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Writing Memoir
Written by
Victoria Chames
November 2015
Written by
Victoria Chames
November 2015


Like so many others, I've always written. Julia Cameron says writing is the most natural and instinctive thing for human beings to do, (though I think singing comes first - even babies do it when they're only days old.) I wrote poetry and hid it when my marriage and my life were falling apart, and I believe it saved me from losing my sanity and self. Pouring out your secrets to an empty page can be a place of sanctuary as well as a release of pain, and often bares insights into the truths you terribly don't want to see. Poetry continued to bless me through my thirties and forties. Later "in another life," another profession as firefighter/paramedic and ER medical tech, I wrote technical works: a textbook and a training course called Disaster First Aid, and taught it. That writing was entirely impersonal. Now I'm writing a memoir. I'm pretty sure there is nothing more personal than that.

Writing memoir is different from anything I've ever done before. Writing memoir is life-challenging and life-changing. The remembering is just the beginning of it, the easier part. Writing it down is much more powerful and soul-shaking. With remembering, your thoughts can shift and dart away elsewhere, and things can get ugly or painful or dangerous. But when you make the commitment to tell the truth and write it down, you have to GO THERE. You have to BE there again, and experience all of it again. Sometimes it's even more painful now, because you can see so much more of the truth now than you were able to see then. And you can't not-see, like you often could choose to do then,. You can't run away. When you write it, you are really in it. 


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  • Irene Allison

    Victoria, thanks for this. Over the decades, I've written all sorts of genres from non-fiction and technical to novels. And during those years, I found that I love writing personal essays. There's something so deeply intimate about them, sometimes even soul-stirring.

    My latest adventure on that plane is a first draft memoir about running off into the wilderness to live with a mountain man! Even I can't believe I did that!   

  • Writing memoir isn't all pain, even when it involves experiencing things all over again. My memoir, Mango Rash: Survival Lessons in the Land of Frangipani and Fanta, is about a period of my life that was memorable for the beauty and wonder of the time, as well as the distressing and painful experiences. As I was writing it, I enjoyed reliving the happy parts, even as I explored the not-so-happy parts.

  • Kerri Sandberg

    My memoir writing process has taken over ten years so far, partly because I spent a lot of time working on a fictional version of the material. I would say I "wasted" time on that, but now I can see that writing it as a novel gave me the distance I needed to craft my story in a way that would be compelling for readers (with fully developed scenes, good dialogue, narrative momentum, character arcs, etc). Digging for painful memories is hard, but what I found even more difficult was figuring out how to shape that raw material in a way that would work as an actual book. There's the splattering-your-heart-on-the-page phase and then there's the nuts-and-bolts story-crafting phase. Both are really hard. Anyone who says writing memoir is easier than writing fiction probably hasn't tried to do it.

  • Katherine Arnup

    Thanks for posting this, Victoria. I feel the same way about writing memoir. Powerful yes, and challenging and sometimes terrifying. I find I need a lot of faith in myself, in my own experience of events - and the knowledge that this is my story, not my sisters or cousins or friends or uncles... That doesn't mean it's easy to show my work to them! The best place in the world for writing memoir, for me, is an artists' retreat. I'm at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts right now - it's the place where I've written my best work!

  • Susan Ring

    How do I feel writing memoir? Like my heart, stomach, guts and everything inside my body spills on to the page in nice neat little letters that make words. But when you read, you will envision my experience of what it was like to be a surrogate mother of eight, making five families. Whew, it's intense and I'm learning the 'how to' as I continue to write every day (seriously for the last three years) then rewrite and edit, then do over again get my memoir out there. I went "in there" and now it's time to get "out there" and I can honestly say that it's made me stronger because I'm owning the truth of my life in hopes it helps even one person.

  • Thea Constantine

    I really appreciate what you said about having to 'go there'-- not easy! I wrote a short memoir piece that was published really well received, so I decided to try for something more book-length. I found it really brought up some tough stuff, so tough that I had to put it away for a bit. Memoir is definitely for the brave!

  • Sherry Keith

    Thanks, Victoria for this post.  Writing during life crises and stressful transitions may be one of the strong roots of memoir.   I think that memoir is an especially important genre for women any where on life's spectrum.  Since we've been schooled in history rather than herstory or the Human Story, women are hungry for the voices and experiences of our gender.  Memoir help to satisfy this appetite.  It also helps the writer to understand herself and the shape of her experiences more fully.  And, remember that memoirs written by women today will be part of tomorrow's Human Story.  

  • Susie Bedsow Horgan

    I've been working on one for about four years now. It's very slow growing as the insight involved keeps morphing as I continue to live the story. Now I think the insight or point of it is solid and the challenge for me is to how to tell the story; how to structure the narrative because I don't think it belongs in a simple linear line. I know the end point but haven't necessarily written it yet but am stopped by needing to re-read all of it and see (hope) a structure presents itself. But I agree that it is the most challenging writing I've ever done.

  • Pamela Fender

    So true. When I wrote my memoir, "Beside Myself-Recovery From My Family Betrayal and Estrangement,"I had to experience those horrible things once again. One of the worst parts for me was writing about my twin's death and everything that surrounded his murder/suicide and then losing the entire chapter by neglecting to "Save" it when my son walked in the room.
    I only write memoir. Writing and sharing deep hurts and pain can be very liberating.
    Thank you for this article.