I’ve been thinking about writing a memoir about getting married for the first time at age 62. Most days I don’t make it a
priority, though, so when I received a copy of How to Write A Memoir in 30 Days, written by Roberta Temes, PhD and
published by Reader’s Digest, I was eager to try the exercises before I reviewed it. For the first nineteen days I thoroughly
enjoyed the writing exercises and prompts. They helped me look at old issues and brought new energy to the project. But I
wondered how my childhood memories would help me with a memoir about a current relationship that had only begun three
years earlier. The exercises brought up the past and my prospective memoir focuses on the present.
When I got to Day 20, I read, “Today is the day you will gather all you have written and organize your writing to create what
is called a narrative arc…. Please print out everything you have written since Day 1 and then add any blog or personal journal
entries you may have written that are relevant to the memoir.” I could not imagine doing this in one day. I wanted to ask the
author several things, and I’m sharing her answers in the Q & A below.
LG: I like that you approach memoir as a tool for helping writers resolve issues. How did you develop your interest in memoir?
RT: For many decades I wrote during evenings and weekends while on weekdays I put my Ph.D. in Psychology to use by
treating psychotherapy clients.
Those years taught me that you can make sense of your life, and improve your mental health, by talking/writing about
memories. I’m comfortable with strong feelings and know how to help folks access those feelings.
LG: How do you suggest writers deal with concerns about sharing stories of living people and/or private matters?
RT: Please deal with those matters very carefully. As you know, it’s the private matters and dramatic details that make your
memoir a best-seller. Nobody wants to read about a perfect family and perfect life. It’s conflict that keeps the reader turning
the pages of your book. High drama makes a best-seller.
So, what to do about secrets? First, talk to the people whom you think may object and tell them your intention. I’ve worked
with several writers who, upon speaking to their relatives, learned that those folks were relieved to know that they could
finally come clean. They were okay with letting the truth be known.
Next, if your family is not ready for full revelation ask if they might agree to simply changing some names and some identifying
characteristics. If that doesn’t work go ahead and write your book anyway. Don’t let that hold you up. In the time it takes
you to finish your manuscript they may reconsider. People like to read about themselves even if it’s not always flattering and
sometimes they just need more time to get accustomed to the idea.
If even that fails you can wait until you outlive everyone involved; you can work with your editor to change your memoir to a
novel; or you can go ahead and publish anyway and prepare to take the repercussions.
LG: If someone wants to write about a recent event, how would you suggest they use the exercises that take them into the
RT: All present day choices and decisions you make, and all present day actions you take, reflect your past experiences. Your
behavior is based upon the sum of all the events of your life and your reactions to those events. Exploring your past, through
the exercises in my book, How to Write Your Memoir in 30 Days, helps you figure out how past incidents influence you today.
LG: This is probably true, yet many of my responses didn’t have any clear relationship to my marriage. You’ve given me a lot
to think about, though, and I enjoyed the exercises. Do you really think a person can write a memoir in 30 days or will the final
11 chapters of your book take longer?
RT: Yes, you can complete your memoir in 30 days. Or, more specifically, by following 30 writing tasks. Some writers prefer to
do their writing every other day, others may work only on weekends. If you write each day you will be finished at 30 days. At
that point your book will be a coherent story that exemplifies your life. If you wish to publish that book you might need to
engage editorial help and you would be wise to attend writing workshops where other memoirists could critique your writing
and offer suggestions.
LG: I’m relieved to hear that you get a draft in 30 days rather than a finished product. What are some of your favorite
RT: Baker, RussellGrowing Up this is a coming of age story
Didion, Joan The Year of Magical Thinking this is a bereavement reflection
Gornick, Vivian Fierce Attachments a mother and daughter drama
McBride, James The Color of Water race and identity defined within a family
Walls, Jeanette The Glass Castle growing up in a most dysfunctional family
These are just a few of the many memoirs that I heartily endorse. It is always a privilege to read someone’s story. I enjoy
romantic memoirs, often about couples who dated when they were young but spent decades married to other people and then
reconnect and fall in love again. I like tell-all memoirs, where secrets are revealed and I applaud authors who write illness
memoirs which permit the reader to accompany the author through diagnosis, treatment and then either triumph or tragedy.
