From the Blog

Apprenticed to Venus

As Director of CAS I want to tell you why I, who have nurtured so many other memoirs to publication, finally felt free to write my own memoir about my mentor, Anaïs Nin, and why it took me so long to address the subject and begin the book.

What follows is the preface that I wrote for the opening of Apprenticed to Venus to be published July 11, 2017 by Arcade. It was cut from the final edit of the book for reasons of length. I put it here because I suspect I am not the only diarist to feel repulsed upon reading the outpourings of a younger self.



Hawaii, 2006

I don’t know how the L.A. Times journalist got my phone number at the remote Hawaii house I co-owned. She had interrupted my prep for a filmmaking class I was teaching that summer for the university in Hilo.

“I’m calling you because Anaïs Nin’s husband Rupert Pole died. I understand that you were Nin’s friend and protégé. You and she wrote The New Diary.

“No, that’s a mistake on Amazon. I wrote that book. She just wrote the preface.”

“Whatever, you worked together. You were also friends with Rupert, so I was hoping you’d comment…”

I was dumbstruck. Not by news of Rupert’s death (he’d had several strokes) but because it meant – after 42 years – I was finally free from my pledge to Anaïs that I would hide her secrets involving him forever.

“No one can keep a secret forever.” She’d given me a canny smile. “You need only keep silent until Rupert dies.”

Now, some thirty years after her death, Rupert had died. Now this journalist was phoning, now I was the age Anaïs had been when I’d made my vow. Long after the biographers, who never knew her, had unearthed her dirt. Could this young journalist think there was still something worth digging for? I threw her a bone, quickly hung up, and sat in a muddle, unmoving, staring at the surf snaking along the shore.

In the following months, as I drove to U.H. Hilo’s small campus to teach, snippets from my years as Anaïs’ accomplice buzzed and nipped at me. They gave me an itch to look inside my own diaries written between 1962 and ‘76, when Anaïs was my mentor in the realm of the senses.

When I got back to my home in Los Angeles, I climbed a stepladder to reach the high shelf where my diaries from the ‘60’s and 70’s moldered. I had written those diaries for my older self to read, and now I was my older self. With maturity, though, I’d developed a prudishness that disowned the young woman who had scribbled those journals. As I hoisted down a Hippyish handmade volume with wooden-covers, I dreaded what I’d find. Only a quarter of the way through that fervent diary I had to put it aside, nauseated.

Yet as the first decade of the 21st Century slid in its downward arc, I realized that I again needed my younger self’s passion and daring, needed to remember a time when material things mattered not at all, needed the hunger and inspiration that comes with exalting a mentor, deserved or not. Entangled as I had been with Anaïs, I would finally have to sort out her influence on my life. For me that meant, now that I could, setting down our intertwined stories: her divine seductiveness, her madcap ruses and countless deceptions, my too willing complicity, and the shared injury of father abandonment that had forged our bond as co-conspirators and seductresses.

So it was that I followed the pliant, fuzzy twine of memory, rather than the diary’s sharp shards, back into Anaïs’ silken web. In reveries, I felt again the touch of her cool fingers and heard the chime of her laughter, as we walked together in late afternoon, our figures, so similar, casting before us as long, Giacometti shadows. Once more, the angled sun in that century past caught the scar along her delicate ear and polished her silvery lids, as she whispered confidences to me, delivered like a kiss.


Remembering John Ferrone who died 4/10/2016

Anaïs Nin introduced me to John Ferrone, her Harcourt Brace Jovanovich editor, at her Silverlake, California house where she lived as the wife of Rupert Pole. John, a New Yorker, knew her other husband, Hugo Guiler, as well, and was privy to the secret of Anaïs’ double life. As one of the most grace-full men I have known, both in his manner and his movements, he was at ease in the world of sexual/emotional discretion. He’d lived the life of an undisguised gay man of 1950’s New York, and it was a world he negotiated with integrity and subtlety.

In 1978 when I published my first book The New Diary in hardbound, John made an offer to my publisher, Jeremy Tarcher, for Harcourt to acquire the paperback rights. Although he was contractually obligated to inform me of the offer, Tarcher without my knowledge rejected the Harcourt offer out of hand. When later I learned from John that he’d made the trade paperback offer while no one had told me, he was outraged. He was a genteel literary editor, a breed that has all but disappeared, a man of honor who pledged his impressive gifts to enhance the work of his authors and stay in the background. He was modest about the vast improvements he made in Anaïs Nin’s prose.

Anaïs, who most valued spontaneity in writing, once told me dismissively flicking her fingers, “Punctuation, grammar, that’s for editors.” John did far more than correct her unschooled grammar and punctuation, though. He highlighted the intelligence and emotional wisdom in her outpourings while giving her work an aesthetic subtlety it would otherwise lack.

Because of his commitment to make Anais’ writing shine in the best light, John’s relationship with Rupert became antagonistic after her death. Each man complained to me about the other. Rupert wanted to preserve Anais’ every word as she wrote it. He was working with John on Harcourt’s publication of her posthumous erotic work. John was dedicated to making her writing as honed as possible, which required cutting and shaping. They both loved her and her memory and, as with so many people who have loved her or her work, felt an almost irrational exclusive ownership of her.

Yet on another occasion I recall an evening when John and Rupert were as jovial as two teenage buddies together. I was then in my 30’s and working as President of Grand Central Films, a co-venture between Thames Television and an American production company. I wanted to option the Diaries as a network television mini-series. Since John was visiting L.A. and I then had an unlimited expense account, I invited John and Rupert to an expensive trendy restaurant near Paramount. They were adorable, each vying to be the most charming and witty, like competing beaus. Anaïs was gone, but her flirtatious spirit was with us that night.

