Although this series is open to any writer from anywhere, most of my guests have been Australian. Today, I’m thrilled to introduce an international guest, Linda Strader, who visits the attic from the USA.
Read Linda’s story about writing a memoir and getting it published. At the end of this post, she has some handy tips for memoir writers.
‘Because the future looked so bleak, I decided to visit the past.’
Linda is a writer, landscape architect, watercolor artist and avid gardener. She is also a former firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. Her memoir, Summers of Fire, will be published in 2018, and she is currently working on a prequel.
‘Dear Diary …’
Are you thinking of writing a memoir from your diaries or journals? It might seem like the book is already written, so why not.
Like many adolescent girls, I kept a diary. I remember my first, a five-year version, covered in blue flowered fabric with pages edged in gold ink. A gold-toned clasp kept it closed. Each pre-lined page only allowed for a few lines per day, limiting me to writing only about what happened that day. After a few months, I realized I needed something to give me more room to write my thoughts, emotions and musings. In the office supply section, I discovered small, black 3-ring binders. Perfect! I bought several packages of loose-leaf paper and went home to start writing in a journal instead of a diary, filling pages and pages with incredible detail about my life, relationships, struggles, insecurities, worries—everything.
I continued to write diligently from age 14 to my mid-20’s, including my time as a U.S. Forest Service firefighter from 1976 to 1982.
Fast-forward 30 years.
After a series of devastating losses (in order: my marriage, my job and my mom,) I fell into a deep depression and lost my sense of self. I needed to find a reason to keep living. Because the future looked so bleak, I decided to visit the past. To do so, I retrieved my journals and began skimming through them. What I read inspired me.
‘At first, my journals served more for background than story—that is until I found myself connecting with the strong-willed twenty-year-old me.’
I ended up writing a memoir based on my experiences as a wildland firefighter—some of the best times of my life. At first, my journals served more for background than story—that is until I found myself connecting with the strong-willed twenty-year-old me. That connection was unexpected; and exactly what I needed at the time. In addition, as I read through each journal entry, I noticed how I grew, evolved, learned, persevered—despite the many challenges and heartbreaks I’d faced.
I made sure my memoir reflected all of these things.
Now to address the question: Can you write a memoir based on journal and diary entries?
It worked for me, but if it will work for you, it depends on your goal. If your goal is to publish traditionally, this is what I’ve learned: You will need to make sure you address what publishers are looking for in a memoir.
- An actual story. Like a novel, it should have a beginning, middle and end. If it is just a series of events, readers will lose interest.
- NO making stuff up. If you need to make up events to make your story interesting, it is no longer nonfiction. You will have to call it a novel, not a memoir. Not that this is a bad thing. Many authors do this to avoid naming names and facing lawsuits. It’s your choice.
- The story needs to be relatable to the reader. This means including the personal details, the very personal details—things that will make readers cringe, but say to themselves: I’ve done that. Or, I’m not alone. And while on the topic of sharing such personal details, if you are thinking doing so will be cathartic, I want to warn you: it may not be.
- Your story should show personal growth. It’s not necessary, though, to have a “happily-ever-after” ending. Many successful memoirs do not.
- If your memoir is also a love story, that’s a plus. Readers like love stories.
Can you write a memoir based on diaries or journals? Yes, but it is not as simple as transcribing entries. You will still need to create a story: one with a catchy beginning, a middle—full of conflicts and choices to be made—and with an ending that gives your reader a feeling of closure.
Writers in the Attic
I have three more Writers in the Attic spots to fill before I take a break for the summer, so if you’re wanting to be part of the series this year, please send an essay in quickly.
The topic is anything to do with writing—your writing life, what writing means to you, or what has influenced your writing. 600-1000 words is a good length, and I acknowledge the time and effort involved in writing these pieces by sending a small gift as a thank you.
If you have any questions or would like more information, feel free to contact me.
To further entice you, here’s the back cover blurb (and it’s an actual photo of the back cover!):