Author Archives: Matilda Butler

ABC’s of Writing: P is for Physical Activity and Writing

Matilda Butler, ABC’s of Writing #22

Many of us write everyday. For me that’s a mixture of blogging and work on our almost finished (honest) Writing Alchemy. (I keep finding wonderful material to add to the book, but am closing in on the last of it.) And when I’m not writing, I’m either editing what I’ve written or I’m editing someone else’s work.

Some days I tell myself the key is time in the chair, even if I don’t make much progress. But is that the best approach? Should I be doing something that gets me ready to write, that helps me focus and be more productive?

I’ve got three suggestions for you that were sent to us at Women’s Memoirs by Maria Rainier, a freelance writer. I’m posting one here and have posted the other two on our website. Even if you don’t follow these specific tips, I hope you’ll find comparable ones. I know I’ve just joined a gym and believe that additional physical activity with be good for both my body and my writing.

A Tip for Memoir and Life Writers
by Maria Rainier

Most professional writers take time to write every day, whether they’re working or not, but that can add up to a lot of writing. It’s easy to get tired of the practice of writing – the process, the same scheduled block of time, the deadlines that loom overhead.

But you can change your attitude toward writing with a change in your writing practice. One simple yet effective way to do this is to change your approach to writing by solidifying your mindset before you begin. As you might imagine, there are endless ways to find and keep a good writing mindset. Depending on who you are, you might be inspired by the sound of a tractor backfiring on a dairy farm or you might feel creative when you keep a vase of fresh flowers on your desk. No matter what puts you in touch with your muse, it’s important to replicate that context when you’re struggling to find your writing mindset. To help you identify activities that evoke your creative spirit, I’ve listed a few of mine. I hope that you can use them to find inspiration or to discover your own means of courting the muse.

Yoga & Breathing Exercises
Often, when I’m feeling unable to write well, it’s because my ability to feel inspired is being impaired by my own body. If I’m not relaxed, my mind has trouble getting past the stress felt by my body, making it difficult to focus on finding that writing mindset. Fortunately, I’ve found a way to relax that helps me feel stronger, more focused, and even more confident in my ability to write well. I work my way through a short half-hour yoga program that includes pranayama, or breathing exercises, to calm down my body and mind.

While it’s easy to worry about wasting time when you’re a writer, yoga has proven to be a valuable investment for me. Once I’ve completed the program, my mind feels clear and my body no longer draws my focus away from work. The simple effort of following my breath and concentrating on my body’s absorption of oxygen has a calming effect that serves as the perfect precursor to a few hours of writing.

I usually try to make time for yoga when I know that I need it, but if that’s out of the question, I can still achieve a good result with a few minutes of focused breathing. I do circle breathing when I’m pressed for time, which involves taking a deep breath in through the nose, pinching the right nostril shut, and exhaling through the left. I then pinch my left nostril shut as well, then unblock the right and inhale again. I repeat this process until I feel ready to begin writing.

If this tip intrigues you, we hope you’ll read Maria Rainier’s other two on our website.

ABC’s of Writing: H is for Happiness

Matilda Butler, ABC’s of Writing #21

Happiness seems to be in full bloom. I’m not talking about the delicate spring lupines, the robust summer roses, the colorful fall chrysanthemums, the persistent winter pansies popping their heads up through the snow. Happiness seems to be on a growth trajectory that keeps it in bloom all 12 months, year after year.

And no, I haven’t lost my mind. I’m well aware of ongoing revolutions, death, poverty, joblessness and the many other problems of the world. So what do I mean that happiness is in bloom? Let me back up. Kendra and I often delve into science — the social and physical sciences — to uncover research findings that can be used by writers. Over the past year, we’ve dug deeply and come up with powerful information and insights that can help us all be better writers. However, as we wrap up our book, Writing Alchemy: Turning Your Words into Gold, we’ve found we have to eliminate some of our examples and add them to our already large pile of “interesting but just can’t use it” science nuggets. In addition, we constantly run into new areas of research.

One of the new areas I’ve been reading about is the science of happiness. The topic is now part of a wildly blooming field of scientific inquiry. If you look for books on happiness on Amazon, you’ll find plenty — 20,927 to be specific. If you want information right away and so check websites for “happiness research”, you’ll get 165,000 hits. Many of these books and posts are derivative of the work of a small cluster of scientists and Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California-Riverside is one of the early researchers in this field. For almost two decades, she has investigated the science of happiness.