In later years I would phone John when I visited New York and he would always make time to take me to lunch or dinner or, even better, cook for me. We both enjoyed literary gossip and swapping stories about Anaïs’ foibles and secrets. He was lonely after his partner died, and for such a reserved gentleman, warm and vulnerable when he talked about the importance – the centrality – of love in our lives.

I recall only one disagreement between John and myself; it was just a half-full/half empty difference in perspective. I had been admiring Anaïs’ tenacity in working on herself, in transforming herself from a neurotic, frustrated unpublished writer into a joyous woman who shared her hard-won success and wisdom with others. John bemoaned that Anaïs enjoyed the publication of her Diaries and her emotional equanimity so late in her life. “She only had a few years before knowledge of her cancer ruined it,” he said, “It took her so long to get what she wanted. She enjoyed it so briefly.”

“But she got there. She realized her dreams,” I said.

He shook his head. “Too briefly.”

I understand those feelings now, John. You had a relatively long life, living despite Parkinsons Disease to 91. My regret is that our friendship blossomed only in your later years and lasted too briefly, too briefly.




Guest Blog: Our Transformation from a Journalling Circle to Creating a Book (Wendy and Ahava Writes)

GUEST BLOG: Our Transformation from a Journalling Circle to Creating a Book (Wendy and Ahava Writes)
Wendy Writes

We had been meeting for about two years. It just began to be clear to us, at that point, that we were not just journalling together but were embarking upon a larger project. I suppose we each dreamed into this new phase and it just felt right to us. We continued to journal together but, as we decided to type up some of our entries, we realised that this was not only for ourselves but we sensed it could be inspiration to others, as well. And then the momentum shifted and we began to bring together aspects from some of our individual work and formulating ideas together which became our “Four Practices” and then “Seven Principles.”

I had been teaching writing, literature and women’s studies for many years, as well as facilitating writing workshops for women. It was natural for me to draw upon some of the most influential journal writers that have inspired me and the varied practices, principles and prompts that I was using in my various circles of women.

And then, we began to create drafts upon drafts upon drafts (I still have copies of these in my “playroom” office). Sometimes we met monthly, or with more time in between and, towards the end, weekly and even more frequently than that. We still may have been continuing to work on the book if Ahava hadn’t booked ArtSpring for the middle of November and we set the date for our Book Launch at the Gallery on ArtSpring (for which I am forever grateful!).

And, naturally, there was the entire range of skills that we had to develop and decisions we had to make along the way towards having our book edited, designed and printed that required us to move into this realm of publishing that I, personally, had never before experienced. Also, we had to collaborate and make decisions collectively, so this was at times very challenging, but also allowed us to draw upon our various strengths and skills and share the weight of the tasks at hand.

This continues as we are bringing our beloved book into the world so that others can read, share and use as inspiration for creating their own circles of women writing alone and together.
Ahava Writes
I distinctly remember as we gathered together over the first few months how supported and nourished we felt by the process of writing together and sharing our words aloud. We were all equally astonished at the depth, power, similarities and differences in our writing.

So much so that we three applied, and got accepted to share our experience at a Feminisms conference in Vancouver in May 2007.  Lynda couldn’t make it so Wendy and I presented our workshop on Writing Alone Together at the event at Simon Fraser’s downtown campus.

Within the first year or so, we also began typing up our journal entries, acknowledging their value to us and wondering what we might “do” with them.

During that first year we chose to tape our conversations on several occasions. We were feeling inspired and compelled by what we were hearing, energized by the honesty and emotional intimacy, and relishing the connections we were feeling between us, of the similar books we had read, the healing wisdom and complex understandings about ourselves and the world that was enabled through our decades-long commitments to journal writing.

At some point, I became the Manuscript holder, soon after we started to put our entries, theorizing and philosophizing and ingathering of quotes together.  This lasted up until the publishing date, although we each took many turns working on the various versions of the book.

Within the first two years I believe we created a book proposal that we gave to a local writer who was doing a workshop on them. He told us that it was the most promising one of the bunch he had read. We also submitted a book proposal to New Society Publishers in August 2011, that was rejected. All this walking down “memories’ lane” shows me that we were poised to write a book from very soon into the process although we kept meeting as a writing group for at least two years.

The transition was smooth to begin with, I think, but it got harder and harder as we went along. The process of writing together, freely and heartfully, was so different from the practical labours and even the intuitive listening that was needed to birthe this book. I was doing a PhD, Lynda was being a mother, and Wendy was coping with the challenges of an ageing body and of losing close friends. We were all three finding and deepening our ways to teach this work as we were writing about it.

I so appreciate this opportunity to remember. It is such a glorious feeling to be on this side of the journey. As I have been writing these final words, a moth first landed on my track pad and then flew onto the back of my hand. I look up its meaning in the book Animals Speak, and find the meaning of its magic written within the description for butterfly—transformation. We published the book under Butterfly Press, which is the same press I self-published my first poetry book under in 1998.

The process of transformation in the butterfly and mother has four stages. Ours had three according to Lynda, however I wonder if we all had already been through another stage, which was each of our individual explorations and transformations through journal writing. All of that we each brought to the second stage of Writing together, the third of writing the book together, and now the fourth of sharing the book in the world. We each had so much to offer already when we first met. The journey continues….


