The Magic of Memoir

San Francisco treasures


Excavating a Life

I’ll be taking a break from Books Can Save a Life until December so I can finish a draft of my memoir and get a good start on the revision. Before I go, I wanted to share highlights of my trip to San Francisco, where I attended the 2016 Magic of Memoir conference and spent some time with my son.

Brooke & Linda Joy

The conference was fabulous, and left me with more than enough inspiration to see me through to the finish line of my current memoir draft. It was hosted and led by She Writes Press co-founder Brooke Warner and National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW) founder Linda Joy Myers, who also happens to be my writing coach.

I’ve been working with Linda Joy for well over a year, and I had the chance to meet her in person for the first time. We had lunch together and talked memoir, of course. I was fascinated to hear about behind-the-scenes research she did for her second memoir, Song of the Plains, which will be published in 2017 – a delving into family history that took her to Oklahoma, Iowa, and Scotland. (Linda Joy’s first memoir is Don’t Call Me Mother: A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness.)

Linda gave me a whirlwind tour of Berkeley, too, whisking me past Chez Panisse, a restaurant I’ve long admired, and other famous spots like Telegraph Avenue, the UC Berkeley campus, the Campanile, People’s Park, and the Berkeley Hills with their incredible views.

At the conference, I met many other writers who have memoirs in progress, which is one of the most valuable aspects of a conference like this. Memoir writing can be lonely, and it’s tremendously inspiring to meet others making the same journey.

We shared our writing with each other as we worked through the exercises and activities concocted by Brooke and Linda Joy to supplement their excellent instruction on the craft of memoir and developing an effective author platform.

Several brave souls shared their work in progress during an open mic session hosted by Laurel Bookstore.


Brooke and Linda Joy are top-notch, experienced teachers in the art of memoir. Their discussions of memoir craft cover the important elements of theme, scene, narration, characterization, and takeaway. They demonstrate these elements with excerpts and examples from memoir classics, such as H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, The Duke of Deception by Gregory Wolff, and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

Also cited were some newer memoirs and others I haven’t yet read that you might want to check out if you enjoy the genre, including Body 2.0 by Krista Haapala, Drinking by Caroline Knapp, Sex Object by Jessica Valenti, Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan, Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton, Dog Medicine by Julie Barton, and Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming.

Here, for example, is takeaway – the heart of a good memoir, a big-picture message or moment of shared connection with the reader, from Body 2.0:

“Endurance pain will not relent with change, as indeed this flavor of pain has changed  you. Loved ones may find you unrecognizable. You will see life through different eyes. In fact, endurance pain affords us the incredible opportunity to shed many useless cultural constructs like superficial success, unfulfilling relationships, and external validation.”

To this list I would add another excellent, just-published memoir, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which I wrote about in my last post.

With that, I’m off to write. I plan to finish my draft in conjunction with NaNoWriMo, which takes place in November. Since I’m not working on a novel, I guess that makes me a NaNoWriMo rebel. I’ll see you all back here in December, when I hope to have plenty of books to recommend for holiday giving and receiving.

Do you enjoy reading memoir? If so, can you recommend some of your favorites?

I stayed in Bernal Heights and made it nearly to the top of Bernal Heights Park, where I was treated to this view of the city.


I love all the colorful, artistic touches.


I explored Golden Gate Park with my son. This is Stowe Lake.


At my airbnb, I found this wonderful surprise, a beautifully designed backyard retreat.

21 thoughts on “The Magic of Memoir”

  1. I’m glad you had a good time at the conference and I enjoyed all of your beautiful pictures! I’ll be wishing you lots of productivity this holiday season as you take your blogging break 🙂

  2. Wonderful post Valorie which I am just catching up on and loving the recommendations, especially the works by your mentor, both her personal memoir and the guide to writing one. I’m so pleased to hear you’ve made it to the end of your first draft and are dedicating this month to focusing on that.

