Flow–Mary Cappello

A dear friend of mine, Mary Cappello, shares what she knows she can’t know for certain.

Bending Genre

When a friend of mine was dying, she told another friend who called to visit her that her call had come too late. She was “already in the flow,” our friend had said from the bardo of her deathbed, “she had already entered the flow,” so she couldn’t accept a visit. When I heard this story, I pictured a telephone with a coiled cord stretched between the two friends—no passing of cellphones for this exchange, but a cord attached to receivers that couldn’t possibly reach far enough. The cutting of a second cord already in progress and set to drift.

And I wondered about what my dying friend was telling us: if we enter the flow when we die, where is it that we live? On the shore; beneath the sky; at the table or the lathe; in interruption? Before the cup and saucer; at the casement window; ascending the…

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Is Sex Advice Good Memoir Material?


Have you heard of this book by my former sociology professor at the UW named Pepper Schwartz? She’s authored several other books but the most relevant ones include Everything You Know about Love and Sex Is Wrong and The Great Sex Weekend. She was the “Sex and Health” columnist for Glamour for seven years and has appeared frequently on national programs, including The Oprah Winfrey ShowDateline, and Dr. Phil. She is currently the relationship expert for PerfectMatch.com, and sexuality advisor for WebMD.com.

Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years is a collection of findings that draw from Dr. Schwartz’s 30+ years of research encouraging women to embrace fully their sexual appetites. But, it is nothing like The Hite Report: A National Study of Female Sexuality by Shere Hite (BTW, do you think Shere Hite made up that name?).

Schwartz was married when I took her graduate class in Sociology in 1984. The class was entitled Money, Sex and Power (a book—no longer available—she authored with her husband who also taught this class). She divorced after 23 years of marriage and had to start over with that whole dating and negotiating safe-sex thing—something very few straight women felt empowered to do when they were dating a quarter century earlier.

In Prime, Dr. Schwartz offers thick description of her own experiences finding better sex, better romance and much better communication practices (not necessarily in that order). In this particular book, sexual recollections turn into offerings for readers. Unlike Shere Hite, Schwartz doesn’t keep statistics front and center, instead she uses her own experiences PLUS recent polling evidence—about female sexual desires/practices after 40—as a road map to consider no matter what our age.

If you are over 40 and starting from scratch after a few marriages (like me), you’ll get a boost in your imagination and more confidence to know that, this time, you can be bold or at least more likely to speak up for what you want. Too, if you’re curious to explore all your senses, you may find that your libido is stronger than ever before—it’s just a fact of hormonal shifts that work on our behalf.

I wish I had this book to hand my ex-husband’s friend, David (also a professor of philosophy), who warned me, “You’re not getting any younger, Jenn. It won’t be easy to find another mate at your age (40!).” At the time, I just laughed out loud and shook my head. I thought to myself, “Hey David, how’s that male chauvinism thing working for you in your own love life?” Instead, I could have handed him Schwartz’s book and quipped, “David, I’m in my prime and have many awesome adventures ahead and I can’t wait to get started.” Tongue out

Want to write a different kind of memoir? Call today to set up a 30″ complimentary sample session to see what we might create together: 206.617-8832 or design your own package.

Pepper Schwartz

What Goes into a Memoir? What Stays Out?

Marion Roach Smith

Everyone has a story to tell, but writer and memoir writing instructor Marion Roach Smith says making those stories interesting and readable is harder than it looks.

In her memoir writing guide, The Memoir Project, Roach Smith argues that too many aspiring memoirists focus on cramming every memory onto the page, instead of focusing on relating their story to broader themes.

She tells NPR’s Neal Conan 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 that’s what she did when she decided to write about her mother being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when Roach Smith was 22-years-old. In the resulting memoir, Another Name For Madness, Roach Smith discussed her mother’s alcoholism, but left out the details of her infidelity.

“I had a responsibility to tell a story about Alzheimer’s,” she says. When her mother was diagnosed in the ’80s, Roach Smith says she believed Alzheimer’s was on its way to becoming the greatest health care concern of the 20th and 21st centuries, and she felt adding details about her mother’s infidelity would have taken the story in the wrong direction.

NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington. When Marion Roach Smith was 22, her mother became forgetful, depressed and angry. Her struggle with what was eventually diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease became the subject of a memoir, Another Name for Madness. And the first-time author struggled with what to include and what to leave out.

Her mother’s alcoholism? Well, that affected her brain. Her infidelity didn’t. Now when she teaches the art of the memoir, Marion Roach Smith asks her students to make the same difficult decisions. There simply isn’t room for every poignant or whimsical memory, she says, unless they serve to drive the story.

Most important of all, she argues, you need to know what your story is really about. So if you want to write a memoir, whether it’s a letter to a child or a spouse or blog post or an op-ed or a book, what is your memoir really about?


Memoirs Vs. Autobiographies

In Roach Smith’s mind, there’s a big difference between an autobiography and a memoir.

“An autobiography is really the story of a whole life,” she says. “A memoir, if you want someone else to be interested, should really be [about] an area of expertise within that life.”

Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story is one of Roach Smith’s favorite memoirs, and Knapp followed that up with a book about her relationship with her dogs. Knapp died in 2002 of lung cancer.