Instant memoir as a treatment for trauma?


For the past decade, subsequent to publishing Your Life as Story, I have been interested in developing a form of instant memoir, a new form of diary writing that incorporates the narrative structure of memoir with the immediacy of journal writing. A cross between diary and memoir that offers the benefits of both. In Your Life as Story I distinguished between diary and memoir this way: “the difference between diary and autobiography is that elusive partner in the process, time. The diarist writes from an ever-moving present. Autobiographic writing is written from a later point in time, in retrospect. The autobiographic writer, to a far greater extent than the diarist, re-members the past to find within it thematic continuity and coherent meaning.”

What if, I’ve been asking myself, one could write significant episodes, particularly traumatic ones, without waiting for the alchemy of Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility?” What if, still in the heat of spontaneous emotion, you could use the tools of story structure to move yourself along, as on a bullet train, to the release of the climactic conclusion that comes from telling a story: beginning, middle, and end?  What if you could do this without waiting the months and years necessary to be able to get the distance to see your life as story?  What if you could in a journal entry, days after an event or series of events, see your life as story?  A form of narrative therapy that would not require waiting for an appointment with a therapist, but could be written in your blank book or on your computer?  A way of framing a disturbing, unsettling or traumatic event with, at least, the partial resolution that comes from giving it narrative structure?

Might that help prevent the groove of mental repetition that comes from unresolved trauma?  I don’t presume to know. The latest research on PTSD suggests that getting a person to repeat the incident too soon may only make the trauma worse. It’s better to give victims of natural disasters and war, for instance, a pill to help them forget.

Memoirists report that by framing their experiences as a story and writing it down, they are able to finally move on and leave behind emotional flashbacks from which they could not otherwise find release. But that is generally years, often decades after the events, when they can be observed from the distance of time. I am trying to speed up that process for myself in my journal writing by using the steps of story structure. I have the benefit of knowing story structure in my bones from having written films and other narratives and from guiding others to shape their stories. My experiments take the form of rough, first draft autobiographic short stories written in my journal about incidents of the previous days or weeks. I do not stop writing until I have reached a climactic realization, the story’s conclusion, even if it means I only have time to outline the story in short phrases.

If you would like to try this for yourselves follow the formula for “Structuring Your Life as Story” on page 78 of my book Your Life as Story, but skip steps one and two.  Allow your intuition to carry you to the end of the recent experiences, making sure that you conclude with a prompt such as “and from all of this I now I realize…”

I suspect that many of the benefits of people sharing their stories at Twelve Step meetings come from the formula practiced there of participants’ recent experiences being framed to conclude with a spiritual realization in concordance with the healing principles of the group. What I’m suggesting is similar, using writing, but not confined to any preconceived principles. Here your conclusion/realization is a surprise that comes out of the writing, is specific to you, and may be non-canonical. Hopefully it is healing and followed by release.

Of course, using the formula for “Structuring Your Life as Story” in my book will only work if you have read, practiced and absorbed the principles of narrative structure explained in the preceding chapters. Otherwise the formula won’t make a lot of sense to you. It’s a lot of effort; not nearly as easy as taking a forgetfulness pill or speaking in a group for five minutes. Still, for those of you who want to give writing instant narrative memoir in your diary a try, I’d love to hear how it worked, or didn’t work, for you. At least, after trying it, you may have an outline for a short story you could fill in later with more finesse, and, quite possibly, with a different conclusion.




A Guided Tour of Select Travel Memoirs by Tristine Rainer

Having recently been interviewed on how to structure travel memoir so it might interest someone besides one’s Facebook or Instagram fans, I dug out an essay I wrote back in the day when CAS stamped and snail-mailed a “First Person” quarterly to donors. Here for this digital medium’s brevity demands, is a new, short version:

We’ll be leaving the Hilton immediately and with it all glossy travel articles that are really an indirect form of advertising. Semi-promotional travel writing has nothing to do with the exploration of self that we’re pursuing in literary travel memoir.

So let’s pause here for the first rule before taking off on a narrative journey: SET UP A DESIRE LINE. What is your dream about your intended adventure?  What are you hoping for? For instance, in two of the early bestselling travel memoirs, Peter Mayle, A Year in Provence and Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun, the desire is the wish to fit harmoniously into the foreigners’ land. The conflict is between the expectations and values of Brit. Peter Mayle and his wife vs. those of their French neighbors, and between American Frances Mayes and her husband vs. those of their Italian neighbors. Both travel memoirs use the rhetorical device of comparison/contrast throughout, “We do it this way at home, so we were (surprised, annoyed, delighted, mystified) when they…”  Whether it’s between home and foreign land, between the last town or country and the next, or between one’s expectations of a place and the reality, comparison/contrast is a welcome alternative to a mere chronology of sites and events.

Paul Theroux uses comparison/contrast in his 15 travel memoirs, though it seems he is not comparing the exotic locations he visits with the New England he calls home, so much as he’s measuring everywhere against some Platonic ideal of his own, producing his characteristically grouchy criticalness. Personally, I like his curmudgeonly judgments. As Dorothy Parker said, “If you can’t say anything nice, come sit by me.”  He makes me laugh when he calls the much-heralded genre of Adventure Memoir, “stunt and ordeal books,” and points to such unworthy examples as “Skiing Down Everest” and “Survive! 116 Days in a Rubber Dinghy.”

