19 Tips on Writing Memoir from The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith

by Pamela Hodges | 54 comments

I have read The Memoir Project three times. I have taken notes and underlined my favorite sections. Marion Roach Smith has solid advice on how to write your own stories. Let me share nineteen tips on how to write a memoir from The Memoir Project.

The Memoir Project

Nineteen tips on writing memoir from The Memoir Project, taken from the nineteen post it notes I put in the book.

1. A memoir is not an autobiography. An autobiography is a book-length depiction of one's entire life. A memoir depicts a specific aspect of that life.

2. Pay attention to detail. I want to know all about the smell of bacon frying, and how the bullet hole was put in the kitchen tile.

3. Use your own voice. Don't pretend to be someone you are not.

4. Make connections between your ideas clear. We can't read your mind, so tell your story with enough detail that we understand what you are trying to say. I once wrote a story about my daughter, and my fellow classmates in my creative writing class thought I had a handicapped child because I carried her everywhere. She wasn't handicapped.

5. Your memoir is not about you. The stories theme is the main attraction. The story is about something, and you become that story's illustration.

6. Tell the truth. Don't lie. Don't be like James Frey in A Million Little Pieces and say you got shot in the face, when you clearly didn't.

7. What is your memoir about? How it happened is not as important as why it happened and how it make you feel. I don't really care what happened to you. I want to find a universal truth in your story and how I can learn from it. What did you learn about life when you boiled coyote skulls on the kitchen stove?

8. Memoir is not writing all of your stories all at once. You might have twelve memoirs inside of you. One about hunting with your father, one about living in Japan, and one about what it is like to have seven litter boxes.

9. Write one scene at a time. Put each scene on an index card. On the front of the card write the theme, and on the back of the index card write down little details–dialogue, smells you remember. You can put the index cards in chronological order on a bulletin board.

Write an essay and you tackle a scene. Master a scene and you can write seventy-five of them and have yourself a book.
— Marion Roach Smith, The Memoir Project

10. Check your facts. Who was the Prime Minister of Tokyo when you moved there in 1983? Don't guess, be accurate. What year Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minster of Canada is relevant when you named your pet skunk Pierre.

11. “Show don't tell.” Don't tell me your dad was an alcoholic; show me the home-made still in the basement and the empty scotch bottles under the kitchen sink.

marion 3

12. Give your memoir structure. The best way to find structure is to reduce your memoir idea to one sentence. Then you can be clear about what you are writing. The book is about hunting with your father, so you aren't going to talk about the yoga class you took in college because it is off topic.

13. Write your first draft. Then re-write, and re-write, and re-write until your theme is clear. Marion's essay on Spam chop suey was shown to NPR after draft forty-five.

It's Time To Edit

14. Print out your draft and write in the margin what each paragraph does. Indexing the paragraphs will help you see what paragraphs are redundant and which paragraphs can be deleted or combined.

15. Make the changes and print the piece out again. Starting at paragraph one, look for every sentence beginning with “I”. Marion suggests you circle every “I” and re-write at least two-thirds of those sentences to begin with action. I personally hate reading all sentences starting with I. (Did you catch what the last sentence started with? I couldn't resist.)

16. Make those changes and then print it out again. Now circle every noun and adjective and see if you can find a word that is more clear.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

— Mark Twain

17. Now edit. Take out unnecessary words. Strive for short simple sentences.

18. Keep a consistent voice. Edit for tone as well as for space.

The most basic rule of editing is that if you can't bear to read it, no one else can either. So when you find yourself skimming, commit murder.
— Marion Roach Smith, The Memoir Project

Marion's Single Best Tip on Writing Long Form Memoir

19. Write five pages a day, five days a week, no exceptions. Start today and in three months you will have a first draft. 

After I clean the seven litter boxes, I will start to write my five pages. What interests you? Boiling coyote skulls on the kitchen stove in my mother's good pots? A one-way ticket to Bangkok and living in Tokyo for seven years, or hitchhiking through Israel and working on a Kibbutz?

Marion graciously allowed me to quote from her book and share her wisdom. The Memoir Project is full of examples and more detail about each of the tips. Her book will help you write the stories of your life.