“Had she lived longer, I bet we could’ve gotten seven or eight great memoirs out of Caroline Knapp,” she says.

On the other hand, she says 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. As for the rest of us, “We will be successful in memoir[s] if we stick to one area of expertise at a time.”

Writing With More Than Memories

And just because you’re an expert on your own story doesn’t mean you don’t have to do any reporting.

“You have to do loads of it,” Roach Smith says, in order to get the story right and put it in context.

For example, Roach Smith recently discovered her house was once a speakeasy. That makes her house—something she’s ostensibly an expert on—really compelling to write about. But she’ll still need to do research on her house and the Prohibition era to get the story straight.


NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington. When Marion Roach Smith was 22, her mother became forgetful, depressed and angry. Her struggle with what was eventually diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease became the subject of a memoir, Another Name for Madness. And the first-time author struggled with what to include and what to leave out.

Her mother’s alcoholism? Well, that affected her brain. Her infidelity didn’t. Now when she teaches the art of the memoir, Marion Roach Smith asks her students to make the same difficult decisions. There simply isn’t room for every poignant or whimsical memory, she says, unless they serve to drive the story.

Most important of all, she argues, you need to know what your story is really about. So if you want to write a memoir, whether it’s a letter to a child or a spouse or blog post or an op-ed or a book, what is your memoir really about?

MARION ROACH SMITH: Hi, Neal, it’s great to be here.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you about the decision to leave that bit out. Your mother’s affair obviously said very important things about her and her marriage and about your family. Why wasn’t it part of the story?

SMITH: Such a great question. I was the first person to ever write about Alzheimer’s disease from a first-person point of view. It was in a piece in the New York Times magazine in 1983, and I was in my 20s.

I had a responsibility to tell a story about Alzheimer’s so that maybe, just maybe, we could effect some social change in this country, because at the time, amazingly enough, the magazine editor I pitched the piece to had never heard of the disease. Neither had the editor that he turned me over to.

So we had to do a very good job of telling about Alzheimer’s disease. My mother was the illustration of that but not the story. The story was the disease and what it does, the greatest health care crisis of—arguably of the 20th and 21st centuries.

So when it came time to turn that piece into a book, I had some big decisions to make, and during that time is when I discovered that she’d been having an affair since I was eight years old. It was kind of the ultimate reporting conundrum, but realizing…

CONAN: Bombshell.

SMITH: Yeah, right. Oh, what a day that was. And realizing America’s appetite for sex, which is good and healthy, I thought: Hmm, this seems like something that could take this book off in a different direction than my responsibility, which was to talk about a family struggle with a disease that arguably, as I said, was going to be the greatest health care crisis of the 20th and 21st centuries.

So it had to get lopped off. The alcoholism not so much, because that is a brain insult. These are the decisions that all memoirists have to make: What goes in, what stays out.

CONAN: So the affair said something about your mom and about the family. It did not say anything or contribute anything to the story about Alzheimer’s disease, her struggle with it and what the disease is.

SMITH: It didn’t, and the subtitle of the book was “A Family’s Dramatic Struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease.” And there’s a whole lot about my family that doesn’t drive that story forward. And that’s what I always ask my students, and I really believe very strongly in it. You’ve got to figure out what your story’s about.

I mean, memoir is about territory, and within that territory it’s about your expertise, and you have a million different areas of expertise, or 12 or 15. I’ve got maybe, I don’t know, 10. I’m a woman. I’m a mom. I’m a wife. I’m a trustee of both my university, St. Lawrence University, and a trustee of the New York Council for the Humanities. I sail a boat. I’m a sister. I’m a lot of different things.

But when I go to write memoir, I have to pick one area of expertise and write about it. I’m not a rock star. You’re not just going to read my book because I’m famous and you want to follow along and find out what those things in between those big areas or those big experiences you don’t know about. You want to read about one of my areas of expertise, maybe.

Maybe you want to read about my experiences as a mom or as a wife. And those are extraordinary decisions that memoirists have to make, to get only within one expertise, one area of expertise at a time.

That is, if you—as I said earlier, in that nice recording you played of my video, if you want anybody to read it.

CONAN: If you want anybody to read it. And even within an area of expertise, you say it’s important to go and do some reporting.

SMITH: Absolutely, and I just can’t thank you enough for bringing that up. People think because it’s their story they don’t have to do any fact-checking and they don’t have to do any reporting. They have to do loads of it because you want to get it right, and you also want to get your story in context.

So if you’re writing about something that happened in your past, for instance, I recently discovered that my house was a speakeasy. How cool is that?

SMITH: I can’t wait. But you know what? I don’t know enough about all of the issues surrounding that time in America, and I have to do a little research. And I also have to do some research on my house, which apparently my local historical society has a whole record on. I kind of feel like I’m living with an illegal, you know, criminal or something. This house has a great history.

Maybe Legs Diamond visited. I can’t wait to find out.

CONAN: Did you find out when somebody went …

CONAN: Rocco sent me?

SMITH: I keep hoping for Rocco.

CONAN: There is another important distinction you draw in the book, and that is between a memoir and an autobiography.

SMITH: Yeah, it’s a very important one. An autobiography—and, you know, I can hear whole academic communities start howling right now but that’s okay because I’m up to this task. An autobiography is really the story of a whole life.