    I’ve recently bought Jeanette Winterson’s Why be Happy When You Could be Normal to read, I’m particularly attracted to memoir that deals with the inner journey of adoptees, my favourite one is the poet Jackie Kay’s, Red Dust Road. I also love Maya Angelou’s journey through memoir and though I read the earlier ones many years ago, I loved how in her last one, Mom & Me & Mom, she finds forgiveness and compassion and is able to see her mother through a very different lens. I like a memoir that can be visceral but leave us with hope and show us the learning.

    Good luck with the next stage Valorie!

    1. Thanks Claire. You should check out A.M. Home’s memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter, which deals with a fascinating adoption story. She is a fabulous writer. Thanks for these memoir suggestions! I liked Winterson’s memoir, will have to check out Red Dust Road.

  3. Our book club has chosen “WILD” for next month. I’m excited to read it.
    Going beyond journaling, any advice for a beginner writing ones Memoir?
    I want to start a writing group focusing on just getting small personal vignettes on paper perhaps to be revisited later if so desired. What books do you recommend for guidance?
    Just writing an essay on your memoir journey would be enlightening. Enjoy.

    1. Hi, Anne. I’ll be curious to see what you think of Wild. While it’s certainly one of the BEST memoirs out there, I’ve found that women from our generation (those of us a bit older) don’t relate to it quite as well as somewhat younger women. Nonetheless, you can’t go wrong with Cheryl Strayed as someone to emulate and learn from, or simply to enjoy her writing. She writes with unbelievable honesty, courage, and love, puts her whole heart into it.

      Closest to my heart has been the memoir The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, who is a bit older than Strayed.

      I’m thrilled to hear you’re starting a group, and I hope you’ll keep me posted as to how it goes, I’m very interested. As for recommendations:

      I can’t recommend books for getting started writing personal vignettes, family stories, etc, because from the get-go I wanted to write a full blown memoir. So I kind of skipped that stage. There are many, many good books out there, so I would Google various phrases – how to write personal memories, or how to write family stories – and you’ll come up with quite a few. You can screen them by seeing how they’ve been reviewed on Amazon and Goodreads. Also ask your local librarian.

      Way back when, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, was transformational for me. It focuses on giving writers the courage to put pen to page, especially for those who have been held back in some way or who think they have no “talent” or that having talent is even important. It is well known in the creative field and has sold millions of copies, and I highly recommend it.

      Then there is the aspect of trauma and healing. I doubt you’ll get into this in your group, at least at the start, but be aware there are many people who want to write about difficult experiences but don’t know how to get started. For that, I recommend Linda Joy Myers’ book, The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story. She draws heavily on Dr. James W. Pennebaker’s work, who has found that writing about difficult experiences can improve health and well being. Writing about these experiences can actually cause someone to have a setback, though, if it is not done with professional guidance and intention. Again, I doubt you’ll be getting into this, but in case the issue comes up or someone asks, Linda Joy’s book would be a good place to begin.

      As for how-to-write-memoir-books, I have plenty to recommend, so when and if you’re interested let me know!

      And as for writing my own memoir about mental illness in the family, it has been extraordinarily difficult, one of my most difficult life tasks. I hope to write and speak about it once I finish the memoir draft next year.

      Again, Anne, please let me know how things go, I can’t wait to hear!


    ________________________________ Da: Books Can Save A Life Inviato: sabato 22 ottobre 2016 23.51 A: Oggetto: [New post] The Magic of Memoir

    Valorie Grace Hallinan posted: ” I’ll be taking a break from Books Can Save a Life until December so I can finish a draft of my memoir and get a good start on the revision. Before I go, I wanted to share highlights of my trip to San Francisco, where I attended the 2016 Magic of”

  5. Best wishes as you work on your memoir, Valorie. For the previous 2 years I’ve written novel drafts during NaNoWriMo; however, I’m also considering using the time to start a second memoir manuscript as I’m letting my first one rest before tackling editing again. Some of my favorite memoirs to read this past year were written by a blogging friend:
    Blessings as you write ~ Wendy

  6. I’ve missed you Val, but I can see that your absence has been to a good purpose. Looks like San Francisco gave you some sunshine. Sounds like the conference gave you some inspiration. Seems like you’ll be making some memoir magic this month! Complimeti cara amica!

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