tell that story you have to show the power of the South and the horribleness of the South, and also how Johnson defeated the South. I said, “I can do all that through Richard Russell,” because he’s the Senate leader of the South, and he embodies this absolute, disgusting hatred of black people. I thought that if I could do Russell right, I wouldn’t have to stop the momentum of the book to give a whole lecture on the South and civil rights. What I’m trying to say is that if you can figure out what your book is about and boil it down into a couple of paragraphs, then all of a sudden a mass of other stuff is much simpler to fit into your longer outline.'
Biographer Robert Caro On Fame, Power And 'Working' To Uncover The Truth (Dave Davies, Fresh Air, NPR, 4-15-19) On the difficulty of getting sources to talk on the record about Robert Moses and other problems with his first major project. And In 'Working,' Writer Robert Caro Explains His Process — And What Drives Him (Scott Detrow interviews Caro on NPR, 4-8-19) Talks about his book on the craft: Working.

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The Secrets of Lyndon Johnson’s Archives (Robert Caro, "Turn Every Page," The New Yorker, 1-28-09) Wonderful how-I-did-it memoir notes on the deep dig Caro did on the LBJ biography, starting in the archives ("turn every page") and then remembering how he got the people in Hill Country to talk ("In interviews, silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it—as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer.") and why he wrote about Alice Glass. Read Caro's memoir about researching and writing biographies: Working (vivid, candid, revealing recollections about his experiences researching and writing his acclaimed books about Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson)
Chernow’s portrait of Grant as a work of literary craftsmanship, if not art (T.J. Stiles, WashPost, 10-6-17) "To [ Virginia] Woolf, every biographer is “a craftsman, not an artist. . . . The trouble lies with biography itself. It imposes conditions, and those conditions are that it must be based upon fact.” She argues that only unrestrained imagination can make art. I disagree. Facts are simply the medium, as paint is to the painter. Of course, most painters succeed as artisans, not artists, and so do most biographers. To rise above craftsmanship, one must work with abundant, varied and complicated facts. Chernow does that, presenting research that bulks Grant to nearly 1,000 pages of narrative. It allows him to write a rich and sensitive portrait of the inner Grant — from reluctant West Point cadet to civilian failure to triumphant general. He exhaustively investigates Grant’s alcoholism and fraught relationships with his family. I admire Chernow’s honesty about contradictory evidence as well as Grant’s mistakes."
Hermione Lee on how to write a life ( Anna Leszkiewicz, New Statesman, 10-21-2020) Lee is known for her landmark biographies of writers such as Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton. Now, she has taken on her first living subject: Tom Stoppard.
From remarks by editor Tim Duggan on receiving the Editorial Excellence Award of 2018 from Biographers International "A good biography, no matter what the subject or time period, is usually a product of real reporting and news-gathering. It’s also driven by serious historical research. And ultimately, to pull it off well, and to paint a picture of a living, breathing character, requires some of the skills of a novelist....it usually requires some real ambition, too – just knowing that you’re going to spend years working on a book, taking aim at a hugely important figure, and trying to capture that person for posterity....But there’s also something different, and rewarding, about a good biography, which goes against the grain of the current fixation with celebrities, and with ourselves. The point of a biography is an obsession with understanding someone else. So whether it’s a tribute, or a critique, it’s still a form of radical empathy, which hopefully never goes out of style."
• “One ignominious feature of the biographer’s life is that your books get shelved alphabetically by your subject’s name rather than your own. But I was totally fine with that.” ~ James Atlas, quoted in his obituary in the New York Times, James Atlas, an Ambassador for Biographies, Dies at 70. He spread the gospel of biography as the founder of the Penguin Lives book series, a joint venture of Penguin and Lipper Books--pairing "well-known writers and biographical subjects, with the books to be 150 pages or so, short for the genre....More than 30 books in the series were published before it wound down, a casualty of the economic disruption created by the 9/11 attacks. But Mr. Atlas resurrected the idea in 2003 with the Eminent Lives series, a joint venture of HarperCollins and his newly formed Atlas Publishing (later Atlas & Co.)" Atlas himself wrote biographies of Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz.
A Biography of Oliver Sacks, Written by His Boswell (Daniel Bergner, NY Times, 8-20-19) This is the story of a biography delayed (Lawrence Weschler's And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?: A Biographical Memoir of Oliver Sacks). One of the painful realities of writing about a living person: The person you're writing about could decide to compete.
The Everly Brothers Tight Harmony Inspires Other Legends (YouTube video, Jukebox Jams) Sometimes a slide-show photo video is an easy but effective way to pay tribute, especially when music is involved. The comments section allows for corrections.
Biography: What Publishers Are Looking For (Transcript of panel at at Swedenborg House, 2-24-11, hosted by The Biographers’ Club)

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Becoming a Biographer: How to Tell Someone Else’s Life Story (James Atlas, Signature, 8-22-17) Prepare yourself!
Delmore Schwartz and the Biographer’s Obsession (James Atlas, Personal History, The New Yorker, 8-20-17). A powerful piece, from his memoir, The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer's Tale. "Reading Delmore’s letters was exhilarating, but it also felt transgressive. The journals, I had convinced myself, were a deliberate if unacknowledged communion between subject and biographer. Letters—at least the kind that writers write—are journals addressed to someone else. However self-conscious, however contrived in tone, they are addressed to a recipient—an Other. The monologue becomes a dialogue. As the eavesdropper, I was less confident about my rights. I couldn’t convince myself that Delmore was writing for his biographer, even though there was considerable evidence that he was." And later: (“Life-writing,” biography is sometimes called—a compound that conveys both the stolid former corporeality of the subject and the biographer’s act of imaginative recreation.)
Biography as Reclamation (C-SPAN-2, video of Bob Weil's speech on receiving Biographers International Organization's Editorial Excellence Award, 11-8-17) Weil, Livewright's editor-in-chief, shares the podium with Kai Bird (exec dir of Leon Levy Center for Biography(, Max Boot (senior fellow Council on Foreign Relations, National Security Studies) One excerpt: "Even the most practiced biographer is bound to have false starts. It’s intimidating, I’ve observed, to recreate another person’s life in your own words. An all-too common pitfall is when a biographer relies too heavily on research, oversaturation with quotes, letters, that hijack the biography into becoming a bloodless document. Often it takes a biographer then, I’ve found, it takes one false start to amass the confidence to sever that umbilical cord and produce a narrative that does not mimic the subject’s own language."
"The Truth": Biography's Moving Target (Dona Munker, 4-20-15). Dona Munker's interesting account of an event held at New York University: “Is Biography True?” featuring Stacy Schiff, Ron Chernow, John Matteson (free online video of a conversation presented jointly by the New York University Center for the Study of Transformational Lives and the NYU Biography Seminar, biographer James Atlas asked three Pulitzer Prize–winning colleagues, Ron Chernow, John Matteson, and Stacy Schiff, for their views on the question, “Is Biography True?” You can catch up online with past Transformative Lives events (lectures, etc., on video).
Top political biographies and biographers (Presidential History Geeks)

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Bobble-Heads, Curses, and Buffism: Current Issues in Biography (Part1) (Charles Shields, Washington Independent Review of Books, 1-16-11). And Part 2 (6-21-11) Academics, says T. J. Stiles, have largely abandoned the profession for fear of being accused of endorsing the parochial great man view of history. Also, academics tend to write in an— well, academic way, which doesn’t sell books. “They tend not to be concerned with the literary qualities of biography, which I think are essential to lifting the endeavor to the heights that it can attain.” ..."Biography is research-intensive and expensive. Costs eat through publishers’ advances pretty quickly. By comparison, a snug cubicle in a history or English department, and a benefits package, begins to look mighty attractive." Nigel Hamilton: "... an author cannot hope to sell a book merely on his or her access to libraries and archives, as in the old days. The biographer now must offer a thesis/view/perspective substantially different from, and better than Wikipedia, etc.” In other words, the heat is on to be creative, original." An interesting discussion, well worth reading. I've just skimmed the surface of the second piece, here.
Nat Turner’s Divine Violence (Gabe Stutman, LitHub, 8-24-17) How we imagine (and reimagine) the life of Nat Turner, American revolutionary. That few material facts are known about Nat Turner has not stopped writers of various backgrounds from imagining his life. In some cases, this dearth of information has spurred them on. “One of the benefits for me in Nat Turner’s story,” wrote William Styron of his 1966 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, “was not an abundance of historical material but, if anything, a scantiness.” If there’s any lesson to be learned from Nat Turner and his legacy it’s that not all forms of violence are created equal, and in fact certain forms of violence are inevitable.
A Revered Biographer Looks at His Own Life (Robert Minto, New Republic, 10-19-17)
"James Atlas wrote two influential literary biographies. Now, he turns to memoir. The Shadow in the Garden — a memoir of Atlas’s work as a biographer, interspersed with reflections on the history of the art — explores the dark side of life writing: the tradeoffs between vividness and accuracy, the struggle with feelings of invisibility and inferiority, the difficulty of retaining sympathy for a person about whom you know too much, and the rancor that can arise between a biographer and his subject....
      "The first book Atlas wrote, Delmore Schwartz : The Life of an American Poet , was a critical triumph. Contracted to write it when he was just 25, he used techniques learned from Richard Holmes and Richard Ellmann to produce a biography that read like a novel. The method which produces such vivid life writing is something Atlas calls “empathic observation.” It involves a bit of imagination and a lot of copious, meticulous research to characterize life events as if from within. Voice, dramatized dialogue, atmospheric scene setting—these are techniques that can make a biography vivid and memorable. But getting them right depends upon prodigious feats of detail-mongering.
     "...Schwartz suffered from bipolar disorder: his life was a tragic story of immense promise unfulfilled. Later, Atlas was diagnosed with the same illness. Perhaps the preconditions for successful empathic observation are not merely to be struck by interest, but to see one’s self in the subject." Atlas also writes about a book in which he really did some things very wrong, and he got criticized for it. In this essay as in his book, he apparently takes this on honestly. A good role model for us all.  H/T Claude Marx
Writing 'Stalin's Daughter' Was An Adventure Of A Lifetime (Rosemary Sullivan, Huffpost Living, Canada, 2-22-16) "Svetlana was the subject in the foreground of my book, but there was always that murderous backdrop. The challenge was to keep the two worlds in sync."
Doorstops Galore (Joanne Kaufman, WSJ, 1-18-16). On the glut of overlong biographies. Does any figure—even one as interesting as Orson Welles—really warrant 1,771 pages of investigation?
BBC's Great Lives Series (biographical radio and podcast series in which guests choose someone who has inspired their lives)
The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography by Scott Donaldson. Donaldson is writing about his own experience writing biographies of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Archibald MacLeish, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Winfield Townley Scott, and Charlie Fenton, but the book is loaded with insights into the process and the sometimes legal complications of writing biography, including legal problems (discussed in his interesting case studies).
The Great American Novel Buried in Norman Mailer’s Letters (Richard Brody, New Yorker, 12-10-14) The review is interesting on its own, but then there's the book: Selected Letters of Norman Mailer
‘Little House’ and the identity of the prairie struggle (Claire Thompson, High Country News, 6-25-18) The gritty reality behind Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writings. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser’s meticulously researched biography. A follow-up item: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name stripped from children’s book award over ‘Little House’ depictions of Native Americans (Meagan Flynn, Wash Post, 6-25-18) 'And where “there were no people. Only Indians lived there.”' "The editor at Harper’s who received the reader’s complaint wrote back saying it was “unbelievable” to her that not a single person at Harper’s ever noticed, for nearly 20 years, that the sentence appeared to imply that Native Americans were not people, according to a 2007 biography of Wilder by Pamela Smith Hill."
The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography by Scott Donaldson ((Penn State Series on the History of the Book)

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Caro Revisits ‘The Power Broker’ (John Williams, NY Times Sunday Book Review, 12-12-14) Robert Caro, Robert Moses, and New York, 40 Years after The Power Broker (Leonard Lopate show, WNYC.org, 11-25-14)
‘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).
For Unauthorized Biographers, the World Is Very Hostile (Janny Scott, Books, NY Times, 10-6-96) An old story, but interesting.
The anatomy of an unauthorized tell-all (Breeanna Hare interviews Kitty Kelley, Ian Halperin, and Christopher Andersen, CNN, 5-5-10) The sign over Kitty's desk: "Tell the truth, but ride a fast horse." There are good unauthorized biographies and there are crummy ones. This focuses on the good ones.
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)
James & the Zeitgeist (Carl Rollyson, The New Criterion, Feb. 2005). An interesting review of Author, Author, by David Lodge & The Master by Colm Tóibín, two biographical novels about Henry James, who tried to tightly control what the world knew about his life.
Biographile (Random House's online site for news about biography and memoirs and their authors and subjects).
On the same topic, but from another slant:
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?
Un(Catalogued), historian Megan Kate Nelson's column on JSTOR Daily, with entries on Finding your place in letters (in 19th C. America), by looking at maps, by studying visual images, and other sources beyond traditional archives.
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.)

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For Students Only— Tips from a Master Biographer About Writing a Life Story (advice from James McGrath Morris, from a popular talk he gives to students about biography, as reported by Charles J. Shields)
Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life (Melvyn Bragg's book review, and a mini-biography, The Guardian, 10-11-15) A review of Jonathan Bate’s unofficial biography of Ted Hughes a man smouldering with life, captures the great poet in all his wild complexity.
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."

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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
How To Do Biography: A Primer by Nigel Hamilton
Biography: A Very Short Introduction
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)
• Choosing one's subject: “It isn’t so much that your subject chooses you as that you express some mild curiosity about her life and she retaliates by infiltrating yours.”~Stacy Schiff, The Biographer's Craft, April 2016)
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)
Dictionary of Irish Biography Ireland's national biographical dictionary. An authoritative reference work of nearly 11,000 lives for scholars of Irish history, society and culture.
“Isn't that exactly the definition of biography? An artificial logic imposed on an 'incoherent succession of images'?” ~ Milan Kundera,

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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."
Albert Einstein, Scientist and Mob Idol (Alva Johnston, New Yorker, 12-2-33). Part 1 of a wonderful New Yorker profile, one that shows you both the man and the genius. And as you finish Part 1 you are glad there is a Part 2 (12-9-33)
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

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Gottlieb Explores Editing and Writing Biography. Biographers International gave its first Editorial Excellence Award to Robert Gottlieb. Kate Buford's interview with him, yields gold: "...a large problem for most biographers: A serious book requires two, three, four, five years of research and writing, and yet most biographies sell quite modestly. The writer needs financial support; the publisher can’t afford what it takes. Only the most popular biographer, or someone like myself who doesn’t write for a living, can blithely set out on a major project.... A first-rate popular biography leaves readers feeling they know everything they need to know. A first-rate academic biography leaves readers feeling they know everything there is to know."
Hermione Lee: ‘Penelope Fitzgerald – The Whole Story?’ (Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, 6-5-14). Excellent insight into the life of Penelope Fitzgerald and the writing of her biography. Read this especially if you feel you've had a run of bad luck.
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

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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
One Subject, Three Ways: Agatha Christie (BIO International) Moderator Laurie Gwen Shapiro kicked off the session with the question, “How does the form chosen to tell a subject’s life shape its content?” Exploring Shapiro’s question (apropos Agatha Christie) were three panelists Zooming in from England and France: Matt Cottingham (in London), who made the documentary Inside the Mind of Agatha Christie; Laura Thompson (just outside London), the author of Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life; and Anne Martinetti (in Paris), who wrote a cookbook based on Christie’s work, Creams and Punishments, coauthored the graphic biography Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie, and wrote a documentary about Christie’s adaptations in movies, The Inheritance Crime.
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)

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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.
Q&A with Fred Kaplan (C-Span, 6-13-14). Brian Lamb's interview with Fred Kaplan, author of John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, talking about the sixth U.S. president and his experiences as a biographer of literary and political figures such as Gore Vidal, Mark Twain, and Abraham Lincoln (all of whom he tells stories about. Interesting on the process of writing a biography.
Q&A with Robert Caro . Brian Lamb's interview (C-Span, 12-19-08) about Caro's multi-volume bio of Lyndon Johnson)
Q&A with Stacy Schiff . Brian Lamb's interview (C-Span, 9-20-11) about Schiff's 2010 biography, Cleopatra: A Life.
Q&A Archives (C-Span)
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.