A memoir, if you want someone else to be interested, should really be an area of expertise within that life. The greatest examples I can give, for instance, is the great late Caroline Knapp. She wrote maybe my favorite book with my favorite title in terms of memoir. It was called Drinking: A Love Story.

It was a fabulous book and a major bestseller, but when she wanted to write another memoir, this one about her relationship with her dogs, she wrote a book called Pack of Two. Had she lived longer, I bet we could have gotten seven or eight great memoirs out of Caroline Knapp.

Now, if you’re someone like Sonia Sotomayor, whose memoir I am literally waiting by the bookshop door to buy, you can write that whole trajectory of your life story because I’m willing to run the bases of your life with you. But for the most part, for the rest of us, we will be successful in memoir if we stick to one area of expertise at a time.

CONAN: Especially since Sonia Sotomayor’s bases are at Yankee Stadium and the South Bronx. If you’re trying to write a memoir or in the middle of writing one, whether that’s a letter to your spouse on your 50th anniversary or a letter to your kids, whether it’s a blog post or whether it’s a book, call and tell us what it’s about, 800-989-8255. And let’s start with Victor(ph), and Victor’s on the line with us from Cincinnati.

VICTOR (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Victor.

VICTOR: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: What’s your memoir about?

VICTOR: My memoir is about basically clinical depression that I’ve lived with all my life and a suicide attempt that came out of that. Obviously, I survived it. But the struggle to try to describe what depression is like for people and how you get to that point where you just – where depression convinces you to die.

SMITH: This is a topic that we really need to have illuminated for us, Victor, and I really applaud you for calling in. Good for you. What interests us most is about the human pilot light.

I always think of that phrase, and I want you to consider it, the human pilot light. What kept your pilot light lit, Victor? Because we’re really interested in hearing more about that. How did you survive?

And we—this is a topic that we can’t read enough about. I had a student in my class for a long time who wrote about sexual abuse, and what she wrote about that I learned so much from was she wrote it literally from the perspective of being the eight-year-old child as she cowered in the corner as her father came into the attic.

And what she wrote about in her first piece was what she thought about while she was being abused that kept her concentrating on surviving. And I learned more in that piece than I’ve learned in any clinical study about sexual abuse. And that’s what we want you to get at, too, Victor, is what kept your pilot light lit.

VICTOR: Yeah, well, it’s amazing because, you know, you make the decision to die, and then you don’t, and what do you do now? I mean it’s like…

SMITH: You write a book, Victor, or you write an essay.

VICTOR: I’m living this life that I didn’t think I would have.

SMITH: Well, good, I’m glad you are, and it’s so kind of you to call in and talk to us about it. Think about going small, though, Victor. Write an essay. Just write a short piece. Write something small. Don’t take on too much too soon. It’s just too much of a burden. A couple of pages, a short essay, maybe just on that topic of the pilot light. I really wish you the best with it.

VICTOR: Well, thank you very much, and thank you for your work.

CONAN: Good luck, Victor. Here’s an email from Bev(ph) in Prescott, Arizona: I’m working on a memoir of my experiences in the convent over 40 years ago. My subsequent journey away from Catholicism, Christianity and traditional beliefs impact my reflection on what’s happened in the convent. What perspective helps us integrate what happened in the past and where we are today?

SMITH: Such a great question, and Bev is one of those people whose expertise we really want to hear. In this time when we’re pretty much confused about faith, and we’re a little bit confused about the church and some of its responsibilities and some of its negligence, you know, I think of Bev as one of those people who’s got some expertise.

I’d love to hear her voice on an op-ed page of a newspaper, for instance. I mean, that’s a really unsung hero of this genre. People forget that the op-ed page is a place where you can take your expertise and try to help us interpret what’s going on in the news or what’s going on today in the world.

And that’s where I would love to see her start her work, is taking it small. You know, if you get one good scene, and then you get another, and then maybe you get 75 of them, you’ve got a book. But most people forget that you’ve got to start it one scene at a time.

CONAN: So that’s 800 words, and you suggest a particular structure for that based on one of New York’s favorite delicacies, the bagel.

SMITH: My father taught me that. Write it like a bagel, he used to say. And that means that you start at the top with something that illustrates your argument, and all pieces of nonfiction are an argument. And then you give us the backstory and you come around the corner with a little bit more proof of that argument, and then you refer back to that opening scene.

It’s a bagel. It’s a circle. As you get better, you can sort of lop off one end or the other. But to start out, it’s a great place to start. If your argument is that life is really, really much better with a good canary to live with, show me some astonishing thing that canary does in the opening scene, tell me about all about the canaries in your life.

About three-quarters of the way through the piece, you should be winding it up, and in the end give me another amazing act by that canary, and I will agree with your argument.

CONAN: And have a happy time reading 800 words on the op-ed page of whatever your local paper is.


CONAN: We’re talking with Marion Roach Smith about her guide to writing a memoir. Again, this could mean a letter to your kids, a blog post, a full-length book or an op-ed piece. More of her advice and more of your calls in a moment. If you’d like to write a memoir, what is your memoir really about?

Sure, we all have a story to tell, and your stories matter to you. But Marion Roach Smith writes in her latest book: How are you going to make it of value to me as well?