LG: You listed excellent choices. Thanks. How did you find your publisher?
RT: I went through the usual steps that every published writer must follow. I outlined my book and then wrote a thorough
book proposal. When the proposal was satisfactory I sent it to Janet Rosen, my literary agent who is at Sheree Bykofsky’s
agency. Janet shopped it around and Reader’s Digest was the first publisher to be interested in acquiring it. And they did a
great job, so I’m glad I went with them.
LG: What are you working on now and how can people learn more about your services?
RT: I am editing several memoirs - one is written by a woman who was a child in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement,
another is by a recently retired attorney who is writing about his most interesting cases and what he has learned from them,
and another is by a woman who wants the world to know about her recovery from a rare illness.
My website, www.MemoirClassOnLine.com explains how I work- it’s all by email and the occasional phone session. I encourage
your readers to contact me even if they are not ready to edit their book but just need some help with a particular issue. The
best way to reach me is at email@example.com.
And, I still devote one day each week to my psychotherapy practice where I use alternative mental health treatments, usually
hypnosis and/or tapping.
You can access all the books I’ve written on my Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/author/robertatemes
Thanks for sharing your approach to memoir. The ones you’re editing right now sound interesting. I agree that as a therapist,
you bring an important perspective to the memory. I wish you all the best as you help people tell their stories.
Love the Act of Writing
An interview with Marian Calabro by B. Lynn Goodwin
LG: . Tell us about your writing history. How did you get started as a writer?
MC: I can’t remember not writing, even though the nuns at my grade school in the 1960s certainly didn’t teach or encourage creative writing. They gave
me a great foundation in grammar, though! On my own, I wrote a newsletter for my Girl Scout troop and another for my family. The latter was one of the
few things that made my mother helpless with laughter. (She was a serious working mom, a secretary. Dad was a musician. We weren’t rich.) I was
published in American Girl, the national Girl Scout magazine, at age 11. Got into poetry, music, and theater as a teen. Majored in English at Rutgers. Went
into book publishing in Manhattan, writing catalogs and promotional copy. Segued to freelance corporate communications writing and book writing in my
early 30s. For the latter, I focused on nonfiction history for young adults (YAs).
LG: What is your niche? Can you tell us how you got into this kind of writing?
MC: As a working writer, my niche is company histories. I’ve written anniversary books commissioned by The Clorox Company, The Pep Boys, Annin
Flagmakers, and more than a dozen other clients. This work, which I began in my 40s, draws on all skills I developed to that point. I enjoy all the
interviewing, research, and creativity involved in their structure. It’s a great fit for me, since I’m hugely interested in people on the job-think Studs Terkel’s
This niche blossomed to the point where I founded a corporate history publishing company in 2004. We’re small but surprisingly busy. My husband and I
write about half of our books. We subcontract others to professional authors, and call on freelance art directors and editors as needed. Our business has
branched out to websites and consulting. We wear a lot of hats.
I liked writing young adult books, too, but I simply couldn’t make a living at it. Very few YA nonfiction authors can. My best-known YA is The Perilous
Journey of the Donner Party, published by Clarion Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin. It recently went out of print after 15 years, a honorable run.
So my day job involves corporate histories. At nights and on weekends, I lead two creative writing groups using the Amherst Writers & Artists method. I
also use the AWA method in community education workshops. (I became certified as a leader in 2004 and was fortunately to train directly with AWA
founder Pat Schneider.) In my groups I write poetry and nonfiction, and play around with a novel. I also cycle in and out of playwriting. I love that the
most, but it’s also the toughest genre. The creative writing has loosened up my business writing and made it more colorful and readable-at least I think and
LG: If you could write any book you wanted, what would it be about and who would be your ideal publisher?
MC: Interesting question. I’d love to write a book about the children of the Donner Party, but this time with a creative nonfiction approach. Maybe each
chapter would be written from the point of view of a different adolescent. Ideal publisher would be Clarion again, or Random House, or one of the
mainstream houses. I’ve also grappled with a full-length play for years that I should probably just rewrite as a novel.
LG: What’s most difficult about working with other writers?
That’s not an issue in my workshops, because the Amherst Method respects and welcomes all voices.
