Become a Writer Today

You Can Write a Memoir with Marion Roach Smith

September 02, 2021 Bryan Collins Season 2
Become a Writer Today
You Can Write a Memoir with Marion Roach Smith
Show Notes Transcript

Could you write a memoir?

I used to think that you couldn’t write a memoir until you were old and at the end of your life. Your memoir would be one big book that would describe everything that happened from when you were born until the present moment. 

But, you can write a memoir about a particular theme, topic, or a single event in your life. 

Marion Roach Smith is a memoir coach, and she runs a course in the art of memoir writing. In this episode, we talk about what makes a good memoir and how you can start writing one. 

Marion also discusses how it feels to write something outside of your comfort zone and how you might have to deal with critics who tell you not to write outside your niche.

In this episode we discuss:

  • The conventions of a good memoir book
  • Are you the protagonist in a memoir?
  • How a three-act structure works for a memoir
  • Tips for remembering things from the past
  • Dealing with reactions from other people
  • Deciding what to keep in a memoir and what to take out 


Support the show

If you enjoyed the show please leave a review on Apple. And if you have any questions you can find me on Twitter @BryanJCollins

Thanks for listening!

Marion: I think, first of all, you have to finish the piece before you show it to anyone. I always say to people, “Don’t show it to anyone except for someone who’s invested in your success until you’re done.” Then, be prepared for family to say, “It didn’t happen like that,” and then practice this sentence: “You’re right, it didn’t happen like that to you. It happened like that to me.” And get ready because people will object. They will have their opinions, but you’re gonna have to develop a bit of a thick skin because people are going to say, “It didn’t happen like that.”

Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.

Bryan: Could you write a memoir?
Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. When I first got into non-fiction writing, I used to think that you couldn’t write a memoir until, you know, you were quite old and at the end of your life, and then you could write one big book that would describe everything that happened from when you were born until the present moment. You could write about your interesting childhood, your difficult career, your family life, and so on. But it turns out there’s another way. You can actually write a memoir about a particular theme or a topic or a single event or a lesson or a story in your life. Now, this was something that I learned years ago when I took a series of creative writing classes in the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin and I was introduced to the art of the personal essay. And then, like you, I started coming across more and more personal essays and mini memoirs online. 

You know, you’ll read these personal essays on platforms like Medium or they could go viral and you’ll find them in your feed. So, it turns out there’s more opportunities than ever for non-fiction writers who have stories to tell about a challenge that they’ve overcome or something that happened in their life. And a good memoir isn’t necessarily something that describes what happened from when you were born until the present moment either.

Now, I recently had the chance to catch up with memoir coach, Marion Roach Smith. I took her course in the art of memoir writing several months ago when I was working on my parenting book and it’s one of the best courses I’ve taken in non-fiction writing, particularly in the art of memoir, and I encourage you to check it out. She’s available at In this week’s interview, we talk about what makes a good memoir and how you can start writing a memoir. 

I also asked Marion about what you should do when somebody says you’re writing something that’s outside of your comfort zone, outside of your niche, or outside of your lane. And, in fact, that was my big takeaway from this week’s interview. It’s that, as a writer, you know, you can still have a professional career or you can still have something that helps you pay the bills but you could also have an inner creative life too and the good thing about having an inner creative life is that nobody can say what you should or shouldn’t do because that’s for you to decide. 

And if you are going to have an inner creative life, well, then, you kinda do need to take risks and, often, that means writing outside of your comfort zone or writing about topics that you don’t necessarily normally write about. 

Now, for me, I have a site about writing where I give writing advice. I talk about non-fiction, I talk about copywriting, content marketing, and earning a living from the written word so I was going outside of my comfort zone to write a story-driven parenting book about all of the mistakes that I made when I was a young dad. I was talking to a marketing consultant there a while ago and when I told him about the book, he said to me, “Bryan, that’s outside of your niche or that’s outside of your lane. 

