Over the following weeks and months I am going to post a collection of entries on memoir writing.  Specifically, I will be addressing the basic issues that, in my experience as a teacher, editor, and writer of memoirs, confound and worry the memoir writer, and sometimes stop the writer in his or her tracks.  I offer these posts—which, compiled, make a small book—in the spirit of collaboration, companionship, and commiseration, for memoir writing is a rugged road with troublesome imps waiting in ambush at every turn.

I begin here with a Title page, Introduction, and Table of Contents.  The posts will then accumulate, one by one, as I put forth my thoughts on each issue or conundrum faced by the memoirist.

Please do comment on the posts, if you wish.  I’d like this to be a place where readers may shed further light on the subjects at hand, help one another, and also enlighten me.

Now for a title page, as with a book, so as to clarify what I’m up to:


A Memoir Writer’s Companion

 The Philosophical, Personal, and Artistic Questions

faced by the Autobiographical Writer


Why write a memoir at all?

Who am I to write a memoir?

What is the truth?

Which story, of the many, should I tell?

Why is the act of writing so trying…and rewarding?

What makes a piece of writing about an ordinary life un-ordinary?



One is always at home in one’s past.

-Vladimir Nabokov

Seated at one’s desk trying to compose a memoir—I know, from students, other writers, and myself—one is assailed with dilemma after dilemma, conundrum after conundrum:  Why write a memoir at all?  Is it worth one’s while to spend hours and years sealed away writing about one’s life?  Who am I to do such a thing?   Isn’t this self-centered, narcissistic self-promotion at its worst?  And, after all, who cares?  And, for heaven’s sake, what on earth is the truth?  Truth is multiple—and contradictory!  And: which story, of the many, should I tell?  How do I make the jumble of my life into a single story?  And why is the act of writing so trying…and, always the contrarian, rewarding?  And what, in the end, makes a piece of writing about an ordinary or extraordinary life un-ordinary—something that others might want to read?

As soon as one question is quelled, one finds, while seated at one’s desk tackling the task of setting down one’s life, another arises to take its place.  Endlessly, questions and doubts revolve in one’s head, in a continuous loop.

In this blog series, I set out some replies to the questions that plague the memoirist: answers I discovered as I wrote my own memoir about my childhood as the daughter of a spy—a life that needed sorting if ever one did.  I offer my thoughts here, in six chunked-out essays, as an offering of companionship and solace as the reader takes on the writing of his or her life story.  It is my hope that this little collection may put to rest, or at least quell, for the writer the doubts he or she has, so that he or she may tackle the important task of comprehending his or her life—and thus Life–with all the zest, and freedom, and play of sorrow and joy it deserves.


  1. The Roar of Memory                                                                                         

The Question of Motives:  Why write a memoir? Why might a person

spend months closeted away summoning the past? 

  1. Skinny Dipping with Missionaries                                                                                                  

The Question of Legitimacy:  Who am I, an ordinary person, to write a

story of my life?  Isn’t memoir-writing self-centered, whorish naval-gazing?

  1. White Cat-Black Cat                                                                                                                                   

The Question of Truth: Finding the Truth…What is the truth about my life?

  1. A Roomful of Babies

The Question of Story: My life could tell so many stories…

Which story should my life tell?

  1.  A Private Mist                                                                                                                                              

The Memoir-Writing Process:  Why is memoir writing so trying…and rewarding?

  1. To be Carried Away                                                                                                                                  

The Memoir-Writer’s Craft:  What qualities make a memoir

of an ordinary, or not-so-ordinary life un-ordinary and engaging?