Here’s how: Make it small. Make it rare. Make it a first for me as a reader and I’ll remember it forever. Make it of value to someone else, even if—no, especially if those intended readers are your family. What could be more important than that, or as I’ve learned, more difficult?

The book is titled The Memoir Project. You can read more about how to write and how to write with intent in an excerpt at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you want to write a memoir, whether it’s a letter to a child or a spouse, a blog post, an op-ed or a book, what’s your memoir really about? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That’s at npr.org. And click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And here’s an email from Elaine(ph) in St. Louis: For 25 years I was painfully married to a pathological person. I feel a responsibility to tell my story. It will help other women. Problem: My ex-husband is the father of my children. They don’t know what happened when they weren’t there.

SMITH: Such a great dilemma: What are other people going to think? And I always advise people not to ever write a tale of revenge. Trying to get revenge on somebody—or not to write it because of getting revenge on someone. Writing that is a trip to nowhere.

But writing a story about how you tried to get revenge and where it got you is actually an interesting piece. But in this case, she brings up the prickly, gnarly topic of what about the other people in your life. Here’s the deal: You may not feel comfortable doing it right now, publishing it right now, Elaine, but I encourage you to write it right now because you will learn so much about how you feel and about the decisions that you made.

Much like in life, success in writing depends on which details you choose to emphasize, and I’m quite convinced that while not everybody should publish, everybody should write. It is the single greatest portal to self-discovery. So Elaine, write it down, get in a good writing group if you can, and see what you come up with. You might be astonished at what you’ll learn from the experience.

CONAN: And one of the lessons you repeat in the book: tell the truth.

SMITH: Absolutely. The truth is a fascinating thing, isn’t it? I have a sister, and I will say to her: You remember that Christmas when this thing happened? And she’ll say to me: That never happened.

SMITH: And that—I love that. I love those conversations because…

CONAN: We have the same sister.

SMITH: We do. I think that’s true.

SMITH: And what the fact is that when someone – you read your stuff to somebody, and they say that didn’t happen that way, the only response is: You’re right. It didn’t happen that way to you. It happened that way to me. And the truth is like a big old pizza, and everybody in a family gets a slice, but nobody gets the same one. Have you ever noticed that?

You know, one person’s got a little pepperoni. Somebody’s got mushrooms. And that’s the way it’s always going to be. So use that. That’s a terrific topic, as a matter of fact, the different territories.

My sister and I are different not because we grew up – not in spite of growing up in the same family, we’re different because we grew up in the same household. That’s an interesting and great place to write from.

CONAN: Adrian’s(ph) on the line calling from Charleston.

ADRIAN (Caller): Hello, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ADRIAN: In the process of writing a memoir. My father was CIA 32 years. He has since passed. I recently lost my job and thought I would write his story through my eyes. A little dirty laundry in the works as far as a lot of physical abuse, emotional abuse, mental abuse that I believe he probably took out on us because of the stress of his work and just had – not sure if I wanted to include that, but I want to write the whole story, including his dirty laundry, the affair on my mother, many other things that he did to her.

SMITH: Okay, well, here’s my best thing I can tell you, Adrian: You cannot libel the dead. In other words, when someone is dead, you are free to write your tale. And I know it sounds a little cold-blooded, but you know, sometimes, you’ve just got to be. Write your story. See what you come up with. See what you learn about abuse. But make sure to illuminate us about abuse. Make sure to illuminate us about what it’s like to live with somebody whose life depends on keeping secrets. That’s a really interesting theme.

ADRIAN: Okay, all right, I’m taking a note.

SMITH: Good. Good luck with it, Adrian.

ADRIAN: Thank you so much.

SMITH: Thank you.

CONAN: This email from John(ph) in Cleveland: I’d like to write a memoir about my mother’s life during World War II, first as a nurse, than as a Rosie the Riveter, then in a concentration camp for crimes against the Nazis for sabotage.

She told me of these snippets while I was growing up, but I’m finding in order to string these stories together, I’m going to have to somewhat fictionalize it. Is this okay?

SMITH: Well, you probably don’t have to somewhat fictionalize it, John, because we’re very tolerant of the fact that you don’t know everything. And that in itself, including the reporting process, is actually part of the journey. And if you think of it that way, if you actually use the search for information, even if some of it is a dead end, we’ll probably go on the trail with you.

I’m currently reading a book about somebody’s search, and I’m finding that that is actually as fascinating as the discovery of information, to see what lengths someone is willing to go to. So no, we try not to fictionalize. We do try to tell the truth as much as we can. Otherwise it’s fiction, which is an entirely different genre.

CONAN: And the search – I’m struggling to find out more about this, and I went here and found out that, and I went here and found out that, and I went here and struck out, but it was an interesting strike – that is, you’ve just got a narrative structure right there.

SMITH: You’re right, you really do. And the human endeavor of searching is actually quite inspiring because people do spend – think of all the people that do all that genealogy work. What are they looking for? I always ask them: Don’t just give me the Uncle Henry was born in Edinburgh in 1764, followed by Uncle – don’t do that.

Tell me what you’re searching for when you do that genealogical work. You see how that story immediately changes and it becomes a lot warmer and much more engaging? Tell me what you were looking for when you went looking for your family. I’ll read that book.