Pamela's Single Best Tip on Writing Memoir

Live. Get out of your chair and live so that you have something to write about.

Have you ever tried to write memoir? Let me know in the comments section.


Write one scene from your life. Choose something that happened to you that is interesting to you and decide what theme it illustrates. Is your story about feeling content, as illustrated by having ten cats? Write for fifteen minutes. And then share your story in the comments.

I would love to read your stories. Please be kind and comment on someone else's story.

How to Write Like Louise PennyWant to write like Louise Penny? Join our new class and learn how. Learn more and sign up here.

Join Class

Next LIVE lesson is coming up soon!

Pamela writes stories about art and creativity to help you become the artist you were meant to be. She would love to meet you at pamelahodges.com.


  1. Susan W A

    Pamela …. Wow! Nice lightning bolt for me. First, I never knew the details of memoir-writing. Yes, I thought it was an autobiography, and wondered why so many people (i.e. on TWP) mentioned they were going to write their memoir.

    Secondly, your list of key ideas gives me a lot to think about and certainly piques my interest in Marion Roach Smith’s book. I feel I’m not adept at identifying “themes”, however I know it just takes practice because when I observe others’ making that type of analysis, I usually think, “yeah, that’s obvious; is that all it takes?”

    My action plan? This week I will make a list of some themes and match some of my life events to them.

    Thanks for a fun and useful post!

    Happy new year of making new memories.


    • Pamela Hodges

      Hello Susan,
      So nice to hear from you again. I always thought memoir was an autobiography too until I read “The Memoir Project.”
      I love Marion’s book, she gives several examples of finding theme in the book. Let’s say I wanted to write about how I picked my cat Harper. The story is about something, how pets can help with depression. The story of choosing her is the illustration of that theme.
      So maybe find your stories first, and see what themes they represent? Or the other way you suggested, find the themes and match your life events to them.
      You are very welcome.
      Happy New Year to you too.

    • Susan W A

      Yes, that makes sense. I have some stories in mind; will identify themes and then group them accordingly just to see commonalities. I will keep the question, “How do you know?” in mind as a way to develop showing not telling. For instance, “how do you know she was happy ?” Because she …

  2. KathyPooler

    Pamela, I am working on the first draft of my second memoir and these bullet points from Marion’s book strike at the heart of memoir writing. I have the strands of my story that I need to weave together into a cohesive narrative. Not for the faint of heart! Thanks for this fabulous summary . I will be sharing.

    • Pamela Hodges

      Hi Kathy,
      Your second memoir? May I ask what was your first one? I love memoir. Absolutely love it. Real stories with real people.
      You are welcome for the summary. Marion really gets to the heart of memoir in her book. Some of the examples are mine. Like the coyote head on the stove. 🙂


  3. Anne Peterson

    Yes, Pamela. I have written one memoir that is not published as yet. And I wrote Broken. But I’m rethinking a lot of what I wrote in the first book and I’d like to apply all the things I’ve learned since writing Broken and really make my other book shine. Loved this post. Clear, concise and easy to follow.

    • Pamela Hodges

      Hi Anne,
      It is fun to learn new things and apply them to the stories we are writing now, and the stories we have already written. God is writing a melody with your stories Anne. Thank you for your kind comment. When you read a book three times, it is easier to summarize the gems in it.

  4. Jason Bougger

    Memoirs are definitely not my thing, but I love this list anyhow. Most of the bullet points are great advice for any kind of writing, whether memoir, non-fiction, fiction, etc. Thanks!

    • Pamela Hodges

      Hello Jason,
      Thank you for your suggestion. I didn’t think about it but you are right the list could apply to other kinds of writing.
      You are very welcome.

  5. Sarkis Antikajian

    Thanks, Pamela. I hope one day I will write a memoir.

    This is something I cannot forget.

    An employer whom I met only twice, working part time during summer recess, at a time when I was a student at the University of New Mexico, and had no prospect to graduate in my last year of studies for lack of funds, lent me money to finish my year of studies, to pay him back in future years, with no specific time requirement.

    That’s what I call a Trust.

