Author Archives: Matilda Butler

The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 6

This is the sixth in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

When my children were small, I took them on short walks in nearby wooded areas. As they got older, I showed them the pleasures of hiking the trails of Yosemite National Park and other places of beauty. No matter where we went as a family or how easy or how hard the path, they loved to dash ahead to seek new adventures. Parental pace was much too slow for them. They ran ahead and then came back quickly. They wore themselves out by covering each distance twice. But that was part of their enthusiasm.

Reflecting on the different paces we manage at different times in our lives, consider this sixth and last Tao of Memoir Writing:

The child in us runs ahead on the path with boundless energy. The seasoned scout cautiously leads the way.

In writing, we tell others of delights or dangers, yet we are the same person.

There is more than one storyteller in each of us. We should let each of these voices come to the fore at different times to help others understand the many textures of our lives.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING TIP: Writing about a time of passionate youthfulness? Try using short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. You will convey some of the boundless energy of that period. Writing about a period of aging or time spent caring for your elderly parents? See if longer sentences and paragraphs better reflect the slowness of those experiences.

If you think about music, recall that there are fast passages and slow passages. Similarly, words create a tempo for the reader and the memoirist controls this by varying the length of the sentences and paragraphs.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING PROMPT: Find a paragraph in a memoir that is particularly vivid for you. Analyze it: Count the number of sentences. Count the number of words in each sentence. Do several long sentences follow each other? Are short sentences used to create impact?

Then rewrite the paragraph. Try making long sentences short. Make short sentences long. You can do this by combining sentences or by cutting some in half. How do the changes alter the rhythm of the story? Which do you like better?

In what ways will you use the craft of writing to show: “The child in us that runs ahead on the path with boundless energy. The seasoned scout that cautiously leads the way.”

by Matilda Butler

The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 5

This is the fifth in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

This reflection on the Tao of Memoir Writing begins with an understanding that not all stories are created equal. Some vignettes we write evoke pleasant memories. It is tempting to tell these stories as if we are still experiencing them. Other vignettes evoke quite the opposite memories. When we tell these stories, we want to “keep our distance.” Consider:

Too close or too far away, we cannot see clearly.

There is a best distance for recalling each event of our lives.

Some stories may be pure delight; they invite us to recount them from an intimate distance. Yet if we stand too close, we may miss their meaning.

Other stories may be too painful to tell without distance, without a narrator’s voice that lets us step outside the situation. Yet if we are too far away, we may lose sight of the emotional and factual truths hidden within.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING TIP: We write memoirs for many reasons. But a common outcome across all the reasons for starting is a better understanding of ourselves at the ending.

A TAO TRY THIS: Take a magazine article. Hold it up so that it almost touches your eye. What do you see? Take that same article and put it on the other side of the room. Now walk back to where you usually sit. What do you see?

If you do this exercise, you’ll understand what we mean in this Tao of Memoir Writing. “Too close or too far away, we cannot see clearly.” When the article was next to your eye, you couldn’t make out a single word, possibly not even a single letter. The parallel in memoir writing is the story when you include many details but forget to bring out why it mattered.

When the article was across the room, you couldn’t read words. In memoir writing, this is the equivalent of crafting a vignette in such a remote way that the reader wonders why you bothered to include it. Again, to “see clearly” our lives, we need to write at the mid-range, neither too close nor too far away.

This is not to say we write about all events in the same way or from the same distance. Be prepared to move in as close as comfort allows. But before you conclude your story, move back. Put the story in context. Consider its impact on your life.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING PROMPT: Write a paragraph about an event or person in your life. The first time, lavish details on this vignette. Get as close as you can. The second time, write with coldness and detachment. Reflect on how you feel after each effort. Write a second paragraph for each version. In the second paragraph take the story and put it in context, personal, cultural, or historical. Give the vignette perspective, personal perspective. How did you feel? How did it change you?

As you write your memoir consider the implication for you and your reader of writing at various distances from the story.

by Matilda Butler

The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

Today’s Tao musings focus on the habit of writing. Consider:

Good habits are good friends; we return to them gladly every day.

A ritual or habit creates a path that is shaped by use.

We seek to release ourselves from rituals that bind or restrict. We seek to open ourselves to habits of creativity that we gladly practice daily. The habit of writing, once established, carries us forward toward our goals.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING TIP: How often have you said, “I’ll work on my memoir when I have more time.” If you are busy today, it is a safe bet that you will be busy a week from now, a month from now, a year from now, and five years from now. Time doesn’t suddenly become available on its own. You need to put writing into your admittedly busy schedule.