CONAN: Here’s an email from Jonathan(ph): I’m writing a memoir of my experiences growing up and living in Rwanda, the Pacific Northwest, Haiti, Ethiopia, the Midwest, Russia and Ukraine, but it’s slow going, as I frequently bog down trying to figure out which stories would be best to include.

Things that seem mundane to me are often fascinating to my American friends, while what has excited me growing up and living in so many different countries is often uninteresting or bizarre to my friends, who I fear are representative of my would-be book’s target audience.

So as opposed to our previous contributor, who didn’t have enough to tie his story together, this guy has got too much.

SMITH: Jonathan, I’ve got great advice for you. You need to figure out what your story is about. Here is the algorithm, and I want you to write this down: It’s about X as illustrated by Y to be told in a Z. It’s about X. It’s about search. It’s about discovery. You’re the illustration…

CONAN: Wait, isn’t it about him?

SMITH: No, interestingly enough, and that’s the best question you could ask me – memoir is not about me. Memoir is about something, if you want anyone to read it, and you are the illustration of that. Feel yourself get nudged off center stage there? Feel how uncomfortable it makes you? It’s going to make you real comfortable when you start to write if you can answer that X part of the algorithm.

It’s about X, as illustrated by Y, to be told in a Z. It’s about the search, to be illustrated by my lifelong peripatetic ways, to be told in a book. Put yourself in that Y position, let the X be the universal theme, and Jonathan, you’ll have yourself a gorgeous tale.

CONAN: Cindy’s(ph) on the line with us from Madison in Ohio.

CINDY (Caller): Hi, guys, thank you so much. I am really excited to hear your answers here.


CINDY: I am wondering – my story starts with my parents and how their lives were just messed up. Then they got together, and it has me. I was raised with an alcoholic mother. There was abuse, single mother. And then it continued on where she got involved with a man in organized crime.

I continued my life, became a very healthy woman who is now married, but I did hitchhike across the country, I lived on communes, and I thought: Everybody tells me you should write something. And it starts with my parents. Now, is this an autobiography or a memoir?

And the other half of it is: Do you make it the basis of how I became a healthy person coming through the, you know, diseased upbringing?

SMITH: That’s a great question, and yes, you do. What is it that you were – what’s your story about, first of all? It’s a great question to ask yourself, Cindy, and you’ve got to keep asking it over and over. It’s the only thing that I have on a little index card pasted to my computer. It just says: What is this about?

And I have to ask myself that, and you have to ask yourself that. With all of that illustration, what is all of that illustrating? Are you illustrating a story of America? You very well might be. There’s a lot of disruption in American lives. Is there a larger theme? You know, you’ve got to think about that to be able to present the story to yourself so then you can sit down and write it.

CINDY: Right, you’re right. So then this would be more of a memoir than an autobiography. The title is “There’s 24 Ways to Spell Cindy.”

SMITH: Well, Cindy, you’re halfway home then.

CINDY: All right, memoir it is then. Thank you so much. You guys are great. I’m so happy that – really quick, though, how does a housewife and a mom get this going? How do you do that?

SMITH: I’m so glad you asked me that. Here’s the secret that – I’m just going to tell you, Cindy, so nobody else listen in.

CINDY: I’ve got a pen.

SMITH: Five pages a day. Five pages a day.

Think about it. Do the math. Five pages a day, 25 pages a week, you can do the math from there.

CINDY: Right.

SMITH: Just five pages a day, Cindy, no matter what.

CONAN: You say in the book, Graham Greene, the great novelist, used to write exactly – stop at the middle of a sentence sometimes.

SMITH: Five hundred words a day. And, boy, I think he could write.

CINDY: OK. All right. Thank you.

SMITH: Go get them, Cindy. OK.

CINDY: Thank you so much. Have a great day, guys.

CONAN: It’s – another part of your book that, well, it’s really the opening, but you say the other part, too, get to it. Don’t do any writing exercises. Don’t…

SMITH: Yuck. I hate writing exercises.

CONAN: Don’t get sidetracked. And here’s, you know, a program that will help you learn how to write: Sit down and get to it.

SMITH: Absolutely. I’m from this sort of hard core school of writing. It’s a hard chair, some caffeine and a bit of intent. I call it writing with intent. I hate writing exercises. I hate prompts. I hate things called morning pages. My students are people that have other jobs. They don’t have all the day. They don’t have – if they only have 45 minutes to write, they don’t want to be writing in journals, scribbling about how difficult it is to write. I want them to get to the topic. I want to get them to get to the work. And I want them to learn to write with intent.

If their idea is to write that story of their marriage for their spouse, as one of my students did recently, the 50-year-marriage she had. She was able to give that story to her husband months before he died. What greater accomplishment could there possibly be in life. And she did it. She’s got a Ph.D. in education. She administers a school. She did it five pages a day, one hour a day in the evenings. That’s the kind of thing I want to bring to people. Write with intent. Don’t fritter away your time. You haven’t got nearly enough of it.

CONAN: And have a place to write?

SMITH: Absolutely. Even if it’s just a corner of a desk. I never put my taxes on my desk, and that’s the best writing advice I can give you.

CONAN: Don’t ask.