Still Theroux himself is not above adapting the Adventure Memoir formula to his less strenuous travels. The formula is simple: The desire line is stated in the beginning as the stunt to be achieved or difficult destination to be attained. Theroux begins his books by stating at the beginning his ultimate destination, say the southernmost tip of the Americas in Old Patagonian Express and the stunt, to get there entirely by rail. Once his goal is established, we are lured to chug along towards it with him. His desire to reach Patagonia is not the core of his work, though; it only provides a frame, and his structure is quite episodic; each chapter dealing with a different country through which he passes (or province in the case of Riding the Iron Rooster, by Train through China.) The ever-moving trains, however, create a dramatic tension of time always running out. Can he have the right encounters, see the right locations, find the right sense impressions, details and signifiers to reveal the heart of a country before it is too late and he has been delivered to the next?

In the right hands, the adventure/stunt travel memoir transcends its formula, as in the bestselling adventure memoir by Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air. Krakauer sets up at the beginning the goal: for the team to win a climbing race to the top of Everest, both difficult destination and stunt, and through the use of narrative devices, scenes, dialog, character arcs, and dramatic structure, he pushes his adventure/disaster memoir into the complex territory of the adventure novel.

In my attempt to be brief, however, I’m going to fly over all else I originally wrote about travel adventure and land in a territory that is as old as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale and as newly successful as Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love and Cheryl Strayed, Wild. The protagonist-narrator begins with a broken heart and travels in search of being healed by a new form of love. It is a Grail Quest in which the physical journey and dramatic structure are one and the same. It begins with the protagonist/knight called to the heroic quest because the kingdom is sick and dying, a wasteland. So the knight sets out on a journey with his goal set: to find the chalice to heal the kingdom. This is travel memoir as self-therapy. Our soul is sick and we instinctively know that we must travel to renew it. Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D. makes the Grail Quest analogy explicit in her travel memoir Crossing to Avalon in which, after her divorce, she sets out to visit goddess sites, the labyrinth at Chartres, the ancient remains at Glastonbury, Iona, and others in search of midlife renewal. Her realization at the end, the boon of her efforts, her symbolic feminine chalice is- Eureka!- the importance of autobiographic stories:

“If the Goddess is to return to the world as the Grail that will heal the patriarchy, if the Goddess is to come into human consciousness as an awareness of the sacred feminine in her myriad expression, if the Goddess is to emerge in time, she will do so because women and men tell what they know…a critical number of us have to tell the stories of our personal revelations and transformations.”

As a writer, unfortunately, Bolen forgets the small details that let us feel through the five senses what she experienced, the sand in the nostrils, the forest of blue fungi on wet boots. So let’s jump half way around the world to Australia and the late Bruce Chatwin, an author who combined Paul Theroux’s talent for dramatizing small oddities that best convey place with Bolen’s spiritual depth. Chatwin’s The Songlines is at once travelogue, memoir, anthropology, history, philosophy, science, meditation, commonplace book and novel. When asked what genre he was writing Chatwin laughed; he didn’t care. He wrote in scenes with dialog that are novelistic and develops a cast of continuing characters whose stories we follow. The desire/goal Chatwin sets up at the beginning of The Songlines is philosophic, rather than topographic, and certainly not a stunt. “My reason for coming to Australia,” he states, “was to try to learn for myself, and not from other men’s books, what a Songline was – and how it worked.”  From reading his book, we come to understand what a Songline is as he did, and by the end we realize that he has given us a Songline, an irregular, zigzag structure from one inauspicious gully to petrified tree trunk that has connected us to the spirit of the earth through story. The boon for me as reader, as for him as writer, is a concept: that the Australian aboriginals don’t have our concept of private property. You can’t buy their land for money; the land is a sacred trust from the ancestors to be preserved as it was created. A piece of land belongs to the person who knows its story. What an idea!

I want to bring it home as we jet back to the U.S.A. and I return to my half-acre of hardscrabble California land. If we lived in a world where stories rather than dollars were the currency, my friends and I would be rich!  Libraries would be our banks, and the title to a house could be followed by reading the memoirs of the people who had lived there!

As I open my gate to my yard of weed choked orange trees and roses, I am changed from reading The Songlines, my passions stirred in a way that alters my vision. As writers this is what we all hope to achieve with readers, in travel memoir as in other forms of autobiographic writing. Chatwin achieved it by doing what every hero of a story is supposed to do: follow his quest with dedication. He gave to his stated desire his senses, his memory, his classical education, his unconventional association of ideas. For what matters is not so much where you travel, but the eyes and ears, the mind and voice that you bring to the journey. What matters is that the reader can also bring home the boon, the realization, the change in your values and in you, your inner journey, whether or not it was the fulfillment of what you set up as your goal/desire in the beginning — i.e., your story.  




It’s never too late for romantic love or for writing memoir

Guest blog from Evelyn De Wolfe

It’s never too late for love and passion, even in one’s eighties. Nor is it too late to share it in a memoir, when that experience turns out to be the most romantic in our lives. Yet, having never tackled this mode of self-expression before, I was daunted by the thought of publically revealing the intimacies between two seniors.

Friends finally convinced me that my unusual late-life love affair was added proof that love, though perishable is ageless. I am glad I allowed myself to be convinced because now having preserved something so rare and fragile has allowed me, and continues to allow me, to relive the beauty and depth of the emotions I experienced with Juan.