Do you know the memoir by choreographer Twyla Tharp The Creative Habit? In describing her life, her creative art, she has given us a way to understand that a set of habits, habits for creativity, can keep us moving forward.

Try writing daily for two weeks, even 10 minutes per day. You’ll be amazed at how this one creativity habit lets the ideas begin to flow. This habit will become like a good friend, one you look forward to greeting.

by Matilda Butler

The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 3

This is the third in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

Today in the Tao of Memoir Writing, I’m reflecting on the telling of our life journey. Consider this:

The journey begins at the gate or the journey begins in the middle of the garden.

Wherever we are appears to be the center. And wherever we go, there we are.

Let me ask an important question for memoir writers. Where will we begin our stories? There is no single answer, no right answer.

Perhaps we should start where we are–wherever our thoughts are focused now. The structure will grow from that. “A tree broader than a woman can embrace is born of a tiny shoot.”

THE TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING TIP: If you are just getting started on your memoir, the most important thing to do is to just begin. As your ideas and words begin to flow, there will be plenty of time to consider the structure of your memoir. If you are bogged down, don’t worry about a cohesive flow. Pick up your writing at another point in the story. Later you can organize the material.

Many years ago, so long ago that I was using a Smith Corona Coronet Super 12 electric typewriter, I developed a three step trick for getting my writing started:

(1) Insert a blank piece of white paper into the platen and roll it until about an inch is visible;

(2) Type the word “The”;

(3) Cross out the word with a series of xxxs.

Voila! I didn’t have to worry that the first word or first sentence was perfect, engrossing, or even vaguely interesting. The blank page wasn’t blank. I was already launched.

That old trick seems silly today, but it conveys a message. You can start any place. You cannot imagine where the memoir writing journey will take you. You simply need to get started on the adventure.

Remember: Wherever you are in the process of memoir writing is the center of your thought. Wherever you go, you will find yourself.

by Matilda Butler

The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 2

This is the second in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

Tao [dau], n. way or path

Yin [yin], n. negative, dark

Yang [yahng], n. positive, bright

Let’s consider a second element in the Tao of memoir writing. Our lives are not a series of unrelated elements. Each flows into the other. I put it this way:

Yin becomes yang as night becomes day.

Each has an element of the other within it. Yin and yang are opposites, yet interdependent. Together they represent the process of transformation.

In telling our stories, we look for elements that brought about changes in us or in others because of us. Are there the seeds of one in the other? Does tragedy lead to new hope? Does happiness eventually come from pain? Does health come from sickness?

Lives are not all yin or all yang but an ever-changing combination of the two.

A TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING TIP: Take time to consider the turning points in your life. In reflecting on your life, what do you think has made you the person you are today? Influences from the geography in which you were raised? A relative or teacher who helped redirect your life? A passion that you “gift” to someone else? A trauma that redirected your energies? A death that released you to be the person you are?

Create a list of turning points in your life. These might be times when you moved from yin to yang or the opposite. Create a second list of people who have helped you through your turning points or who even created them. Write a paragraph on one combination of a turning point event and a person involved in the turning point.

What did you learn about yourself? Notice the interdependencies of dark and light, of negative and positive. Be attentive to the events and people in your life, including those that seem like opposites. Understanding the yin and yang will help you develop the insights necessary for memoir writing.

by Matilda Butler

The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 1

This is the first in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

A memoir begins as a seed. It soon becomes a shoot, then a sapling, then a tree with many expansive branches that arches over an entire garden. How does it know to do this?

Tao [dau], n. way

The Tao, the way or the path, views life as part knowledge, duty, rationality, and part religion, morality, truth. It is not a fixed set of principles. In fact, it often employs riddles and paradoxes to convey its meaning. The Tao offers distinctive insight into many of life’s endeavors, including memoir writing.

Here’s the first Tao of Memoir Writing:

The complete truth is that truth is never complete. The unchanging truth is that truth is forever changing.

In our memoirs, we want to honor the emotional truth of events as we remember them while honoring the factual truth as well.

At the same time, we acknowledge that we are different people today than we were yesterday or last year, so today’s perception of yesterday’s or last year’s truth changes as well.