    • Pamela Hodges

      Oh wow! What a great story Sarkis!
      Thank you for sharing your story here. Would the story’s theme be about kindness? trust?
      Illustrated by the loan of money. If you write it I will read it.
      May I ask what you studied?

  6. Darlene

    This is very good information. And yes I’ve written a memoir, information like this would have been very helpful. But I also find experience is the best teacher. It can help you in finding out what to do, and what not to do. But I love this, I will keep this information.

    • Pamela Hodges

      Hello Darlene,
      You are so right. Experience is the best teacher. I am thankful I have this book to guide me with my memoir. My cat is writing one as well. We are going to use the index card suggestion to organize the series of essay’s within the book.

      May I ask what your memoir was about?

  7. Nancy Mc Bride

    Well, I just spent 15 minutes typing out an episode in one of my lives… Here you are:

    A typical school night, I was doing my French homework on
    the phone. It was 1958, so you can imagine me in a jewel-neck pink sweater, and
    a plaid pencil skirt, matching of course. It was pink and gray, I believe. I
    may have even still had a silk scarf tied at my neck. Then there were anklet
    socks and oxford shoes, the black and white ones.

    The phone receivers in those days were attached to base with,
    in my case, a long coiled cord. It made my dad, an engineer, mad with how it
    would get so knotted up. I guess that happened when we turned it to hang it up.
    I spent a lot of time dangling that receiver to UN coil it. It was rather mesmerizing.

    My dog, a lovely rough collie, a retired seeing-eye dog, was
    my footstool. He was still serving, as it were. We adored each other. I brushed
    his lovely long coat every night while watching Bandstand.

    So, on the phone with Eddie, we were conjugating French verbs.
    We had a quiz the next day, and it was his turn. He was speaking when with no warning at all, I disappeared, became disembodied, and felt my “self” floating toward “the light.”
    I was gone.

    Then, after just getting comfortable in this new dimension, I was sent back and sucked into my very damaged body to start over. I say start over, because nothing could be the same when you left and returned in that fashion. It lacked ration. Apparently, I’d been struck by lightning through the telephone, and our grounding wire was, well, not grounded. Qui étais-je alors, après cela ?

    • Emilia Maia

      Thank you for sharing. What a moment! How can this be possible?

      A couple of comments:

      “Then, after just getting comfortable in this new dimension…” It seems rushed; maybe you want to talk more about that moment while you were gone. It must have been terrifying, no?
      “We adored each other.” This seems to be more telling than showing. I really like when you talk about brushing your dog everyday because that demonstrates how much you care for him. Maybe you want to give a couple of more examples and let the reader feel the love.
      Hope this helps but I am no expert.
      Good luck.

    • Nancy McBride

      Happy for your input.
      I was sticking to the fifteen minutes..my NDE is another story, certainly. It was not at all terrifyingly.. In fact it was actually amazing, and words pale to describe it. I have written about it quite a bit. Love your points about describing my dog.

    • mom2luke

      I think you did show, tho, when you describe him licking your face. It was your dog that brought you back! I read a similar account of being forced back when he didn’t want to return to earth by the author of 90 Minutes in Heaven. He was free of pain and not wanting to return. He told everyone that and his wife was SO MAD. “How COULD you?!” (be so selfish). Anyway, we have your adorable Collie to thank for your beautiful essay! I loved it.

      We are all going to die. Most of us have loved ones who have passed on. I found it very comforting. I’ve been haunted by the manner of deaths of 3 of my loved ones. I feel a little more at peace after reading your essay. It was a gift. Thanks.

    • Nancy Mc Bride


    • Pamela Hodges

      Great suggestions Emilia,
      You may not be an expert, but you have a keen eye.

    • Pamela Hodges

      Hello Nancy,
      Your story is so interesting. A simple school day talking on the phone and you are struck by lightning?
      We had the same phones growing up, with the tangled black cords.
      Thank you for sharing this memory.
      I would love to know more. How did this event make you feel? And then what happened? I know I suggested only to write for 15 minutes. You covered so much detail in such a short amount of time.

    • Nancy Mc Bride

      (Here you go…)

      How did it make me feel?

      Enraged. I was enraged for the first time, ever. I was enraged because I had to come back from the peacefulness of death. I felt no pain.

      What happened next?