What do we mean by happiness? It is a perpetual state? No. Does money buy it? No. Are we born into it? To a certain extent. Does life change it? Somewhat. Can we control it? Absolutely.

The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, Lyubomirsky’s 2007 book that planted the seeds writers continue to harvest, demonstrates that about 50% of our sense of happiness is determined by genetic factors. Think of it this way, some people are Tiggers right from the start with bouncy personalities that never let them down. Others are better described as gloomy donkey Eeyores. When my children were young, I loved reading this part of Winnie the Pooh:

“Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning,” he said. “Which I doubt,” said he.
“Why, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.”
“Can’t all what?” said Pooh, rubbing his nose.
“Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush.”

While we may have birth predispositions to happiness or sadness, there is still another 50% to be explained. Circumstances or events account for about 10% of happiness. Tragedies and adverse life experiences, it turns out, can reduce happiness for a while, but our usual outlook on life often returns in spite of “bad stuff.” The remaining 40% — described as intentional action — is under our control. That is quite significant as it means we can control our ability to experience happiness.

On Women’s Memoirs blog today, I have posted a video showing some unexpected findings about happiness. Then I’ve shared one study and posted two writing prompts. I hope you’ll join me there to see how you can incorporate the findings from happiness research both in your writing and in your life.

An Editor’s Perspective: An Editor is Writing Her Own Memoir, Part 1

Matilda Butler, SCN Editorial Service, #8

Did you know that Story Circle Network (SCN) can help you find an editor? SCN’s Editorial Service (SCN/ES) is a valuable feature of this organization. Kendra Bonnett and I are pleased to be SCN/ES’s co-coordinators. As you may know, we have put together a team of professional editors who are especially attuned to the stories women write. It can be a scary step to have a manuscript professionally edited and we’re here to make that step as easy as possible. If you have questions about the process or the costs, please email either of us–matilda (at) womensmemoirs (dot) com or kendra (at) womensmemoirs (dot) com. We’ll be glad to walk you through the steps or answer any of your questions.

Kendra and I have found the SCN/ES editors are especially writer-friendly. They give clear direction on what to do next in your revision process. Clients of SCN/ES have been delighted with both the process and the result.

Roseanne Rini is one of the SCN/ES editors and she has written several interesting articles for this website. Currently, she is bridging two roles — editor and writer. Yes, she too is working on her own memoir and decided to share her process and thoughts with you. If you’re looking for an editor, you might consider Roseanne. Trust us — your manuscript will always take precedence over her personal writing. By the way, if you are interested in Part 2 to this discussion, please see

Writing My Memoir: One Vignette at a Time, Part 1
Roseanne Rini

I started writing my memoir as a way of coming to grips with my mother’s death. I had been writing in my journal all along, but for the first time I felt an impulse to tell the story of the last months of her life with a reader in mind. I began with a memorable experience the day of her funeral. What I wrote was just a few paragraphs long, but it seemed to satisfy something. Other short pieces followed. Eventually, these pieces were not just about my mother’s death but also about her life, and my own as her daughter.

I call these little essays “vignettes”: brief anecdotes or sketches, snapshots, complete unto themselves. A memory, a story or an idea would float to the surface of my consciousness and, trusting this process might eventually lead me somewhere, I would write about it, give the piece a title, and add it to my file. Louise DeSalvo, who wrote Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, a book I highly recommend, calls this stage of the writing process “germination.” As my file has grown, suggesting the possibility of a book-length memoir, I’ve been thinking about how the individual pieces might be organized or woven together. What relation do they have to one another and where might more writing be necessary in order to provide the connections?

It has also occurred to me, however, that a memoir can, like Devotion, by Dani Shapiro, consist entirely of short pieces, without the connections between them being immediately clear. A central concern runs through all of the very brief “chapters” of Shapiro’s book: how she defines herself and especially her spirituality at mid-life, and what her life will be about, what direction it will take, from this point on. However, she touches upon a wide range of topics in relation to this overriding theme, for example, her son’s illness, her relationships with her parents, her exploration of the spiritual practice of metta and her rediscovery of her Judaism. The essays are in some cases as short as a one-paragraph definition: “The Sanskrit word for devotion is bhakta. . . .” or as long as a six- page description of a recent experience or a childhood memory. She seems to leave to the reader the task of perceiving how each selection is related to all the others, but it is clear by the end of the memoir that she has found a certain peace about the issues with which she began and has indeed found her direction.