SMITH: I wouldn’t go in the room. So keep a clean space. It’s just about giving yourself some permission. I call it, in the book, having a little hospitality. So have a little hospitality for your writing. I mean, you’ve been told by so many people that you shouldn’t do this, you can’t do this, you’re probably not very good at it, that you don’t have a story to tell. I’m here to tell you just the opposite. But be hospitable. Make it easy to write.

CONAN: You’ve taught hundreds of students over the years. As you point out, maybe a few of them have come back and taken the course again. Have any of them published books?

SMITH: Many of them have published books. Many of them are the voices you hear on my local public radio. Many of them are the people that you read in the newspaper. I have one student who wrote—who happened to be the nurse on duty when Ronald Reagan was shot. And she came to me with a story that was enormous. She went on to become the head of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. The trajectory of her life is so interesting, how she went from being that nurse on duty to being this person who is an anti-gun advocate.

And what happened is she wrote this piece in my class over six weeks. We got it down to 650 words. It ran on one of the major anniversaries of the shooting. And it ran in 1,500 newspapers across the country, because it went out over The New York Times news service. I have so many students like that now, who are writing about their lives in ways that really are of interest to others. So, yes, many books, many op-eds, lots of public radio essays. But more even than that, lots of letters home, lots of stories about the birth of their children, their marriages. It’s a wonderful thing.

CONAN: Marion Roach Smith. This new book is The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standard Text for Writing and Life.

LESLIE (Caller): Hi, Neal. Hi, Mary.



LESLIE: I have a very big story to tell and a big, big, big box of notes and so many threads I don’t know how to begin to weave them together. The basic story was, a couple years ago, I went to Hawaii for a vacation with my husband. And on the way there, my mom said, oh, you might want to look for the grave of your great-grandfather and grandmother. They’re buried on the Big Island. And although I knew she’d been born there and had left during Pearl Harbor, I had no idea that her grandparents had a history there. And so when I came back—I found the grave, we found the grave.

And when I came back, it’s as if all this information just started to blast out at me through research on the Internet. The most important of which is that in 1905, my great-grandfather David McHattie Forbes crept into a cave with two partners and discovered what are thought to be the most important Polynesian artifacts of all times. And this sounds so exciting, but then within two days, I found out that in the last couple years these very artifacts have been embroiled in a huge controversy about who owns them. So, while they were on display at Volcanoes National Park for years and I couldn’t see them, now they’re being held in the bowels of who knows where. And so, you know, where do I start in piecing it all together.

SMITH: Well, a good place to start is right at the center of the action, with this—your mother telling you to go on a search. And then you have to, yet, again – and I know I sound like I’m repeating myself—you have to ask yourself what the story is about. In other words, if you want to do a straight piece of journalism about the 1905 cave-wandering and finding these artifacts, that’s a wonderful story, but it may only lend itself to a straight magazine piece written by the great-granddaughter of the man who did the cave-wandering. But if you want to write a story about discovering your family roots, then you’ve got to decide what is it about, what possible theme…

LESLIE: Can I just run one thought by you?

SMITH: Mm-hmm.

LESLIE: What about—I was thinking that the real story is exiled from paradise, because it’s a history I never knew, it’s a history I almost just got excited about, and a history that, you know, I can’t lay claim to because of this, you know, current…

CONAN: Controversy.

LESLIE: …debate.

CONAN: Yeah.

SMITH: Right. Well, that’s a great – you know, being exiled from our own family history—there’s a theme that you could really take the dog out for a walk and put that in your head. Think about that. Being exiled from your own family history, what does that mean? Many of us are, for various reasons.

And start to craft a story that illustrates that. Every single line that goes to your fingers, on to those keys has to illustrate that one story, that one argument, if you will, that being exiled from your family’s history and then fill in the blank, means X, does Y to a person. Being exiled from your family history, what does it do to you? Start meditating on that, Leslie. I suspect you’re going to find out what your story is about.

LESLIE: Wow, thank you so much. I can’t wait to read your book.

SMITH: OK. Thanks.

CONAN: Good luck, Leslie.

LESLIE: OK. Thanks, Neal. Bye.

CONAN: Marion Roach Smith, thank you very much for your time today.

SMITH: Thank you.

The Memoir Project

CONAN: Marion Roach Smith teaches memoir writing. Her latest book is The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standard Text for Writing & Life. You can find an excerpt from that book on our website, npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

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Can You Complete Your Memoir If It’s Fueled by Anger?


Judy Golding portrays the Lord of the Flies author as a man who could be a wonderfully entertaining father but also capable of cruelty towards his offspring.

In her memoir, Children of Lovers Judy Golding writes that “I need to make these two men one, the warm, embracing man I adored, and the indifferent, sometimes self-centred, occasionally cruel man, who could drink too much, could be crushing, contemptuous, defeating, deadening. This is hard.”

Speaking at the Telegraph Ways With Words festival, Judy, now 66, said that she “did not take lightly the decision to lay bare the family’s secrets.” Golding goes on to explain, “I hesitated hugely and was bolstered by very good friends, one of whom said to me every few months, Are you going to tell the truth about your father? I know that I come over as quite angry and in a sense you have to be fuelled by a sort of anger. But I certainly don’t regret it.”

Golding and his wife, Ann, were devoted to one another—to the exclusion of Judy and her brother, David. The title of the memoir is taken from the proverb the children of lovers are orphans.