      I came back, suddenly and miserably, crammed into a very injured body, only to come to in the dark, with no feeling on the left side of my body (the injury was on my right side—opposite brain damage) with absolutely no perception to what had taken place there in my living room over the last 3-5 minutes. I know I was screaming, beyond furious. I had never, ever, felt that kind of anger before or since.

      I’d been relaxed, enjoying the attention of this young man, showing off our French, but actually flirting, shyly aware my mother and grandfather were about 20 feet away chatting on the couch at the end of the room.

      There was no time. There was no event I was conscience of, but when I came to,
      I was screaming mad and did not want to be here at all, ever again. It wasn’t that I was an unhappy kid at all, it’s just that this “next” was
      where I wanted to be forever. I never feared death again. I don’t care for pain and suffering, but take me when I’m done, and KEEP me this time, please!

      Coming to I was suddenly aware it was dark. Where WAS I? Then I realized my dear, dear collie was frantically licking me all over my face, and although I knew he was licking all over, I could only feel him on the right side. I panicked, reality filling in, suddenly remembering Eddie! And the rage turned instantly to worry, and I began screaming for Eddie! Where was he? What happened? I was in the twilight zone before there WAS a twilight zone!

      That’s when my mom and grandfather found me. They had not heard my screams, and neither had I, actually, but I knew I was screaming, terrified, and very confused! Apparently, the explosion of Eddie’s
      voice had deafened us all, like a canon being shot off in the room. They couldn’t hear for awhile. We, of course, didn’t know then, but I had lost my hearing in my right ear, permanently.

      The electricity had gone into my ear, traveled down my neck, and exited through my sweater grounding through the radiator I was leaning on. This was, of course, instantaneous. Apparently, if my feet had been closer to the metal, I would have been ash. There were carbon rings inside my sweater where the burn holes were, and cigar size burns on my upper arm. My right ear was singed, and
      came off like a mold, a week, later.

      The receiver had melted around my hand. I’d been thrown across the room about 5 feet. Can you imagine how Sparky, my sweet, intelligent dog must have felt? Poor soul, he was so worried, just frantic and beside himself trying to revive me.

      You may be wondering about the near death experience. This happened well over 50 years ago, and not one iota of what happened to me on that amazing occasion has changed in my memory. In fact, I have been a part of an ongoing study at the Near Death Institute at the University of Virginia Psychiatric Division, since the mid-80s. Their intent is to have this common experience legitimized in the eyes of science, because it just does not fall in any other category
      such as a hallucination, or psychotic episode.

      I was not aware of anything in my then present or past life experience. I had separated from my body, but was clearly me, an entity. I could see and I could hear. I was zooming quickly to “the light” at the end of a tunnel.
      Some say the optical nerve is the last to go when one dies, and that provides this pinnacle of light…but all of the theories fall short because of the emotional side of feeling content, at peace, no pain, and free to thoroughly soak in this new life dimension.

      In fact, just so you know, I don’t really care what happened, frankly, because I have nothing to prove, nor do I care what others think about it. It was, and I am not imagining it. It was a gift. Period.

      I arrived there. No time frame. No need. Time did not exist, except there was a “next” and then another “next” if that means time to you,
      fine. I never promised that you would get this. There is no language for it.
      So, just know I am doing my best with what I have, which is all I have. When I say peaceful, it is more peaceful than any lulling off to sleep or any rock-a-bye baby safeness you have ever felt. I perceived a brightness, once “there” that was so bright, you wouldn’t be able to stand it. It was warm and encompassing. It was sort of undulating and, best described, was like looking out an airplane window at a sunset over wavy clouds, but so much more.

      I “heard” a hum. It, too, was lulling, not annoying. It was steady.
      In this new existence I was enveloped in the warmth of familial love—held. It was a feeling that I would not have gotten tired with after awhile, like a hug at this end gone on just a tad too long, or, “Nice to see you, too, Auntie Lou!” Nice, but where’s the buffet. Or, “I love you, too. Did you feed the cat?” I missed nothing. Nothing. I did not miss my loving parents or my friends. There were no regrets. Don’t try to compare this life and that world, because it first of all, doesn’t matter, and secondly, you cannot, so give it up.

