Lessons for memoir writers from my first year of blogging

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

One of the speakers at last year’s Philadelphia Writers Conference was veteran news reporter Daniel Rubin. Fewer people are reading newspapers these days, so Rubin’s bosses at the Philadelphia Inquirer went looking for readers online. They asked him to write a blog. This experiment in new journalism achieved two goals. First, inquirer.typepad.com let the Inquirer participate in what turned out to be a robust stream of Philadelphia blogs. And secondly, it changed Rubin’s writing style. Like any newspaper reporter, Rubin had been taught to leave himself out. As a blogger, he had to put himself in. His two year stint transformed him from a silent observer to an engaged one.

Newspaper reporters aren’t the only ones trained to keep themselves out of their writing. My high school English teachers taught me never to write the word “I.” And for many years, I earned my living writing technical manuals that sound as if the author doesn’t exist. When I wanted to tell my own story, I couldn’t figure out how to write in a livelier, more personal style. Then I discovered blogs. Blog audiences expect to know the writer, personally. To fulfill that expectation, I’ve learned to insert opinions, observations, and anecdotes.

Blogs give everyone in the world the opportunity to share themselves. Some bloggers include pictures of their kids or their garden or the view from the window of their vacation home. While many of these online scrapbooks are frivolous, others offer serious memoir information, tips, and insights. People who sell services also use blogs to create a personal connection. It’s the modern equivalent of the corner store, when people actually knew the family from whom they were buying.

Experiment to find the best blog topic and material
A blog gives you the opportunity to experiment with your material, and since blogs are free, you can start as many as you like. After several attempts, I decided to write a blog about memoirs. I speculated that book reviews and interviews with memoir writers would keep it interesting for readers, and informative and engaging for me as well.

When I started I didn’t know how any of this would actually work out. Would I be able to generate fresh material? Would my vision stay focused enough to entertain and inform readers? Would it become repetitive or trite? Now for the past year, every month, I’m previewing 15 books, finishing five, and posting essays about several. I’ve done interviews with memoir writers, and have networked with a number of bloggers and other internet denizens. I have figured out how to keep the material fresh for me and hopefully my readers. It was only through the test of time that I could learn these lessons, and the knowledge I gained by doing it empowers me to do more.

You can accumulate more than a writing style
If you are reading this article because you want to gather material for a memoir, then you are already looking for a way to bring your own life experience out into the open. A blog is a perfect place to explore and experiment. Gather snips of experience, whether from years ago, or from yesterday, and see how it works. This can be intimidating, at first, for a variety of reasons, one of the most common of which is “why would anyone want to read this stuff.” That’s a great question, and perhaps the ultimate question, but here’s the twist. Instead of using the question as a doubt that drags you down, use it as fuel that drives you forward. Really, honestly ask, “Why would anyone read this stuff?” and as you passionately search for the answer you will gradually transform your writing from material that only interests you to material that will interest others.

Writing a blog means taking the story you find inside yourself and placing it out in the open, where anyone can examine it. Putting it out there is half the job. The other half is to figure out if it makes sense to anyone. That’s what makes blogs so powerful. They generate a low volume conversation with those visitors who want to let you know what they think. It’s a little like stand-up comedians, who find out if their jokes are funny by listening for laughter. As a blogger you find out if your posts make sense by reading the comments. By paying attention to this feedback, you can tweak your writing in a direction that works for this group of people, who like any focus group represent a larger audience.

These readers become part of your micro-community
After blogging for a while, I occasionally hear from repeat visitors. This means that through my writing, I’ve tapped into a micro-community of like minded people. By blogging within a particular focus, my blog has become a sort of forum where people interested in this topic can stay connected.

Many of my readers share similar desires to mine. They want to develop community, find their voice, organize their material, and become accustomed to reaching towards the public. These shared desires bond us across space and time. We become both an audience and a community. So if you are wondering how to hook up with readers and writers, and develop your writing skills in the process, then jump into the blogosphere. Tell your story, and offer feedback about the ones you find.

Note: This year’s Philadelphia Writers Conference will take place June 6, 7, 8, 2008. See this link for details.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

8 thoughts on “Lessons for memoir writers from my first year of blogging

  1. Excellent comments Jerry. It all depends on what the purpose of your blog is really. I think it is really important to know that ahead of time. For some it is just a place to vent or post chatty comments. For me personally it is a place to post opinion, develop writing skills, and an incentive to keep a regular writing schedule.

    Steve

  2. Thanks Jerry, for your year of blogging. You reviewed my memoir, Motheirng Mother several months ago and your insights show that you have a heart and an “ear” for the personal/universal story that each of us carry within us.

    I agree that blogging is a great tool to begin to explore the stories that define your life. Just as you start to figure out one thing, frame it, tell it in a way that’s compelling and insightful, the next story already starts to germinate. As it should.

    You’re a great value to the writing and memoir community and I just wanted to stop by and say thanks.

    ~Carol D. O’Dell
    Author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir

    available at Amazon
    http://www.mothering-mother.com

  3. Another great post, Jerry. Your contributions toward making us more aware and attentive bloggers and memoirists are appreciated greatly.

    Brian

  4. Thanks, you wonderful complimenters. I’ll keep posting if you keep praising. 🙂 It’s great to know you are “out there” just as I’m glad to be “out there” for you.

    Jerry

  5. Hi Jerry, good post! I’d agree with Steve in that a blog needs a theme to focus on, which can be very specific or rather general, just so readers know what to expect. Readers also like blogs with good information, not simply chattering about their day. And for those of us interested in family stories and memoirs, it’s nice to hear what others are doing in that area, what inspires them and lessons learned. Also, links to similar sites are nice as that is how I just found you (from Ritergal)!

    Linda
    Cherry Blossoms in Twilight: Memories of a Japanese Girl

  6. Hi Linda,

    Thanks for your comment. I visited your site and love the line in your About Me blurb “Everyone has a story.” We ought to invent an “Everyone has a story” blog ring. Blogging about life is a wonderful way to get to know people and to know yourself. I added your blog Moon Bridge Memoirs to my blogroll.

    Jerry

  7. I love to write. It is my way of engaging in conversations with myself. When I decided to step into the doors of the blogosphere some weeks back and have the story of my life bannered, I never believed people would be interested but they were. I have just found myself a community and I am glad.

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