Memoir Writing: Lessons from Jeannette Walls

by Sherri Burr


The Glass CastleWriters who have contemplated crafting memoirs, but were too afraid, can learn lessons from Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle. She feared that if she revealed her impoverished childhood with eccentric parents, who lived on the streets of Manhattan and dumpster dived for food, people might cease to speak to her. One day she quizzed her mother, “What am I supposed to tell people about my parents?”

“Just tell the truth,” her mother said.

Walls did just that in her 2005 memoir that has been translated into 23 languages and sold over 3 million copies. In The Glass Castle, you can open any random page and find a gem. On page 39, Walls explains why she doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. Her parents disillusioned their four children from expecting expensive gifts on Christmas morning. “Try not to look down on those other children,” Mom said. “It’s not their fault that they’ve been brainwashed into believing in silly myths.”

Turn to page 56 where Walls explains that her mother didn’t like cooking. “Why spend the afternoon making a meal that will be gone in an hour,” her mother asks, “when in the same amount of time, I can do a painting that will last forever?” Walls describes how her mother would make a pot of beans to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a week or more.

Then there was the time Walls and her brother Brian found a two-carat diamond ring, which her mother refused to sell. Walls writes, “But Mom, … that ring could get us a lot of food.” “That’s true,” her mother replied, “but it could also improve my self-esteem. And at times like these, self-esteem is more vital than food.” When Walls reminds her mother, “We haven’t had anything to eat but popcorn for three days,” the mother said, “You’re always so negative.”

Walls’ portrait of her mother is a testament that she is sensitive to people’s feelings. Like all memoirists, Walls was concerned with violating her loved ones’ privacy. She recommends sharing the manuscript. After doing this, she found it brought her closer to her family, not farther apart.

Her brother Brian was astonished she remembered the story of their father taking him to a whorehouse. Brian said at the time Walls looked far away. That she recalled enough detail to write the scene flattered him.

Walls believes that writers can tell stories without hurting loved ones. “If you are looking to understand them,” Walls says, “you might be surprised how supportive people will be. Be open to changing names to protect privacy.” Walls did that in The Glass Castle on the recommendation of lawyers who vetted her book.

Perseverance is another lesson from Walls’ life. She first tried penning her story as a teenager, then again in her twenties and thirties. It wasn’t until she was 40 and encouraged by her second husband, the writer John Taylor, that she set down in earnest to write. “I needed perspective,” she says.

She created a version in six weeks and then spent five years polishing it. “Just sit down and write,” she counsels. “Tell the story from beginning to end. Read it out loud. It takes a lot of work to seem spontaneous.”

It was in the revision that Walls threw out material from her New York experiences, which she initially thought compelling, and added scenes she had dismissed as unimportant. One of the turning points in the book was when Walls discovered her mother owned over a million dollars worth of land containing oil and gas rights. When confronted, her mother refused to sell despite their dire poverty. It was Taylor who urged Walls to include that scene.

Walls warns writers not to read other memoirs while writing their own. Walls started reading Angela’s Ashes during the midst of her revisions and noticed blarney creeping into her story. Once she realized she was channeling another writer’s voice, she put the book down. Even for her own books, Walls instructs to read and set them aside. “Don’t try to copy me. Everyone has her own story. Listen to your own voice.”

In her second book, Half Broke Horses, Walls found the voice of her grandmother Lily Casey Smith and spins the tale of a woman with true grit. Lily, who grew up breaking horses in New Mexico, left home when she was 15 to become a teacher in Arizona. Eventually she would learn to fly. But because Lily wasn’t around to interview by the time Walls wrote the story, she invented dialogue and calls it a True Life Novel.

Though writing fiction, Walls follows her mother’s advice, and tells the truth.


SherriBurrSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, Burr has authored or co-authored twenty books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter, SouthWest Sage.


This article was originally published in the March 2011 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Evoking Emotions

Sketch Of Woman CryingReaders of memoir, like fiction readers, come along for the ride because of the promise of being swept into someone else’s world, which is often different from their own. And they expect everything that goes along with that undiscovered land – setting, history, character struggles, victories and defeats. Even though a memoir is nonfiction, it shouldn’t read like a history book. Adding emotion to our writing will help ensure readers are engaged in the journey we’ve promised them.

There are a lot of crimes a writer can commit – the torture of sentences, the mangling of meaning, the wrecking of words through using the wrong one at the wrong time. However, the greatest of these is the crime of lack – to forget to put in the emotion. ~ Shannon Donnelly

Six basic emotions are found in all good writing: anger, love, sorrow, joy, fear, and surprise. The situations that elicit these feelings may be different, but the feelings themselves are common to all of us, at one time or another and to differing degrees. Expressing these effectively in our memoirs will touch the hearts of those who read our stories.

But evoking the emotion is not the same as telling it. Saying, “I was angry,” is one way to express how we feel. But wouldn’t it be more powerful to show our anger in physical reactions or dialogue?

Emotions are one place where the author should “show, don’t tell,” or “show, then tell.” Show, Don’t Tell, refers to the idea that fiction should create the emotion in the reader by zooming in and giving enough details for the reader to feel as if they are in the story itself. ~ Darcy Pattison

In regard to Show, then Tell, Ms. Pattison explains that “once you have Shown the emotion, you can also – not all the time, but selectively – also name the emotion.” As a rule, the best writers avoid “telling” as often as possible.