I went browsing with some trepidation in bookstores searching for how-to memoir books that would offer guidelines on how to free my imprisoned shyness and reluctance to expose my passionate vulnerable nature.  A memoir must always be truthful to be believable and I set forth in good faith, with no set deadlines and mindful that I would simply tell my story as in conversation with a friend and keep it honest.  It turned out to be a journey of self-discovery.

I singled out Tristine Rainer’s book Your Life as Story  that amazingly and clearly answered every soul-wrenching question on my mind. The process of unraveling deep romantic feelings became an extraordinary adventure.  Like the gentling and training of a wild mustang – it took, patience to get my passion down in words and had its setbacks, moments of exasperation which made me doubt my ability as a writer.  In the end, though, the writing made me know myself better, both my strengths and frailties, while, remarkably, unleashing inhibitions that most girls of my generation were governed by and dared not trespass.

In my latest book titled  “Five Honeymoons …A True Love Story”, two kindred spirits who loved each other as kids are serendipitously reunited after 65 years  and find that falling passionately in love in late life is just as breathtaking as in younger years … even when age, distance, and the pain of separation stand in their way.

During my five-year romance with Juan we only met five times, in spectacular romantic settings – the precious honeymoons that inspired the title of the book.  Romantic love such as Juan and I shared has been played throughout the ages, throughout the world, at every level … the only difference being that each story stands alone and can never be duplicated. Each bears its own unrepeatable imprint.

I’m finding, now that the task is completed and the book in print, the satisfactions of offering, in a world so filled with negativity, my celebration of unexpected love and romance. (The author welcomes comments: Her website can be viewed at .)



By Emma J. Stephens

Author of For A Dancer: The Memoir

                  I once attended a movie premiere with my friend, its director.  The success of his independent film hinged on good reviews, so I was surprised to learn that he had no intention of viewing them.  His reasoning was, “People will tell me the good ones.”  I assumed being an artist required the courage and understanding that not everyone will be a fan (which is probably why I gravitated toward subjects in school with definite answers like math), so his behavior seemed a bit fragile.  Now, after the release of my memoir, which was not just an exposure of my writing ability but also my life, I realize the damage that can be done to one’s creative spirit if their work is disliked.  This fear of disapproval is what keeps many from embarking on the vulnerable journey of self-expression.

I lack the discipline to prevent myself from looking at reviews of my book, and I also believed – (past tense!) – the assessments would help me grow as a writer.  However, I ended up more confused with each one.  Some readers claimed to be inspired and uplifted, while others called it whiny and self-indulgent.  Supporters compared it to classic literature; attackers pointed out misspellings and made accusations of dishonesty.  The nontraditional essay style was both applauded and scorched.  I wondered why were they so polarized, and which ones was I supposed to believe?

For starters, critics are interesting creatures.  Their goal is not necessarily to give helpful feedback nor to be fair, but rather to establish themselves as an expert with a believable, influential opinion.  I was slightly comforted by the discovery that my most antagonistic reviewer gave full stars to underground science fiction and vampire novels.  By that, I do not mean such interests discount one’s analysis, but it forced me to consider the unlikelihood that the same reader would be moved by my soul-bearing reflection on life.  Not everyone is on the path to self-actualization.  This begs the question why my title was chosen in the first place, but the curiosity ended there.  We cannot know the personal experiences that shape our critics’ subjective criteria, and this brought me to a place of recognition that all of the reviews are true.  Just as my story was true for me, each person has a truth of their own in response to it.

I must contradict this statement in one respect.  A particular blogger stated that my book needed more work before it was ready for publication.  This is a common prejudice in an industry ruled by gatekeepers, especially as the advancement of self-publishing (including blogs) continues to threaten that power.  Nevertheless, given the very natural human fear of inadequacy, a comment like that may have discouraged me from putting myself out there.  What a relief that I trusted myself, since unimaginable doors have opened up for me as a result.  With any luck, this will be looked back upon as my “amateur” work, and every piece will be better than the last.

So how does a writer of memoir keep it real?  How can we reconcile the conflict between inspiring versus provoking our audience?  I think it was clarified beautifully by Joan Didion in her celebrated essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” in which she asserts the purpose of writing:

“Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.”

If you can fulfill that, the message of your story will find those who need to hear it.


Jonah Lehrer vs James Frey

In her Aug. 13 blog “The Ethics of Being a Nonfiction Writer” author Diana Raab explores the confusing, shifting and disappearing boundaries between fact and fiction in the scandals of Jonah Lehrer and James Frey.  This blog is in dialog with hers.

I, too, am troubled by the discrediting of James Frey and more recently Jonah Lehrer, authors exposed as liars when it was uncovered that they misrepresented events in Frey’s case and quotes in Lehrer’s that never existed.  I’m not a fan of either Frey or Lehrer, but not for the reasons they were discredited.  I find the work of both men inauthentic in the deepest sense, so I have no desire to defend them.  But I am concerned by the discourse about them: lumping of all nonfiction, as different as journalism and memoir, in the same basket.

Jonah Lehrer in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works was ostensibly writing journalism.  He wasn’t trained as a journalist, but as a recent hire for the New Yorker he was expected to understand journalistic standards of verification. I frankly don’t care if somebody makes up a quote or changes around dates in a memoir to improve the narrative.  I do care if I think I am reading a work of journalism, and Lehrer’s attributing a quote to Bob Dylan that Dylan never said, and then lying about it is beyond sloppy journalism. Yet I am equally troubled by a kind of lie that runs through all Jonah Lehrer’s books, yet is considered acceptable (except in academic circles): he presents as original to himself the insights and life’s work of other authors.  He does not have the respect for other people and their contributions to acknowledge them as sources. For me leaving out sources is as much as an offense as making them up.

