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Business & Life Skills

How to write a book memoir? (Brenda Peterson)

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Get expert advice from Brenda Peterson’s newest book “Your Life is a Book” on how to write a memoir.  Brenda is a seasoned writer, who has written 17 books, which range from her first memoir Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals, chosen as a “Best Spiritual Book of 2001,” to three novels, one of which, Duck and Cover, was chosen by New York Times as Notable Book of the Year. Her new memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth was selected by The Christian Science Monitor among the Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Books of 2010.  Find out about here newest book here:

Find excerpts pulled from Brenda Peterson’s book, “ Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir” co-authored with her long-time  New York City literary agent, Sarah Jane Freymann and published by Sasquatch press.

What is a memoir?

A memoir is like a love story, with all the ecstasies, disappointments, and turning points of any relationship.  And at the end, you might be surprised to discover that the love of your life is – your life.

Every memoir has one main theme—your evolution as a person.  And one main character—you.  This is the drama that drives the book.  The question of a memoir is not just, “Who am I?” but “Who am I in this story?” (p3)

An important key to remember if you want to publish is that the author of a good memoir is a guide who takes us on a journey, we end up feeling is also our own.  As memoirist Kim Barnes writes, “At the end of a memoir, the reader should know more about himself than about the writer”.

How is it different than an autobiography

Unlike autobiography, which obediently marches along year by year from birth to old age, a memoir may choose just one essential era of your life.

Sometimes a memoir will end at the apex of childhood, before the hormonal disarray and drive of adolescence. Other times, the memoir begins and ends with a war or an illness or a divorce. You may write for several years, following chronology, and then you realize your narrative arc is thematic, that your self-discoveries were learned most during crises or a relationship or a loss.  That time period, then becomes the bridge of your book, a connection that gives the reader a pathway from meeting the writer to discovering what has shaped your perceptions and choices.  P 22


Link to Interview Highlights:

  • 12:09 What is a memoir? How is it different than autobiography?

How is it different than a blog post?

In a blog, your thoughts, stories, and epiphanies are instantly broadcast.  There is little editing or rewriting or craft.  Readers comment or criticize just as quickly.  While this is very exhilarating, it can also distract, limit, and interrupt the serious memoirist.

Blogs are great to jump-start a writer, to float ideas, gather an audience, and dash off daily stories or insights. But you’ll find that if you collect all of your blog posts together, they do not equal a book or a memoir.  They are pieces, not a whole For that, time and real reflection is required.  Memoir is a craf, not a momentary realization. It builds chapter by chapter with an organizing intelligence always aware of the big picture.

Even thought Brenda has a blog and write regularly for the Huffington Post, she advises her students when they have an idea: Write first, blog later.

Link to Interview Highlights:

  • 18:36 What is a misery memoir? A memoir must offer the reader a gift or lesson, a payoff, and not be a gripe session.
  • 20:00 What is a difference between a blog and memoir? A blog is a slice of life and window that doesn’t connect to anything else unless  you have a themed blog.  A blog is a one-sided conversation with a stranger.

How is it different than a personal journal?

(Note: Brenda writes about a personal journal. Note that a personal journal is the source of a memoir and is not the same as a memoi).

Whether you’re journaling about loss, death, illness, divorce or any other painful events that both detour and yet shape our lives, keeping field notes and journals or the raw, unprocessed pain can become the touchstone for your final well-crafted memoir. Writing a memoir can help heal our trauma.

When we do the hard work of understanding the painful events of our own lives, we do not simply pass on the pain.  We create something of service to others.  We tell stories of the dark side of the moon, the e

How do you know if your story is worth telling?

Sarah Jane notes that some of the biggest inner critics she’s reckoned with in helping her authors are the ones that say:

  • You don’t have a good enough story
  • You don’t write easily
  • Your grammar sucks, and so does your punctuation
  • You don’t have enough time.
  • Fill in the blank with your own fears

Sarah Jane encourages writers to always answer #5, Fill in the blank, because the greatest challenge to writing is fear.  As Sarah Jane tells her clients, having courage doesn’t mean you aren’t afraid.  On the contrary, courage means doing whatever it is, despite your fear. P31

Link to Interview Highlights:

  • 23:01 How do you know that your life story is worth telling? Every person has a story to tell about their life and every person is worth writing about.