With my own work, I found myself, not surprisingly, writing more than one piece on any given theme. My strategy thus far has been to group pieces on similar themes and to make a list of the themes to which I keep returning, in the hopes that I might discover a pattern or design. Essentially, this is a matter of discerning the story or stories I am trying to tell. Telling the story of my mother’s dying is taking me into an exploration of the complex connection I had with her. I find myself writing about, among other things, religion, ethnicity, cooking and female conditioning; about the ways we were connected, and the ways we were not. And as I tell her story I am also telling my own.

In Part 2 of this post, I’ve provided two examples from my writing that suggest, as I have discovered, one of my memoir’s major themes. Please see for a continuation of this discussion.

Editing: Five Tips for Surviving the Revision Process

Matilda Butler, SCN Editorial Service, #7

Story Circle Network’s Editorial Service (SCN/ES) is a valuable feature of this organization. Kendra Bonnett and I are pleased to be SCN/ES’s co-coordinators. As you probably know, we have put together a team of professional editors who are especially attuned to the stories women write. It can be a scary step to have a manuscript professionally edited and we’re here to make that step as easy as possible. If you have questions about the process or the costs, please email either of us–matilda (at) womensmemoirs (dot) com or kendra (at) womensmemoirs (dot) com. We’ll be glad to walk you through the steps or answer any of your questions.

Sometimes one of our editors writes a post, giving you the benefit of her thoughts and experiences. Instead of an editor, today I have something a little different to share. Pamela Jane Bell is an author with more than 30 years of writing experience. She has published 26 children’s books with Houghton Mifflin, Atheneum, Simon & Schuster, Avon, Penguin-Putnam, Harper, Mondo, and others. Her books include Noelle of the Nutcracker, illustrated by Jan Brett, which has been optioned for a film, and the “Winky Blue” and “Milo” series published by Mondo. Books in these series have recently gone into Spanish, big book, and CD editions. She is completing her memoir about becoming a children’s book author.

Pamela is a guest blogger on our website and came to us with the idea of 10 tips for the revision process once you get a manuscript back from an editor. As you can imagine, she has worked with a number of editors. We gave her a thumbs up to the idea. Then we came up with an idea of our own. We decided to share the first half of her list with you. You can see the second half of her list here.

Kendra and I have found the SCN/ES editors are especially writer-friendly. They give clear direction on what to do next in your revision process. However, a lengthy email from an editor can seem overwhelming. We think Pamela’s list is an on-target approach to moving forward with changes rather than feeling overwhelmed.

By Pamela Jane Bell

Editorial direction – conveyed in a mysterious language all its own – can be daunting. What does she mean I need foreshadowing? What the heck is “pointing?” How am I supposed to do more “weaving?” Authors who work with editors have to figure out how to translate abstract concepts into concrete changes. Here are five tips for surviving the revision process – that unsettling time after you get comments from your editor.

[By the way, I explain “pointing” and “weaving” at the bottom of this post.]


At times I have read an editor’s suggestions with total dismay. Not only did I feel my work was a failure, I also had no idea how to make the changes the editor wanted, or even understand what she meant. Below are the first five of 10 tips for how to successfully survive the revision process with both you and your memoir intact and improved. These are strategies I’ve discovered through thirty years of working with editors on book revisions. And believe me, I still need them myself (the tips and the editors).

1. Don’t try to take it in all at once

A long letter or (as in my case recently) several single-spaced emails filled with editorial suggestions can feel overwhelming, especially if you’re reading at the end of the day, or when you’re about to take your dog to the vet after he ate your daughter’s earphones and her retainer (true story). Glance over the editor’s letter or email. Then put it aside for a quiet moment when you can really think about what she’s saying.

112. Break down the criticism

It’s helpful to separate the editor’s suggestions into steps, or arrange them in a list. This gives one side of your brain something productive to do while the other side is panicking. A list will also help you to see that revision isn’t an utterly unfathomable process, but a logical step-by-step procedure.

3. Find alternate ways to make the suggested changes

Let’s say your editor wants to know more about a person in the first chapter of your memoir or autobiography. What does the person like to eat, what are her favorite books? These are questions you may not be interested in exploring or that you don’t feel are relevant to your narrative. But chances are your editor is on to something. Listen to her suggestions and find another way to address them that is uniquely your own, and that will take you deeper into your story and your characters.