It’s not really gonna help you build the site,” but that’s not why I did it but I was kind of filled with a little bit of self-doubt after this person said that to me because had I just wasted months of my time that I could have been using to build up the site? Well, it turns out, no, I wasn’t wasting my time after all, because, as Marion explained in this week’s interview, you still need to be able to take some sort of creative risks with your work.

If you enjoy this week’s episode, you can support the show by becoming a Patreon for just a couple of dollars a month and I’ll give you discounts on my writing books, courses, and software. And if you really like the show, you can also leave a short review on iTunes, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you’re listening, because more reviews and more ratings will help more people find the podcast.

Now, with that, let’s go over to this week’s interview with Marion Roach Smith, and I started by asking her to give listeners a flavor for who she is and how she got into the art of memoir writing.

Bryan: When I was talking to Marion just before we started the call, I was saying that I’ve taken a couple of writing courses over the years but yours is the only one I’ve taken twice.

Marion: It’s the loveliest thing anyone’s ever said to me so thank you.

Bryan: Yeah, it really was a great course. So, I write a lot of non-fiction. I did try to write fiction with mixed results but there’s just something about non-fiction, personal essays, and maybe memoir that appeals to me a lot, but like you have a tremendous background in memoir so could you give listeners a flavor for who you are and how you got into memoir writing?

Marion: Sure. I got a job at the New York Times straight out of college when I was 21. Those jobs don’t exist anymore, unfortunately, but during that early period at the New York Times, my dad died and my mother, who was only 49, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and it doesn’t seem possible but it was a time when no one had ever heard of it and I ended up writing a piece for the New York Times magazine that was the first time anyone had ever written about Alzheimer’s for the popular press.

And when it came out, a friend of mine said, “Hey, nice piece of memoir,” and I thought, “Memoir? I’m a journalist. What’s that? Huh? What?” And, of course, one thing led to another, I quit the New York Times, I wrote a book based on the piece and I’ve written three other books subsequently, but all have pieces of memoir in them. I fell in love with the genre. It is a remarkable portal to self-discovery. I think it’s the greatest single portal to self-discovery. So, here I am, four books later and having taught memoir for almost 30 years.

Bryan: When you think of memoir, what would you say the conventions of a good memoir book are?

Marion: Well, I think a lot of people confuse memoir with autobiography. Autobiography is that big, big book that you’ll probably never actually finish because it begins with your great, great, great, great grandfather and ends with what you had for lunch today because autobiographies really should be left to the people who are famous, who we know where they ended up. 

For the rest of us, there are memoirs. So, the distinction is that autobiography is that one book that covers your entire life, and memoir allows us to take on just one aspect of that life so you can write 8 or 10 book-length memoir in your lifetime, going from one area of your expertise at a time. So, I’m the only person who teaches it this way but it’s very successful for people. In other words, you have maybe a dozen areas of expertise. I define those as what you know after something you’ve been through, so maybe you’ve been through owning dogs, maybe you’ve been through caregiving an Alzheimer’s patient, maybe you’re a gardener. 

Look at it from one area of your expertise at a time and you’ll succeed in writing a book that just goes from here to there when you didn’t know something to when you did. So, that’s what a successful memoir is, according to me, anyway. It’s written from one area of your expertise at a time, it goes from here to there, and it proves an argument, and that argument, very simply, is what you know after what you’ve been through. What are you willing to tell me about caregiving? Or about dogs? Or about what gardening does for the soul? Just take that on from when you didn’t know that thing to when you did and there’s a successful piece of memoir of any length.

Bryan: So, if I’m writing memoir, does that mean I am the protagonist?

Marion: You are and it’s not about you. A memoir is about something universal and you are it’s illustration and that actually makes your chances of success much higher because you’re not writing your diary. You’re writing about mercy or about that dogs do things for people that people cannot do for themselves and you’re the illustration. 

So, it makes you the protagonist but it takes some of the heat off because I don’t want your Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday version of your life, I want you to give me the argument, what you know about dogs and how they can do things for people that people cannot do for themselves, which relieves a whole lot of pressure on the writer. You don’t have to give us your whole life story, you just have to give us a series of scenes that show us what dogs did for you.

