Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Memoir Writing Tips from Marion Roach Smith

Marion Roach Smith

Marion Roach Smith

I met Marion Roach Smith online several months ago through this blog. She told me that she teaches people to write memoir — a nonfiction writing genre I am particularly interested in (both as a reader and writer).

I read Marion’s book, The Memoir Project, and was blown away. It’s approximately 100 pages of practical, entertaining inspiration that will get you sharing your most (and least) favorite memories in a compelling, interesting format.

It only seemed fair to share all the riches Marion was sharing with me — with all of you. So I asked her for an interview.

Interview with Marion Roach Smith

Jeff: How long have you been teaching memoir writing?

Marion: I’ve been teaching memoir writing for more than 14 years. Most of that teaching takes place at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, NY, though I’ve also taught at such marvelous places as New York’s great Chautauqua Institute, as well as online at CafeMom, Beliefnet and at my own website, marionroach.com.

Jeff: What are some of the typical mistakes you see almost every time you teach?

Marion: The biggest mistake is to go too big too fast. It’s inevitable. Given the permission to tell one’s tale, most beginning memoirists attempt to tell us the whole tale, and in that, they crash and burn out.

Memoir is a genre, within which are many methods. I encourage mastering the personal essay, a piece of non-fiction of no more than 750 words. The essay is the single best way to understand one of the basic rules of memoir, which is to tell one story at a time. Master the essay and you’ve mastered the scene, as well as the intent of memoir.

From there, you can go anywhere.

Jeff: What is the best kind of memoir? What elements does it have? What does it lack? What makes it better than the rest? Examples?

The Memoir Project

The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith

Marion: The best memoir is about something, and that “something” is not “me.”

In the best memoir, the writer illustrates something but is not the subject of the tale. The subject is mercy or honor, growth, transcendence, patriotism, love, or some other universal theme, and our stories – and all of us have a million of them – illustrate those themes.

Otherwise, you’re just reading me your datebook, and no one should be subjected to that, right?

Here’s a list I give out in my class. These are not required. They are books and stories that have taught me something about writing memoir.

Jeff: Why should people care about memoir?

Marion: Memoir is the single greatest portal to self-discovery — both reading and writing it. Everyone has stories to tell. Telling them teaches us what we really think about everything. Reading them lets us see the universal themes of life explored.

Jeff: There’s some controversy, it seems, about this genre. Is it literature? Is it biography? How much license does an author have to rewrite his or her story? Where do you stand on this? What’s your personal philosophy of memoir?

Marion: You are not writing your autobiography when you write memoir, and while entire academic conferences are devoted to howling over the semantic differences, I keep this distinction pretty simple by defining autobiography as a book-length depiction of one’s entire life, and memoir as depicting a specific aspect of that life.

When my coaching students arrive saying they want to write “my memoirs,” I’ll immediately attempt to redirect that to be “a memoir.”

I don’t always succeed in getting them to boil down their ambitions, though I can say with complete assurance that those who do stand a far better chance of not only being read by someone else, but of having readers enjoy the work.

I leave biography to biographers writing bout the lives of others, autobiography to the famous, whose highlights we already know, and whose details we’d like to have filled in for us, and memoir to the rest of us who would like to scrutinize life a little by using our own best tales.

Rewriting one’s history should never be the intent of writing memoir. Tell the truth. The French (of course) have a phrase that best illustrates the desire to rewrite, specifically for those bon mots we wish had popped out of our mouths but didn’t. Esprit d’escalier means “the wit of the staircase,” and it’s among memoir’s most dangerous temptations. Do not go up those stairs.

The desire to have a snappy comeback — to portray ourselves as witty, clever, and informed — is universal. But rarely are we witty on demand. We all wish we’d said some clever thing when we got dumped. We didn’t, not out loud and at the time, and when writing memoir we’re not allowed to make ourselves sound more snappy than we are.

At moments of confrontation, our inability to spit out what we long to say reveals our frustration; as we walk away, the words that roll in our heads represent our fears, our manners — ourselves — better than any snappy retort. Not being witty when we want to be is far more human than having some patterned repartee. And far more interesting.

In fiction and movies, everyone is witty. In nonfiction, we wrestle with the obvious, and we share our humanity. These little moments, revelatory real events, are what turn and shape our lives. So write about those. What do you wish you had said? That might be interesting; it’s certainly universal.

But since we rarely carry a notebook when we’re getting thrown out by the man we love, how do we resolve the dialogue issue? How can you be accurate?