MC: On the corporate history side, I’ve been the editor and publisher on a project or two where I had some differences with the authors I hired. They
couldn’t let go of what I call “journo-tude.” Corporate histories fall into the public relations category. To write them, you have to be 100% comfortable
with that fact. By instinct and training, dyed-in-the-wool journalists are uncomfortable writing anything that approaches PR.
LG: What do you consider your biggest success?
MC: First, that I’ve earned a decent living as a writer. Second, my Donner Party book. It reads like a novel, yet everything in it is factual. Not one word of
dialogue or observation is fabricated; the quotes come from the writings of the survivors. The book is in thousands of public and school libraries. Third, the
fact that my workshops have launched many other writers, especially adults who have always wanted to write.
LG: What advice would you give to writers who want to get published?
MC: Buy a thick suit of armor. Love the act of writing, because the publishing process has gotten brutal. If writing itself doesn’t provide deep satisfaction,
publishing won’t. Also, take agents with a grain of salt. They’re not a silver bullet. Ultimately they work for publishers, not for authors. Understand the
different types of editing. Respect editors. A good editor can do more you than almost any other publishing professional. Authors who resist editing usually
do so at their peril.
LG: What principles guide your writing?
MC: Go deeper. Write clearly. I adore clean, clear sentences. My hero is E. B. White - he wrote essays, letters, children’s books, and poetry, and he wrote
them all well.
LG: Excellent principles! Where/how can readers learn more about you?
MC: The best starting point is http://www.mariancalabro.com. From there you can hop over to my blog, where I post a writing exercise every week and
also review plays, books, and the occasional movie. That site also has a link to http://corporatehistory.net. As a corporate historian, I’m on Instagram and
Twitter. The handle in both those places is @corphistory.
Obviously Marian Calabro is an accomplished, skilled writer, editor, and teacher. She has an extensive resume. She offers a variety of services. Read about
them on her website.
Thank you so much for introducing yourself to Writer Advice readers and sharing your experience and knowledge with us, Marian.
Ten Tips from Veteran Authors
If you had a chance to share a dozen tips from veteran authors, whom would you select and what would you hope they might say? I went to the
Aerogramme Writer’s Studio, which I found through a Google search. This advice comes from experienced writers with a message to share.
How did I pick the dozen whose work I’m sharing? I like the author, the message, or both. This is highly subjective. As I tell my writing clients, keep what’s
useful and disregard the rest.
Want to let me know whose advice you liked best and why? Please e-mail Lgood67334 AT Comcast DOT net. I’d love to hear from you.
“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There
will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that - but you are the only you.” ― Neil Gaiman
“I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500. There are three things that are important: First, if you want to write,
you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you. Where you just put down what you think about life, what you think
about things, what you think is fair and what you think is unfair. And second, you need to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. It’s the great
writers who teach us how to write. The third thing is to write. Just write a little bit every day. Even if it’s for only half an hour - write, write, write.” ―
“I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they “don’t have time to read.” This is
like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.” ― Stephen King
“Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth,
you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have
painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.” ― Anne Lamott
“Advice to young writers who want to get ahead without any annoying delays: don’t write about Man, write about a man.” ― E.B. White
Joyce Carol Oates
“Be daring, take on anything. Don’t labor over little cameo works in which every word is to be perfect. Technique holds a reader from sentence to
sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.” ― Joyce Carol Oates
“You either have to write or you shouldn’t be writing. That’s all.” ― Joss Whedon
“Advice to young writers? Always the same advice: learn to trust our own judgment, learn inner independence, learn to trust that time will sort the good
from the bad - including your own bad.” ― Doris Lessing
“Whenever I’m asked what advice I have for young writers, I always say that the first thing is to read, and to read a lot. The second thing is to write. And
the third thing, which I think is absolutely vital, is to tell stories and listen closely to the stories you’re being told.” ― John Green
“Write. Start writing today. Start writing right now. Don’t write it right, just write it -and then make it right later. Give yourself the mental freedom to enjoy
the process, because the process of writing is a long one. Be wary of “writing rules” and advice. Do it your way.” ― Tara Moss
Tell me which one you like best and why. I’d be interested in your opinion. Thanks for considering it.
Can You Write a Memoir in 30 Days?