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The Right to Write (Roxana Robinson, Opinion, NY Times, 6-28-14) Who owns the story, the person who lives it or the person who writes it?
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)

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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.)
The Woman with the Keys to the Church (James McGrath Morris's story of a lot of digging that led to a "lucky" break and a rich vein of never-used material for his Pulitzer biography)
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.

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Memoirs, memoir writing, and autobiography

Writing a life story
"Just because you remember it doesn't make it qualify for the memoir."
~Marion Roach Smith

"Be willing to write badly" if you're writing a family story, writes June Kempthorne of the LifeStory Institute.

Even if we "let it go and die with our ungrammatical pants down, the pertinent thing to remember is that in writing for our family our goal is not excellence so much as authenticity."


Many of the tips you'll find in the section on writing fiction

also apply in the writing of memoir.

Apropos this African proverb ("Until the lion learns to speak, every story will glorify the hunter"), consider Elizabeth Gilbert's advice to women (equally good for a lot of men): "A lot of women I meet are still afraid to write the story of their lives. They speak of a fear of rejection, a fear of criticism, a fear of backlash, a fear of failure. What I always say to these women is, 'If you can't do it for yourself, please do it for your sisters. Please write your story in the world, for the benefit of other women.'

      Another relevant proverb: "The hen knows when it’s dawn, too, but feels no need to announce it.”

Celebrating the memoir, fiction's day is done? (Dianna Marder, PopMatters, Philadelphia Inquirer, 11-4-09) Excellent evergreen piece.  “Memoirs are easier for book groups to discuss,” Maureen Corrigan says. “In general, people don’t know how to talk about novels. With a memoir, they can talk about what they related to in the story.” And "Memoir connects us with others and the past. And when done right (with truth) it satisfies our craving for authenticity."
How to Build a Compelling Narrative Arc for Your Memoir (Tanja Pajevic on Jane Friedman's blog, 9-3-19) Excellent guidance, including (as a follow-up to Clarify Your Scope), Choose the Big Rocks. "The big rocks in your memoir are the key scenes that support your transformation. Why do we start with these 'big rocks?' Because if you start with the pebbles (the stories that are interesting, but not pivotal to the story), it’s easy to get sidetracked." She also recommends starting the story "by jumping into the deep end. Don’t wade into your story."
2 Methods for Structuring Your Memoir (Allison K Williams (@GuerillaMemoir) on Jane Friedman's blog, 10-12-20) "The Character of You moves toward change blindly, but You the Writer knows when you got there. The author can see the pattern and invest moments with deeper meaning than they may have had at the time... Don't spell that out in your narrative. Let the reader put it together." Helpful on structure.
Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir No. 1 (Mary Karr, interviewed by Amanda Fortini, Paris Review) "Taken together, Karr's memoirs, written in a singular voice that combines poetic diction and Texas vernacular, form a trilogy that spans the thematic range of the genre: harrowing tale of childhood, coming-of-age story, conversion experience."
Vivian Gornick, The Art of Memoir No. 2 (interviewed by Elaine Blair, 2014)
18 Memoir Publishers Open to Direct Submissions (Emily Harstone, Authors Publish) No date.
26 Memoir and Autobiography Publishers Currently Accepting Submissions (TCK Publishing) No date.
Appeal of Writing Memoirs Grows, as Do Publishing Options (Elizabeth Olson, NY Times, 10-11-14) "A memoir covers an aspect of their life,” said Wendy Salinger, who has written her own. “A memoir is not an autobiography that tells a life from beginning to end. A memoir has to tap into a universal truth.” Some people can churn out a 60,000-word memoir in six months, but coming up with an insightful piece of writing often involves long-term effort.
How a Little Psychology Can Improve Your Memoir’s Setup (Lisa Cooper Ellison on Jane Friedman's blog, 5-17-22) Your main job in the early part of act one (the antithesis, or the world before your journey begins) is to reveal what Blake Snyder calls (in Save the Cat), Six Things that Need Fixing, the narrator flaws and problems you’ll resolve by the end of your book. Most issues fall into one of six categories.
Memoir author Kris Kneen on how to write and edit your story into a compelling book that connects with readers (Kris Kneen for RN's Big Weekend of Books,ABC Arts, 6-18-23) "As a writer, I need to write about the things I don't want to write about the most. If you're scared of something, then that's the thing you really need to talk about."

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To Nail Your Memoir’s Beginning, Stop Looking in the Wrong Direction (Lisa Cooper Ellison on Jane Friedman's blog, 5-11-22) If you don’t know your book’s ending (which should reveal the story's resolution), you’re not ready to nail your beginning. Once you arrive at a compelling ending point (and know what you are resolving), you have the elements to develop the memoir's starting point and can establish a clear path for getting there.
'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. Or listen to her:
---'Memoir Project' Gives Tips For Telling Your Story (Neal Conan interviews Marion Roach Smith, NPR, Talk of the Nation, 7-13-11) She says that "a useful memoir writing exercise is to consider what's worth including and what's best left out for the story you'd like to tell." She says "memoir writing is about territory; about writing what you know. We each have many areas of expertise, but if you want anyone to read your memoir, the key is focusing on one."
---*** Memoir Writing David Leite, on his Talking with My Mouthful podcast (Episode 13), talks with Marion Roach Smith about what makes a powerful memoir, by discussing structure, truth, language, character, and more. "I want to read about your expertise....I want to run the laps with your little decisions because I know what your big ones were." It should "also be about a big universal." (Leite traveled seven hours, round trip, to get to her three-hour workshop in Troy, New York, and says it was worth it.)  Write about a theme, but in a way that makes sense to the reader. Here she explains her memoir algorithm: "It's about X as illustrated by Y, to be told in D." You are also arguing something. (All nonfiction, including memoir, includes argument, she says.) And "without a structure" (Acts 1, 2, and 3) you never know when it's going to end.  With humor and practical wisdom she speaks of such things as "the vomit draft," the one where you throw everything in ("All writing is rewriting"), which includes cues: Insert funny story here. If you want a model, she says, read Carolyn Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story. You need to know what to leave out. The golden rule: "Just because it happened doesn't make it interesting."  This interview is a wonderful lecture in disguise.
---All Nonfiction Is an Argument. Even Memoir. Want to Mix it Up? (Marion Roach Smith, 1-31-2012)
---The Memoir Project’s Twenty Top Tips for Writing Memoir (Marion Roach Smith)
---What to Include in Your Memoir (Sharon Dukett, Writing Lessons, on Marion Roach Smith’s blog, 6-3-2020)
---How to Write Memoir (Marion Roach Smith with Joanna Penn, The Creative Penn, 7-6-2020) Podcast and transcript. I built a business around a book that I published, which is a model that I find interesting. I published this book in 2011 and then I built this online teaching business about memoir.

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How to Write a Memoir: Be yourself, speak freely, and think small, writes William Zinsser in an excellent, thoughtful, encouraging long essay in American Scholar (Spring 2006). It's YOUR story, not THE story.
How to Write a Memoir: Top Tips from Bestselling Ghostwriters (Reedsy, 1-10-18). Reedsy is a site where self-publishing authors can find developmental editors, other kinds of editors, ghostwriters, book cover designers, publicists, and translators.
Alison Bechdel tried to write a light book. Fortunately, she failed (Tracy Brown, Los Angeles Times, 5-4-21) “I got my start very much identifying as an outsider, as someone on the margins,” she says. “That outsiderness has been, to me, a huge gift. So to find myself moving more and more to the inside is really confusing. I don’t want to lose that outsider vision.”
Three Sharply Observed Books Showcase the Enduring Appeal of Memoirs About Dealing With Disease (Dwight Garner, NY Times, 8-2-21) Nietzsche’s maxim, that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, has a corollary in the book world: What doesn’t kill you will be the topic of your memoir....poet John Berryman restated Nietzsche, saying: “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.”...The cultural appetite for stories of illness, disease, disorder and grave old age is bottomless....As a genre, disease and illness memoirs are permanently interesting if honest and sharply observed. The writer is dealt a joker from the pack. It’s an excuse to open a life for examination, now with a flame-burst of urgency." A thoughtful review of three new memoirs.

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‘Memoirs Hurt People’: How Writers Share Their Darkest Secrets (Ellen Gamerman, WSJ, 12-22-15). A review of Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, edited by Meredith Maran. Twenty landmark memoirists, Cheryl Strayed, Sue Monk Kidd, and Pat Conroy. “Memoirists have long faced the same set of questions: How much truth should you tell? How many secrets can be exposed? What if the truth is not as you remember it? They're all valid questions without easy answers, because it all depends on who you ask—and Maran (Why We Write) asked some heavy hitters.” – Library Journal
       PAT CONROY, a novelist whose nonfiction includes “The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son,” a 2013 account he had fictionalized in 1976 with The Great Santini, describes his nonfiction rupturing his relationship with a sister: “I can’t tell you how much I regret losing my sister, and I can’t say she’s wrong to have those feelings. I suffered over that. I suffer still. When you write memoir, that’s part of the bargain you make with God and the devil. …. Memoirs hurt people. Secrets hurt people. The question to ask yourself is, if you tell your story, will it do enough good to make it worth hurting people?”
How Aging Shapes Narrative Identity (Matthew Sedacca, Nautilus, 8-23-19) An interesting piece about how and when we begin to build narrative identity (in our lives), what governs our identity as kids, how it tends to change as we age ("As people get older they just don't want to remember negative stuff, and they just forget it."), why we become more positive as we age. Narrative identity is the "story you’ve got about how you came to be, who you are, and where your life’s going. That’s not your whole identity," says political biographer Dan McAdams. "Narrative identity is just as much about how you imagine the future, even though it hasn’t happened yet, as it is about how you reconstruct the past." Autobiographical reasoning—the ability to derive personal meaning from your past—is the key to narrative identity. .
      The redemption story "is a kind of narrative arc, whereby suffering, negative events, and defamation lead to positive outcomes and enhancement. There are many models for that in American society, rags to riches stories, the American dream, stories of religious atonement, stories of upward mobility, liberation. There are many metaphors we use for those kinds of narratives, but they’re all redemptive in a sense that some positive comes out of a negative and your life is sort of redeemed."

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When the future is running out, narrating the past helps to prepare (Dhruv Khullar, Washington Post, 7-12-19) At the end of life, people want to feel their life mattered. "A growing body of work suggests that a powerful but underused method of creating this sense of mattering is storytelling — reflecting on the past and creating a narrative of one’s life, what it has meant, who you’ve become and why." Humans have "tremendous power to frame a narrative. The same series of events — becoming a parent, getting a divorce, losing a loved one, finding a job — can be a tale of resilience and restoration or misfortune and regret. The process of bringing coherence to one’s life story is what psychologist Dan McAdams calls creating a 'narrative identity.' People get better at identifying important life themes as they age, and those who are able to find the positive amid the negative are generally more satisfied with life."
How to Write a Compelling Memoir (and Stay Sane in the Process) (Tanja Pajevic, Writer's Digest, 10-9-19) "If you don’t start with the most important projects in your day (the big rocks: work, family, health), something small (pebbles or sand: email, side projects, etc.) will take up that time or space. Therefore, you gotta start with the big rocks....if you start with the pebbles (the stories that are interesting, but not pivotal to the story), it’s easy to go off on a tangent. You can spend months (or even years) here....Although writing prompts can help you get writing, they can take you down tangential roads, putting your time, energy, and effort into writing scenes or snippets that don’t belong in this particular story." She's the author of The Secret Life of Grief: A Memoir
George R.R. Martin Isn’t the Only Author Who Can’t Finish a Beloved Series (Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, WSJ, 2-22-19) Robert Caro’s new memoir, Working, looks back at his own career, worrying readers who’ve waited since 2012 for the final volume of his Lyndon Johnson series. “We live in an age where facts are somehow being denigrated, like there aren’t facts,” says Caro. “What’s true is that there isn’t one truth. But there are a hell of a lot of facts, and the more time I spent in the Johnson library, the more facts I got. The more facts you get, the closer you come to whatever truth there is.” And Caro's fans are eager to read volume 5 of LBJ's very long story.
7 Common Mistakes in First-Time Memoir (Jessi Rita Hoffman on Jane Friedman's blog, 9-17-19) For memoirs published for public consumption, Hoffman says "A memoir needs to be focused on one theme, or one life lesson, that has wound its way like a bright thread through the experiences of your life." Don't try to cram in all the unforgettable moments in your life. Most people won't have the interest or patience to read about them them. Focus. And other things to avoid.
18 Memoir Publishers Open to Direct Submissions (Emily Harstone, Authors Publish) Memoir publishers that don’t require an agent to submit are few and far between. Some are old and respected, others are new and still figuring things out.
Why We Need Memoirs (Liz Scott, The Millions, 7-1-19) “So, why do we need memoir? In this world, and in our country—where so many of us feel a lack of connection, where the challenges seem so large—writers who dare to tell the brutal, honest truth about their humanity offer us a gift....Memoirs can do that: remind us that we are all flawed and complicated, all doing the best we can, none of us free from suffering....They remind us that we are more alike than different. They make us feel less alone.”

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Beginning Your Memoir and Creating Your Narrative Arc (Linda Joy Myers, Women on Writing) "The first task is to find the significant moments, the important messages that are part of your theme, and shape your book around them. This begins to sketch the spine of your plot and the arc of your story." Straightforward "how-to" advice.
The Challenge of Sensational Story Openings (Peter Selgin on Jane Friedman's blog, 9-4-19) Who, what, when, where, why and how: "An effective opening doesn't necessarily address them all, but presents the best ones to serve the reader on a particular journey.... What varies is which questions are raised and answered and to what extent. Answer too many questions, and you burden readers with irrelevant information and risk undermining suspense; answer too few, and you create false suspense; confusion."
The Problem Confronting Memoirists: Overabundance of Material (Peter Selgin on Jane Friedman's blog, The First Page). The underlying issue with this first page, one that often confronts authors when they first set out to write a memoir: an overabundance of material, and the urge to use all or too much of it.
Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature edited by Meredith Maran.
Memoir Monday (Narratively's weekly newsletter and monthly reading series co-curated by Narratively, Catapult, Granta, Guernica, The Rumpus, Longreads and Tin House. "We’ve brought together the heavy-hitters of online memoir to provide the very best new first-person writing..."
This Is the Story of My Life. And This Is the Story of My Life. (Henry Alford, NY Timers, 1-10-19) 'A different combination of motives and inclinations prompts every serial memoirist to return repeatedly to the keyboard’s well-worn “I” button. If the searing emotionalism found in the work of most repeat memoirists (Angelou, Augusten Burroughs, Mary Karr, Jamaica Kincaid, Joyce Maynard, Frank McCourt, Lauren Slater) would seem to have been generated by forces other than those fueling writers who, at the end of, or well into, their careers, tack on a few autobiographical works to their oeuvres (Diana Athill, Gore Vidal), one quality unites all these writers. Their lingua franca is candor."
      'That said, outside of so-called “stunt journalists” (Henry David Thoreau, George Plimpton, A.J. Jacobs) and famous or notable personages compelled to leave behind a historical record of their existence on the planet (any celebrity or politician with a pen), serial memoirists would seem to fall into two main camps — those who simply want to capture life as they themselves experienced it, and who happen to have more than a book’s worth of material; and those for whom an additional memoir or memoirs is a form of repudiation or correction.' And more reflections on the differences between those who write several memoirs each.

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The two kinds of stories we tell about ourselves (Emily Esfahani Smith, Ideas.TED.com, 1-12-17) Dan McAdams describes narrative identity as an internalized story you create about yourself — your own personal myth. People who are driven to contribute to society and to future generations, he found, are more likely to tell redemptive stories about their lives, or stories that transition from bad to good. These people rate their lives as more meaningful than those who tell "contamination stories," which interpret their lives as going from good to bad. One of the great contributions of psychology and psychotherapy research is the idea that we can edit, revise and interpret the stories we tell about our lives even as we are constrained by the facts. Even making smaller story edits can have a big impact on our lives.
A Life of My Own: A Memoir by Claire Tomalin. Read this enticing review: An Award-Winning Biographer’s Latest Subject: Herself (Dwight Garner, NY Times, 8-6-18)
The story of your life and the power of memoir (Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch, Harvard Health Blog, 3-17-18). Save money on therapy. Write your life story.
Memoir: Real-Life Characters and the Who Cares? Question (Sarah Saffian of She Writes interviews Alexandra Styron and Kathryn Harrison on Blog Talk Radio, 6-21-11). Styron is author of the memoir Reading My Father, and Kathryn Harrison, author of the memoir The Kiss, about dealing with memoir characters who really exist and other challenges. Are family loyalty and literary integrity necessarily at odds? Other Blog Talk Radio interviews with writers on writing can be found here
How to write about your family when writing memoir (Sheila K. Collins, on Marion Roach Smith’s site, 2014) Try writing a difficulty story from your life from the viewpoint of another (perhaps peripheral) member of the family, to see it from a different slant. Then run it by them.

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Why You Should Write a Memoir—Even if Nobody Will Read It (Lisa Ward, Wall Street Journal, 11-10-17) 'In fact, some of the therapeutic benefits may be lost if the writer thinks about too large an audience—or even a readership greater than one. The story can become less authentic. And there are other potential pitfalls to writing your life story. Writers can be thrown into despair if they have trouble reconciling past failures or placing traumatic events into a larger context. “It really depends on the type of stories people tell to make sense of their lives,” says Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. People who can construct cohesive life narratives—where there are common threads and one event leads to the next—are likely to benefit from writing a memoir, he says, while those who view their lives as a series of random, unrelated events are not. His research has found that life narratives are especially beneficial if they focus on redemption and overcoming adversity.'
"As Orson Welles told us, if we want a happy ending, it depends on where we stop the story." ~ Deborah Levy, in The Cost of Living
• "There is a mechanism in people that stops us from talking about bad experiences and makes us reluctant to stir up the past. But secrets foster a specific version of reality in which the individual pieces have to be arranged in a particular way, fitting so neatly together that if just one were to change position, the whole picture would fall apart. Our identity is shaped by stories, about our own history, about our family’s history, about the history of our people or our country. What happens when one of these identity-shaping stories doesn’t fit? Suddenly you are not who you thought you were. And then who are you?"--from a paragraph late in a long story about a trip through Russia: A Literary Road Trip Into the Heart of Russia (Karl Ove Knausgaard, NY Times Magazine, 2-14-18)
The Johari Window (Dave Gray, Xplaner) How well we know ourselves, explained in a popular diagram with four rooms: One is open (the parts of you known by both you and others); one is a blind spot (unknown to you but known by others), one is hidden (known to you, but not to others), and one is unknown (both to you and others).

      "Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others." ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Secret of Great Memoir: The Mature Self (C.S. Lakin, on Jane Friedman's blog, 12-27-17) Choose the type of voice that best suits the story you are telling. Avoid sounding whiny or looking for sympathy (it's annoying). "To get readers enrapt in your story and caring about what happened in your life, your voice needs to be engaging, clear and concise, and conversational." Speak from a place of distance, but not detachment.
The Afterlife of a Memoir (Aminatta Forna, NY Review of Books, 11-13-17) The author of The Devil That Danced on the Water, about her father's life and death in Sierra Leone (from "judicial murder" as the most prominent opponent of the country’s rising dictator), writes that once your book is published, you must deal with the reactions of strangers (hundreds of whom wrote to say how her story had affected them, often telling her their stories of loss); with the assumption of some that you are now public property, of whom they can ask questions. And "I have grown to understand that people have their own ideas of who and what I ought to be, wounded victim or heroic survivor." "You sacrifice your own privacy, and you sacrifice the privacy of others to whom you may have given no choice. They may enjoy the attention or be enraged by it." An interesting account of what you may give up in making your story public, not the least of which seems to be that "To be the author of a memoir is to become a confessional for other people."

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There Is No Dust in My House: On Writing About Myself and Other People (Lori Jakiela, Brevity, 11-4-15) "The truth always hurts someone." and “I thought I could write about my family without hurting anyone, but I was wrong,” Alison Bechdel wrote. “I probably will do it again.” The adoption memoir Jakiela writes about is Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe.
How To Fast Draft Your Memoir With Rachael Herron (listen or read transcript, on The Creative Penn, 2-19-18). Stalled, with three unsatisfactory manuscripts in a drawer and an MFA in creative writing, Herron discovered through NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) that her best process was to write a "fast terrible [but revisable] draft," a process that she found worked for both memoirs and novels.
Writing memoirs – meeting the burden of marketability (Behler Blog, 11-7-11) Ask yourself these questions: What's the point? Who cares? What's the conflict to be resolved? Are you believable? What's your platform (how people know you and why they will listen to you)?
The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life by Amy Tan, and her newer book, Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir
Is the memoir market oversaturated? (Jack Smith, The Writer, 8-6-18) A long miscellany of observations about what makes some memoirs rise above the crowd, and some things seem to stand out: Voice is important, the quota for memoirs of abusive relationships has been filled, and you want to do more than tell the cumulative little stories of your life -- you want to tell your story in such a way that it resonates for the reader, who wants to keep reading. It has to be about more than you.
Pulitzer winner William Finnegan 'didn't want to be stereotyped as a dumb surfer' (Angela Chen, The Guardian, 6-2-16) Speaking at the New York public library, the prize-winning writer of Barbarian Days talked about surfing, memory and memoir. People have come to Finnegan to say that, really, Barbarian Days is not about surfing but about love or obsession or how to live. “I love that but, actually, this is a book about surfing,” he said.
Collaborating on memoirs (J.R. Moehringer and Andre Agassi) (from Terry Gross's fascinating NPR interview)
The two kinds of stories we tell about ourselves (Emily Esfahani Smith, Ideas.Ted.Com, 1-12-17) We’ve all created our own personal histories, marked by highs and lows, that we share with the world — and we can shape them to live with more meaning and purpose. "Even making smaller story edits to our personal narratives can have a big impact on our lives." Excerpt from Smith's book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. "Smith shows us how cultivating connections to others, identifying and working toward a purpose, telling stories about our place in the world, and seeking out mystery can immeasurably deepen our lives."
Celebrity Memoirs Are Awful. Here Are 4 Ways to Fix Them (Phil Edwards, Huff Post, 3-14-14)
Natalie Goldberg Answers 20 Questions on Memoir Writing (Women on Writing). And 20 Questions on Memoir Writing Answered by Judith Barrington (also Women on Writing)

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The Reluctant Memoirist (Suki Kim, New Republic, 6-27-16) An investigative journalist returns from an undercover mission in North Korea—only to face her critics. And read the book: Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite Suki Kim on the miscategorization of her work of investigative journalism as memoir. “By casting my book as personal rather than professional—by marketing me as a woman on a journey of self-discovery, rather than a reporter on a groundbreaking assignment—I was effectively being stripped of my expertise on the subject I knew best.” "I did not quite understand then that this was a sales decision. I later learned that memoirs in general sell better than investigative journalism."
10 Ways to Tell if Your Story Should be a Memoir or a Novel (Adair Lara, Writer's Digest, 1-23-12)
Memoirs should be more than just selfies in book form (Mark Athitakis, Wash Post, 4-23-15) "Memoir sales quintupled between 2004 and 2008, and memoirs accounted for eight of the top 20 nonfiction bestsellers last year, according to Nielsen BookScan. But the kinds of books that have thrived during the memoir boom obscure the nobler purpose of autobiography: To tell a story not about the person doing the writing but about the subject they’ve lived through." (A complaint about several "look at me" memoirs.) if you’re going to use yourself to tell us something, “just recognize that ‘I’ is the least important word in it.”
Yiyun Li on the five best Anti-memoirs (Thea Lenarduzzi, FiveBooks interview) The author of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, says that in memoirs with a narrative arc "There has to be some element of change; there has to be a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ – an epiphany. But to me, all these things are artificial. Life is lived in a much messier way. Our experience of life is messier than an arc with a before and after. I hesitate to call my book a memoir because it doesn’t fit that mould." She talks about five other anti-memoirs: Sakhalin Island by Anton Chekhov, Family Sayings by Natalia Ginzburg, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C S Lewis, Excursions in the Real World by William Trevor, and Crabcakes: A Memoir by James Alan McPherson.
The Truth About Memoir , 20 Questions Answered by Judith Barrington, author of Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art (about writing memoir) and of Lifesaving: A Memoir (about her reaction to her parents' death from drowning, when she was 19)
Do I Own My Story? But What If It’s Also Your Story, and You Don’t Want Me To Tell It (Laurie Hertzel, Brevity's Nonfiction Blog, 1-5-16) How do established memoirists handle writing about people who might not want to be written about? How do they handle telling stories that might not be entirely theirs?
The Delicate Balancing Act of Black Women’s Memoir (Koritha Mitchell, Electric Lit, 8-12-20) From slave narratives to Michelle Obama, Black women must be simultaneously self-disclosing and self-protective. Elizabeth Keckley and Michelle Obama both seem to make themselves available to the public while fiercely protecting their inner life. "In a society invested in casting Black women as deviants, withholding one’s full humanity is not simply reactive; it’s proactive."

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Memoir Beyond the Self: Q&A with Lawrence Hill (Marjorie Simmins on Jane Friedman's blog, 5-18-2020) Simmons is the author of Memoir: Conversation and Craft "I loved the structure of Black Berry, Sweet Juice, beginning with personal stories and then sharing interviews with Canadians of black and white parentage, and their experiences of growing up and their thoughts on racial identity."
How to Write Memoir So Readers Live It (Cyndy Etler on Jane Friedman's blog, 3-6-18). See also How to Write Your Memoir with Fun, Easy Lists (Etler, on Jane Friedman's blog, 4-4-17) Cyndy is author of Dead Inside, a YA memoir about the sixteen months she spent in Straight Inc., an adolescent treatment program described by the ACLU as “a concentration camp for throwaway teens.”
Life's Stories (Julie Beck, The Atlantic, 8-10-15) How you arrange the plot points of your life into a narrative can shape who you are—and is a fundamental part of being human."Pretty much from birth, people are “actors.” They have personality traits, they interact with the world, they have roles to play—daughter, sister, the neighbor’s new baby that cries all night and keeps you up. When they get old enough to have goals, they become “agents,” too—still playing their roles and interacting with the world, but making decisions with the hopes of producing desired outcomes. And the final layer is “author,” when people begin to bundle ideas about the future with experiences from the past and present to form a narrative self." (Quoting Dan McAdams)
Affirmation of a Father's Love, Etched in Vinyl (Walter Mosley, Home & Garden, NY Times 11-2-11)
When You Write a Memoir, Readers Think They Know You Better Than They Do (Dani Shapiro, NY Times Book Review, 6-27-16) "...here is a profound difference between what a writer does alone in her room — the honing, crafting, shaping, transcending of her own personal history in order to carve out a story that is ultimately a public performance — and the human need to quietly share in the most intimate possible way, to confess, to stutter out thoughts and feelings, to be heard and understood." But what if your friends feel like they've already read that story?
A needle in time to heal the pains of the past (Ioana Burtea, The Power of Storytelling, Nieman Storyboard, 11-22-19) Romanian-Moldovan writer Tatiana Tîbuleac, a journalist and novelist with a painful legacy, picks up threads of the family story (featuring a gulag and a needle) she's never known how to write. Tîbuleac urged the Power of Storytelling audience to talk to their parents and grandparents while they still have them and to cherish and protect their family heritage, however sad it might be.
A Good Memoir Is an Act of Service (Julie Lythcott-Haims on Jane Friedman's blog, 2-18-2020) Memoir offers readers that ultimate safe harbor: the knowledge that they are not alone.

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In the Age of Memoir, What’s the Legacy of the Confessional Mode? Leslie Jamison and Charles McGrath discuss whether, 50 years after Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” was published, the confessional mode has been co-opted by the memoir. ("Bookends," NY Times Sunday Book Review, 9-29-15) McGrath: "Almost every page of “Ariel” suggests Plath would have become a great poet had she only let herself live."
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 the Political Memoir (Kojo Nnandi radio show, WAMU, 6-18-14) Memoirs are a rite of passage for high-flying American politicians. They can serve as springboards for those seeking higher office - and bridge-burners for those riding off into the sunset. Kojo explores the art of the political memoir - and what makes the great ones memorable and the poor ones forgettable. End-of-career books tend to be the best because they're not campaign documents. Guests: Isaac Chotiner (senior editor, New Republic), Mark Leibovich (NY Times Mag, author of This Town: This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral-Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! -in America's Gilded Capital, and Lissa Muscatine (co-owner Politics & Prose bookstore)

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To Write a Better Memoir, Learn This F-Word (Lisa Cooper Ellison on Jane Friedman's blog, 5-17-21) True forgiveness can take years to achieve. That’s why memoirs take longer to write than novels. But it’s worth the effort.
Yiyun Li on the ‘Anti-memoir’ (Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi, Five Books) Yiyun Li, author of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, on the sheer messiness of life, the irrelevance of ‘I’, and why brutal honesty is often the truest way to capture the people we love the most. Discussions of Sakhalin Island by Anton Chekhov, Family Sayings by Natalia Ginzburg, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C S Lewis, Excursions in the Real World by William Trevor, and Crabcakes: A Memoir by James Alan McPherson.
Family Secrets (Philip Yancey, 8-23-2020) “My daughter Jessica died of a fentanyl-laced heroin overdose in 2015. She was twenty-six years old.... When we acknowledged the facts of my daughter’s overdose, I had no idea how meaningful our decision would prove to be. Honesty gives our memories substance. Now we are free to mourn Jessica as she was rather than a false image of her, a façade behind which we might feel constrained to grieve in private.”
Ask the editor: 6 steps to writing a memoir (Alan Rinzler, Book Deal)
Memoir Land, a newsletter featuring:
---Memoir Monday, a weekly curation of the best personal essays from around the web
---First Person Singular, featuring original personal essays
---The Lit Lab, interviews and essays on craft and publishing.

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"We do not write in order to be understood. We write in order to understand." - Cecil Day Lewis

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

Autobiographical Fiction vs. Fictional Memoirs (Diana Raab, Literary Musings). Concludes with her book list of fictional memoirs, some of which are memoirs that are not quite nonfiction, others of which are stories of other people posing as memoirs.
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)

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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)
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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).
Genesis of a Memoir: How I Came to Write My Story. Joshua Safran (Writer's Digest, 7-4-14) on how he came to write Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid
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, on a different theme each week, including branching points in life, family, health and body, sexuality, spirituality, work, death--and sharing those pieces aloud in small groups). I got instructor training through Cheryl Svensson (when she and Anita Reyes taught together). There are many local workshops and some online: I love teaching it and participants seem to love it too. It tends to draw an older group, or younger adults at a stage of life crisis or soul-searching. See A Guided Tour of the Past (Paula Span, NY Times, 7-18-11). See also Why I love teaching Guided Autobiography (GAB) (by Lisa Smith-Youngs)
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.)

A Hook for Every Book (Paula Balzer, Writer's Digest, 11-9-10) At the heart of every bestselling memoir is "a hook," which which makes it marketable. "The key is to hone in on the [details that make] your memoir different from everyone else's--while managing to capture a universal feeling." Balzer provides excellent examples.
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....What we want is a narrative, not a log; a tale, not a trial. This is why most people write memoirs using the conventions not of history, but of fiction. It’s their revenge against facts that won’t go away."
How memoirs took over the literary world (Laura Miller, Salon.com, reviewing Ben Yagoda's Memoir: A History)
How to Give Your Memoir More Bite (Ron Charles, Style, Wash Post, 3-25-15) He reviews essays on memoir writing, from the Spring 2015 issue of The American Scholar, including one by Emily Fox Gordon on the difference between Confessing and Confiding
This Is How You Write a Good Memoir (Katie Roiphe, Slate, 1-9-13)
How to Write Your Memoir (Joe Kita, Reader's Digest, January 2009), an excellent piece.

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In memoirs, varieties of truth (William Loizeaux, Christian Science Monitor, 2-8-06)
Introspective or Narcissistic? (David Brooks, Opinion, NY Times 8-7-14). "The self is something that can be seen more accurately from a distance than from close up. The more you can yank yourself away from your own intimacy with yourself, the more reliable your self-awareness is likely to be....We should see ourselves as literary critics, putting each incident in the perspective of a longer life story. The narrative form is a more supple way of understanding human processes, even unconscious ones, than rationalistic analysis."
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.

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The Layers of Memoir (Lee Martin, blog post 11-20-17)
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)
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Make Me Worry You’re Not O.K. (Susan Shapiro, Opinionator, NY Times, 12-31-12). ...the first piece I assign my feature journalism classes is something a little more revealing: write three pages confessing your most humiliating secret."
Mary Karr on The Art, and Craft, of Writing Memoir (interviewed on Leonard Lopate show, WNYC, 9-15-15). "It's not an act of history. It's an act of memory." "Investigate. Pick at your memories."
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.

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'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. Or listen to her:
---'Memoir Project' Gives Tips For Telling Your Story (Neal Conan interviews Marion Roach Smith, NPR, Talk of the Nation, 7-13-11) She says that "a useful memoir writing exercise is to consider what's worth including and what's best left out for the story you'd like to tell." She says "memoir writing is about territory; about writing what you know. We each have many areas of expertise, but if you want anyone to read your memoir, the key is focusing on one."
---*** Memoir Writing David Leite, on his Talking with My Mouthful podcast, talks with Marion Roach Smith about what makes a powerful memoir, by discussing structure, truth, language, character, and more. "I want to read about your expertise....I want to run the laps with your little decisions because I know what your big ones were." It should "also be about a big universal." (Leite traveled seven hours to get to her three-hour workshop in Troy, New York, and says it was worth it.)  Write about a theme, but in a way that makes sense to the reader. Here she explains her memoir algorithm: "It's about X as illustrated by Y, to be told in D." You are also arguing something. (All nonfiction, including memoir, includes argument, she says.) And "without a structure" (Acts 1, 2, and 3) you never know when it's going to end.  With humor and practical wisdom she speaks of such things as "the vomit draft," the one where you throw everything in ("All writing is rewriting"), which includes cues: Insert funny story here. If you want a model, she says, read Carolyn Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story. You need to know what to leave out. The golden rule: "Just because it happened doesn't make it interesting."  This interview is a wonderful lecture in disguise.
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)

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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."
Memoirs of bereavement, grief, and recovery and other books that offer comfort or understanding (Dying, Surviving, and Aging with Grace)

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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 and Medical Narrative
---The healing power of narrative
---Stories, healing, and self-understanding (a booklist)
Narrative medicine. Narrative training with stories of illness "enables practitioners to comprehend patients’ experiences and to understand what they themselves undergo as clinicians." How storytelling is helping medical practitioners change the way they practice. One of the first works in this area was 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. My favorite: Ernest Hemingway's "For Sale: baby shoes, never worn."
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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. Elsewhere, he writes "One of the saddest sentences I know is I wish I had asked my mother about that. I wish I had asked my father about that. Writers are the custodians of memory so it's extremely important to get to people, interview your parents, your grandparents. Don't worry what anybody else thinks. The important thing is to be a recorder of the past. But it's very important work, I think, writing family history, whether anyone ever sees it or not." Here's an NPR program (transcript, 5-13-15) on the occasion of his death at 92.

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
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.

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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."

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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.

Six-word memoirs (hosted by Smith, a personal stories magazine). One life. Six words. What's yours?
Six word memoirs on love and heartbreak.
Everyone has a story to tell. What's yours?

The Slate Diaries. A collection of some of the "diaries" published by Slate the online literary magazines.

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

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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. "Within the terminology of 'narrative arc,; I think, is the idea that we build our lives around themes. My theme was living as a person with a disability in 20th USA, but the sub-themes are anger, and duality (the idea that a virus killed then-17-year-old-Gary and created crip-Gary, who is an entirely different bag of tricks) and a prosaic existentialism.

     'How that might translate in another writer's life I cannot say, but I know this: we are different people to each individual we know, both because of their perceptions and because of the way we reveal ourselves to them. With that, there are an infinite number of stories to weave into any narrative arc.'

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).

12 Reasons to Write Your Life Story (Kathy Evans, 1-4-11) Slideshare--click the arrows on bottom line of box.

The unrivalled Diana Athill: A bestseller at 91, she forged the modern memoir (Ian Jack, The Guardian, 10-30-09, writing about her memoir Instead of a Letter (1962). "As to the book's form, 'memoir' had yet to be established as a successful category in bookshops. Writers wrote them, of course, but rarely did they become known for the memoir alone (JR Ackerley and Laurie Lee may be two exceptions). Publishers and readers thought instead of "autobiographies", in which intimate personal disclosure took a back seat to records of achievement. The boundary between the two forms is blurred and bridgeable: VS Pritchett's wonderful account of his early life, A Cab at the Door, was described as "autobiography" when it first appeared in 1968, whereas now it would have "memoir" written all over it. Gore Vidal explained the difference in this way: "A memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked." His statement is arguable, but it has the virtue of simplicity. More important, by stressing subjective, unverified memory it permits the memoirist to misremember and, unconsciously or otherwise, to embroider and invent – an indulgence, it has to be said, that Athill has never been interested to take."

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."

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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."

Video tributes and documentaries (links to examples)

Vivian Gornick: 'Most people who are writing memoirs are not writers' (Michelle Dean, The Guardian, 5-24-15) ' “If a memoir is to achieve literature, it has to have an organizing principle, it has to have an idea, it has to have something that will be of value to the disinterested reader,” she said. “And that doesn’t happen so often, because most people who are writing memoirs are not writers.” The books that these other people – celebrities, crime victims – create she calls “testament”, a genre she traces back to the second world war and credits with creating the appetite for memoir in America. ' See also:
A memoirist defends her words (Vivian Gornick, Salon, 8-12-03) A response to critics who object to the use of composite characters in my writing.
Vivian Gornick, The Art of Memoir No. 2 (Elaine Blair's interview with VG,

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."

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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.
Letter Writing as a Powerful Prompt (Stuart Horwitz on Jane Friedman's blog, 10-8-2020) 'Getting to intimacy with an imaginary reader is hard; if you write to someone you can talk to, on the other hand, you can more easily achieve a confessional and arresting tone. This is because there is no such a thing as “voice” in the abstract.'
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."

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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 Family Memoir (report on Lyndall Gordon's seminar, Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, 5-19-14) Gordon questions whether "family narratives are predetermined – are they chosen from an array of narratives, a generated story familiar to history? A memoirist must attempt to avoid predetermined stories and challenge these popular narratives by plunging the subjects into a testing moment....It is important for the memoirist to distinguish between what is lively detail and what is digression. But the record itself still matters; we do need to know who we are."
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.

Voice, persona, and point of view in memoir

 "Just as in everyday life we laugh and cry, show anger and sadness, so, too, for personal essayists and memoirists, one voice is rarely enough. Memoirists, for example need different voices in order to reveal the complexity of a life. You may need to twine a child voice with an adult voice; a lyric voice with a comic voice; a sober voice with an out-of-control voice. In other words, there are several “me(s)” that make up the whole story."—Sue William Silverman'

"Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice," says memoirist Mary Karr, as quoted by Richard Gilbert in Memoir's blazing psychic struggle. "The goal of a voice is to speak not with objective authority but with subjective curiosity."....

    "Look, Karr says, the “now” you writing the story can forget without even realizing it who the “then” you actually was. How she loved, feared, yearned. This embodies the mysterious nature of memory, upon which memoir (and much of adult life) rests."
      "Karr circles back to her everlasting concern, authenticity. And how to find a suitable prose style for it. She dives through the past’s layers by locating what she calls “carnal” details—sensory impressions, often smells or textures—that bypass thought."

      Further from a Paris Review interview with Mary Karr: "Taken together, Karr’s memoirs, written in a singular voice that combines poetic diction and Texas vernacular, form a trilogy that spans the thematic range of the genre: harrowing tale of childhood, coming-of-age story, conversion experience."
     Karr herself: "Memoir is episodic—a looser construct than a bona fide novel. You start with an interesting voice; the rest follows."

     "Autobiography is mostly contingent on voice. If the voice is strong enough, the reader will go anywhere with you."
     "In most crap memoirs, motives are skipped over too. They are very surface-oriented. In a novel, characters can be two-dimensional as long as they’re interesting or there’s a good plot—think of Dickens. In memoir, the only through-line is character represented by voice. So you better make a reader damn curious about who’s talking. If thin, shallow characters were interesting, we’d all be watching Jerry Springer. You watch Springer because you don’t identify with those people. There’s no depth of connection to their narratives—they’re grotesques."


4 Voices That Can Help (or Hinder) Your Memoir (Lisa Cooper Ellison on Jane Friedman's blog, 5-5-21) When and when not to use the voice of The False Prophet, The Wounded One, The Investigator, or The Wise One.

Mary Louise Kelly on her memoir 'It. Goes. So. Fast. The Year of No Do-Overs' (Weekend Edition, 4-13-23) NPR's Scott Simon and Mary Louise Kelly talk about her new book, "It. Goes. So. Fast. The Year of No Do-Overs." The memoir takes looks at the balance of work and motherhood, intention and memory.
Innocence & Experience: Voice in Creative Nonfiction (Sue William Silverman, Brevity, 6-20-05) Voice is important in both fiction and nonfiction. "Even though you, as a character, will evolve and emotionally grow over the course of the work (this growth is a kind of internal plot), you can still weave in and out among the five notes from the first page to the last. You can even use two or more of these voices in a single sentence or paragraph."
The Tricky Issue of POV in Memoir (Sarah Chauncey on Jane Friedman's blog, 1-10-19) "Every story is about transformation. The main character’s journey changes them in some way; that arc, in turn, affects the character’s perception of the world around them. In memoir, you are that main character." But memoir is about a shift in perspective--is about inner transformation. "While it’s possible to write memoir from your own authorial POV (because you know more today than you did then), the most engaging memoirs are ones in which the author sticks to their POV at the moment of events."

• "As an editor it's pretty easy to strip out voice, and it's impossible to infuse it.  So err on the side of being voicy, and rely on your editor." ~ Ann Friedman, How the Internet Killed My Job and Made Me a Star (about online narrative nonfiction, not memoir writing)
Vivid Storytelling Requires Delivery of Experience, Not Just Information (Peter Selgin on Jane Friedman's blog, 9-18-19) In a "first-page critique" of a passage from a historical novel, Selgin explains why "properly engaging POV is so crucial, since things are always experienced by a particular sensibility operating from a specific vantage point, rather than generally from a neutral, disembodied perspective."
Making yourself a character in your story (Nicole Breit, Hippocampus, 9-9-19) Writing ourselves as characters who exist apart from us can help sidestep the very common fear of exposure that goes along with revealing the private details of our lives. "A larger, more open-hearted understanding of our story becomes possible, I think, when you honor it from the point of view of an observer."

