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How to Write a Memoir – An Interview with Libby Atwater, Part 1

Here’s a recent discussion we had with Libby Atwater who began telling people’s stories professionally after a career in education. As a writer and editor, she has worked for individuals, families, businesses, nonprofits, universities, and community newspapers. Tales from her life have been published in several anthologies. Her memoir What Lies Within covers her first twenty-one years. We asked her about her story and about learning how to write a memoir

Denis Ledoux: How and why did you choose to write this memoir?
Libby Atwater: I wanted to tell the story of my early years for a long time to show others that you can meet adversity and overcome it. My tale is one of resilience, and I wanted it to be a positive experience for readers.
I also began writing to prove someone wrong. An editor had told me I was a good “technical” writer and suggested I stick to what I do best. I was insulted and thought “I’ll show her.” I think I did. Or, perhaps in the process of showing her I learned how to write a memoir.

DL: How did writing a memoir “work” for you. Describe the process you used as you started to write and then how did you keep going? How long did it take you to learn how to write a memoir and how to write your book?
LA: I began writing my memoir when I joined an Association of Personal Historians online memoir-writing group in late 2003. [DL: theAPH has since been dissolved.] The instructor assigned topics on which to write. Since it was December, the topic was holidays. I continued writing on assigned topics until the group dissolved about eleven months after it began. Just about that time, I found my birth family (I was 56 ½), and I was so overwhelmed that I set my memoir aside. It was so hard to write about the family I grew up in while getting to know the family in which I was born.
I started writing again in 2007 when I attended a class in Santa Barbara, California. We took turns reading parts of our memoirs aloud, and the teacher encouraged me to continue. I fit my own writing between client projects until my husband asked, “When are you going to finish your book?” He gave me the incentive to complete it, which I did in 2012. It took ten months for production, and I published it in 2013—ten years after I started. That’s how I learned how to write a memoir!

DL: The role of memoir—writing and reading—in your life.
LA: I have been an avid reader since childhood. When I became a personal historian in 1997, I began reading memoirs, autobiographies and biographies to see how they were structured. They gave me ideas how to write and put together my clients’ stories and my own. Some of my favorite memoirs are The Color of Water by James McBride, Growing Up and The Good Times by Russell Baker, The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper, and The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. All of these dealt with the authors’ childhoods, and my memoir focused on my first twenty-one years.

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DL: Did you have a theme when you started to write or did this come through the writing?
LA: I did not identify my theme, which was resilience. One of my early reviewers said it clearly came through in the writing.

DL: How have you dealt with painful (or simply sad) memories?
LA: I wrote the painful chapters first because I had tried to write them for years. They always sounded angry, and I did not want that tone. I wrote and rewrote them until I found my voice. While writing these parts, I would sometimes cry or become depressed afterwards. To counter this, I took long walks with my husband and dogs. Fresh air and exercise seemed to renew my spirit and give me the strength to continue.
I think I had a more difficult time writing the happy memories. That sounds ironic, but writing about the happy times was often bittersweet. It’s not easy to learn how to write a memoir—by a long shot!

DL: In your writing life, is there a success trait you have discerned for the process of writing, in learning how to write a memoir? That is, are there best practices you would recommend to writers that would facilitate completing her/his memoir? EG. working on schedule, quitting not being an option, external physical or emotional support from someone, etc.
LA: I recommend that every writer create a basic outline of his/her memoir, do the MemoryList, and set up a schedule. Truthfully, I don’t always follow that advice. I do have a basic outline, which I revise as I work, but I write in spurts. I know I’d be more productive if I scheduled writing time each day, especially because I love the process and become completely lost in my own world when I’m writing. I have become more disciplined in the past year.
I also think it is good to participate in a writing group. I’ve been a member of several, and these groups offer feedback and give perspective to my work. I highly recommend a writing buddy if no group is available.

DL: What makes for a successful memoir? How do you now assess the success of your memoir? In other words, when did you reap the rewards of knowing how to write a memoir?
LA: If one has a good story to tell and finds a way to tell it that engages readers, the memoir is successful. I have received a great deal of positive feedback, mostly from people who can identify with parts of my story, such as places, events, and the period about which it was written. Others are amazed that I’m “normal” after my experiences as a child and adolescent. They don’t realize that the events of my youth left scars that I have worked hard to subdue through the years.

DL: How have you dealt with self-doubt?
LA: By looking at me, you would not guess that I’m not the most confident person. I am tenacious. If I feel I can do better, I will try. With this memoir, the first in a series of four, I told myself I did the best I could. Now the challenge is to write the others.

The second part of this interview is here. Please join us.

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