Instead of replicating events, think about intent. If I don’t know exactly how something was actually said, I tell you that a conversation went “something like this,” but never alter the intent of the exchange. If there is a moral responsibility in writing nonfiction, it favors the intent of life’s actual circumstances.

Jeff: If someone wants to write a memoir, how do they begin — aside from buying your book?

Marion: The best place to begin is with a short personal essay on one topic, jumping in at the middle of the action. In other words, do not start with your height, weight and eye color, your birthday, or your address. Start where things are already heated up, where there is something at stake, so that the reader can jump aboard with wide-open interest.

* * *

I took Marion’s advice and wrote a 750-word essay. She was right. It was a great way to begin. I may even share it with you at some point.

So, now it’s your turn. Go write your memoir.

And if you need help, read Marion’s book: The Memoir Project

You can follow Marion on her blog, on Twitter (@mroachsmith), or via Facebook.

If you were writing a memoir, what would you call it? Share it in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Great interview. I’m more of a memoir reader than a write, but I like the idea of getting my feet wet with a short personal essay. Love the list of recommended memoirs to read. Thanks. Another to consider is Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt. 

  • Marie Sardalla-Davis

    Jeff, is a personal blog a good way to warm up for memoir writing? Recommended length for blog posts, I read, is between 800-1000 words.

    When we select a particular slice of life to write about, do you think having some emotional distance (usually because of time passing) strengthens the writing? Specifically, if I choose a difficult situation, would my reader be better served if I approach it with wry humor to avoid becoming maudlin?Thank you for introducing us to Marion Roach. What a wealth of resources! I had never even given any thought prior to this to the difference between a memoir and an autobiography.

    • i think so. these are all great questions. i would begin with marion’s book.

  • Shelly Miller

    Great interview Jeff. Getting her book on my Kindle and look forward to reading some of the posts in her blog. Look forward to learning more. And this affirms what I have been thinking intuitively so thanks!

  • Anonymous

    PERFECT Timing in reading this. Thanks Jeff! I took notes. And now I’m going to wander around on her site. 🙂

    • read her book, mandy. it’s SO good!

  • I’ve been thinking and reading on the topic of memoir for a while now. I love the advice your guest gives to make the memoir about something besides yourself. That gives all your readers a chance to identify with the story and hopefully keeps them engaged! I’m also interested in teaching others to write memoir because it can help a person own a memory instead of that memory having the power to sneak up all the time. At least, that’s what has helped me.

    I look forward to reading more from Marion Roach! Thanks.

    • you’re welcome, Felicity

      • And my title! I forgot the first time. I’m playing around with this one from a popular blog post: Fragile Jars

  • A great help and perfect timing.  I’ve been attempting to write my memoir off and on for a number of years.  Life’s been a crazy ride and it’s difficult to step back on that rollercoaster, but interesting to be able to see the overview of how God’s led me along.

  • Excellent interview! I’ve liked Marion Smith Roach’s page on Facebook and found this blog from her. Now I’m following you, Jeff, on Twitter also. I’ve been blogging about memoir for the last three years and under contract to do a childhood memoir of growing up Mennonite. I got started the way Marion suggests, by writing several short essays and submitting them to a literary award contest at the (then) local newspaper. I’m also in a memoir writers group now, which is really helpful also. May all the stories be told!

  • VERY interesting.  I don’t know anything about memoir writing, but I’m very intrigued by it now!  I just browsed Marion’s website a bit, and I’m going to look into her book as well.  I hope you really do share your memoir with us soon!

  • Grace Peterson

    Hi Jeff, thank you for sharing the podium with Marion. Memoir has always interested me too, reading others’ and writing my own.  The bigger challenge for me is the publishing process, which is where I’m at now.  I’ll check out Marion’s site. 

  • If I were to write a memoir, I’d call it My Struggle or My Battle. Something like that. 

  • Great post, full of inspiration and specific advice. I teach memoir with a spiritual emphasis. My classes and blog are based on various Bible verses, among them Luke 8:39 – Jesus said, “Go back to your family and tell them everything God has done for you,”  and Deuteronomy 4:9, “Always remember the things you’ve seen God do for you, and be sure to tell your children and grandchildren!” Recognizing and then sharing such stories can be a very emotional and enriching experience. God looks greater than we used to think–because  we take time to look back and recognize how He has been constantly with us and involved in our lives.Linda

    • Love that, Linda. Keep up the good work!

  • my memoir would be called, “well, she thought she was funny…” or maybe that’s what going on my tombstone.  i get them confused.