Bryan: And are the scenes written up like a traditional novel, a scene in a novel?

Marion: Can be, yeah, can be. You can do, I mean, some people write them in essay form, some people write them as a book-length narrative, some people write them in vignettes. We have an American writer named Abigail Thomas who is a brilliant memoirist but she writes half-page or quarter-page pieces that you then put together, the writer does — the reader does a little bit more work maybe reading her stuff, but she’s sort of a queen of memoir. So, the style, you can do it in lists.

I’ve read fabulous memoir just done in lists. In other words, try something. That’s what I always say to my students. Try something wild, as a matter of fact. There’s a book out in America called The Suicide Index which is just somebody indexing her life after her father’s suicide, getting things back and organized. It’s a remarkable book, people should take a look at it.

Bryan: Okay, I’ll check that out. Any other memoir books that you recommend people check out?

Marion: I always recommend only one book in terms of when people say to me, “What should I read?” I always say you should read Caroline Knapp’s book, Drinking: A Love Story, and the reason is because the structure is perfect. You may not like her, you may not like — women and drinking may not interest you, alcoholism may not interest you, but the structure is perfect and it’s reading Knapp and her many books that I developed this idea of memoir being one area of your expertise at a time because each time she wrote another book-length memoir, she took on a different here to there, her drinking, her relationship with her dogs, women and their appetites. It’s a remarkable lesson when you read her work and you say, “Oh, I get it. These stories don’t really overlap. That’s fascinating.”

Bryan: Okay. Speaking of structure, you’re a strong believer in the three-act structure, kind of the way the course is organized. How does that work for memoir?

Marion: I’m a huge believer. Let’s make it simple. I mean, you know, people come to me with these structures that look like they’re trying to build an apartment building with a pool on the top and it’s like, “Why, when we can do it in three acts?” A, act one, what’s at stake; act two, what I tried; act three, what worked.
And so, looked at that way and by the very nature of memoir itself, think of the grief memoir. Act one, show us this person you loved, why you loved it, how your father taught you to read and ride a bicycle and taught you to swim and all these wonderful things and then he dies. We get it. There’s something at stake. Act two, you’ve gotta figure out how to get out of this horrible well of grief that you’re in so you try things and, eventually, something starts to stick. And, act three, you show us how you learned how to tuck grief in your pocket and walk around with it. And so it just works. A three-act structure works brilliantly for memoir.

Bryan: Should the second act form a good chunk of the book compared to act one and three —

Marion: Yeah, I think so. I think the third act is always the shortest. In my first book that I wrote which expanded that New York Times magazine piece, act three, it starts in 201 of a 241-page manuscript. Act two is the longest and act one, I make you fall in love with my mother and then, boom, make you really break your heart.

Bryan: Yeah, okay. And you also have a concept or a controlling idea or a system for coming up with a premise that you recommend memoir —

Marion: I do —

Bryan: — authors use.

Marion: — I call it my little algorithm and it’s this: it’s about x as illustrated by y to be told in a z.

Bryan: Yeah.

Marion: It’s about something universal, as illustrated by something deeply personal, to be told in some length. The z is always blog post, essay, op-ed, long-form essay, or book, it’s always the form. But that X factor, that universal, is essential. The way you figure out what your X factor is, take the dog for a walk, ask yourself, “What’s this story that I really love? What is this story about?” Not the plot, that’s a different thing. What’s it about? Oh, it’s about how grief erodes the soul. Oh, now, we’ve got a book or an essay or op-ed. Oh, it’s about how dogs do things for people that people cannot do for themselves, as illustrated by the 12 dogs in my life.

See, it’s not about the 12 dogs in my life, which is hard for other people to intersect with so make it about a universal and use that little algorithm every time you go to pitch your book to anybody and it’ll change the expression on their faces. Have you noticed, when you go to pitch your book to somebody and you start telling the plot, how their eyes glaze over and they start to run off to the bar? Try the algorithm, use the x, use that universal as first, it’s about x, as illustrated by y, to be told in a z, and they’ll be engaged. They’ll be like, “Oh, mercy. Oh, grief erodes the soul. That happened to me,” and then you’ve got their attention.

