Sharon Lippincott: There is No Right Way to Write Your Memoir

Sharon M. Lippincott
Book Review: The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing: How to Transform Memories into Meaningful Stories
Sharon M. Lippincott
Lighthouse Point Press, 2007
Softcover, 276 pages, with bibliography and index


This book is on my reading guide at amazon.com.

Computer or pencil and paper? Detailed plan project or a story idea? Notes in a file folder or an index-card box? A complete life history or a few key stories?

"There is no 'right' way to do things," writes Sharon Lippincott, "but there are ways of making your work easier to understand and more interesting to read. All planning and editing guidelines are optional. Use the ones that make sense and appeal to you and ignore the rest."
A clear sense of purpose, rather than planning, should drive your writing. Planning is good but it is not a substitute for writing. At minimum, she suggests you select a framework for your memoir so you will know to whom you are writing, what effect you want from your writing, and how best to achieve that effect. Options for your framework include chronological, vignette, thematic, and scrapbook.
The basic journalism techniques of who, when, where, what, why and how will help you make your key points. Throw in some dialogue, humor, time travel and photos and you’re on your way.

“A few lines of dialogue pull readers right into the heart of a story. Even a couple of lines can make it sizzle.”

Other techniques she covers include:
  • Write without stopping. Don’t edit along the way for spelling, grammar, or accuracy. Just write.
  • Write in the first person. This is not egotistical or self-centered. And it avoids confusion.
  • Write like you talk. It gives a natural tone to your stories and is like telling a story to a friend.
  • Write like a child. This means with “wonder and enthusiasm, not childish language.”
  • After you’ve finished the first draft let it rest for a while and then go back to polish the details.
In her chapter on writing about secrets and shadows, she asks you to consider whether you have the right to tell the dark and private stories and whether exposing the secrets will harm relationships among family and friends. Writing about the dark side can help you learn about yourself, help in healing, give depth to your stories, and inspire or teach. She suggests telling your stories to a trusted friend and possibly recasting your written stories out of respect for those involved. Many times, less is better. Unless you are writing a tell-all book about a celebrity, it is better to keep some things private.

Similarly, on stories that wounded you, she says to write them and decide later whether to publish them. If you publish them be sure to tell about your feelings rather than inflict punishment on others. Or, write the stories and then burn them. You have the constitutional right in the United States to write anything you want, as long as it’s not libelous. Using good judgment is preferred to harming others. You can tell the truth, but not all the truth is worth telling.

Sharon Lippincott is the author of two nonfiction books and hundreds of short stories, vignettes, essays, blog posts and articles. She is a writing coach and teaches at Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes at Carnegie Mellon University. She is co-founder of the Life Writers Forum on YahooGroups and sits on the board of the National Association of Memoir Writers. She may be reached at sharonlippincott.com.

Photo courtesy Sharon Lippincott.

Where are you on your memoir-writing journey? Tell us how you went from planning to writing and how it benefited your results. Select comments below or send an email.

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