114. Request clarification

If you are really having trouble understanding what the editor is asking you to do, ask her to clarify. For example, your editor may ask you to drop a hint that the you are hiding something from the reader. Ask her how many sentences she imagines you will need to accomplish this. “Oh, three or four,” she may say, and suddenly the elusive “foreshadow” becomes a much more tangible concept. Most editors are happy to expand on their suggestions.

5. Ask the editor for concrete examples

For me, concrete examples are more helpful than something general, such as “show the narrator falling in love.” Sometimes I even ask the editor to write a few sentences to illustrate what she means, however rough or unpolished. For instance, “She tossed and turned all night, thinking of him, trying to picture his face.” You won’t use what she writes, but it can give you a template to help shape your own language. The template functions like training wheels on a bike; they help get you started revising your memoir until you’re moving along confidently on your own.

*Pointing refers to trimming and shaping your memoir to illustrate its theme – the story you have come to tell. Weaving is taking a thread of your memoir – for instance, how you felt invisible in school – and making sure the issue of invisibility is touched upon or revisited consistently throughout the story.

And don’t forget, you can see the second half of my list here.

ABC’s of Writing: T is for Traditions — Celebrating July 4th

Matilda Butler, ABC’s of Writing, #20

It’s the fourth of July and I hope you’re NOT reading this. I like to imagine that you’re in your kitchen fixing your favorite red, white, and blue dish (one year I made a vegan banana cake with a topping of blueberries in one swath, raspberries in a second, and smashed bandanas in the third), or at a picnic with family or friends, or getting ready to watch fireworks locally or even on television.

But just in case you are reading this, I’d like to talk about the importance of traditions in our lives. Traditions carry our stories from year to year and from one generation of family members to the next, and even from family to friends. Never underestimate the power of traditions in our lives. They form part of our DNA.

Let’s assume you read this post late on July 4 or sometime in the following week. You have just been through this year’s version of July 4. It may have been filled with well-remembered tasks or it may have brought new elements into the day. But whatever your day was like, spend about 10 minutes writing about those elements that most represent July 4th to you. Write about the traditions that you want to share with your children and grandchildren or with good friends. Think about all the small details as well as the sounds and scents and tastes and sights of the day.

Maybe you’ll start a journal or a computer directory and fill it with stories of treasured family traditions from across the years.

Over at Women’s Memoirs, we’re also celebrating the fourth of July by announcing the winners of our memoir writing contest with its categories of FOURTH OF JULY and INDEPENDENCE. We had many contest entries and have chosen the best of them. Today, we’re publishing the pair of First Place winners in the Fourth of July category and the two tied First Place winners in the Independence category.

Here’s the link to the full list of winners:

Contest Winners: July 4th and Independence

The following links will be live at 10 am, noon, 2 pm, and 4 pm (PDT). Be sure and check out these stories. The first of these make all of us long for our own strong traditions that are shared and treasured across generations.

Tied First Place Contest Winner — Fourth of July category, Elsewhere Cove by Heather A. A. Menzies

Tied First Place Contest Winner — Fourth of July category, Make Love Not War by Sarah White

Tied First Place Contest Winner — Independence category, My Independence by Donna Lancaster

Tied First Place Contest Winner — Independence category, For the Love of the Game by Rebekah Varin

The ABC’s of Writing: B is for Boss

Matilda Butler, ABC’s of Writing, #19

“You’re not the boss of me.”

Have you ever had a child say that to you? Probably. Or maybe you’re the one who said it. If you have been following our blog this week, you know that I traveled East to help Kendra celebrate her upcoming 60th birthday. We had seven days in the Berkshires and Hudson Valley filled with sights, sounds, and ideas. We worked and played and blogged, sharing our days together. If you missed these posts, you can go to Journaling Our Way to Kendra’s Birthday: Day 1 At the bottom, you’ll find links to all seven posts.

But I’m getting distracted. I wanted to mention that when I told Kendra of the two posts we have from Pamela Jane Bell about how to be a good boss of yourself, she told a story from her childhood.