As I wrote in Your Life as Story, memoirists should not be held to journalistic standards of verification, so for me the treatment of James Frey as a pariah because he exaggerated and invented in a memoir is troubling in a different way.  Frey made up events that never happened.  Oprah was taken in, which made her mad, and the public, her choir, was taken in with her, and so a sledgehammer came down on all memoir. Certainly, Frey is not the first memoirist to exagerrate and and self-dramatize.  If this is a way to create the “objective correlative” to an emotional truth, I can accept that.  The problem for me was that Frey, an alcoholic, was still lying to himself and giving it to us as if it were the emotional truth.  I could not read more than the first chapter without feeling it was a con job, but then I am a close reader of literary texts and have been doing it for forty years.  When the forged Hitler diaries were published, I could tell immediately by textual clues that they were fake, but that is because I have done close readings of thousands of authentic diaries.

I will leave the question of lying journalists to journalism experts; as for memoirists I believe what matters is what Anais Nin called “the donee,” the writer’s contract with the reader. Are you writing an autobiographical novel or a single slice memoir capturing a particular place and moment in history?  The expectations for each in terms of verifiable facts are different. (You will find a full list of the subgenres of memoir with examples of each in Your Life as Story and a partial list on this website.)

Once you understand the expectations of your genre and subgenre, and you have been honest with yourself about how factual you have been, and communicated that to your reader in a “note to the reader” or within the work, I think you will have addressed the ethical concerns of memoir. There are readers who will choose not to read a memoir that is not completely factual; there are other readers who want the authenticity of a story that is as true as you can make it, while serving the demands of dramatic interest.  An informed reader can make a choice and will not feel conned.


Continuing the theme of How are you different after completing a memoir? author Emma Stephens offers a powerful guest blog:

Until a few years ago, reading memoir was about as appealing as sitting next to that uncle at a family reunion who wants to tell you all about his latest trip to the podiatrist.  “And there was an accident on the highway, and then they didn’t have me in the computer, and then…”  (You get the drift.)  Of the memoirs that hit the bestseller list, I assumed the protagonist was an extraordinary survivor of life’s injustice whose story was merely stumbled upon by a ghostwriter.  Realistically, who’d have thought girls like “Precious” would live to tell the tale.  The idea of writing a memoir myself was even more alien.  What did I really have to say?

The seed was planted when I embarked on a personal photo album project.  I began phoning relatives for additional pictures, accompanied by their memory of the occasion; most featuring my sister as the main character and I, her shadow.  This would become very relevant later.  I had never really detached from her in adulthood as I tried to pretend, subconsciously avoiding inspection of how significantly our paths had diverged.  As I scrapbooked my childhood (ours, really), I thought constantly of how different her version of the story would be.  There were so many unanswered questions; so much confusion.  I wanted to write it all down – at least how I experienced it – but it was like staring up the side of a steep mountain.  And I didn’t have a happily ever after.  Thus, it seemed to belong only in my head.  While my jumble of dysfunctional family rants always cracked people up, I longed for a true journey’s end.  One day I’ll write my story… I told myself.  …when I reach the proverbial finish line.  Of course, that would be at my death, but I was still looking for some kind of justification – that culminating event that causes everything before it to make sense.

And I was completely missing the point.

Many years later, during a period of obsessive spring cleaning, I dusted off my CD’s and vowed to listen to everything that, at least at one time, I loved enough to own.  Music is a powerful mood-inducer and often a time warp.  “Neil Young Unplugged” was my favorite album when I first moved into that snowy Rocky Mountain cabin with no plumbing at the age of seventeen.  The collection of tunes summoned ghosts of old lovers or the thrill of driving for the first time.  I could even smell my grandparents’ kitchen on Maple Street when I played bluegrass music.  The fleeting recollections were not enough; I sought out a pencil and notebook, lest these musical triggers fail me one day.  Being unemployed forced upon me the spare time to keep up with this seemingly useless new hobby of writing.  Inadvertently, I had tackled the daunting task.

Each little slice of the story inspired another, as though I was being lured by a romance that I hoped would never end.  I created a list of all my previous addresses (there were a lot); each one sparking a dominant memory and chain reaction.  My thoughts flowed in ink, not out of relevance to the big picture but rather the joy of remembering and retelling.  However, when I arranged the separate stories chronologically, so much about my life didn’t make sense.  There were huge gaps.  Dots that just didn’t connect.  I decided it would have to remain a collection of essays since it was becoming disturbingly clear that my life had no intentional path.  I was just a pinball in a machine.  This is where the personal transformation began to take root.  I tried to think of how to explain to a reader, for example, how I went from being a pre-medical student to a wanna-be Hollywood actress, but I couldn’t come up with a reasonable excuse.  Finally I resolved, since it would never be read, there was no sense in applying a sugar-coating.  The truth is, there was nothing logical or noble about many of my choices, and the pattern revealed itself that my life’s woes were mostly self-inflicted.  Fear had always been my biggest motivation for perseverance but also repeatedly kept me from allowing myself to succeed.  This was a painful conclusion in itself, and at times I had to stop typing because the honest reflection on my own mistakes was too much.

