Writing Memoir? Write What You Know From the Small Moments of Life
Written by
Marion Roach Smith
February 2012
Written by
Marion Roach Smith
February 2012

On Monday, I began my week as the visiting editor at SheWrites by publishing my Memoir Manifesto, a ten point list of what I like to think of as suggestions for memoir writers, though given the word “manifesto,” these might sound more like demands. You decide.

No matter what you call them, these points were hard-won, coming out of writing four books, countless magazine pieces, and more than a dozen National Public Radio essays, all of which include a large dose of memoir.

I learned a great deal about writing memoir while writing my first book, Another Name for Madness, (Houghton Mifflin, 1985). The book was an expansion of a piece I had written in the The New York Times Magazine (January, 1983), that was about my family’s dramatic struggle with our mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. Hard as it is to imagine, I was the first person to write about Alzheimer’s disease in the mainstream press.

I was 26, and just starting out as a writer, and to say that it was a daunting assignment does not quite cover the territory of my dismay. Living with my mother, caring for her, I was also working full-time at The New York Times when my mother was diagnosed. She was 51 years old.

Perhaps the hardest lessons learned in my first major publishing experience are today’s two points of the Memoir Manifesto: Write What You Know and Go Small.

Write What You Know

Here’s the big secret to writing memoir: You have what you need to write what you know. Just like Dorothy’s ruby-red shoes, you’ve had it on you all the time. It’s what you’ve been doing with those details that’s the problem, if you’ve either done nothing, or have been wasting precious time on mere exercises. You’ve got your material. The key is to get to it.

The class I’ve been teaching for more than a decade is called Writing What You Know. Based on that simple adage to “write what you know,” the message tucked into the course title is complex, and requires nothing less than chucking the Big Bang notion of reality TV, talk radio, and many best-selling memoirs, and instead learning to go small.

Go Small

It’s in the small moments that life is truly lived. Lessons from the “large moments” are hard to absorb and rarely learned. Consider a quarrelling couple coming back together. Only in movies does the lavish trip to Paris or the uber-bracelet rejoin an exhausted pair of people. In life, one night someone laughs again at another’s joke, another passes the peas and includes a touch of fingertips, and life together begins again.

Want an example of writing what you know by going small?

I’ve got a gem for you today.

Here is an excerpt from an upcoming memoir The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss, and Life, by Marie Tillman. Marie is the widow of Pat Tillman, who proudly put his NFL career with the Arizona Cardinals on hold to serve his country, and was killed in Afghanistan. The book is the story of Marie Tillman’s journey to remake her life after Pat's death. Watch how she writes what she knows while using the smallest of details – a letter – to reveal the largest of life’s challenges.


With my family there, the soldiers’ job was done. They could leave knowing I was in good hands. They filed one by one out into the night.

Then it was quiet.

I took in the silence for a few moments, staring at the door, which had finally closed for the evening. My parents settled into the second bedroom—the room used between deployments by Kevin, who would soon be rushing home from Afghanistan. My sister fell asleep on the couch. I went to my room, finally alone—deeply, finally alone.

I recounted the events of the day but could not put them into any logical sequence. Everything was still unreal. Things I had heard or seen but hadn’t registered were coming back to me now that I was able to reflect quietly. Had the officers in the conference room really told me that Pat had been shot in the head or had I imagined that?

I still was trying too hard to function, to be logical, to cope. I had not broken yet. I hadn’t even cried.

Wrapped in a thick comforter in our bed, I lay awake, curled on my side, staring at the wall. A small crack in the blinds let in a faint beam of light from the streetlamp below, and Mc, our orange-and-white tabby, flopped up on the bed, looking for a warm place to sleep. He circled himself twice, then nestled into the crook behind my knees and began kneading the blanket and purring softly. If I closed my eyes, I could pretend it was like any other night, but I couldn’t close my eyes. I was trying to make some sense of anything. I gave up on sleep and switched on the small bedside lamp, which cast a warm glow on the room. I pulled my feet from under the covers, barely disturbing Mc, and quietly went to the dresser across the room.

Under a stack of old receipts and cards, I found the slim white envelope that Pat had set there “just in case.” It had smoldered there for almost a year. I held the letter in my hands and stared at it. It looked like so many letters I had anxiously awaited from Pat since he had enlisted, but I knew this one was different.


The Letter is out by Grand Central Publishing in June, 2012. You can pre-order your copies now.

Tomorrow: Points five and six of The Memoir Manifesto.

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  • Marion Roach Smith

    Hi, Laura. With phrases like "is a gift to others on the road," you make we want to read your fiction right this minute with my steaming cup of tea. What a lovely phrase. I'll be waiting by the bookshop door for more.

    Hi, Chloe: How is that first memoir coming along? You go get 'em. Take all the help you can get, Chloe. It's here for you.

    Hello, Grace. So great to read you here. "Small things. Dig Deep." I think I'll needlepoint that to a pillow or put it on a t-shirt. It's the caption for what we do, yes?

    Hi, Suzi. Isn't Marie's passage astonishing? I keep reading it. And when I do, I learn. Gorgeous and finely wrought. So glad you feel the same.   

  • suzi banks baum

    I am there with you Marion...living in these small moments...barring my door for an hour at a time to capture the stories of my days as a Mom. This passage of Marie’s is blazingly clear. I feel the cat. I see the sliver of light. I feel the envelope. And the sadness.

    Thank you for these great posts.

    xo Suzi

  • Grace Peterson

    Beautifully written. You're so right, Marion. Start small with things you know and dig deep. It's so gratifying. 

  • Chloe Diaz de Bedoya

    Good advice, I am working on my first memoir, this idea really resonates with me.

  • Laura Brennan

    I remember reading Dave Eggers "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" around that time and wanting to *not* read it but unable to put it down.  He was able to communicate the details of his mother's death in such a visceral way... it was hard to go through, but I guess something in me needed to see that it was this way for everyone, not just me. 

    A memoir like yours and Marie Tillman's - really any memoir, it's such a revealing genre - is a gift to others on the road.  But, no, I won't be writing mine!  No, no, no -- I laugh as I type this, but really, it's true, I much prefer the cloak of fiction.

  • Marion Roach Smith

    Hi, Laura.

    Oh my. I'm honored to meet you, particularly knowing we share this experience. Writing about it might very well have saved my life, allowing me, as it did, to understand what I was feeling and learning.

    I'm fascinated now with others who write in real time, writing as they experience something. Reading Marie Tillman's brave work is a remarkable experience, isn't it?

    Thanks for the friendship and support.

    Write your tale. You never know what it will teach you.

  • Laura Brennan

    I'm sorry you had to live through Alzheimer's.  My mother died of that as well, last year.  It was so painful to go through; I'm awed you had the strength and grace to write about the experience.