“Every parent—and this is true of my parents as much as anyone—would like to do the best for their children. But it’s certainly true that their relationship did feel exclusive to me and I think to my brother as well,” she said.

“I just felt my parents looked at each other and found in each other a mirror. They were entwined in some fairytale and we were on the outside. But children normalise those things and get on with it.” Judy said of her father, who died in 1993: “He was an extremely funny man, and I remember as a child lying on the floor and my stomach hurting because I was laughing so much…. But you saw the other side too and that was his tendency to—there is a phrase for it now—self-medicate with alcohol.”

Despite that, “the overwhelming thing for me was that I just loved him,” she told the audience. “And I think, really, when all this other stuff is gone through, the biggest thing for me is writing about him and telling stories about him.”

“The benefits [of being Golding’s daughter] far outweighed anything else and one of the benefits was just living with this astonishing man.”

Read more here.

Amazon.com review:

The Children of Lovers are Orphans Proverb Bestselling novelist, author of Lord of the Flies, William Golding was a famously acute observer of children. What was it like to be his daughter? In this frank and engaging family memoir, Judy Golding recalls growing up with a brilliant, loving, sometimes difficult parent. The years of her childhood and adolescence saw her father change from an impecunious schoolteacher to a famous novelist. Once adult, she came to understand some of the internal conflicts which led to his writing. The Golding family life, both ordinary and extraordinary, always kept its characteristic warmth, humour, complexity, anger and love, danger and insecurity. This is a book about family and parents, about lovers and their children, and about our impact on one another—for good or ill. It’s a frank and engaging family memoir by the daughter of one of our best-loved and most influencial authors.
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What’s Your Favorite “Coming of Age” Story?

Cherry: A Memoir by Mary Karr

Most people who’ve raised children to adulthood would agree with Raymond Duncan who says,”the best substitute for experience is being sixteen.” But, did you know that some of the most popular books today are teenage “Coming of Age” memoirs? While almost every parent I know thinks their own teen is a drama queen/king, most would not consider junior’s life worth mining for art’s sake. Surely we all know by now that most adults are wrong.

As Oscar Wilde says, “The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything.”

My own book, Cracking Up, was written with hopes of helping “crack up” my own teen girrrls—six nieces. I’d rather they laugh than go crazy being raised within the nutty walls of our Conservative Roman Catholic schools (the same ones that I’d attended). Though I loved writing every one of my books, my own coming-of-age memoir is not my most cherished one.

What’s your favorite coming of age story? I have so many, I don’t know where to begin. But, I’ll pick just one for now and hope you’ll share yours with the rest of us here. Mine is Cherry written by prizewinning poet and memoirist, Mary Karr. You may remember her bestselling and earliest work called The Liars’ Club.

While I’d never call Mary Karr “scrappy,” the briefest book reviews seem to use that adjective to describe her. See some reviews/summaries here on Powells.com.


“Telling a teenager the facts of life is like giving a fish a bath.” ~ Arnold H. Glasow

Mary Karr told the prizewinning tale of her hardscrabble Texas childhood with enough literary verve to spark a renaissance in memoir. The Liars’ Club rode the top of The New York Times bestseller list for more than a year, and publications ranging from The New Yorker to People magazine picked it as one of the best books of the year. But it left people wondering: How’d that scrappy kid make it outa there? Cherry dares to tell that story. Karr picks up the trail and dashes off into her teen years with customary sass, only to run up against the paralyzing self-doubt of a girl in bloom.

In this long-awaited sequel, we see Karr ultimately trying to run from the thrills and terrors of her sexual awakening by butting up against authority in all its forms. She lands all too often in the principal’s office and — in one instance — a jail cell. Looking for a lover or heart’s companion who’ll make her feel whole, she hooks up with an outrageous band of surfers and heads, wanna-be yogis and bona fide geniuses.

Karr’s edgy, brilliant prose careens between hilarity and tragedy, and Cherry takes readers to a place never truly explored — deep inside a girl’s stormy, ardent adolescence. Parts will leave you gasping with laughter. But its soaring close proves that from even the smokiest beginnings a solid self can form, one capable of facing down all manner of monsters.


“Readers seduced by Karr’s canny memoir of a childhood spent under the spell of a volatile, defiantly loving family in The Liars’ Club can look forward to more exquisite writing in this sequel focusing on her adolescence in a dusty Texas town…. Moving effortlessly from breathtaking, to heart stabbing, to laugh out loud raucous, the precision and sheer beauty of Karr’s writing remains astounding.” ~ Publishers Weekly


“Karr proves herself as fluent in evoking the common ground of adolescence as she did in limning her anomalous girlhood. As she did in The Liars’ Club, Ms. Karr combines a poet’s lyricism and a Texan’s down-home vernacular with her natural storytelling gift. Some of her stories are nostalgic for a vanished time and place; some are scathing in their evocation of an insular world; some are just plain funny.” ~ Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times


In the long-awaited sequel to The Liars’ Club, Karr picks up the trail of her hardscrabble Texas childhood and dashes off into her teen years with customary sass, only to run up against the paralyzing self-doubt of a girl in bloom. The book’s soaring close proves that from even the smokiest beginnings a solid self can form, one capable of facing down all manners of monsters.