Bryan: So, if I want to write a memoir, should I start with a personal essay and see how that goes before I go book length?

Marion: What a brilliant idea and, yes. The personal essay I think is the single greatest form there is and if you can write short, you can write long. Anybody can tell me their life story in 17,000 words or 5,500 or, you know, a huge, long piece, but try doing it short and you’ll see what decisions you have to make and what you have to leave out because if there’s a harder assignment than deciding what to unpack, I don’t know what it is. 

When you’re writing your life, you are gonna leave out, amazingly enough, siblings, cousins, dogs, second-grade teachers, your parents, so try the personal essay first. I learned to write writing the personal essay, honestly. 

Bryan: Yeah, I love the personal essay. When you’re writing a memoir or when I was writing a memoir recently, one thing I found is it’s hard to figure out if something actually happened the way you remembered it. Do you have any tips or strategies that a writer could use if they’ve forgotten about something or if it happened 20 years ago?

Marion: Absolutely. So I was at a dinner party — before COVID, I was at a dinner party, my sister was there and she’s a writer too, and I was telling a story and everybody laughed and I was feeling good and then she said, “That never happened.” The first thing you gotta remember is that in family, everybody has a different version. 

The very best Christmas of your life is a Christmas that your sister will say never ever happened because it didn’t happen that way to her, it happened that way to you. So, first of all, you gotta accept that, that this is deeply personal. Second of all, you weren’t taking notes when you were eight years old, you know? Unless you were some weird kid. So, you have to go back and remember the experience and all you have to remember is don’t change the intent of the transaction. If you were sitting in a chair, your parents sat you down to tell you they were getting divorced, you’re gonna remember who was screaming, who was crying, and who was quiet and you recreate that. 

So, in terms of not remembering things, memoir requires research. You’ve gotta research it. So, call your sister, ask for the name of the dog that bit you when you were a kid. Look at your high school yearbook. Go do some research on your neighborhood. Go walk the halls of your high school. Do research. People think that they don’t have to do research. You have to do research and you have to check your facts.

Bryan: Yeah. I feel like journaling is a good habit to cultivate if you want to write memoir.

Marion: Yes, it is. It’s a wonderful thing. Just don’t ask me to read the whole journal. Make sure you curate from it. Use it as that perfect, as you just said, that perfect reference point to get your facts right and — however, remember, your sister’s gonna say, “It never happened like that.” Don’t worry. That’s inevitable.

Bryan: Your sister might say she doesn’t like what she said because I’m in the process of editing a memoir, a parenting book for young dads, and I suppose I have to show it to now my partner and some friends and family who were there and I’m a little bit worried about what they’ll think because I don’t normally write this kind of stuff —

Marion: Yeah.

Bryan: — so what would you say to somebody who’s a bit worried about the reactions they’re gonna get from other people?

Marion: I think, first of all, you have to finish the piece before you show it to anyone. I always say to people, “Don’t show it to anyone except for someone who’s invested in your success until you’re done.” Then be prepared for family to say, “It didn’t happen like that,” and then practice this sentence: “You’re right, it didn’t happen like that to you. It happened like that to me.” And get ready because people will object. 

They will have their opinions. My first book, my first magazine piece that involved my mom, she was so young when she got sick, all of her friends except for three stopped speaking to me. Why? Because they didn’t like the way I portrayed her. I portrayed her honestly. She was angry, hostile, incompetent, and incontinent by the time she was 51 years old. My mother had been a journalist. She would have been the first person to tell me to tell her tale. It helped start a conversation in America about one of the greatest healthcare crises in the world but you’re gonna have to develop a bit of a thick skin because people are going to say, “It didn’t happen like that.”

Bryan: So how do you decide what to keep in and what to take out?