What is the best process to follow if you want to write a book?

Where is the best place to start?

The memoirist must always find a way to begin her story, but memory is never chronological.  So as Sara Jane advises her authors, “Start anywhere. Because no matter where you start, you’ll end up where you’re meant to be.”  You might not have realized it yet, but your journey has already begun.  Maybe you haven’t written in down, yet you’ve been telling stories most of your life.  Not, you just need to make the transition from your head to your hand”. P6

Make sure to check out Brenda’s book here:

More on Brenda’s book: “Your Life as a Book”



What is the best process to use?

More important than where to start is discovering your writing process and how you learn about the world.  Because that will determine how you can create a book about your life.  In teaching and working with writers, we’ve discovered that each person has a different process and that a writer may or may not be aware of her process.

Every writer has different triggers, muses, and ways of knowing their worlds.  You’ll have a head start on your book if you can figure out how you’ve learned you life lessons.  Through illness? Through travel and play? Through the natural world and animals? Through trauma and drama?  Through reach? Intimacy? Relationships? Work? Search for roots? Spiritual search?

Identifying your process will help you more consciously create your life story.  For many writers, it is only by writing their life story that they begin to see the patterns of how they process and learn about life.

And whatever your process, never forget your audience.  This is where the craft comes in.  When you make meaning of what might, at the time, seem senseless, it keeps the reader involved—we can hardly wait to experience what the writer will learn next.  So the plot of any memoir is not just “What happens next?”.  It’s what more you’ve discovered about yourself and the world around you. P9-10

What process did Brenda use in writing her books?

  • What is high level process: Sticky notes, Diagram your life, break into themes, writing/changing order, etc.

Link to Interview Highlights:

  • 31:13 What are the big steps in the process? Where should you start? Brenda shows the sticky notes and process she used for a recent book “I Want to be Left Behind” that includes sticky notes. 
  • 38:50 How do you know what to distill and cut from your story? 39:40 How do you come up with a pattern?

Do you have to write in chronological order?

  • VIDEO HYPERLINK TO INTEVIEW: 13:22 Arc of story for a biography and a memoir- Memoirs don’t have to follow a chronology.

What does arc of a story mean?  What does it mean in the context of a memoir?

Agents and editors are always asking authors “What is your life story’s narrative arc?” We’ve both found that many memoirists have no idea how to shape their story with this forward movement and overarching structure.  Many writers are just so happy to get their lives down on the page in some semblance of order that they don’t understand that the reader has the same expectations of a memoir that they do of a good novel: a dynamic plot, character development, and captivating scenes.

Often we cannot really know the narrative arc while writing a first draft, but there are things to keep in mind:

  • The plot of any memoir is the evolution of the self through time and events
  • The main character of a memoir is the narrator (you!), but there are many other players in your life story. Develop them fully as characters.
  • Every chapter should have some organizing theme or turning point that adds dramatic and forward movement to the whole book. Just because “it happened” doesn’t mean it belongs in your story.
  • Frame each chapter with an underlying theme or thread.

Resource: YOU TUBE BOOK LAUNCH at HUGO HOUSE for YOUR LIFE IS A BOOK: Learn about narrative arc in a memoir and finding your mature narrator looking back at the younger self. P 23

What are different ways to tell the story (Themes, chronology, etc)?

When you create stories, they are always in search of an organizing principle, or narrative arc, often without our knowing.  Think of the scenes as quilt pieces in search of a pattern—what will became a story quilt.  Unless quilters begin with a design format, they know that sooner or later they’ll have enough pieces to figure one out.  When you write nonlinear scenes, a pattern may not be readily apparent, but you can sometimes sense a kind of organizing intelligence at work, or the hint of a pattern.  This is your subconscious, and you should trust it as you would a lifeline.

Who is connecting the dots? Every one of us has this hidden observer unconsciously tracking and remembering, and storing the scenes of our life.  The memoirist is always in partnership with that hidden observer, and the trick of a memoir is to render subconscious observations in a conscious way. P15-16

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.  So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future”—Steve Jobs, Stanford University commencement speech.