      This dimension was just like zoning out, aware, no worries, and then,
      similarly, without warning, all that ended, and I knew I had to go back. That’s when I became a jangled, jolted remnant of me back in the flesh and bones world, now an electrocuted flesh and bones world, and I was so confused and royally pissed. Quite a shift from doing flirty French homework another lifetime ago.

      The lights went off with the strike. Grandfather and mom had done what they normally did when the lights went out. They found their way further back to the dining room where we kept candles. They found matches, and each lit a candle, then found their way back to me, in the dark.

      I was still on the floor. The dog was whining and licking me. My mom saw the bleeding from my right ear (burst eardrum), smelled my burnt hair, noted my (temporary) paralysis on my left side, and helped me into the car to go to the ER. By then I could walk, some, and talked, so I was functioning to some degree. We didn’t really know what had happened. We did not discuss where I’d “been”.

      (By the way, dad was on a business trip, and this was the third close call I’d experienced for three years in a row. He’d not been there for those, ether, but that’s another story with a bizarre ending.)

      When we got to the ER about 30 minutes later, the orderly who was sent out to wheel me in, turns put to be a friend of Eddie’s. “Nancy! What’s going on? Eddie called me just before I left for work, and told me your line had gone dead, and did I want to go bowling after my shift? God, he’ll feel so bad!”

      I was sent home that night. They just packed my ear. The telephone company sent a repairman out that night to tell us the grounding wire was out, and they’d had a blow out at the phone terminal. Uh-HUH! Gosh did he feel bad, when my grandfather told him I was the heroine who’d grounded it! (We found out later that several cows in our town had been being milked at that moment, too, and gotten a jolt,
      but minor.)

      The telephone company sent their agent out the next morning and that began the year-long trek, with him as our chauffeur, to New Haven, CT to meet with Dr. MacCready, at Yale, who was the top ENT.

      A year later, unable to heal the ear drum hole closed, I had a Tympanoplasty to close it up with a graft. It took a full year for most of my nervous system to repair itself. There were several exceptions. One being the taste on the left side of my mouth. It came back three years later, at one lunch in the dining room in college! I stood up and screamed with amazement. Another was I stopped having menstrual periods. After several months I shyly mentioned this to my mother, vaguely wondering if I was pregnant, not really knowing how that happened, but knowing you didn’t have your period then. My
      pediatrician assured me I was OK, and it came back about ten months later. The body is amazing.

      I was exhausted and attended a little bit of school, but had no energy for many months. This all happened a bout six weeks after I’d started in a bigger school, and I was just beginning to make friends. I had a lot of attention in the press and especially from the telephone company. In my town I became known as “the girl who got struck by lightning, and lived to tell about it.”

      And then there was John. John was my junior class president, but I
      didn’t know him. I was new and, frankly, preoccupied just trying to get through a day. He approached me at school one day about a month after my accident. I still had bandages, and was hardly functioning. He said, “I noticed you the first day you started here, especially your smile. I don’t know your name, but if you don’t smile by the time I count to three, I’m never speaking to you again!” There may have been a three-second shocked lapse as I tried to take this in, and then I smiled. I smiled for the first time in my new life. It was the other kind of “jolt” I really needed to help me heal, and laugh and get on with it. I love him to this day and he knows it, though he doesn’t remember doing that at all.

      Eddie felt so bad this accident happened when He was doing homework with me, he was beside himself with guilt. My parents went to meet with him and his parents to assure them it was just an accident. Poor kid. I don’t remember doing homework with
      me again. I saw him years later while visiting home, at a local pizza place. We did the usual back and forth, “So where are you? Do you have a family?” Etc. He was married and had SIX kids! My response was “God was telling me something!”


      I am deaf in my right ear.

      I do not fear death.

      I find my story helps some folks who are in the process of dying, and their
      loved ones.

      I’ve been asked to write a version of this story for those on death row inFlorida.

      I never say this is what will happen to you.

      I live very much in the present.

      I read faces. Do not wear dark glasses and expect me to know what you’re
      saying, and moreover what you’re thinking…

      I mishear often, and am every grateful for a good sense of humor
      and of the absurd.

      For those of you who need to understand this phenomenon, rationally, I feel for you. What about love, and hope, etc. Do you need physics to prove them? I say, lighten up. Quantum mechanics will eventually give you ways to measure the unfathomable, energies, consciousness, sensing others thoughts of feelings, past lives, or whatever, eventually, so just hang around for that, if you need
      concrete answers. (B O R I N G …)

    • Lois Guarino Hazel

      Delightful story . . .I love how you covered so much in so little time.

  8. Sarkis Antikajian

    Pamela, I studied pharmacy. Before that, I got a degree in Chemistry. I was a pharmacist for over 35 years.Then I retired and became a full-time Artist (Painter) and have been a painter for a while, I wanted to be a painter since early childhood. But I love to write and I try my best at learning how to write. By the way, my artist website is sarkisantikajian.com

    • Claudia

      Love your artwork, Sarkis. Your paintings are beautiful.

    • Sarkis Antikajian

      Thank you, Claudia. I am very pleased to see your comment.

    • Pamela Hodges

      Wow. Thank you for sharing your artist website. I love your work and how you share your process. I use palette knives with my large acrylic cat paintings, which I just realized I don’t have on my blog. (I kept forgetting to clean my paint brushes.)

    • Sarkis Antikajian

      Yes, painting with acrylics one has to be disciplined to always keep brushes and paint on the palette moist. And that’s why I do not paint acrylics outdoors when the likelihood that people will come chat with me, and get me distracted, is always the case.

  9. LaCresha Lawson

    Oh, wow. My next book is a Memoir! How perfect! Just waiting on the illustrator to finish my drawings. Thank you.

    • Pamela Hodges

      How exciting. Please share your book here when it is finished. What is the memoir’s theme? What aspect of your life is it about?

    • LaCresha Lawson

      Thank you. It is so exciting! Mine is a collection of what my children have said to me over the years. They have my humor as I’ve been told. It was too funny to not write down and keep track of how they inspire me and keep me going.

  10. Yiro Abari High

    I have a memoir, “Recycled Memories” that stalled after about 15000 words. I was supposed to take part in a festival to get more facts. When the festival came last April, I was unaware. I have to wait another April. That was how my memoir got stalled. It will be April, again, in three months time from now. But i think that the delay has a merit. I have improved on my writing while I waited.

    • Pamela Hodges

      Hello Yiro Abari High,
      April will be here soon. You must be so excited to attend the festival to get details for your story.
      I hope this article will help with your writing. Maybe you could print out what you have already written and follow Marion’s suggestions on editing?
      Waiting is good, like you said. An opportunity to learn while you wait.

    • Yiro Abari High

      Thanks, Pamela, I will do just that.

  11. Debbie Kaiman Tillinghast

    “The Ferry Home” a memoir about my childhood on Prudence Island, was recently published. First written page to first published book took two and a half years. Your list of tips might have moved the process along a little faster. I read several books about writing memoir as well as several memoirs, but I somehow missed this one. I will definitely read it even if I don’t write another memoir.

    • Pamela Hodges

      Hello Debbie,
      How exciting to see your book, your words, you story in print. Congratulations.
      Marion’s book is a fun read. I hope you enjoy it.

  12. Nina Badzin

    This is a great post. Thanks for distilling the book down to 19 tips. I appreciate that push to do 5 pages a day.

    • Pamela Hodges

      Hi Nina,
      Thank you Nina!
      I have to make sure I do 5 pages a day too. I clean the 7 litter boxes everyday. I need to be as consistent with my writing.

  13. Sarkis Antikajian

    Pamela, your drawings/paintings are charming. I bet you have a lot of fun making them.

    • Pamela Hodges

      Thank you for looking at my drawings. I do have fun making them. I need to add my large acrylic cat paintings to the site.

  14. Elena Brabant

    This is a very useful article! Thank you!!!

    • Pamela Hodges

      You are very welcome Elena.

  15. Debbie

    Pamela – This is great advice and very helpul. I’m working on my memoir and sometimes find myself getting off track. I’ve printed out these tips to help me stay focused. Thank you so much for sharing it.

    • Pamela Hodges

      Hello Debbie,
      You are very welcome.
      I wish you all my best with your memoir.