Once I even convinced myself that writing was bad for me.  Uh-huh.  I was certain it was causing too much emotional distress and must be stopped.  I refer to this struggle in the book as a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, but it led to the acknowledgement that I had even withheld truths from my own therapist.  But somehow I knew, if I could be honest with myself, I’d find cleansing in the murky waters.  The self-criticism was powerful, but I found solace in knowing that the finished product was for my eyes only.  It would not be a display of my degrees and trophies and ribbons or, for that matter, a heroic account of survival – rather, a true story of life’s adventure and a search for meaning from a real girl.  If necessary, I would find a quiet place by the river and dispose of it page by page downstream.  Unexpectedly, it was in that story that I found the acceptance I never got from my mother, the closure I needed with my sister, and the self-love that I had futilely sought from others.

Miraculous is the only word I can think of to describe the evolution that took place within.  This did not happen suddenly upon its completion.  In fact, the first time I read the book straight through, I became ill.  Sharing it with others was even more difficult, but in the end, I recognized it as part of the healing process.  After decades of chasing redemption, it was in the abyss that I found my true self.  Giving a shape to my life will forever remain the oasis I had been crawling toward.

By Emma J. Stephens



Guest Blog on How Are You Different after Completing a Memoir

Continuing on the theme of How are you different after writing a memoir, memoirist and blogger for the Huffington Post  Diana M. Raab has written a guest blog.  Thank-you, Diana!

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. This is how I feel about having written and published two memoirs. I will never be the same. My first memoir, Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal was inspired by my bout with depression in 2001, following my cancer diagnosis. I wanted to learn about the origins of my grandmother’s suicide, which occurred when I was ten years old. I was curious about her state of mind prior to taking her life, and hoped that her journal would offer some useful information. The journey into the details of my grandmother’s story disclosed that she had a very tormented life. My research taught me that a life filled with war, loss, divorce, and ongoing misery, could lead to emotional issues such as depression and suicide.

During the writing process, I realized that the traumas of our childhoods could take decades to cause havoc on our psyche. Typically, children are very resilient. As a ten-year-old I shrugged off her death, but when I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of forty-seven, and began a battle with my demons and mortality, I began to understand some of my grandmother’s torment.

The most difficult aspect of writing my memoir was figuring out how to structure the story. I must have tried six different ways before arriving at the final published version. The book’s structure evolved into a weaving of our two stories, incorporating the pages of her journal that were found in her closet forty years following her death. Ultimately, the memoirist needs to keep revising until the structure is organic to the story. It helps to have mentors or early readers who have some distance from the subject because after a while, the structure and characters may become a blur to the writer. What was interesting was that my initial structure choice was the one that was used in the published version. Sometimes our first idea is right on.

While writing my memoir, I acknowledged and consequently had to reveal some painful truths about my mother who is still alive. As much as my instinct told me to leave her out of the book, so as not to hurt her feelings, early reviewers suggested that she needed to be included because she was the link between my grandmother and me. It was a risk, but in the end I have no regrets about sharing my own emotional truths regarding my narcissistic mother, who eventually read the book and acknowledged its candor. There were no rebuttals or grudges. In fact, for the first time in my life, my mother expressed that she was proud of me for writing the book, and she admitted that my grandmother would also have been proud and honored.

An important aspect of writing memoir is to remember that we are writing about our own emotional truth, not that of others. What also helped me dig deep was being in psychotherapy for a number of years. Although the writing assisted me in making sense of my past and my grandmother’s tortuous life as an orphan during World War I, my therapist also helped me realize that I was not the cause of her death. The nature of her childhood contributed to her torment. My therapist reminded me that we are not responsible for anyone’s actions other than our own.

My second memoir, Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey did not erupt as easily. I never wanted to be identified as a cancer victim. I wanted to be considered a survivor who dealt with her cancer and then moved on with her life, dreams, and aspirations. I feared that writing my story would submerge me deeper into the pain of the mastectomy and reconstruction. The reason I ventured to write this book is because of friends and colleagues encouraged me to do so saying that it would help others. I trusted and honored their sensibilities. Once I surrendered to the idea, the book was written quickly and effortlessly. Unlike Regina’s Closet, the structure was chronological. Although it was not easy to reprocess painful moments, in the end I was proud to have written and published this book, especially after receiving many positive reviews and hearing how many women and families it helped.

In both my memoirs, I admit to having embellished some sections. For example, when describing my grandmother’s childhood home in Poland, I researched what the homes looked like during that time in history, and had to fictionalize the street. Having an appropriate setting helped set the platform for writing her story. I think memoir writers need to do this in order to write compelling stories. Even in situations when we were present, it is also sometimes difficult to remember all the details from events that occurred decades prior. Sometimes we just have to use our imagination while crafting the story. There have been instances where the writer shows the memoir to another family member or loved one who encountered the same experiences and they recall scenarios quite differently. The memoirist must acknowledge differences and remember they are writing what they remember about the story through their own eyes, no one else’s. It is the writer’s emotional truth that is most important, and embodying that truth in the writing is what will make the memoir a compelling and powerful read.

Diana Raab,


Post Memoir


The first question to be explored on this blog, that I hope will become a forum, is addressed to those of you who have completed a memoir, whether published, self-published or unpublished: How are you different now than you were before completing a memoir? Do you have any regrets? Advice to share?

I’ll step up to the plate first with a confession. My novelist friend Jim gave me a backhanded complement the other day, after I’d succeeded in fooling him about his surprise birthday party. “How did you get to be such a good liar?” he asked me, amazed.