From Mary Karr comes this gorgeously written, often hilarious story of her tumultuous teens and sexual coming-of-age. Picking up where the bestselling The Liars’ Club left off, Karr dashes down the trail of her teen years with customary sass, only to run up against the paralyzing self-doubt of a girl in bloom. Fleeing the thrills and terrors of adolescence, she clashes against authority in all its forms and hooks up with an unforgettable band of heads and bona-fide geniuses. Parts of Cherry will leave you gasping with laughter. Karr assembles a self from the smokiest beginnings, delivering a long- awaited sequel that is both “bawdy and wise.” ~ San Francisco Chronicle
Karr is also an award-winning poet who claims, “Working on poems is like cheating on your husband; it’s what I really want to do but they won’t pay me for it.”
Want to write a different kind of memoir? Call today to set up a 30″ complimentary sample session to see what we might create together: 206.617-8832 or design your own package.

Why Keep A Journal?

“Keeping a journal is the foundation of creative writing.” ~ Susan Tiberghien

Susan Tiberghien and friends

Why keep a journal? Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • To establish the habit of writing.
  • To find out what’s up with me (emotionally).
  • To capture memories.
  • To discover what I think and feel about what’s going on in and all around me.
  • To find my writer’s voice (i.e., there’s power in authenticity).
  • To take risks and experiment with my writing.
  • To plant seeds for poetry, personal essays, my memoir and memoir coaching.
“Just begin to write. Start with a date and title. Get whatever comes to mind down on paper or on your computer screen. Only buy writing on a regular basis, getting into the habit of writing, will you become a good writer.” ~ Susan Tiberghien

Why do you keep a journal?

Susan Tiberghien is an American-born writer living in Geneva, Switzerland. She holds a BA in Literature and Philosophy (magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) and did graduate work at the Université de Grenoble and the C.G. Jung Institute of Zurich. She has published three memoirs, Looking for Gold, One Year in Jungian Analysis (Daimon Verlag, 1997, Circling to the Center, A Woman’s Encounter with Silent Prayer (Paulist Press, 2001), and Footsteps, A European Journal, 1955-1990 (Xlibris, 2004) and numerous narrative essays in journals and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic. Her new book, One Year to a Writing Life, Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft, was published in September 2007 (Da Capo, Perseus Books.)

Read more about Tiberghien on Journal Writing from my favorite blogger, Dave Hood, HERE.

One Year to a Writing Life

Looking for Gold

Footsteps on the Path

Want to write a different kind of memoir? Call today to set up a 30″ complimentary sample session to see what we might create together: 206.617-8832 or design your own package.

Is there anything you can’t share in a memoir? Ask Eve Ensler

Insecure At Last: A Political Memoir by Eve Ensler

“Illusory security… robs us of being human.” ~ Eve Ensler

From Publishers Weekly

I am worried about this word, this notion—security,” writes the renowned author of The Vagina Monologues at the beginning of this extraordinarily compelling, if somewhat scattered, memoir; “Why has all of this focus on security made me feel so much more insecure?”
Ensler recounts her attempts to make sense of a war-ridden world in which “security” becomes both unimaginable and dangerous.
Weaving together personal history (about her childhood relationship with her father, who would choke her in drunken rages and not remember the next morning), with a panoply of violent political scenarios around the world: the Serbs’ use of rape to subdue Muslims in Bosnia; the public execution of women in an Afghan stadium; the unsolved brutal murders of more than 370 women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Ensler aims to explicate the moments when we, often unwittingly, implicate ourselves in this violence through our need for an illusory “security.”
Ensler has a vivid, startling style that is both direct and poetic, and she is able to make chilling connections—she writes that the dust that covered New York on 9/11 was the dust that she had seen “in Kabul, in Bosnia, in Kosovo.” This is an important work by a major American writer. (Oct. 3)

From Booklist

Eve Ensler, most famous for The Vagina Monologues (1998), has audaciously confronted misogyny and violence against women not only as a playwright and a performer but also as the founder of V-Day, an international philanthropic organization. Ensler now proves to be as galvanizing an oral historian and essayist as she is a dramatist in this forthright inquiry into our obsession with security both personal and national.
Forging a potent brew of candid memoir and hard-hitting reportage, she considers the harsh reality that security is nothing more than an illusion, and that, perversely, the pursuit of security actually increases threats against our well-being. Ensler discovered the myth of security as a girl, when she endured horrific abuse from her alcoholic father within the precincts of a seemingly safe middle-class home.
Watch Eve Ensler talk about her book, Insecure At Last: A Political Memoir.
Ensler has subsequently sought out sister survivors, and recounts with lucidity, empathy, and respect her conversations with Bosnian rape victims, Afghani women tyrannized by the Taliban, women prisoners, and mothers of some of the hundreds of young women killed in Cuidad Juarez, the hellish factory zone south of El Paso. Keenly aware of how catastrophes undermine our sense of security, Ensler also writes incisively about 9/11 and the aftermath of Katrina.
Through carefully listening and clarion analysis, Ensler reaches the conclusion that grasping for security isolates us and denies opportunities for dialogue, hope, and change. We’re told that war is necessary to ensure security, Ensler muses, “when really it is kindness we are after.” ~ Donna Seaman

Want to write a different kind of memoir? Call today to set up a 30″ complimentary sample session to see what we might create together: 206.617-8832 or design your own package.

Eve Ensler