  16. mom2luke

    I have read a lot of books on writing memoir. Marion Roach Smith’s is the best I’ve found so far at distilling HOW to move your stories from good to great and, in so doing, perhaps, find wider audiences. She makes it seem so effortless with examples from her own life and also retelling the themes of some of her students’ more interesting stories.

    Steven King’s memoir On Writing is incredibly helpful as well — tho of course he’s talking about writing fiction. I love his sense of humor and how he shares tiny incidents in life that set his imagination going…and how he never “plots” just goes with where the characters take him. I also love how he describes his wife so lovingly as she reviews and the curve of her smile as she reads his draft manuscripts and how it was SHE who rescued the first draft of Carrie–the gamechanger in their modest lives when it sold for hundreds of thousands of $. Just a wonderful read, so entertaining and funny, and memorable– as well as instructive.

  17. Sherrey Meyer

    Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project was the first book on writing memoir I picked up and read. I fell in love, love, love with it! Like you I made marginal notes, added post-its for a bit of color, and came away knowing more than if I had attended classes for a year.

    A note about the index cards. I know this is how Marion describes capturing scenes, but did you know Scrivener has a feature where you can actually creates index cards and pin them to a virtual bulletin board? I use it all the time. Great tool.

    Thanks for an inspiring post on memoir.

  18. Lois Guarino Hazel

    Delightful and so helpful. Your book is on my purchase list. Here’s my 15 minutes of memoir…

    My Comedic Self

    Ninety-five pounds . . . that’s what I weighed in 10th
    grade. Not heavy enough to withstand the crushing push of two hefty velvet
    curtains headed for each other with great velocity. Unaware of the impending
    impact, I belted out my solo. Wham! Prostrate on the stage, I heard the titters
    of the stage crew and a hearty guffaw from the director.

    “That was awesome,” laughed Mr. Director. “Let’s keep it in
    the show.”

    “Y-y-you mean my creaming by the curtains?” I sputtered,
    mortified by my less-than-graceful tumble.

    “Yes, yes, yes,” he effused. “It adds humor at the perfect

    Personally, I felt that Annie Get Your Gun, as originally
    scripted, provided sufficient laughs; no pratfalls needed. Mr. Director did not share my lack of
    enthusiasm, and so, for three nights and one matinee, I was unceremoniously
    dumped on my tuckus in front of a live audience.

    Realizing my potential as a comic, I began to ad lib after
    the first performance, and viciously beat back the red velvet saboteurs, while
    continuing to sing in my best Ethel Merman style.

    [end of 15 minutes]

  19. Kelley madick

    Here is my 15 minutes. I want to do more but my fingers can’t keep up with my brain. I may try recording my story as it comes to me then transcribing. Anyone do that?

    My cell phone rang, which it did a lot these days. I moved the charts and papers around on my desk looking for the damn thing. “Hello” I said quickly before the call was gone.
    “Hey, it’s me”
    The voice of my sister, Cheryl, was flat. Usual, I thought.
    “What’s up?”
    “You working?” she asked
    “Yea” the hesitancy in my own voice made the hair on back of my neck stand up. Something was not right
    “I have to tell you something” her voice was starting to shake
    “It’s not a big deal ok” she recovered quickly
    “Ok” I tried to steady my voice
    “So, here the thing, I have breast cancer”
    My breath stopped in the middle of my throat. I felt like I was in a dark blank hole not still in my office. My forehead was in my hand but I don’t remember putting it there. Breast cancer, the word reverberated in my head. Only then did I feel the tear down my cheek.
    “It’s no big deal ok. ” her voice was quick now. I sensed the denial. This was going to be hard for her.
    “Ok. What’s the plan?”
    “I start chemo this week. I am going to have a double mastectomy too. I don’t have to but I am going to and maybe a hysterectomy too.”
    She was rushing.
    “I am going to die” the flatness in her voice was frightening. “So you need to get checked ok”
    “Treatments are very successful. You can live with this.” The nurse practitioner in me kicked in.
    “No, there is a 5 year rate of return and death. I am going to die.” the simplicity in her voice was too much. What is happening, I thought. This is not suppose to happen to us.