  • Charmony

    My Memoir would be called “Whatever shall be, will be, whatever it was
    belonged to me”

  • I think the best memoirs teach the reader and the writer, we learn new things. This why I’d also stress memoir as a research process, employing outside material and ideas the inform, deepen, and develop personal reflection and experience. Mix in other nonfiction sub genres like travelogue, reportage, and even science writing with lyric and narrative are key to creating a multifaceted piece of prose. Write what you discover, not just what you know.

  • Jessica Marks

    The Author, and not for the reasons you’d think.  When my husband left, I likened it to being the author of a new story in my life.  The blank pages of the “book” both thrilled and destroyed me.  I can’t imagine not starting with that because it’s where I truly started.

  • Berta Dickerson

    “A Faithful Father” without a doubt!”

  • “A Faithful Father” without a doubt!

  • Wow, thank you for this! There is an historical figure I want to write about and this post pointed out the way to do it. Thank you!

  • Alice5403

    Mine might be “Time for Rainbows”. Bogged down in heartache and anxiety the quiet rainbow reminds me God is in control of this pain, He knows how it will end and when I quit worrying about where the next penny is coming from I am reminded he is my Provider. The rainbow says it all in dazzling brilliance. 

  • Just ordered it!  Thanks for the info. 

  • In a Blink – and it’s been a memoir-in-progress for a while. I just bought Marion’s book and hope to read it over Christmas. I want have a finished manuscript in 2012. 

  • Judy Dunn

    What a fantastic resource! Just purchased Marion’s book for Kindle and I will say, as I deal with these sticky issues of the big idea/theme and selecting only the scenes that support it (working on the rough draft of my memoir now), the first chapter alone was worth the price of the book. I have taken many classes and read many books but this one is bringing me to that aha moment. Thank you, Jeff, for posting this interview. And thanks to Marion for bringing clarity my muddled story.

    Oh, and by the way, Jeff, big congrats on your top 10 blogger award. I was on the list last year and I can say that it truly changed my life. 

  • Relief11

    I *am* writing a memoir. It’s called, “My Mother’s Money.” It’s about adult children finding out after their mother’s death that she’s left them a lot of money. But they don’t know where it is.

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  • I took a memoir workshop with Marion last Saturday -she is an incredible, inspirational teacher. I came away with great ideas to refine my memoir. Her book is well-worth reading, and  I plan to read the memoirs on her suggested reading list. Thanks for posting this interview.

  • Beth

    Not sure…but I am up early this morning preparing my comments for the eulogy of a beautiful teen killed in a car accident. I am the volunteer youth leader in our church and this young lady’s death makes the second death of a teenager from our church in less than 5 years. I feel pulled toward writing a memoir about the experiences. 

  • Great interview. Thanks, Jeff, for introducing us to another great writer and reader, especially on the craft of memoir. I’m downloading it on my Kindle now.

  • I see this post after I actually began writing my memoir today.  One Thousand words in and grateful to be over the hump of fear of beginning it.  I have had it named for months.  It is Another Samaritan Woman.   Grateful for the post today!

  • My Memoir is called , “The Cat With the Bent Ear.”  I loved your article. Very good advice. My approach to my memoir will be different now. Thank you Mr. Goins.

  • BipolarMom (Jenn)

    Loved this interview, Jeff. I just bought Marion’s book and am looking forward to getting started. I definitely need to work on perfecting my ability to write personal essay before I dive into work on the memoir project I’m dying to write. Thank you for interviewing Marion.

  • Evie Gerontis

    My memoir could be called…..”In the landscape of men”…. I wrote a short piece with the same title…had it published in a few small publications….

  • danabrownritter

    Jeff, I took your advice, and got the book and now I follow her blog too. Just wondering, did you ever put your 750 word essay out there? I’d love to see it.

  • Chatterbox

    My memoir would be called “Glad You Are Here”. The story of a time in my life as a professional nurse, wife and mother and of course, my fall from grace.

  • Phumuzile M

    Jeff thanks for sharing with us the interview with Marion’it will help me as am writing manuscript about my life growing up,and obstacles on the way.
    Thank you.

  • jennie nash

    Jeff, I had the great pleasure of running a feature story on Marion for Compose Journal awhile back and I completely agree — she is brilliant, and her book is a gem. Every memoir writer or wanna be memoir writer should read it. If you’re toying around with writing memoir, you might also consider reading Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth, which is equally powerful.

  • Sally

    Like! (How did I miss this one?)

  • Colleen Golafshan

    Thanks for passing on Marion’s tips, Jeff! “Rocky Roads Lead Home” is one of my favourite titles for my memoir in work, based around my first eight years of life. I’m still working up the courage and confidence to follow your advice and share it publically by regular blogging as soon as possible.