“I’m a better liar since I wrote a memoir,” I shrugged, and as I said it, I realized it is true. To order life events, you have to fudge and invent; life is not a story; it is one damn thing after another. So to make my memoir a story, I had to imagine what I could not remember. Now I find that I prefer the version of the past I have made meaningful by structuring it into a story to the rag-tag, willy-nilly memories from which I constructed it. The after-effect is that the accuracy of my memory is shot, while my ability to make-up story has been exercised and enhanced – hence, I am now a better liar after writing a memoir.

At the same time, I am more frank. More honest. I no longer lie about my age, for instance. Hard to do once you have placed yourself inside historical time. Plus, I’m more comfortable in my skin, blemishes and all, so I use less psychological make-up.

My increased talent for lying successfully and my new frankness are but superficial changes, though. Something more intrinsic has changed, I believe, inside the very structure of my brain. Thanks to an ecstatic review I read last year in the Los Angeles Review of Books I discovered Self Comes to Mind, Constructing the Conscious Brain, about the latest research into brain structure and function. According to the author, U.S.C. neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, Ph.D., M.D., in the neurobiology of consciousness there are different kinds of self-awareness: wakefulness, in the smaller, primitive sections of the brain, the tegmentum and hypothalamus, and, in the larger, higher functioning cerebral cortex, an awareness of self through time, formed from sense images and feelings, which he calls the “autobiographical self.” This complex, higher brain function which sees the self as a “protagonist” is of quite recent evolution according to Damasio. He writes “I sympathize with Julian Jaynes’s claim that something of great import may have happened to the human mind during the relatively brief interval of time between the events narrated in the Iliad and those that make up the Odyssey. As knowledge accumulated about humans and about the universe, continued reflection could well have altered the structure of the autobiographical self and led to a closer stitching together of relatively disparate aspects of mind processing…a recent development on the order of thousands of years, a mere instant in evolutionary time. That self draws on features of the human brain acquired, in all likelihood, during the long period of the Pleistocene. It depends on the brain’s capacity to hold expansive memory records not only of motor skills but also of facts and events, in particular, personal facts and events, those that make up the scaffolding of biography and personhood and individual identity. It depends on the ability to reconstruct and manipulate memory records in a working brain space parallel to the perceptual space, an offline holding area where time can be suspended during a delay and decisions freed from the tyranny of immediate responses. It depends on the brain’s ability to produce not only mental representations that imitate reality slavishly and mimetically but also representations that symbolize actions and objects and individuals.”

Damasio goes on to explain that brain chemistry seeks “homeostasis”, a feeling of balance and well being. This is why on a bad day that leaves people feeling stressed and distressed, they use alcohol or drugs that instantly restore a feeling of chemical homeostasis, even though they may know that it is only a temporary solution, often with undesirable side effects. Yet, according to Damasio, it is this same longing for homeostatic balance in humans that was responsible for the building of culture: “forms of consolation for those in suffering, rewards for those who helped the sufferers, injunctions for those who caused harm, norms of behavior aimed at preventing harm and promoting good, and a mixture of punishments and preventions, of penalties and praise. The problem of how to make all this wisdom understandable, transmissible, persuasive, enforceable – in a word, of how to make it stick – was faced and a solution found. Storytelling was the solution- storytelling is something brains do, naturally and implicitly. Implicit storytelling has created our selves, and it should be no surprise that it pervades the entire fabric of human societies and cultures…Individuals and groups whose brains made them capable of inventing or using such narratives to improve themselves and the societies they lived in became successful enough for the architectural traits of those brains to be selected, individually and groupwise, and for their frequency to increase over generations.”

In other words, being an autobiographic storyteller has been an evolutionary advantage! Damasio even goes so far as to suggest that artists who most actively exploit autobiographical consciousness have an evolutionary advantage in attracting mates!  “We need only think of Picasso and smile in agreement.”

At this point, of course, Damaseo is far from scientific research and is speculating. He is writing, as he keeps reminding the reader, in the realm of suggesting hypotheses for further biological brain research.

Reading him and having recently finished a memoir, I have a hypothesis of my own: that writing memoir, like meditation, yoga, and diary writing, is a positive way of establishing brain homeostasis. As in AA and Alanon, the story of self is recast and shared, and a transformation of self results. Working within the uniquely human, evolutionary vanguard areas of the brain, memoir writing alters the willy-nilly, organize-it-as-you-go neurological maps that make up the autobiographical self. Writing memoir re-maps the brain, using the accumulated raw material of sensations and feelings stored as memory. It replaces the relatively disorganized consciousness of self with a more integrated, comprehensible and purposeful consciousness of self. It is self-therapy at the deepest possible biologic level and may one day replace expensive talk and drug therapies, once science figures out how to codify the means of creating symbolic homeostasis that artists have been using for centuries to comfort themselves and others over the human condition. If, as Damasio posits, each individual creates a conscious self through implicit storytelling, then, I believe, that through explicit autobiographic storytelling on the page, we consciously reorganize and re-create the self, achieving a relatively enduring brain homeostasis. We create for our brains a spiffed-up self that makes self-acceptance easier.

How about you? How are you different post-memoir than you were pre-memoir. Please leave a comment below, and include your name (or pen name) and the title of your memoir, as well as information about your publisher, if you have one, and/or a link. However, please, for the purposes of this blog, do not describe the thematic content of your autobiographic work in more than one sentence. The intent here is not just an opportunity for online book promotion. The intent is for all those who have graduated to another level of sense of self – as post-memoir – to share insights into that, as yet privileged, experience.

-Tristine Rainer, Director, Center for Autobiographic Studies