Seek the emotional truth of your story. You may remember the story differently than others, but readers understand this is your version of events. Most memoirists tell the story their way. Period. Others tell the story as they remember it and then state what someone else, usually a family member, says happened. The particular sequence of events, the location of events, the emotional states of those involved, even who was there are remembered differently by different people. Doubt this? Just reflect on any recent family gathering and you’ll see what I mean. All of these facts can change depending on the role of the person in the story and even the amount of time between the event and the writing.

Acknowledge, at least to yourself, that the memoir is your version. At the same time, don’t alter what you know to be the ‘truth’ to have a better story or to put you in a better light.

by Matilda Butler

ABCs of Writing: M is for Marketing

Matilda Butler, ABC’s of Writing #23

As you probably know, Kendra Bonnett and I have two passions — memoir writing and memoir marketing. Yet the most frequent comment we hear from memoir writers is that they just want to write. They want someone else to do the marketing. This is a bit like giving birth and then hoping someone else will help your baby grow up and become a big success. It’s hard work getting through the birth process and it’s more hard work helping the child grow into a productive adult. But that’s the way it is.

It’s the same with your book. Given the general, but not universal, negative feelings about marketing your memoir, you can imagine how delighted we are when we run into someone who has embraced the new reality of author marketing. Ingrid Ricks is one of those authors.

The story began several months ago. We ran across the opening to her memoir Hippie Boy: A Girl’s Story and were taken with the power of her opening. We didn’t know Ingrid. Her memoir hadn’t even been published. However, we quoted her opening and that recently led her to contact us.

She shared with us the story of her journey to publishing and we thought it so valuable that we asked her to write the details. We’re sharing this story with you today because we believe it may provide some new insight into the process. Then she also gave us her 7 Tips to Publishing/Marketing a Memoir. You can find her 7 Tips on

Steps in Successfully Publishing and Marketing Your Memoir
By Ingrid Ricks

I’d thought I made it when an agent called saying she enjoyed my manuscript and wanted to represent me. That is, until five minutes into our conversation, when she told me that without a solid platform, I could kiss my publishing chances goodbye.

For a minute I was perplexed. What did she mean by “platform”? I worked as a PR/promotions consultant in my day job and knew how to market my book. Hadn’t she read my book proposal that detailed how I planned to sell it once the publishers did their job and got it out into the universe? I had already launched a book web site and Facebook page. What else did they expect me to do?

“Publishers don’t care about what you say you can do AFTER your book is published,” the agent said quietly. “They want to know who is already lined up to buy your book. I can’t tell you how many great books I’ve represented recently that have been turned down by publishers because the author didn’t have a built-in platform. I don’t want that to happen to you.”

I hung up the phone feeling overwhelmed but determined. I hit the Internet and began researching, and immediately stumbled on Scribd, a social publishing community with tens of millions of monthly visitors. It was August 2010 and I set to work, uploading excerpts from my book, reading work from writers I enjoyed and slowly developing a following. Over the next few months I spent time on the site nearly every day, connecting with readers and sharing my work. To expand my base, I also started a story blog and began profiling interesting people who were turning their dreams into reality. And because I needed to keep priming the pump, I also began writing essays and discovered I loved the essay format. After a few months, Scribd began featuring my work on their home page, which in turn drove more followers.

My agent started shopping my memoir in early December and attracted the attention of several top publishers. But when their feedback came, it was always the same: Enjoyed the story but the memoir market is saturated and it’s tough selling these types of stories. Good luck and no thanks.
After a few of these, I decided that part of the problem was my manuscript. I told my agent to stop shopping it around until I could hire a top editor to evaluate it for me. The editor I wanted was booked out five months in advance and didn’t have a slot open until mid-July. That gave me more time to keep pounding away on my platform. I began cross-promoting my excerpts and essays on Smith Magazine and Open Salon, two other open submission platforms, and soon my work was being spotlighted on these platforms as well.

By June, four of the essays and book excerpts I had published on Open Salon were selected for publication on the parent magazine, Salon, and my exposure soared. By the time I received my manuscript evaluation back from the editor in late July, I realized that I had a platform and I no longer needed a publisher. I said goodbye to my agent, spent six weeks doing nonstop rewrites thanks to the amazing direction I received from the editor, hired a cover designer, proofreader and e-book formatter, and struck out on my own.

On October 1st, I launched Hippie Boy: A Girl’s Story as an eBook on Amazon, where it has resided on the bestseller list for its category ever since (fingers crossed it stays there). And I recently ordered my first print run of paperbacks, with pre-orders from as far away as Portugal and France.

Thanks for reading the story of my memoir publishing and marketing story to date.


If you’d like to read her 7 Tips, just click here.