Thursday, June 16, 2011

5 Tips for Writing Powerful, Short Memoir

Hey everybody,

Meet Josh Medsker. Josh taught zine-making and blogging at the University of Texas and Adelphi University, and is currently a writing instructor at LaGaurdia Community College in Queens NY, Passaic County Community College in Patterson NJ, and Kean University in Union NJ. He has written for many newspapers and magazines, and has graciously agreed to share his knowledge on the art of writing the short memoir, here at Legs! Give Josh's blog a look-see and a follow! He is also on facebook and twitter!

5 Tips for Writing Powerful Short Memoir
by Josh Medsker

Writing memoirs is tricky. The fact that something interesting happened to you doesn’t mean that people will want to read it. That is where your craft comes in. I have found that these tips were especially helpful.

Find a subject with a lot of action

When writing short memoirs, it’s very important to focus in on a time in your life that was particularly eventful. This doesn’t necessarily mean action movie-style events. Make sure that there is a strong emotional pull, if not life-changing outside factors. No one wants to read about your Sunday afternoon musings on the meaning of life.

Be specific and give details

Poet Michael McClure has said that what is the most personal is also the most universal. In order to pull off a successful piece of personal writing, you will have to get down and dirty, so to speak. Give street names of where things happened, give praise and blame to those who deserve it, and name names. If you don’t feel comfortable using people’s real names in your work, you can change them in further drafts. It is helpful, however, to write that first version with the real names in. It will keep the emotions right on the surface for you. Notice how you feel as you write. If you get caught up in the writing and feel the emotional pull, your readers probably will too.

Keep in mind that there is a certain amount of fiction in memoir writing

Now, I’m not talking about pulling a James Frey and making stuff up, but there is a certain amount of fictionalizing that goes on when you write memoirs. You aren’t going to remember the exact conversation you had with your mom when you joined the army, but with fiction tools like dialogue and suspense, you can recreate the same emotions.

Keep it short

One of my writing teachers, the poet Ellen Hagan, passed this idea on to me. She suggested keeping the first draft short. Three pages and no more. That way, you say what you need to say, and get out. The action of the story should take place within 48 hours.

Look for that turning point

Another good tip Ellen gave me is to look for the emotional turning point. Give the writing a definite beginning, middle, and end--with the turning point roughly two-thirds of the way through. In order to create this turning point, you will have to mine your memories of the event for the most powerful feelings, and see where things started to change for you. I wrote an emotionally draining piece about the sudden death of my cat, Louis. The teary phone call to my wife, and my admitting that he was gone was the turning point in the story. It’s the climax, the main point of the story. It will be uncomfortable for you, but as I said before, if you don’t convey true emotions in the piece, don’t expect to move your readers.

Josh Medsker has had memoirs published in several publications, including: At The Edge and We’ll Never Have Paris. He has also worked as a manuscript reader for the literary magazine Memoir (and), and has taught memoir writing to former prisoners at The Fortune Society in New York City. These students’ memoirs were collected in a forthcoming sister publication of Memoir (and) entitled Memoir: A Noun.


  1. Great tips! Thank you for sharing!! :)

    ~ Alena

  2. of course! and thanks!-josh

  3. I love these steps! I think they all really work too, in this last year my education about writing has grown and I hope it keeps getting better:-D

  4. debster, thank you! I love comments! :D

  5. thank you so much for the tips, this helped me a whole lot!



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