All of these elements are threads that you can weave throughout your memoir.  If your memoir doesn’t have enough of them, it will lack relevance and certainly not appeal to as wide as an audience as you would like. P19

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Class
  • Culture
  • Religion
  • Location
  • Food
  • Sex

“ The memoir multiples creates a million little connections, threading an otherwise fragmented postmodern world with the narrative of human meaning”- Gutkind, L. (2008). Keep it real: Everything you need to know about researching and writing creative nonfiction. New York: W.W. Norton.

How do you find your voice? What are different voices?

Resources: MP3 Finding your voice by Brenda Peterson:

Link to Interview Highlights:

  • 2:39 What was Brenda saying to herself about herself in her memoir? Brenda shifted her memoir from a voice of a spiritual life with animals to becoming an animal and writing from that perspective. BONUS: We get to hear from her spirit animals in the show or have technical difficulties. I like to imagine them as animals 🙂
  • 6:04 How do you find your voice? Brenda shares how developing your voice takes a life time. Brenda describes how she writes with a singer’s voice.

Prompts to use:

During the writing process, it may help to jump start your creative juices with some prompts. Prompts help you get you writing quickly.  Check out a blog post written by Brenda Peterson and Sara Jane Freymann on some prompts.

Read more:

What version of the truth do you tell?

Brenda shares some ideas on how you tell the truth in your memoir and how to deal with your family members who do not like your version of your family story.

Link to Interview Highlights:

  • 41:39 How do you deal with families who are unhappy with your version of your family story?
  • 43:15 How do you deal with truth and accurately telling very old stories that you don’t recall exactly?

Writing tips on Writing a memoir

5 Questions to ask yourself:

One of the challenges of all writers is to commit to writing.  Creating a safe place and structure are key in helping you focus on writing each day.  Here are 5 questions from Brenda that you can ask yourself that will help in establishing your groove:

  • What is your best time of day to write? When are you most alert and present? Keep a chart of these times and write them.
  • Where is your most creative space to write? Do you need “a place of your own”?
  • Who can support you as a kind of bodyguard to keep your writing time sacred? Your partner? A friend? Siri?
  • How long can you go without reading a text, checking e-mail, or answering a phone? How much anxiety do you feel when you unplug? Can you ease that somehow?
  • How will you reward yourself in small and simple ways when you succeed in creating writing time and space?

Link to Interview Highlights:

  • 47:17 Spiritual memoirs: Tips. Focus on the ?’s not the answers. Focus on the journey not the destination. Focus on people who inspired and taught you not necessarily what you are teaching.  You are a doorway to other wisdom and a listener.
  • 47:45 EAVESDROPPING: A fun exercise from the book to find your own voice.

Resources: How to get writing?

  • Fire it UP with CJ: Tips on procrastination from Creative Coach:


  • Writing tips from Spiritual writer Dan Milliman

  • Being focused at work:

Mindfulness Expert (Sharon Salzberg)

Sylvia Boorstein- Meditaiton Teacher- Ideas to productively distract yourself.

Overcoming writer’s block



Resource: Writing Memoir Tips and Exercises

Why write a memoir?

When you tell your story, an extraordinary universe is revealed.  As a mature person encountering a younger self, you change. Past experiences, even poignant ones, enrich the present, because you are not simply observing and reporting-you are participating in reliving.  If you’ve ever had any doubts about your life’s true purpose, writing your story will help you discover it  (p-5)

Hyperlinks to Interview: Why write a memoir:

  • 1:06 How memoirs can help you get clear with your purpose? Growing your life spiritually and psychology.
  • 1:36 Why write a memoir? A memoir helps you gain perspective on your life.
  • 7:59 What will you discover after you finish a memoir? Brenda describes how writing has helped others become kinder, more self-aware, more spiritual, happier and healthier. In writing a memoir, you will know yourself from witnessing yourself and others from a detached perspective.
  • 25:35 Brenda shares two incredible stories about how some of her clients have had physically healing through writing a memoir.
  • 27:01 CJ has a major aha about a memoir linking it to her spiritual wisdom.

Resources: The benefits of writing a memoir: