ABC’s of Writing: I is for Insight

Matilda Butler, ABC’s of Writing, #14

April is in full bloom in Corvallis. Bushes that looked dead when we moved here are now dressed in pink or yellow or white. Bulbs that kept cozy during the snow and sleet of winter have burst forth to display their bright reds and oranges.

I’ve just returned from the Bay area where the local plants were also in bloom. Yet when I returned to Oregon I saw how much more important the blossoms are here because they bring brightness to the still rainy days while in Palo Alto their colors are almost washed out by the brilliant sun.

This is a big day on our Women’s Memoirs website as we are announcing the memoir winners for our April contest. This means that Kendra and I have spent the last 10 days reading and re-reading entries. If you’ve ever been involved in judging writing contests, you know how difficult it can be.

You’re probably wondering about the relationship between blossoms, contest entries and this post. The point is to consider the importance of insight in memoir writing. Even when digging deep to express the emotions of a memory, even when writing (and rewriting) for clarity, even when crafting a narrative arc, it is possible to write without much shared insight. I say “shared” because when you write a memoir vignette, you may have a personal aha moment. You may better understand what was going on at some time in your past. Your insight might even change you in some important way.

So I’m not saying that you don’t have insights when you write. But I am saying that you need to make sure the reader understands what the experience meant to you.

In choosing the winners of our April contest, we found that after a number of criteria had been met, some stories shared their insight with us and that was often what brought the entry to the top of the pile. As you read the four contest entries that will be published throughout the day, I invite you to examine the different ways that the meaning of the event — the insights — are shared.

So when you are writing your memoir, don’t get so caught up in the telling that you forget to share your reflections and insights.

The winning contest entries will be published at 10, noon, 2 and 4 (PDT). I will come back to the blog and add the links once they go live on the Women’s Memoirs site. In the meantime, go take a look at the winners. Perhaps you’ll even extend a congratulations to them. Want to enter a memoir contest? Just go to to read about our current contest that ends April 30.

UPDATE #1: The winning story by Tracy Kauffman-Wood, a SCN member, has just been published as the first of our three-way tie for First Place in our April Memories category. It’s called Kitchen Veda and includes a fabulous recipe for Corn Chowder. (I know because I made it last night for our dinner. Of course, I substituted soy milk for the cow’s milk and tapioca and moong flours for the wheat flour. But that just goes to show that it’s such a good recipe that it can withstand a little transformation.) This is a well-developed story that is beautifully told. In particular, we were struck by her struggle, years later, to understand the events that happened in the late 1970s.

UPDATE #2: The second story in the three-way-tie for first place in our April Memories category comes from Phyllis Mattson for Journey to America. Phyllis tells of her arrival in America, sent from Vienna in 1940 for her protection. Phyllis’s insight shows the importance of her mother preparing her to be on her own at the age of 10 and a half.

UPDATE #3: The third story in the three-way tie for first place in Women’s Memoirs contest, April Memories category goes to Judith L. Newton for her story Three Butters. Filled with vivid imagery, the story won our admiration for the author’s insights into her motivations versus her parent’s and the resulting understanding of the difference. Like recipes? Newton includes the recipes for three distinctive butters.

UPDATE #4: The winning story by Kathleen Hewitt is now published. It’s called Sixteen Birthdays. Although Kendra and I didn’t know this when we chose Kathleen’s story, her daughter will celebrate her 16th birthday this Sunday, Easter. Kathleen tells us that she wanted to share the news of the prize with her daughter all day. However, she is waiting until Sunday when she will give her a printed copy of the story and tell her that the story won our First Place prize in the April Birthdays category.

2 responses to “ABC’s of Writing: I is for Insight

  1. Thanks for this insight, Kendra. In my memoir I do describe much that occurred but only mentioned a few insights, assuming (and we know what happens when we assume!) that the reader would automatically understand. Well, I’ve now stopped that assuming! LOL Thanks for a valuable post. Sam

  2. Matilda Butler

    Hi Sam: It is hard to provide insights without beating the reader over the head. But just because it is difficult doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. (Are those enough negatives for you?) We find that memoirists often stay away from explaining the impact of events on their lives and how they are changed. Yet that’s what the reader is often looking for. — Matilda

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