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.
You can read more of Linda’s writing on her blog, Facebook and Twitter.
‘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.
The opportunity to win a copy of my novel is still going over at Goodreads, so if you’d like to enter, slip over there. Feel free to tell your friends, too!
To further entice you, here’s the back cover blurb (and it’s an actual photo of the back cover!):
Nice to hear your voice, Linda. One point I don’t agree with: ‘no making stuff up.’ In my memoir of childhood, weaving my mother’s and my stories together, I did make up scenes, using shreds of memory, stuff my mother had written, newspaper snippets, bits of socio-historical information, and my imagination, to create dialogue and believable actions. The narrative construction blends memory, history and imagination. It is still a memoir more than it is a novel. Were I to fully fictionalise it, I would flesh out sone of the characters much more and invent more scenes.
There is a middle space for memoirs that use all these narrative sources and still do not claim to be a novel.I have never wanted to write a novel. And unlike you, I’ve been too lazy to keep a journal.
Your life as a wildland firefighter would make a great story, and I’d love to read it. Thank you Louise, for hosting this page.
Thanks, Christina. I might be wrong, but I’m not sure Linda meant her words, ‘not making stuff up’, to be taken so literally. All memoirists have to make some stuff up in order to fill in gaps in the memory, like with dialogue or gestures, but the essence of the memoir is still the truth. I suspect this is that middle space you’re referring to, which is essential in any memoir or biography. How much made up stuff still constitutes memoir or creative non-fiction and how far you can go before it becomes fiction is quite a blurry, grey area.
I think the making stuff up that Linda is referring to is deliberately distorting the truth, turning facts around so they don’t tell the essence of the story. Again, it’s all perspective, I guess, as everyone’s memory of an event can be different.
I agree that this memoir sounds very interesting. Thanks for your comments. 🙂
“Because the future looked so bleak, I decided to visit the past.” Those words gave me goosebumps! Thank you so much for sharing the story about writing your memoirs, Linda — and how generous of you to provide some tips for others considering writing based on their journals or diaries. Louise, I continue to soak up the posts on your blog each week, and love it as much now as I loved the first post in the series. Thank you for providing a forum for writers to tell us a bit about what they write — and why.
Those words did the same to me, Maureen! I’m glad you’re still enjoying this series, too—it’s been a pleasure to host each week! 🙂
Wow, Linda, you’ve done so many interesting things so far in your life – and now you’re having a memoir published, too! (Well I guess those two facts together make a lot of sense!) I was fascinated to read your tips on writing memoir, even though it’s never occurred to me to write one, just because I realised how tough it must be to be open up in order to engage your readers. I think all writing requires courage, but memoir even more so than fiction.
Wishing you much success with Summers of Fire.
I agree, Fi, that memoir takes more courage than fiction, in that you’re making your life transparent.
Thank you for visiting. xx
I’m with Christina here, Linda about the business of so-called ‘making things up in memoir’. Whenever we write we construct and in that sense we’re always making things up. Because the past is that foreign territory we can never repeat in total accuracy. Though I’m all for ‘truthfulness’ in memoir, and yet truth like memory is such a fickle thing. I love your ideas about memoir in general. So accurate as far as I can tell, and as one who is about to launch into the world of publishing her memoir, I’m terrified mine does not tick all these boxes. Lovely to meet you here and to hear your voice.
I think there’s room for creative non-fiction, as I’ve explained in my reply to Christina.
I can’t wait to read your book, too, Lis. I’m sure it will tick all the boxes. Best wishes to you. 🙂 xx
Hello everyone, and thank you for your comments! I learned early on about the “no making stuff up” rule from a course I took on writing creative nonfiction. What this refers to is actually making up things to make the story better, not filling in for lapses in memory as to exactly what happened. This came to light when a best-selling book’s author admitted that he’d lied to sell his story, resulting in some pretty heated outrage about what a memoir should be. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Million_Little_Pieces). People who read memoir do not appreciate being led to believe the story is true when it is not.
I admire those who can write fiction! I’m terrible at it. 🙂
Thanks again, Louise, for having me here!
I did a course with Creative Nonfiction and we studied James Frey—it’s a bit of a push to call that memoir!
Thank you so much for writing this post, Linda, and I wish you all the best for the release of your book! 🙂
That was the problem! 🙂
Oh so lovely to see you here, Linda! I wish I had diaries to guide me in writing my memoir. Great tips on memoir writing. Personal growth is my favourite!
Thank you, Gulara! I’m so lucky to have those journals. I’m amazed sometimes by what I wrote, too, and in a good way. 🙂
I wish, wish, wish, I’d kept a diary! I bet there’s some treasures in there! 🙂
There is, Louise! So much so, they inspired my second memoir.
Don’t! You’re making me more jealous! 🙂
Sounds like you’ve had an exciting life so far Linda! So great that you kept up with journaling for such a long time. Even if some parts are hard to revisit, it’s good to be able to have that connection with your younger self.
Thank you, Kirsty! Yes, I am quite grateful to be able to visit the younger me…it was interesting to watch myself grow and mature.
I bet the journalling helped at the time, too. xx
I think it did, Kirsty! You know what’s funny..odd…is that reading them now, I often wonder “Who was I talking to?” Did I know the older me would appreciate what I was writing, or was I talking to my journal as though it was my best friend. I think it was more the latter, but it still has intrigued me.