How to Evoke Emotions Without Telling

Through Actions
Did a child stomp a foot when he was angry? Stare at her feet when ashamed? Did you slam a cupboard door in anger? Bounce for joy on a bed when you won the lottery? Did your dad sit on the edge of his empty bed, staring out the window for hours, after your mom died? Some people yell when they’re angry, others whisper. We cry out of joy, frustration, and sorrow.

Through Physical Appearance
Facial expressions show our emotions and so can slumped shoulders and jagged fingernails. Our hands shake when we’re nervous, or afraid, or angry. Faces flush out of embarrassment. Eyes widen and lips might become pale from fear. How does jealousy manifest in our outward appearance – a sneer, clenched fists?

Through Setting Description
How we feel affects how we see the world at a particular moment, and we can use that to color our descriptions. A child might describe a new playground as huge and inviting with so many playthings to choose from, but an adult who has just lost a child might hear the screeching swing and see the place as empty and grey.

Through Dialogue
Conversation can show a lot about how a person is feeling. Often it’s not what we say but how we say it that gives us away. Our words come out angry, sarcastic, cutting. Our speech might be halting if we’re unsure or manifest as stuttering or stammering. Sometimes we don’t say what we mean or only speak in half-truths. We blurt things out when we’re excited or choose our words too carefully to hide our anger. The sound of our voice changes, too – growing deeper or high pitched.

Through Writing the Hard Stuff
Writing is hard work. Period. Including emotion in our stories is something we all need to master, but writing a memoir comes with a unique challenge. A fiction writer can pour her truth onto the page without the world guessing how true it is. As a memoirist, you expose your life and your heart to the world, and there’s no hiding those truths. Even a lighthearted story will have its sad or bitter moments. At some point you will face the stark white page that demands a sacrifice of blood. My advice? Shake it off and write as honestly as you can. Straight on. Simple language. It will be powerful.

Through “Contradictions and Convulsions,” “Brambles and Beatitudes”
Truth in writing naturally evokes emotions. Aren’t we often conflicted about our choices or our feelings? We are not perfect robots, or dutiful children. When we read fiction or memoir, we experience someone else’s life. We see how they deal with hard choices, and we rejoice or cry along with them. Their pain is our pain. Maybe we like to be reminded we are not alone.

The following excerpt from the article “Touch the Hearts of Your Readers: Entangle Their Emotions” by Tom Bentley speaks about conflicting emotions common to all of us:

I felt such relief knowing my mom wasn’t to be expelled from her home, such dread that she might outlive the [mortgage] contract, such guilt that I actually hoped she would die in her home before the time is up. How can you hope for your mother to die?

Those kinds of mixed feelings – love, guilt, pride, shame, regret – can pull at a reader as much as they pull at the characters in your work. If you can find a way to use those kinds of feelings, their contradictions and convulsions, richly and honestly, your writing will be the more rich and honest for it…

[We] need to chase down our characters and pull them into all of life’s brambles and beatitudes, and sometimes all at the same time.

If you’ve taken on the task of writing a memoir, leaving out emotion should not be an option. Decide why your stories are worth remembering and retelling. Grab hold of their importance and write from that place of truth. Evoke time and place and relationships with honest emotion. Straightforward or subtle, sharing your feelings (the good and the bad) will enrich your writing, and engage and impact your readers.


Image “Sketch Of Woman Crying” courtesy of luigi diamanti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

4 Helpful Websites for Writing Memoir

Diana Jackson at A Selection of Reflections was kind enough to post an article I wrote about how I put This New Mountain together (and she gave it a great title, too). Visit her site to read “Writing Readable and Compelling Memoir.”

If you’re looking for places to glean great writing advice for memoir, here are four websites I’ve found helpful (plus a site to share your own life stories if you’re 50+).

NAMWlogo-variation-2-300x124National Association of Memoir Writers
The goal of NAMW “is to help memoir writers feel empowered with purpose and energy to begin and develop their life stories into a publishable memoir, whether in essay form, a book, a family legacy, or to create a blog.” Besides excellent articles, they also have public roundtable recordings of topics pertaining to memoir writing.

Memory TreeThe Heart and Craft of Life Writing
Tips, guidelines and insights on all facets of life writing, plus click on their Free Stuff tab for ebooks and timeline resources. Content includes author interviews and guest posts, as well as Sharon Lippincott’s own observations and tips from her book, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing.

Memories&Memoir2Memories & Memoirs
Linda Joy Myers says, “Most people who write memoir are searching for memories that validate their experience, but they worry about writing the truth. A memoir is not a factual recitation of history, it’s a recollection, a musing and merging of images, dreams, reflections moments on your life’s journey.”

memoirWritersJourney3Memoir Writer’s Journey
You’ll find a wide range of posts from exploring themes to social media tidbits on Kathy Pooler’s website. She’s “a writer and a retired family nurse practitioner working on a memoir about the power of hope through my faith in God. Hope Matters. I believe we are all enriched when we share our stories.”

ElderStorytellingPlaceBannerThe Elder Storytelling Place (A Time Goes By Weblog)
This is a site for bloggers/non-bloggers 50 years old and older to share their stories. “Sad, poignant, happy or funny, not infrequently our stories contain lessons we have learned and the wisdom we’ve gathered on our long journey through life and that should not be lost — which is what led to this blog.” Ronni Bennett, the founder of the site, wants it be a place “where readers sit a spell and ‘listen’ to other people’s stories. And then tell their own.”

What websites do you recommend for those interested in writing memoir?