Kendra (surprise, surprise) was quite an independent little child. Her parents found it easier to not go out often, but when they did they needed a babysitter. Most lasted only one evening. Kendra clearly remembers one specific sitter who was telling her what to do. My guess, it was to not talk so much (she is a Gemini, after all) or to eat the canned green beans (she doesn’t like those right up to the present time). In any event, Kendra shouted:

“You’re not the boss of me.”

When her parents returned, the sitter said, “Don’t call me again.” Another sitter bites the dust.

The lesson life teaches us is that we’re the boss of ourselves and sometimes, as Pamela Jane Bell writes on her Facebook profile,“I’m self employed with strict boss and I’m only half-kidding.

You are the boss of yourself. Use your time writing knowing you have a boss — you. Then be the kind of boss who balances demanding standards with encouragement and rewards. If you are interested in suggestions for being a good boss to yourself, here are Pamela’s two articles:

5 Surprising Tips on Being a Good Boss to Yourself

5 More Surprising Tips on Being a Good Boss to Yourself

ABC’s of Writing: C is for Character

Matilda Butler, ABC’s of Writing, #18

C is for Character. As many of you know, Kendra Bonnett and I both teach and write about the importance of character in memoir. We even argue that developing a character is easier for a fiction writer than a memoirist. Why? A fiction writer knows that she (or he) has to create every detail necessary to have a strong and believable protagonist. But a memoirist thinks that since she is a real person she doesn’t have to provide the same level of specificity.

In addition to our own research and writing about character, we decided to reach out to our colleague Martha Engber, author of the valuable book, Growing Great Characters from the Ground Up. I first met Martha at the Gilroy Library where she made a fascinating presentation about developing characters. Of course, I bought her book and made it one of the few that traveled in the car with me for our move from California to Oregon. Hundreds of books have now arrived and are still in their boxes awaiting new bookcases. But Martha’s book is nearby having enjoyed a first class ride in our Honda. No dusty box for that book.

Kendra and I asked Martha if she would share a few of her ideas about developing characters with memoir writers. Below is her introduction to the topic. Then if you click on the link to Women’s Memoirs, you’ll see the first two problems and solutions that she poses. On Tuesday, we’ll post two more problems and solutions she discusses as well as her conclusion. We hope you’ll join us for all three of these valuable posts.

Why Memoirists Need to Fully Employ Character Development, Part 1

By Martha Engber

Memoir writing is an extremely attractive proposition for two reasons: 1) Memoirs cover past events and 2) involve real people. With the plot and characters already set, there’s no need to develop either.

The problem with this reasoning is that without a clear main character who’s on a significant, well-defined journey that’s populated by people readers care about, the story becomes a list of “this happened, then this and this…”, and like that too-long Christmas form letter, is read, then skimmed, then set down without further thought.

If you, as a memoirist, want to circumvent that outcome, embrace the idea that a memoir is a character-driven endeavor that begins with you.

By you, I don’t just mean you, the writer. Instead, a memoir is about you, the main character who’s on a significant journey leading to an extraordinary epiphany that forever alters who you are and your view of the world.

While that statement may seem obvious to some, I’m always amazed by the number of memoir writers I meet in workshops and at conferences who seem intent upon writing about everyone but themselves.

Therefore, your first task is to develop yourself as a main character. When you develop you, you will find the plot, otherwise known as the string of obstacles and corresponding actions that push you toward your greatest fear and eventual epiphany. Once you’re clear about who and what the story is about, you’ll be able to select the people who played a major role in your journey and why you have to make the reader care for them, too.

Please join me on Women’s Memoirs where I discuss two problems (and their solutions) to character development for memoir writers.


Martha Engber is the author of the literary novel, THE WIND THIEF (a book club pick) and GROWING GREAT CHARACTERS FROM THE GROUND UP: A THOROUGH PRIMER FOR WRITERS OF FICTION AND NONFICTION. A journalist by profession, she’s interviewed former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos, Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell, actress Marlo Thomas and other celebrities. A workshop facilitator, lecturer and book editor, she’s had a full-length play produced in Hollywood. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Watchword, Iconoclast, Bookpress, the Berkeley Fiction Review and other literary journals. She maintains Growing Great Writers From the Ground Up, a site for writers. Martha lives with her family in Northern California.

If you’d like to know more about Martha:

Martha Engber’s website

Martha’s Facebook fan page

Martha’s book: Growing Great Characters From the Ground Up: A Thorough Primer for Writers of Fiction and Nonfiction