Some of What I Learned at the Desert Nights Rising Stars Conference – Seven Secrets to Writing Memoir – and more

Seven Secrets to a Successful Memoir – and more

My thoughts – Desert Nights Rising Stars Writers Conference

Arizona State University – Spring 2013


Timing is everything, as they say and the timing at Desert Nights Rising Stars could not have been better for me.  By sheer coincidence the DNRS move this year to more memoir and creative non-fiction arrived in the wake of my second memoir.  Here are Seven Secrets to this genre I discovered at the conference, and a few more tips – including some of my own.

Have you ever wondered what happens at DNRS conference weekend behind the vastness of Old Main?  The answer is simple:  invaluable guidelines on writing prose, demonstrations on how to write memorable dialog, lists of quality books to read, demonstrations on editing, thoughts on seeing images clearly to enhance descriptions, encouragement about being critiqued, and so much more.  I learned too that I must show immersion in my memoir and fine tune my writing with some fictional techniques.

The positive and upbeat attitude of the faculty reinforced for me that there is a place for all writers in this writing life.  Here is an elaboration of my notes on memoir from that weekend.


Be Open to New Ideas

The most important thing you can capture in your research is how to process your memoir.  Start with little chunks.  Write from memory, from interviews, from reflections on old photos and revisited conversations.  I write with fierce abandon initially and use these prompting methods.  This plan allows me to enjoy building my story.  Start with rhetorical questions you can come back to periodically.  With a journal I find “morning pages” helpful.  Try these:

  • What am I willing to share?
  • What if?
  • Who will I tell?
  • How will I tell it?
  • How will I get to the truth?
  • Who tells me not to share my story?
  • Do I own it?
  • Is my story too dangerous to tell now?
  • Am I willing to journal first and then share?


Live the Whole Truth

Remember this is your version of the truth.  Write for a sense of discovery too.  You do not need a timeline and are not limited to just what happened.  Your philosophy about these experiences, and your lessons learned, are valuable parts of your memoir.  You are the expert and have wisdom and knowledge in many areas.

Do not be afraid of your truth and lose your power.  Do not change your story.  Remember your truth is stronger than fiction.  There is power in your honesty.  Take an unflinching look at your life and your experiences to catapult your work to a new level.  Do not be afraid to step out of memoir to fiction if you want to experiment with your stories, but be sure you do not lose what you want to say.

I feel freer in my second memoir than with the first.  It is an unbelievable experience for me to tell my truth about the violence and trauma in my story and have the encouragement I have received from my critique group.


The Seven Secrets

  1. When you tell
    1. Take time to contemplate that decision and be sure you are ready.
    2. Allow the distance you need from a traumatic event or the insight required for a galvanizing experience.  Do not portray yourself as the victim.   I waited five years with my first memoir due to grief and loss and 10 years with the second one due to post-traumatic stress recovery from violence.
    3. Step back and give the story and experience time to blossom into something that is worth sharing.
  2. How you tell
    1. Be sure the voice you choose is the best voice for the story.
    2. Consider your voice as a child or that of another family member or as the narrator.  I prefer first person as I feel that is my strongest voice and critical to my success.
  3. What sequence you use
    1. Look at the big picture and analyze your stories thoroughly.  A chronological format is not the best way to go with your memoir.  You need a hook in the beginning and an arc where the change takes place.
    2. Get the reader in quickly to the intensity of the prose.  My assault story leads in detail to my second memoir to advocate for women who have experienced violence.
  4. Where you end the breadth and span of time
    1. Remember a memoir is about a particular event or time in your life.  We can write many memoirs.  I am writing a second one now.  When asked what genre I write I respond with memoir and non-fiction.
    2. Memoir is not a life history or biography in chronological order.
  5. What amount of backstory you need to use
    1. Avoid the pitfall of being too close to the material and not seeing the flaws in your thinking or the unimportant items in your stories.
    2. Consider the areas of your past that are lessons learned.  Use events that have shaped who you are and what you are about to complement the points you are making with your memoir.
    3. Intersperse them in your main theme as threads.  I have used my past trauma and violence survival to show patterns, and my walk through recovery to show hope.  I view my life from many angles.
  6. Who is involved in your storyline
    1.  Acknowledge you understand others can help bind the work.
    2. Be able to forgive and look at the lessons learned.  With my second book on assault and survival with violent crime, I had a lot to forgive.  I address forgiveness in my spiritual journey chapter.
  7. Why you select a particular structure
    1. Write your memoir/ non-fiction in your unique way.  Invite your readers inside the story with a gripping theme to help move it along.
    2. Consider using quotes and other materials.  We have the experience in these incidents and we are the expert on the topic.  We have a right to tell our stories and see ourselves in our own light.
    3. Take your theme throughout the book and thread your ideas to keep it a page turner.  In my second book it is the PTS issue from violence and my spiritual transformation in recovery from PTS that sets it apart.


When Family is Involved

It is important to note that everyone reacts differently to physical descriptions of themselves.  So many of us fear the secrets that we know exist in our families and in our lives.  I know I did, but I also knew that the truth would set me free. I had to describe the enemy the way he was and not fear retaliation.  I had to tell my truth about love addiction and abuse.

Often, on so many levels, we are in denial of what happened in our lives.  Sibling rivalry does exist.  It is usually not seen because we are in the middle of the competition and it is all that we know.  This can be good fodder for a memoir.  Most family members want to be portrayed as a hero.  This writing at times is going to be difficult, so just do your best.

Your imagination can fail you, so tell your story true to you.  Do not be concerned about bitterness and anger, just confess what you know and forgive yourself and others along the way.  There will be a moral imperative – somebody was deeply wronged somewhere in your family history.  That may be the story to tell.  Give yourself permission to tell it from your perspective.

Inciting events need to be in your story.  Consider fictional techniques such as scene and dialogue, plot and setting descriptions to enhance your work.  Go deep to bring them to us in memoir form.  Have empathy for all the characters and add some humor in there too.  Remember, you are not the victim of your story.

Now that you have moved away to write and given yourself some space and permission, tell the story and share the experiences the way you want to give us your work.  Be the heroine or hero in your pain or joy and triumph in the end.  Write with your mind and your heart.  Ask yourself what voice leads your truth.  Good luck and happy writing.

It is with much gratitude I say thank you to both Marylee MacDonald ( ) and Bhira Blackhaus ( for their generosity as speakers at this conference.  I have shared some of their ideas in this piece.  I appreciate the insights they gave and the opportunities they offered us.  We learned from them.


Patricia L. Brooks, author, speaker, consultant, educator 480-250-5556