"Voice is not just the result of a single sentence or paragraph or page.
It's not even the sum total of a whole story.
It's all your work laid out across the table like the bones and fossils of an unidentified carcass."
     ~Chuck Wendig
5 Reasons to Write Your “Taboo” Stories (Katie Bannon on Jane Friedman's blog, 3-24-23) Writing memoir is always a vulnerable experience, but some stories are especially difficult to tell. When we lean into stigmatized topics, we invite readers to wrestle with the same complexities we’re examining in ourselves.
Richard Gilbert, writing about the Kenyon Review Workshops: "In nonfiction, the developed persona of the writer is usually crucial—at least that’s an aesthetic principle in the academic literary world I frequent" says Gilbert, writing about what he learned at the workshops. "Whereas in poetry, knowing who’s speaking or observing, and why, isn’t so critical."  He quotes David Lynn: “The greatest literature has the ability to surprise us, even when we know what’s coming....“Delight is a deliberately capacious word. It has to engage your emotions in some way." And Rebecca McClanahan: "You cannot start a fire with one stick. You need two things for the text to move forward."
•  The phrase “to serve the subject” underscores the difference between a straightforward retelling of an experience and crafting a narrator (or narrators) that best fits the story being told, writes Michael Steinberg. His memoir "needed not one but three narrative personae; the author, whom Bill Roorbach refers to as “the writer at the desk”; the adult narrator, a spinoff, surrogate, stand-in—call him what you will—who’s looking back at a younger incarnation of himself; and the adolescent 'I.'" ~ The Multiple Selves Within: Crafting Narrative Personae in Literary Memoir (TriQuarterly, 4-9-12) See also Steinberg's The Role of Persona in Crafting Personal Narratives (6-13-12)
•    Marc Pachter, long-term guru and head of the Washington Biography Group (until he took up wandering), had this to say about Gilda Haber's memoir Cockney Girl: The Story of a Jewish Family in WWII London: "I have spent most of my professional life concerned with the writing of biography and auto-biography, in short. life telling. And so my review will be less about this book's extraordinary perspective on the Holocaust more broadly and specifically about the predicament and response of the Jewish community in Britain. Other reviews have addressed that achievement very effectively. What I want to comment on and celebrate, as a student of biography, is Haber's remarkable control of the narrative voice she uses in this painfully moving book. I would argue the most difficult task of all for a memoirist is reaching back in her memory and giving the reader the perspective she had then, early in her life, rather than the meaning she now imparts to it as an adult. Haber might have chosen to pronounce truths about that stage in her life as she now understands them. But instead she finds a way as a writer to put us back there with a little girl who has no idea what is happening to her, not only within the greater drama of Britain at war and London under attack, but even more intensely the mysteries of her own predicament as a child imperfectly loved, occasionally abandoned, and consistently refused warnings or explanations. So we wander and wonder with her, we never know why certain things were done, only that they were done. We can manage anything, even in a world at war, even as a child, if adults around us understand what we are emotionally owed, what we need to get through. There were some such adults in this child's life, but not enough, and not always. So read this book because of the history it conveys, but mostly read it to understand what it is to be a child."

• "I had tools by the end of the writing I hadn’t had access to at the beginning, says memoirist Liz Stephens. "When I began this book, I was an early nonfiction writer and high on discovery. By the end, I was finishing years of study of nonfiction form, hours of writing workshops with invested peers and mentors in the same field. So when my point of view as the narrator changes, it is through an integral change of the persona itself. Voice is the through-line that doesn’t change. “She’s” still there, talking to you, amazed." "The arc retains some lightness due to the nature of actually living the process as I wrote; I think in this case, taking a long time to write the book worked heavily to its advantage. I was more aware of myself, and more in tune with my surroundings, by the end of the writing process, so I resisted changing earlier bits to make myself look smarter. I just left in my initial excitements and lack of knowledge." Q&A with memoirist Liz Stephens (Draft No. 4, 4-21-13). See more of Richard Gilbert'sinteresting Q&As at Draft No. 4.

• "To fashion a persona out of one's own undisguised self is no easy thing," writes Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. "A novel or a poem provides invented characters or speaking voices that act as surrogate for the writer. Into those surrogates will be poured all that the writer cannot address directly -- inappropriate longings, s defensive embarrassments, anti-social desires -- but must address to achieve felt reality. The persona in a nonfiction narrative is an unsurrogated one... The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader." ~quoted by Maria Popova in How to Own Your Story: Vivian Gornick on the Art of Personal Narrative and the Power of Textured Storytelling (Brain Pickings)

• Here's more practical wisdom from Vivian Gornick in a Paris Review interview (highly recommended):
INTERVIEWER: There’s a passage I love in The Situation and the Story about how much you came to enjoy the company of the persona you had developed for Fierce Attachments. “I longed each day to meet up again with her, this other one telling the story that I alone—in my everyday person—would not have been able to tell. I could hardly believe my luck in having found her (that’s what it felt like, luck).”
GORNICK: It really is magic once you find the voice. Fierce Attachments was the first thing I ever wrote in which I felt the presence of a persona on whom I could rely. She figured out the scope of the book and how to fill it properly. I was never under the impression that I had written a major book, but I thought that what I had written was a small good thing. And it was all due to the hard work I put into finding that “persona.”
AND LATER IN THE SAME INTERVIEW: "So I thought that I would like to write a book about all this, and for years and years I tried to get into it, and I couldn’t. I had a situation but I couldn’t find the story. Then one day I wrote something about the city, about going out into the street for relief from my solitude and having an encounter in the street, and suddenly it came together for me. I thought, I can write about Leonard and myself as creatures of the city. And that opened me up—I don’t know why—and then I found the right tone of voice, the persona, if you will. "
• "Lee Martin, through his craft essays and memoirs, has taught me more than anyone about the use of persona," writes Richard Gilbert. "Point of view, voice, and tone all arise from or are inseparable from persona. I’ve become increasingly sensitive to the richness for readers in the fact that at least two distinctive and different voices from the same writer can tell the story in memoir: you “then,” mired in the action, and you “now,” the wiser person telling the tale." He quotes Martin: "In an essay, I’m always interested in the opening to see what the writer wants me to pay particular attention to, and often that ends up being the layers of the persona which are in conflict with one another." ~~from Teaching memoir’s essentials (Richard Gilbert: Focusing on persona, scene & structure as . 2-28-14)
•  Richard Gilbert, in Wounded family his review of Lee Martin's memoir From Our House writes: "Despite its easygoing narrative, rich in plot yet also feeling searchingly essayistic, this portrait of one troubled family possesses a riveting force. You sense that the surface events unfolding as Lee grows up reflect his family’s deep inner struggle to transcend its patriarch’s physical and psychic wounds. Martin evokes his experience in scenes while also slipping into the action musings by his older and wiser self. For one price, we get two points of view—that of the sensitive, difficult boy and that of the wiser adult he became." Search for Richard Gilbert and memoir writing and you'll find lots of insightful reviews of memoirs and literary nonfiction as well as lessons on the craft.
• And then there is So, What? The Reflective Voice in Memoir and Why It Matters (Marilyn Bousquin, Writing Women's Lives, 9-3-14). As Dorothy Allison says, “I am the only one who can tell the story of my life and say what it means.” The reflective voice reaches beneath the surface for the story’s deeper meaning....Without this reflective voice, the Coors story lacks the impulse for understanding that drove me to the page in the first place. It remains a surface recounting of events, which leaves my readers scratching their heads and saying, 'So, what?'"
Writing About Addiction: It Often Takes Two Perspectives (Peter Selgin on Jane Friedman's blog, 6-13-18) "Writing about addiction is tricky business. While most stories have a single protagonist, addiction narratives are usually about two people: the addict deep in the throes of their addiction, and the recovered narrator looking back objectively on the experience. In that sense, addiction narratives are schizophrenic, offering two perspectives—one reliable, one unreliable—opposing and informing each other. How those two perspectives are apportioned determines the nature of the result."
Between self and story Richard Gilbert on craft as "the conduit to art — but craft mustn’t be enshrined." "Art is intensely personal and so must the artist be. When my prose goes flat it seems that’s because I’m cut off emotionally from the material and am just covering narrative ground. I’ve lost point of view and therefore voice. Craft (basically my working on the words and syntax) can get such a passage flowing because such recasting reconnects me to subjective experience. And honestly, probably because varying sentence structures both mimics emotional connection and creates it."
Voices Inside Their Heads (Pico Iyer, NY Times Book Review, 4-11-13) "At its core, writing is about cutting beneath every social expectation to get to the voice you have when no one is listening. It’s about finding something true, the voice that lies beneath all words. But the paradox of writing is that everyone at her desk finds that the stunning passage written in the morning seems flat three hours later, and by the time it’s rewritten, the original version will look dazzling again. Our moods, our beings are as changeable as the sky (long hours at any writing project teach us), so we can no longer trust any one voice as definitive or lasting.
     "The ideal writer should be a Method actor of sorts, I’ve always felt: Meryl Streep can get so profoundly into Isak Dinesen, Margaret Thatcher and Karen Silkwood in part because she finds that corner in herself that rhymes with each one of them. We can evoke the people (or places) that move us by becoming them, since every subject worth taking on remakes us in its own image. In my first book, I thought it only right to describe the Philippines in a passionate, undefended, solicitous voice — to reflect what I saw in the place itself — and, five chapters later, to evoke Japan from a glassy remove, to speak for its cool and polished distances. Writing on the Dalai Lama, I work hard to espouse an analytical and logical and rigorous part of myself — to transmit by example those qualities most evident in him. And then, when I turn to writing about Graham Greene, I aspire to a more haunted, shriven, doubting (even English) voice."
• Lena "Dunham portrays herself as a mess growing up and coming of age, so full of excess emotion and so plagued by phobias that you’re regularly appalled—and steadily entertained," writes Richard Gilbert in his review of Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned (11-6-14). He's talking about the voice of a self-involved, neurotic but emotionally honest New Yorker. "I do wonder if it’s still exhausting to be her." ~ from Lena Dunham’s self-portrait
Memoir Writing: How to Find Your Voice as a Writer "When I consider voice, I find myself also looking at style, tone and language. Perhaps voice is the combination of these, powered by the essence of the narrative self who is the subject of the memoir," writes the anonymous author of the Slightly Nutty blog. "When you read other memoirs, take note of the tone, as that is a key aspect of voice. Tone can range widely from highly emotional to melodramatic, from blackly humorous to cheerful or self-contained (and can also be a combination of any of these).
"Also important is language, which also varies depending on the aims of the writer. For example, you can use language to bring the reader closer to the emotion or distance them from it. Language combines with tone to tell the reader who the narrator is, what life stage they’re at, and how much distance they have from the subject matter."


For more on this topic, go to Voice in Memoir, where you can also post comments.

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The Hybrid Memoir

How to Write a Hybrid Memoir (Adriana Barton on Jane Friedman's blog, 3-16-23) Bridging the gap between research and personal experience can become a book's greatest strength—but it might require Herculean effort.

      There is still an appetite for straight-up science books. We’re "seeing hybrid memoirs such as Lab Girl (botany blended with the author’s coming-of-age as a scientist), The Invisible Kingdom (a fusion of memoir and reportage on chronic illness),The Soul of an Octopus (in which a naturalist ponders  the nature of consciousness through communion with cephalopods) and the recent Heartbreak (a divorced journalist’s science-based exploration of heartache and grief). [Barton's own book is Wired for Music.]
    "All are great books, and in many cases, the personal angle might have been the author’s choice.
    "But nonfiction authors are under increasing pressure to permeate their books with their own experiences and emotions. Publishers seem convinced it’s not enough to distill research into well-written prose. Readers want an intimate story, too."

     "Unfortunately for authors, the hybrid memoir is tough to pull off."

Memoirs with Benefits: A Reading List of Hybrid Narratives (Courtney Maum, LitHub, 5-4-22) Courtney Maum recommends memoirs that seesaw from past to present, personal to universal. "While I imagined my journey back to mental wellness as the principle narrative arc in The Year of the Horses, I also wanted to explore the patriarchy’s attempts to keep women away from horses so that I could give my reader a little breathing room while also paying homage to the women who broke gender barriers so that I could ride."
      She writes about examples of the hybrid memoir:

Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf,

Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California by Matthew Specktor,

The Red Zone by Chloe Caldwell (a "mix of memoir, medical investigation, and group therapy"),

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel ("a heartbreaking look at love, identity, and family firmly buttressed by Bechdel’s generous humor and artistic talent"),

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts by Rebecca Hall,

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer,

Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women by Annabel Abbs,

Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation by Nuar Alsadir,

Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit,

Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me by Ada Calhoun,

This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown by Taylor Harris, and

The Year of the Horses by Courtney Maum.

A Powerful Intersection: Pairing Memoir and Science Writing (Barbara J. King, Cosmos and Culture, NPR, 6-29-17) What may strike a reader as somewhat abstract in science writing may become more real when encountered in a searing narrative of a person's own highly specific experience. She discusses three hybrid memoirs: Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay; The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs; and Born Both: An Intersex Life by Hida Viloria. "These books tell stories that should be heard, that lift up and give meaning to scientific facts of variable bodies, diseases, and genders — and how we respond to them.

      "What may strike a reader as somewhat abstract in science writing may become more real when encountered in a searing narrative of a person's own highly specific experience," writes King."These books by Gay, Riggs, and Viloria tell stories that should be heard, that lift up and give meaning to scientific facts of variable bodies, diseases, and genders — and how we respond to them." Books that may be helpful

Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative by Jane Alison
The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick

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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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Memoir-writing workshops for prisoners

"A memoir is not about you. It’s about something and you are its illustration. A memoir is a story about something you know after something you’ve been through." ~Marion Roach Smith

Students, inmates share memoir-writing class (Cathy Wooten, Emory Report, 3-25-11) "As a part of the course requirements, Oxford students complete the Georgia Department of Corrections' volunteer training, orienting them to the prison environment. They learn that on the one hand they will interact with the inmates much as they do with other students, but on the other, there are differences. They must not touch inmates. They cannot exchange gifts or information with them. They cannot take notes during the class and must keep in strictest confidentiality anything the inmates share about themselves."
Writing workshop helps hardened inmates find their voices in El Salvador (Danielle Shapiro, Fusion, 10-5-15) "Xiomara penned her story from prison as part of a pilot memoir-writing program called Soy Autor (I’m an Author), led by ConTextos, a San Salvador-based literacy and teacher training organization...ConTextos first developed the writing program for public schools. But it has since found equal success in the prison setting, where inmates are finding a voice to tell their stories. For many, it’s cathartic. It may seem like a modest achievement, yet the ConTextos’ effort is based on the conviction that literacy skills and writing can teach people to ask critical questions and engage in peaceful dialogue and disagreement."
Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail by David Coogan with ten others, the creative culmination of a writing class that began in the Richmond City Jail in Virginia. "It’s my memoir of teaching a writing class to prisoners. And it’s ten prisoners’ memoirs, written with this hope in mind: that each man might understand the story of his life, and in so doing, change its course.”
Cristina Domenech: Poetry that frees the soul (TED talk, filmed Sept. 2014 at TEDxRiodelaPlata). This moving talk is in Spanish with subtitles; her prison writing workshops focus on short poems, but as you can see when an inmate reads his poem are also about memoir.
Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail , ed. David Coogan. Stories from ten men in a writing class that started in the Richmond City (Virginia) jail. INCIDENTAL READING: From a press release for the book, saying he's working on a new book "Memoirs of Mass Incarceration": "Yes, this book tells the story of the prison industrial complex from the point of view of prisoners who wrote through it, around it, and against it. Mass incarceration began in earnest when the radical 1960s came to an end and we began warehousing social problems we could not deal with: racism, but also poverty, drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness, substandard public schooling, violence against children, violence against women, and so much more. Between 1970 and 2010 we went from incarcerating about a half million Americans to over two million Americans, a large many of them nonviolent drug offenders. We went from triaging the violence of legitimate challenges leveled at America by groups like the Black Panthers to taking whole segments of America out of America and into this enormous warehouse. At the same time the genre of memoir began outselling fiction four to one. It’s bizarre. We became fascinated with the life stories of strangers while we began locking up our neighbors."
Prison Writing (links to various articles and resources)
Legalize It All: How to win the war on drugs (Dan Baum, Harper's, April 2016). "n 1994, John Ehrlichman, the Watergate co-conspirator, unlocked for me one of the great mysteries of modern American history: How did the United States entangle itself in a policy of drug prohibition that has yielded so much misery and so few good results? Americans have been criminalizing psychoactive substances since San Francisco’s anti-opium law of 1875, but it was Ehrlichman’s boss, Richard Nixon, who declared the first “war on drugs” and set the country on the wildly punitive and counterproductive path it still pursues....“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” A much-discussed article (disavowed by three former Nixon aides, who say he was kidding).

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Doing oral histories

•*** Online guides to doing oral history (Pat McNees site, Doing Oral Histories, links to excellent material on the subject)
Family Oral History Using Digital Tools (Susan A. Kitchens' helpful site)
International Oral History Association (IOHA)
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
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.
Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy. A hidden army of female cryptographers, played a crucial role in ending World War II.
The Art of the Oral History Interview, Part 1: Be prepared. (Michael Takiff, Gravitas History). And Part 2: Listen
Colorado miners' stories brought to life. A Hundred Years After Irish Miners Lived And Died In Leadville, A Colorado Historian Is Bringing Their Stories To Life (Claire Cleveland, Colorado Public Radio, 6-4-21) Jim Walsh, a historian and researcher at University of Colorado Denver, first saw the cemetery in 2003 when he was working on his doctoral thesis. “And I remember even saying to myself that day that I was going to make this part of my life’s work,” he said. “The people who were buried there, their voices needed to be heard.” Reprinted also as Colorado historian bringing stories of Irish Leadville miners to life
An oral history of myself (Stephen Elliott, on The Rumpus) "In 2004 I began interviewing people I grew up with and transcribing the interviews, creating a kind of memoir but in other people’s words."
The Women Who Preserved the Story of the Tulsa Race Massacre (Victor Luckerson, New Yorker, 5-28-21) Two pioneering Black writers (Mary E. Jones Parrish and Eddie Faye Gates) have not received the recognition they deserve for chronicling one of the country’s gravest crimes.
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)
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."
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. 

Online guides to doing oral history
Transcribing oral history interviews
Books about doing oral history
Oral history as social history
Stories about oral history
Further reading about oral history
Oral history collections online (and a few audio recordings)
Oral history organizations
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More About Personal and Family Histories and Legacy Memoirs
(stories, explanations, and examples--print and multimedia)

Carol Burnett Interview: Overcoming Rejection, Finding Success & Becoming a Comedy Legend Carol Burnett informally telling her life story in this one-hour video is as great a personal history as can be found (and captures her delightful personal style).
To understand where you came from, and leave behind who you are, save your family history (Barry Rueger, Globe and Mail) A good reminder to talk to all sides of the family to collect a family history before those who know it, or parts of it, are gone.
• Ava Chin's lecture “The Way to Mott Street” (Dorothy O. Helly Lecture, Women Writing Women's Lives, 10-18-22) In this lecture Ava Chin (author of Mott Street: A Chinese American Family's Story of Exclusion and Homecoming), addresses the challenges faced in writing her memoir, Mott Street – challenges which included the impact of the Chinese Exclusion laws on four generations of her family in NYC’s Chinatown, and the task of how to thread a narrative together where the historical scope includes many eras and generations. How does one write a nonfiction book when the official record is a kind of fiction, heavily biased against one's subjects, or simply nonexistent due to negligence, discrimination, or a combination of both? How does the author weave nearly five decades of research into a single narrative? What are the criteria for inclusions and exclusions?
Luis Alberto Urrea on family stories and the work of witnessing. (LitHub, 5-31-23) "We carry inside us a theater, a library, a storehouse of quotidian detail that becomes heroic and eternal by the force of our art. For me, every character coaxed out of the shadows of what seems trivial brings my lost family to life, my disrespected border, my lonely beloveds."
A Beautiful Sadness: On the People and Places That Will Forever Haunt Us (LitHub, 1-13-22) Hanna Lillith Assadi tells the story of her grandmother’s life
The DNA of Storytelling: Making the Case for Messy Family Books (LitHub, 8-4-21) Tracey Lange on the complicated, raw emotional chaos of familial histories.
The ordinary Welsh people who have their biographies written by professionals (Laura Clements, Wales Online) They may have 'normal' lives but the burgeoning memoir-writing industry, which has boomed during the pandemic, means people have the chance to tell their stories and provide a keepsake for their families.
‘His voice became my constant companion’ – how Dan Johnson kept his dad’s memory alive (Dan Johnson, BBC News) Dan John's father, Graeme, didn't talk much about his life until his son got him to talk about his favorite music. And in talking about the music he let little bits about his life escape too. Sometimes you have to take a memory project on slantwise. Lovely.
Family History Narrative (Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, Creative Nonficton) Genealogists have started to get the hang of nonfiction storytelling--compellingly told, factual family histories. A few have looked at what authors like Gay Talese, John McPhee and Joan Didion did crafting life stories about people? How did they bridge gaps that remained after researching and interviewing?
A Teenager Was Bullied. His Ancestors Saved Him. (John Leland, NY Times, 2-26-21) Dennis Richmond Jr. was a middle-schooler who took refuge in his family history, some of it very surprising.
The Stories That Bind Us (Bruce Feiler, NY Times, This Life, 3-17-13). “The last few years have seen stunning breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” Children learn resilience when they hear what their relatives before them have faced. 

The Stories That Bind Us: What Are the Twenty Questions? (Marshall P. Duke, Huff Post, 2-23-15) See also The “Do You Know?” 20 Questions About Family Stories (Robyn Fivush, Psychology Today, 11-19-16) Here is one way to start telling and sharing family stories.
What Kids Learn From Hearing Family Stories (Elaine Reese, The Atlantic, 12-9-13) Reading to children has education benefits, of course—but so does sharing tales from the past. "In the preteen and early adolescent years, children tell highly proficient stories about events in their lives, but they still need help understanding difficult events, such as the time their best friend dumped them for someone else. It is not until mid-adolescence that teens can understand the impact of events on their lives and on who they are becoming. Even older adolescents still benefit from their parents’ help in understanding life’s curveballs."

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Women Are the Keepers of Family Stories (Robyn Fivush, Psychology Today, 2-17-21) Life transitions, especially births, generate family storytelling.
• Childhood Self Esteem and Family Togetherness (Well Being Journal, January 2006) "Research by two Emory University psychology professors shows that families who regularly share meals together have children who know more about their family history and tend to have higher self-esteem, interact better with their peers and show higher resilience in the face of adversity.When children are encouraged by parents who openly discuss emotions, even those associated with negative events, such as the death of a relative or a pet, they tend to have higher self-esteem and sense of self-control....Children benefit when parents listen to them and validate what they say and how they feel. This is particularly true when discussing a negative event, say the death of a grandparent. Resilience is nurtured when the child understands that negative events don’t define the family history. Children also learn how to cope with the inevitable ups and downs of life."https://www.covenantfn.org/articles/know-family-stories-benefit-children-adolescents-myriad-ways/
How to Tell Your Family That You’re Writing a Memoir (Neal Thompson, Literary Hub, 5-14-18) I didn’t intend for it to be a memoir. I swear. It just kept tilting in that direction. The only scenes that felt real and true were those with my wife and two sons....I’m not sure how far along I was before I came clean and told my family that dad’s misshapen skateboarding book had become a book about, well . . . us.." The book: Kickflip Boys: A Memoir of Freedom, Rebellion, and the Chaos of Fatherhood by Neal Thompson.
The Questions You Wish You Had Asked Your Parents (Clare Ansberry, WSJ, 3-1-2020) Adult children often wait until it’s too late to truly understand their parents. Now, that’s starting to change; ‘I wish I knew.’ Includes a dozen or so StoryCorps questions. The book quoted: Finding True Connections: How to Learn and Write About a Family Member's History by Gareth St John Thomas. "Our individual memories define us. Our tribal memories unite us. If these are missing, parts of us are missing too."
Why Stories Matter (my very personal story) (Stephanie Engelman, Inkwell Personal Histories, 9-22-18)
Keeping the Family Tree Alive (Paul Sullivan, Wealth Matters, NY Times, 12-29-17) 'What keeps venerable old families together? They are, after all, only as strong as the roots that bind them. “A lot of what makes these families successful is family first.” And that is where these families — even those linked by finances — need stories, context and shared memories to continue to prosper. Another strategy shared by such families is having a communal desire to understand their history, warts and all....Mrs. Perdue said that she interviewed people who married into the Henderson family about their lives and wrote biographies about them for other family members to read. The new spouses are given the essays on what it means to be a Henderson. “If you jump into a large family and you meet 60 people, that’s going to be intimidating and overwhelming,” she said. “But if you’ve seen their pictures and know their interests ahead of time, that makes it easier.” That transparency can help families look honestly at their past and move forward together.'
"Where did you come from. Where did you go?" My genealogy journey (Stefani Elkort Twyford) Read About Stefani (a colleague)
Have a Story to Tell? Your Personal Memoirist Is Here (Alina Tugend, Entrepreneurship, NY Times, 8-31-16) A whole generation is getting older, and its stories, if not written or otherwise recorded, will be lost. Serving that market is becoming a small-business enterprise. Personal historians help others tell their life story--in print, audio, or video, or all three.

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Family historians, collaboration and a new history from below methodology – or, sharing history over a cup of tea (Laura King, History Workshop, UK, 3-6-19) Laura King and Jessica Hammett worked together over two years on a project called Living with Dying: Everyday Cultures of Dying within Family Life in Britain, 1900-50s "Working together over about fifteen months, through monthly meetings accompanied by interviews, visits to the participants’ homes, and workshops, we benefited from a huge amount of research data – interviews, access to private family archives, the research of the historians, and written accounts of a family’s history. Overall, what we got from this was access to family memory, knowledge and expertise, in a way that cannot be found in a physical archive."
Family History Resource List (Living with Dying, 7-10-17) Links to useful British amily history archives, databases, and websites. Explore, for example, websites about Workhouses (and their inmates), Children's Homes,
Railway Work, Life & Death, Manorial documents and records, and so on.
History Workshop podcasts (British history)
Radical Objects (History Workshop series on objects as history)
How Do Family Historians Work with Memory? (Tanya Evans, History Workshop, 2-6-19) More collaborative work between family historians and those based in the academy.
Our Criminal Ancestors (a public engagement project in the UK that encourages and supports people and communities to explore the criminal past of their own families, communities, towns and regions--source guides (e.g., to tracing your transported convict ancestors) and timelines (e.g., to bodily punishments and banishment, 1700-1965).

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My Turn: Saving a life, for those left behind (Jane Lehmann-Shafron, Los Angeles Times, 12-12-11) 'My first real client was Anne King. Anne also had cancer. When I arrived at her home in Glendale, she was gray and diminished, with barely a voice. But as the day progressed and the camera rolled, she bloomed. Her best years, she said, were during World War II. "We all had the same purpose", she recalled.
'My husband and I both cried when we got a call one week later from Anne's daughter, who told us her mother had died. I have learned since that there is a branch of elder care called "reminiscence therapy." Talking about old times has been shown to improve mood, well being, communication and even memory. A study published last year in the Journal of Psychology and Aging found that these benefits were enhanced when the reminiscing occurred with others.'
Recording Family History: The 5 Biggest Mistakes. The late Orange County, California video biographer Jane Shafron doesn’t offer tips on recording equipment or technique; she hones in on the faulty reasoning for not preserving one’s story (such as believing your story must be filled with high drama) and other reasons for not moving forward. In brief: Believing in immortality. Thinking a life worth recording must have major drama. Blaming someone else for not getting it done. Letting money get in the way. Losing the tape.
Six Glimpses of the Past: On photography and memory. (Janet Malcolm, The New Yorker, 10-29-18) 'When we arrived in America, and were taken under the wing of my aunt and uncle, who had left Prague six months earlier, we changed our name from Wiener to Winn, just as they had changed theirs from Eisner to Edwards, out of fear of anti-Semitism, which was not limited to Nazi Germany. As an extra precaution, my aunt and uncle had joined the Episcopal Church. My parents balked at taking such a step. But they sent Marie and me to a Lutheran Sunday school in our neighborhood, and never did anything or said anything to acquaint us with our Jewishness. Finally, one day, after one of us proudly brought home an anti-Semitic slur learned from a classmate, they decided it was time to tell us that we were Jewish. It was a bit late. We had internalized the anti-Semitism in the culture and were shocked and mortified to learn that we were not on the “good” side of the equation. Many years later, I came to acknowledge and treasure my Jewishness. But during childhood and adolescence I hated and resented and hid it."'
Financial Firms Offer a New Service to Wealthy Clients: Family History (Emily Glazer, Wall Street Journal, 6-10-16) Professional biographical films and genealogy services are used as a way to interact with different generations in a family. Personal and family histories make great books. too -- and the technology is still good 20 years from now!
Online research leads to new chapter in family history (RonCsillag, Canadian Jewish News, 1-9-19) An Ottawa man’s dogged research into his past may now lead to a revision of his family’s history. 'Along with consulting a German historian, he estimates he searched 15 websites, three archives and a museum database. His online sleuthing was “mind-blowing.”
“My grandfather never knew any of this. It’s proof they were there. That’s what I was looking for. And then it’s real.”'
Every Waking Moment a novel by Chris Fabry. Devin Hillis makes documentaries about the elderly. The shorter ones are played at funerals as tributes to the deceased. Devin’s prize project, however, is a major documentary featuring the residents at Desert Gardens, an assisted-living facility. "We're not cataloging lives or just collecting information. We're turning stories into a symphony. We're deciphering the days of this older generation or the young father with a terminal illness or a mother with breast cancer who has a few months to live or a child with a tumor whose parents want to hang on to life. Make sense of the pain. We're taking all that and putting it into understandable bits of video and music and story. This is a holy endeavor."

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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."
Writing Books Very Few Will Read ((William Novak, NY Times, Opinionator, 7-11-15) How writing a private book, which will be read by only a few people, some of them not even born yet, can in some ways be liberating. "There’s some truth to the notion that a biography can bring a person back to life. Neither of these memorials has even been printed, let alone distributed. But to the families, they mean the world."
Confessions of a Video Biographer – Chapter 1: The Awakening (Steve Pender of Family Legacy Video describes his experience launching and running a business creating video personal histories. The next parts of the story: 2. The Journey Begins; 3. Closing the Circle.; 4. Romancing the Curve. Lots of good content and samples on Steve's website. See also his clever 40-second time-lapse video of setting up a video shoot, showing how a video professional will move around chairs and other furniture in a room to get the right backgrounds and lighting for particular shots (one part of the room might be better early in the day and another better later in the day, plus you might want variety). See if you can spot a little white critter.

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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.
Our story, in the hands of a pro (Michael Alison Chandler, Washington Post Metro section, 12-10-13) Families turn to professionals to document their stories.

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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.
From School Teacher to Personal Historian: Deborah’s Story (Hélène Stelian, 7-9-18) Deborah Wilbrink's story.
Brownstone Detectives: This Guy Wrote a Book About His Brownstone and Wants to Do the Same for You (Jackson Connor, Village Voice, 8-4-15) "While not every customer can afford a hardbound album of their building’s history (the books start at 25 pages and a whopping $2,900), Hartig also offers a “House History Report” for a base price of $650 and a chain-of-title search for $175. Real estate companies have also enlisted his services, hoping the narratives he uncovers will help give their brokers a slight edge in the market."

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Memoirist of Ordinary, Yet Extraordinary Elders (PDF, Mary O'Brien Tyrrell, Generations, 2003) Documenting the reminiscences of elders.
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."

Every family has stories to tell. Here's how to document yours (Sylvie Douglis and Simran Sethi, Life Kit, 11-12-21) "We tend to tell the same stories over and over," Nicolette Khan explains. "Digging a little deeper or asking more about what someone was sensing or feeling can bring out new memories." If your family member takes you down a rabbit hole that wasn't on your list of questions, follow it and see where it goes. You can always move questions around, take them out or circle back to them later.
Strength Through Story A support group for pregnant, postpartum and adoptive moms that focuses on healing through writing and creative community.
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."

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Remembering together --- How long-term couples develop interconnected memory systems (Research Digest, 7-29-14)
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.

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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)

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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.)

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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)
Memoirs and Biographies (Letterpile) One category for short pieces, on an eccentric and interesting website. See, for example, Memories of My Great Grandparents Living in Dublin (L.M. Reid, Letterpile, 8-18-19). Enticingly short sections with lots of images.
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)

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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

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The Ethics of Memoir Writing

and the practice of story stewardship

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ~ Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

The Ethics of Writing Hard Things in Family Memoir (Kelly McMasters, LitHub, 5-31-23) What is enough when revealing hard truths? An essay about the blurred lines between being an artist-parent and being a parent-artist. At our best, memoirists hope it is silence we are breaking, and not another person.
The Practice of Story Stewardship (Brené Brown, adapted from her book Atlas of the Heart about "mapping meaningful connection and the language of human experience."

      Two quotes: "This is a good moment to pause and introduce the Buddhist concept of the near enemy. University of Texas researcher Kristin Neff writes that the concept refers to “a state of mind that appears similar to the desired state—hence it is ‘near’—but actually undermines it, which is why it’s an enemy.”“Far enemies,” on the other hand, are the opposite of emotions or experiences. What’s interesting is that near enemies are often greater threats than far enemies because they’re more difficult to recognize.

      "Rather than being good stewards of a story, we hijack the story and center ourselves. That centering takes many different shapes, including shifting the focus to us, questioning or not believing what someone is sharing because it’s different than our lived experience, or diminishing the importance of an experience because it makes us feel uncomfortable or, worse, complicit."
BIO Award-winner Kitty Kelley's speech at the BIO conference, 2023 Full text of a speech detailing what she did to protect herself if sued against potential libel suits for her "unauthorized biographies" of Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan, and the (President) Bush family. Her strategies both protected her and helped get her books on bestseller lists.
Kitty Kelley, on receiving the Washington Independent Review of Books Lifetime Achievement Award, 2016. "Despite my lofty defense of the unauthorized biography there’s no question that it exacts a price. The authorized biographer is often hailed as a white knight while the unauthorized biographer is usually demonized. It’s the difference between poodles and pit bulls. One is adored—the other avoided. Authorized biographers are like seraphim—the angels who stand to give praise. Unauthorized biographers are like what John Boehner recently called Ted Cruz. You can understand why I keep an old cowboy motto above my desk that says–“Tell the truth but ride a fast horse.”
Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction (AWP Conference Panel II) How do the authors of memoirs walk the thin line between truthful disclosure and betrayal of trust, and what responsibility do they have to loved ones who appear in their work? Four authors talk about how they've grappled with these questions, the consequences of their choices, and the lessons they've learned.

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The Ethics of Empathy: Techniques for Portraying Antagonists in Contemporary Memoir (Wendy Staley Colbert, Brevity, 5-14-18) Writers who examine real places, events and people face risks that warrant thoughtful consideration before publication. As poet and memoirist Judith Barrington notes, “We have a right to tell our stories, but not to blunder into publication without a thought for the consequences.” Not to mention that it is more interesting for the reader to render full characters: "For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent."
Ask the Editor: How Can I Avoid Lawsuits When Writing Memoir? (Lisa Cooper Ellison on Jane Friedman's blog, 3-22-23) Even lesser-known authors can experience legal issues if they don’t perform their due diligence while writing and revising their books. If the 2022 Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial taught us anything, it’s that you don’t have to name names to find yourself in legal trouble.
Life Story Rights – Clearance and Acquisition for Literary Works (Matt Knight, Sidebar Saturdays, 11-18-17) Writing about another person's life you must be aware of three types of rights in particular: Defamation (in particular libel and slander), the right of privacy (the right to be left alone), and the right of publicity.
"Privacy is invaded when private facts not in the public’s interest are publicly disclosed. While the truth can deflect a defamation claim, often the truth when disclosed can be the basis for an invasion of privacy claim."
"Misappropriation of the right of publicity is using someone’s name, likeness, or identifying characteristics for advertising, merchandising, endorsements, promotional, or commercial purposes without permission."
The Legal Risks Of Writing Memoirs (Matt Knight, Sidebar Saturdays, 3-31-18) Once you have the first draft, be cognizant of legal issues like defamation, invasion of privacy, and the right of publicity regarding others involved in your story, as well as fraud--and how to avoid being sued.
But Will They Love Me When It’s Done? Writing about Family in Memoir (Laurie Hertzel, TriQuarterly, 3-8-16) Hertzel, author of News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist, reporting on an AWP panel on the subjectexplains the legal dangers of defamation or invasion of privacy, explaining that the First Amendment does not give you carte blanche. How much of the juicy bits can you include when they involve others and how much should you leave out, including names?

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Writing Literary Memoir: Are We Obliged to Tell the "Real" Truth? (Michael Steinberg, Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, 2-11-14)
When Is Lying in Memoir Acceptable? 3 Key Issues (Jane Friedman, Writer's Digest, 5-31-11) She explains why three myths are both true and untrue: Memory is fallible, emotional truth is more important than facts, and "a literary work is always fiction."
Nothing But The Truth? On Lying And Memoir-Writing (Maddie Crum, Huffpost, 9-28-15)
Whose Truth? The ethics of memoir writing (roundup of pieces on the topic--)
The Ethics of Memoir Writing (Talk of the Nation, 1-12-06) Philip Gourevitch, editor of The Paris Review, and Nicholas Christopher, novelist, poet, and writing professor, explore the ethics of writing a memoir. Is it acceptable for writers to embellish the events of their lives to provide a more exciting book?
Writing the Truth (Maureen Murdock) Whose story is yours to tell? What if I can’t remember what was said? Factual recounting of an event versus emotional memory. Beware: the act of writing about another person can not help but change your relationship with that person (living or dead) Fictional memoirs
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.
Ethics in Memoir Writing: An Instructional Dialogue (PDF, Melanie Rigney, LaJolla Writers Confernece, Nov. 2009)

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Writing Literary Memoir by Michael Steinberg. He asks: Are We Obliged to Tell the “Real” Truth? 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.
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.
"History, is made up of the bad actions of extraordinary men and woman. All the most noted destroyers and deceivers of our species, all the founders of arbitrary governments and false religions have been extraordinary people; and nine tenths of the calamities that have befallen the human race had no other origin than the union of high intelligence with low desires" ―Thomas B. Macaulay (Hat tip to Thomas Forster for this quotation)

Alas, these pieces seem to be no longer online--will their authors let me know if they reappear again one day? But the links for now are not working and a search did not turn them up in another venue. 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?"

[Please let me know if any of these stories come online again, so I can link to them.]

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Writing personal and family histories

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 minuscule  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

How To Write About Your Mother (Terry McDonell, LitHub,5-9-23) "Put two things together that have never been together before, and the world is changed: chaos theory. Memory works that way too. No story is told just once, but it is never exactly the same story. That was all I needed to know, except certain memories seemed to be searching me out. I knew the brain handles positive and negative information differently, in different hemispheres; troubling info, what most people don’t want to think about, takes more time to process, which means more thinking, and bad events are harder to forget and wear off more slowly, some never. But you can bury them."

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.”

Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story by Alan Gelb. How to create "last says"--short personal narratives that serve as a powerful form of life review.

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.

Yours Truly: An Obituary Writer's Guide to Telling Your Story by James R. Hagerty. "Hagerty explains how to preserve your personal history—from crafting a brief obituary for newspapers and websites, to a more thoughtful and detailed mini-memoir for those close to you. Through his personal stories, on-the-job anecdotes, and insights, you will learn what to include, what to leave out, and how to provide historical context, record oral histories and make the most of details, all with candor and wit. Best of all, you’ll find that reviewing your life story helps you think about what you’re doing with your time on Earth and whether you’re on the right path. It isn’t too late to improve the narrative with a stronger ending."

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Memoirs, healing, and self-understanding


After the Chapters End: Preserving Your Child's Too-Short Life Story by Sue Hessel. A step-by-step guide to preserving the life story of the child who died, by a personal historian and bereaved parent.

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.

Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss by Jessica Handler (author of the memoir Invisible Sisters, about being the "well sibling" of two younger sisters who die)

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 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.

The Story You Need to Tell: Writing to Heal from Trauma, Illness, or Loss by Sandra Marinella. (“Sandra Marinella deserves our recognition for her years of dedicated work with writers, veterans, and cancer patients. Her incredible research, her networking, and her gift for words should carry this book into the pantheon of great books on writing.” — Christina Baldwin, author of Storycatcher)

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

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)

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and Loss by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt. Though Anderson Cooper has always considered himself close to his mother, his intensely busy career as a journalist for CNN and CBS affords him little time to spend with her. After she suffers a brief but serious illness at the age of ninety-one, they resolve to change their relationship by beginning a year-long conversation unlike any they had ever had before. The result is a correspondence of surprising honesty and depth in which they discuss their lives, the things that matter to them, and what they still want to learn about each other.

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Writing from memory prompts

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).

Telling the Stories of Life through Guided Autobiography Groups by James E. Birren & Kathryn N. Cochran. Provides sensitizing questions which help participants write on life themes (as opposed to life stages): Branching points. Family. Money. Work. Health and body. Sexual identity. Experiences with and about death. Your spiritual life and values. Your goals and aspirations. You can download (chapter by chapter) a special issue of IJRLR in honor of James Emmett Birren (1918-2016) (International Journal of Reminiscence and Life Review) here:

Writing Your Legacy: The Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting Your Life Story by Richard Campbell and Cheryl Swensson. More themes for Guided Autobiography groups.

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.

And if you are looking for more writing prompts, take a look at
Universal Themes
The 12 Most Common Themes in Literature (Rachel Mark, Syracuse City Schools)
Themes for mindfulness

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Anthologies of personal history, life story writing, and reminiscence

Check out these anthologies:
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) I have a (very) few copies to sell.

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

Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps

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).

The Moth, ed. by Catherine Burns

Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps , edited by Dave Isay

Crimebusters + Crossed Wires: Stories from This American Life

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 Art and Craft of Memoir and Biography

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. The ideal gift for someone who is writing, or thinking of writing, their memoir.

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 Brief History by Nigel Hamilton. Explores the history and nature of biography.

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

Biography: A Very Short Introduction by Hermione Lee. See also Hermione Lee, The Art of Biography No. 4 (interviewed by Louisa Thomas, Summer 2013 Paris Review)

Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition by Joanne Braxton

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 and writing authentically. "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." Start with her workbook: Tell the Truth. Make It Matter: A memoir writing workbook

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).

Memoir: Conversation and Craft by Marjorie Simmins. Donna Morrissey, Linden MacIntyre, Plum Johnson, Lawrence Hill, Edmund Metatawabin, Diane Schoemperlen, and Claire Mowat—some of Canada's top fiction and non-fiction writers—speak with candour, humour, and compassion about their journeys to memoir. Often touching, always helpful and frank, the interviews cover a broad spectrum of the writing experience.

• ****The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life by Marion Roach Smith. In this slim, eccentric volume, Smith emphasizes writing with intent, writing about what was important about a particular event, writing memoir as the single greatest portal
to self-discovery. Poets & Writers Magazine considers it one of the best books for writers. Listen to NPR's interview with Roach Smith about her new book on Talk of the Nation.

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.

Practicing History (essays by Barbara Tuchman). She argues for writing "narrative history" as engaging as fiction, but based upon excellent scholarship.

To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction by Philip Lopate. Pieces by the master of essay writing on the craft of personal essay and memoir writing.
Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, ed. by Meredith Maran. Essays by Sue Monk Kidd, Pat Conroy, Cheryl Strayed, Edwidge Danticat, Anne Lamott and fifteen more writers.

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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Life Story workshops

'So Deep And So Rich': Seniors Stay Connected Via Their New Life On Zoom (Gwynne Hogan, Weekend Edition, NPR, 4-4-21) A short and sweet piece about a memoir-writing group that successfully migrated to Zoom.“When the memoir group started up three years ago it was only supposed to last for four months, but the women refused to abandon it." H/T Trena Cleland for the link.
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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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 books 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.) You can read online James E. Birren: A Unique Three Generational Perspective (PDF, a special Birren edition of the International Journal for Reminiscence and Life Review, Vol. 5, Issue 1, 2018). Click on the PDF in a box to get to the PDF. Cheryl M. Svensson, ed.
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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Writing Corporate and Organizational Histories
(commissioned histories)

This kind of work may include archival services, portfolio or services videos, white papers, corporate histories as books or online. Whether you're positioning your firm among competitors or building employee morale, these products are no longer the boring and unread products they once were. Below, see
---Articles about corporate and organizational histories
---Samples of brief online corporate histories
---Samples of corporate and organizational histories (books).
---Corporate and organizational storytelling
---More resources

Articles about corporate and organizational histories

Touring the New World Trade Center with Its Official Biographer (David Skinner, Humanities, Summer 2016) Public Scholar Judith Dupré tells the behind-the-scenes story of the process of rebuilding and rebirth of an extraordinary building: One World Trade Center: Biography of the Building
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."
Your Company’s History as a Leadership Tool (John T. Seaman Jr. and George David Smith, Harvard Business Review, Dec. 2012) "The history of the enterprise can instill a sense of identity and purpose and suggest the goals that will resonate....In its most familiar form, as a narrative about the past, history is a rich explanatory tool with which executives can make a case for change and motivate people to overcome challenges. Taken to a higher level, it also serves as a potent problem-solving tool, one that offers pragmatic insights, valid generalizations, and meaningful perspectives—a way through management fads and the noise of the moment to what really matters. For a leader, then, the challenge is to find in an organization’s history its usable past."
Past rites (The Economist, 9-6-07) How companies can benefit from looking backwards as well as forwards. "The benefits of knowing your corporate history can be very practical....But the bigger payoff tends to be less tangible—that of forging stronger bonds with customers and employees....Transparency is a must. Union Carbide, a chemicals firm, has a link to information on the deadly Bhopal gas leak in India on its home page, for example.... 'It's like kids looking at the dirty words in a dictionary,' says Mr Weindruch: people will notice if the awkward bits are missing."
Preserving Wealth By Defining A Legacy — The Role Of Family Historians (Bingham C. Jamison, CFA, Forbes magazine, 5-24-17) "Honoring a life well-lived doesn’t just benefit the younger generations – it empowers the elders themselves, and in the process, assigns meaning to their life and permanence to their story." and “A corporate history inspires future leaders to embody the family’s original, core values through a deeper identification with the firm’s narrative, and ensures greater probability of the successful transition of a family business.”

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Storytelling as a way to foster a sense of belonging in family businesses (Arielle Nobile, Smart Business, 1-20-16) "In most family systems, especially when there are the complications of running a family business together, people find themselves typecast in a role: the drama queen, the tight-wad, the introvert, the boss. By telling stories from the heart, these roles start to fall away and what is revealed are the parts that are true for all, the threads that connect us to something greater than our individual selves....When members of a family business take the time to share stories and memories with one another, it gives them a chance not only to be seen and heard as individuals as opposed to their fixed roles, but also to feel more deeply connected to each other and to the larger family system."
Why a College Should Teach Its Own History (Corey Ryan Earle, Chronicle of Higher Education, 7-20-16) Write a history of a university and teach a course about that history. This piece presents the benefits to students and college. "Many of my students have observed how much more appreciative they are of their education after learning of past struggles."
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.
Society for History in the Federal Government (SHFG, bringing together government professionals, academics, consultants, students, and citizens interested in understanding federal history work and the historical development of the federal government)
Organizations for corporate, government, and technical communicators
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 Case for an Integrated Company Anniversary; A Corporate Archivist’s View (Thomas Inglin, The History Factory, 6-12-14). See also The 5 Most Valuable Corporate History Materials to Use for Research and Accounting for Company Archives: The Valuation of History.
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) A friend of his who had gone to work for the Atomic Energy Commission (which later became the Department of Energy) asked him if he'd be interested in writing a history of the civilian nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, which had just happened a month earlier, in 1980. Trained as a historian--to write about a recent event? "Historical materials were strewn around the hanger. We just swept the records off the tables and into boxes, and brought them back here to Washington. Then we set up an archives, did a series of oral histories, and started to write. Within a year, we finished the book. Unheard of....We delivered an electronic document, so the Government Printing Office could quickly publish it as a report. The report was used to persuade Congress to keep the nuclear aerial-monitoring equipment at the Department of Energy, because all of it had come out of the department’s nuclear testing program, and to not transfer it to another agency, as the Carter administration had recommended."
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.
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Corporate and organizational storytelling

Corporate and organizational storytelling (links to many excellent stories on how storytelling can be used to lead and to transform organizations)
This Get’s In Your Way, But You Can Fix It: Nonprofit Storytelling Part 1 (Nancy Schwartz, Getting Attention!, Nonprofit Storytelling, 11-27-12, on mission statements). You may find the subsequent posts useful as well:
---Part 2: Six Story Types to Tell (Nonprofit Storytelling)
---Part 3: How to Tell Your Founding Story
---Part 4: How to Tell Your Focus Story
---Part 5: How to Tell Your Success Stories
---Part 5.5: How to Tell Your Strength Story
---Part 6: How to Tell Your People Stories
---Part 7: How To Tell Your Future Story: Nonprofit Storytelling
---Part 8: Shape Stories to Motivate Action
---Part 9: How Story Trumps Description (Nancy Schwartz, Getting Attention! Nonprofit Storytelling)
The Complete Guide to Organizational Storytelling (StoriesIncorporated.com, 35-page ebook) "Organizational storytelling uncovers your employees’ stories that best bring to life your unique culture, your big decisions, and those special moments that communicate what it really means to be a team member in your workplace." Case studies, department by department.
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)
The Complete Guide to Organizational Storytelling (Stories Inc., PDF, 35 pages) Stories Inc.’s expert team members capture employee stories that show what is unique about an organization’s culture, and connect those stories to brand messaging, corporate values and purpose.
Visual storytelling checklist (JD Lasica, Socialbrite)
How nonprofits should be using storytelling (JD Lasica, SocialBrite)


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Samples of brief online corporate histories

Coca-Cola Bottling, which includes the story of one of its failures, New Coke.
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)
General Pencil Company: Inside One of America’s Last Pencil Factories (Sam Anderson and photographer Christopher Payne, NY Times Magazine, 1-12-18) A photographer captures a colorful world of craft and complexity. "A pencil is a little wonder-wand: a stick of wood that traces the tiniest motions of your hand as it moves across a surface. I am using one now, making weird little loops and slashes to write these words. As a tool, it is admirably sensitive. The lines it makes can be fat or thin, screams or whispers, blocks of concrete or blades of grass, all depending on changes of pressure so subtle that we would hardly notice them in any other context. (The difference in force between a bold line and nothing at all would hardly tip a domino.) And while a pencil is sophisticated enough to track every gradation of the human hand, it is also simple enough for a toddler to use."
Pepsi, simple, and
Pepsi, the legacy book (PDF)
The Untold Truth Of RC Cola Delightful video history of a Southern underdog cola worth sipping.
Simmons Mattresses
Singer Sewing Machines. This Harvard story about a beautiful old sewing machine that no collection wanted is a powerfully effective indirect story about a company that was once a powerhouse.
Union Carbide has a plain vanilla history, but it also gives a full section of its website to the deadly Ghopal has leak in India.
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Samples of corporate and organizational histories (books)

The Wawa Way: How a Funny Name and Six Core Values Revolutionized Convenience by Howard Stoeckel and Bob Andelman
A Journalism of Humanity: A Candid History of the World's First Journalism School by Steve Weinberg, about the University of Missouri Journalism School.
Managing Upside Down: The Seven Intentions Of Values-Centered Leadership by Tom Chappell (about Tom's of Maine, which he founded)
Harzfeld's: A Brief History by Joe and Michele Boeckholt (about a pioneering women's fashion store that became a beloved landmark in Kansas City, Missouri)

My corporate and organizational histories. Such titles are rarely sold in bookstores, but :
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 an organizational history: 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). This was a project of Jim Dicke II of Crown Equipment (in New Bremen, Ohio), when he was YPO's president.
•  Building Ten at Fifty: 50 Years of Clinical Research at the NIH Clinical Center. This history of the National Institutes of Research's Clinical Center--where researchers see patients (read selections here)--is a historical profile of American's pioneering national research hospital (totally dedicated to clinical research--that is, research involving patients). Doing it totally hooked me on patient stories, which conveyed in fascinating ways what was going on in that wonderful building. 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.)

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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.
• Possibly helpful: Avoiding the Seven Deadly Sins That Destroy Family Businesses (Andy Johnson, Price Associates, 3-26-13) Interesting review of Keeping the Family Baggage Out of the Family Business.

BACK TO• Corporate and organizational histories

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Organizations and online gathering places for biographers, memoirists, personal historians, and other life story writers

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 life 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 ordinary people tell their life or family stories. (Alas, the organization was forced by financial difficulties to stopped operating in May 2017 -- a painful board decision -- but there are still plenty of personal historians providing services.) Personal historians can apply to join:
---Personal Historians (a closed Facebook group)
---Personal Historians Northeast Network
---Personal Historians NW (in the Pacific Northwest)
---Life Story Professionals of the Greater Washington Area (LSPGW--we need a better name!-- DC, Maryland, and Virginia). Other regional groups of former APH members are forming or are sure to form because this is a collaborative field. 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 Everything Elderly - Kiwanis Club of Ann Arbor, and TimePieces Personal Biographies.
Australian Journal of Biography and History
Biographers' Club (UK) has fairly frequent meetings, with speakers.
Biographers Guild of Greater New York (Facebook page). On Twitter: @biographersguild
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. As of 2021, BIO publishes a short quarterly newsletter, The Latest News in Biography, aimed at the publishing community.  It also publishes two monthly newsletters for BIO members only. 'The Biographer’s Craft' now comes out as two monthly newsletters:

---The Insider (bringing a monthly roundup of news, notes and events in the world of biography, prize opportunities, research tips, notification of new biographies and more) comes out early in the month.

---The Biographer’s Craft (featuring interviews with biographers and articles about biography) comes out in the second half of the month.

As a member, you can access past issues in the Members Area of BIO’s website.
      BIO held its first Compleat Biographer conference March 26, 2010, in Boston (read Brian Jay Jones writeup about it). The second BIO conference was May 21, 2011, at the National Press Club in DC. You can read reports on the panels ten years later from the 2021 virtual conference here. Among gems from earlier conferences, Donna Munker wrote about Robert Caro's keynote talk on The Power of Place in Biography.Members have access to BIO's interesting podcasts and video library, including videos from early conferences --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. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made that phrase popular, but national security and intelligence professionals have long used the terms in analysis.)

       Full membership is available only to "professional biographers" (as defined by the BIO board); memoirists may join as associate members. Members enjoy both a newsletter and a magazine, as well as a a href="https://biographersinternational.org/podcasts/" target="_blank">podcast (the latter available to the public). It also offers several awards. BIO's founding was reported in The Biographer's Craft (2009), the newsletter BIO's first executive director James McGrath Morris launched, available to BIO members with membership.   Join here.
Birren Center for Autobiography and Life Review (provides training and workshops on Guided Autobiography, aptly nicknamed GAB, founded by the late gerontologist James Birren)
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.
Gathering of the Ghosts First-ever national convention of professional ghostwriters on January 22, 2024, co-sponsored by the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and Gotham Ghostwriters, which will also offer the first Andy Awards (Andies) for professional ghostwriting.
Global Biography Working Group (GloBio) is an online platform and forum for the presentation, discussion and dissemination of all things concerning global biographies, particularly of the 19th, 20th, and 21st century. GloBio aims to facilitate the development of global biography as a lively and connected academic field with a distinct set of approaches.
H-Biography (H-Net, Humanities and Social Sciences Online) "an interdisciplinary and international network devoted to biography as an object and a method of scholarly research." Here are links to other H networks.
Healing Story Alliance (exploring and promoting the use of storytelling in healing)
International Association for Journal Writing (IAJW) encourages excellence in writing and editorial standards in genealogical publishing
International Center for Life Story Innovations and Practice (ICLIP, at the University of Connecticut School of Nursing), a reincarnation, relocation, and renaming of the International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review (IIRLR), still striving to bridge the gap between academia and personal history.
Institute of Biography (aka Biografie Instituut), Nederlands)
International Oral History Association (IOHA)
International Society of Family History Writers and Editors (ISFHWE, formerly the 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
Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (OCLU) at Wolfson College, Oxford, of which biographer Dana Greene writes "an excellent site for anyone interested in biography especially as practiced in England."
Program in Narrative Medicine (College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University). Periodically holds interesting workshops. "Along with scientific ability, physicians need the ability to listen to the narratives of the patient, grasp and honor their meanings, and be moved to act on the patient's behalf. This is narrative competence, that is, the competence that human beings use to absorb, interpret, and respond to stories."~ Rita Charon
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 nonfiction. The Veterans Writing Project publishes a blog and a literary journal,O-Dark-Thirty.
Washington Biography Group (WBG) (with links to other biography and memoir groups and resources). Inspired by Marc Pachter, then chief historian of the National Portrait Gallery, who organized an all-day symposium in 1986 on "Biography: Life As Art" at The Smithsonian Institution's Baird Auditorium. WBG has been meeting regularly ever since.
Women Writing Women's Lives (WWWL), a long-standing, ongoing seminar of about seventy 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. See WWWL blog and videos of past events.
Other biography centers, groups, and resources

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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.



[More to come: Let me know of missing treasures.]

Atrocities: The 100 Deadliest Episodes in Human History (The Book of Horrible Things) Explore the site for a preview.
Best History Web Sites (created by EdTechTeacher)
Chronicling America (various U.S. Library of Congress collections, good for images, maps)
A Comparative Chronology of Money (Glyn Davies & Roy Davies, Monetary history from ancient times to the present day)
Current Value of Old Money (R Davies) How much would a specified amount of money at a certain period of time be worth today. Terrific resources from professors from all over the world.
Date and Time Calculators
Europe Timeline (World History Encyclopedia)
Histography Play around with this, clicking on topics along left side and along bottom and watch the dots move around and historical events appear. I still haven't figured out quite how it works, but it's fun!)
Timelines of Historic Preservation (U.S. General Services Administration) Timelines, illustrated, of important U.S. buildings, by historic period.
Timeline of Human Evolution (Wikipedia)
Timelines of U.S. History (Wikipedia, by historical period)
U.S. History Primary Source Timeline (Library of Congress)
Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 (Alexander Street)
Women's History, U.S. Timeline (History.com)

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(selected blog posts by Pat McNees)

Arlene Friedman Shepherd: The Life She Loved (In memoriam, 2012)
Ben Patton on interviewing military veterans (video, interviewed by RJ McHatton)
Collaborating on memoirs (J.R. Moehringer and Andre Agassi)
Coming-of-age memoirs make great gifts
Helen Jean Medakovich Sarchielli (in memoriam)
How reliable are our memories? How close to the truth?
How-To Resources: Memoir, biography, and personal histories
Is it still a great time to become a personal historian?
Mark Twain on writing autobiography
Memoirs of coping with chronic, rare, or invisible diseases, including mental health problems
Memoirs of war and conflict: A reading list
A memoir writer's dream come true
Personal historians love their work
Personal history videos (video by Peter Savigny of his mother, Remembering Renee)
Photos and memoir writing
A short history of the Association for Personal Historians
Whose Truth? The ethics of memoir writing
Why I love teaching Guided Autobiography (by Lisa Smith-Youngs)
Writing workshops as group therapy
Soundtrack of your life (engaging students with music, to write about a pivotal moment in their life)

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"The idea of being forgotten is terrifying. I fear not just that I, personally, will be forgotten, but that we are all doomed to being forgotten—that the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed. If you gaze into that bleakness even for a moment, the sum of life becomes null and void, because if nothing lasts, nothing matters. It means that everything we experience unfolds without a pattern, and life is just a wild, random, baffling occurrence, a scattering of notes with no melody. But if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know that you are a part of a larger story that has shape and purpose—a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future. We are all whispering in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string."

    ~ Susan Orlean, in The Library Book

"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

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