  20. Becky Livingston

    Wonderful summary of Marion’s book. And now the editor in me has to speak…..Mark Twain referred to the difference between a lightning bug and lightning (not lighting)

    • Pamela Hodges

      Hello Becky,
      Thank you for using your editing brain on my post. I just fixed the quote. I really appreciate you taking the time to tell me.

  21. Thomas Dohling

    A Sudden Short Burst of Shower

    It had been a sweltering hot day. Stifling heat. The skin-burning, sweaty kind. So I was surprised by the sudden welcome stiff cool breeze blowing from the south. The sky was clear. Dusk was approaching. I stood on the balcony hoping for the rain. Rain from a clear sky? I thought.

    Nah, it won’t rain, I thought aloud. I feel the stiff breeze cooling my skin. Really cool and soothing after the hot day. I look up at the sky in the fading light. Is that cloud or my imagination. My heart leaps. May be? Hoping.

    I watch as the sky is rapidly blanketed by a thick cloud cover. The wind must have carried it this way. Is it thick enough to sprinkle rain? I wonder. False hope. The
    blanket is not thick enough. Enjoy the cool breeze even if it does not rain, I tell myself.

    A sudden flash of lightning light up the rapidly approaching night sky. A deafening
    clap of thunder. That sounded very close, I think. It conjures up a picture of flashing weapon before the sound of bursting shell.

    Then. A sudden sharp short burst of rain. Showers. I am overjoyed. Hope it lasts. I take a deep breath. Lungful of it. Breathe in the smell of rain on parched earth. Heady. The sound of the momentary shower burst register on my consciousness. It sounded like the applause of a multitude in a stadium or a hall. Nature clapped.

    I am happy. The earth is happy. The leaves on the trees get a bath. They are washed clean of the accumulated dust and grime. They glisten in the gathering gloom. The street lights come on as though to express relief. Everything smells so good. So earthy. A crow is disturbed by the shower. It caws. Becomes silent. It must be sleeping peacefully having been cooled by the sudden short shower. I think. I go back inside, leaving the door ajar.

  22. catherine meara

    Mom would not allow cats in the house due to the horrendous flea debacle of last month. So I fed them outside. Soon we had a slew of them lounging around the patio, waiting for food. Mom told me to stop feeding them and eventually they disappeared.
    “But mom, I want a pet! How about a bird?”
    “Okay. But this is entirely your responsibility….” Blah blah blah. I didn’t hear the rest, I was thinking about what color parakeet I wanted.
    At the pet shop the next day, I lingered in front of the kittens. But I knew we were there for a bird.
    “Parakeets are easy. And you can train them to sit on your finger or your shoulder, just don’t get crapped upon.” A smile spread across her face. As I observed the birds, I saw a bright blue one looking at me. I rudely stuck my hand in the enclosure and all the birds flew away except the blue one. On the way home, mom asked me what to name him.
    “Bluebell,” I when I told him his name, he chirped. He was a great bird. Moving from my finger, to my shoulder, then to the top of my head. The lady at the pet shop told me to be careful when we changed his cage. He could slip out the bottom and escape. So when I saw Bluebell trying to make a break for it, I cupped him in my hands.
    He went eeek, and died in my hands.

    • LilianGardner

      I like your story and the way you tell it, but the ending is sad. What did you do after the bird died? Did you get a kitten?

    • Catherine Gacia

      No. Six months later (I had to recover from the horror of it all) we got a green parakeet. I don’t remember his name, but we had him for 5 years. He was a good bird. Thanks for reading my story. I appreciate the feedback.


  1. About This Writing Stuff… | Phil Giunta – Paranormal, Fantasy, and SF Writer - […] 19 Tips on Writing Memoir from The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith […]
  2. How to Write Memoir That Resonates With Readers | Creative Writing - […] you write memoir well, you walk your readers across the bridge to you and back into their life with…
  3. How to Title a Book: The Most Important Marketing Decision - […] is your book about?” Can you capture the argument in a single sentence? My friend Marion likes to say,…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

- J. D. Edwin
Under the Harvest Moon
- Tracie Provost
A Shadow Stained in Blood
- Ichabod Ebenezer
Share to...