Marion: Memoir is an argument-based genre. It is not a plot-based genre. People think it’s plot based. This happened on Monday, this happened on Tuesday, this happened on Wednesday. If you turn it into an argument-based genre, that dogs do things for people that people cannot do for themselves, all you have to do is prove that argument, 5 scenes, 10 scenes, 12 scenes, through your life, through the 12 dogs you’ve had. Show us how those dogs influenced your life and then you’ll be done. You’re done when you prove your argument. 

The way you take things out is argument based. Did I already say this? Did I already prove that part that they do things for people that people can’t do for themselves? Then we don’t need five more scenes, if that’s in there. So, it’s an argument-based genre the way I teach it and that helps enormously to unpack all the stuff you don’t need.

Bryan: One of the most impactful lessons for me in your course was the one about turning for home, it kinda summarized what your concept is all about. Would you be able to explain how that works?

Marion: I love that. That’s so kind of you, thank you. My dad was a sports writer and he taught me this. So, picture anything, an essay, let’s say, you love the essay, so picture the essay as an oval, as a running track, and on a running track or a race track or a horse track or whatever track you can picture, on that track are eighth-of-a-mile markers, right? When you’re walking around a track or running around the track, you notice those. 

And right before you get to the finish line, there’s gonna be that left hand — if you were standing with your back to the finish line, the left-hand turn, let’s say, let’s just picture that for a second. Well, when you’re walking around the track, you’re coming around that turn and the last scene of act two should feel just like that turn. You’ve gone through these eighth-of-a-mile markers, you’ve told the reader this, this, this, this, this, you’re seven-eighths of the way through the essay or the book, and now we’ve got a signal to the reader, “Okay, we’re heading home now.” You don’t need to remember anything else. 

There’s gonna be no character who’s gonna ride in from the sidelines like they do in romance novels who you’ve never met before and just scoops up the heroine and takes her out of there. That’s not gonna happen. What’s gonna happen here is we’re now going to put everything we have in here to use and get us on home. And it’s a lovely scene. I love that phrase, the turn for home, and he was very generous, my dad, to teach it to me. 

You can recognize it once you know it’s there but I love the idea of planting that scene at the end of act two that says, “I really value the work I’ve done to change how I felt about grief,” or, “I really value that these dogs are in my life.” There’s a moment where we say, “That’s all. Now let’s go home.”

Bryan: Yeah, I run a lot and on a track so your metaphor, I get it. When you’re down that final 200 meters, you want it to end.

Marion: Right, and it’s a straight shot home, right? Just like you don’t want any more curves at that point. If we throw a curve in after that, the reader is gonna go, “Wait a minute. Why?” right?

Bryan: The finish line should be in sight. So, when I took your course, you know, I spent a lot of time writing online content, articles, blog posts, copywriting, content marketing, all that kind of stuff, but what would you say is the difference between self-help and memoir?

Marion: Oh, it’s a great question. So, you can have a self-help memoir, you can have a memoir with recipes, you can have a memoir that at the end of the chapter each time, especially with something as complicated as grief, gives you something to think about, maybe a little task, maybe a little assignment, maybe a little meditation. 

So, it’s not purely a self-help book because you’ve gotta show us how you went from when you did not know something to when you did but you can invite the reader to engage in a little bit of self-help. A purely self-help book will have a whole lot less story in it and that’s pretty much the way that I look at the difference. Memoir with self-help is fine but you don’t wanna overwhelm the reader and just make them feel like you’re giving them punch lists all the way through.

Bryan: So, at some point, am I changing from the first person to the second person?

Marion: You could. You absolutely could. You know, the first, second, or third person is a great question in memoir. When I work with people one on one, which I do a lot, I always ask people at the beginning of the conversation who’s writing this book and there’s always this dead silence on the phone like they think I just like lost my mind because it’s like, “Yeah, me.” No, no, you know, which one of you? 

The one who was undergoing the abuse when you were eight? Are you writing from there? Or are you writing from here looking back and reanimating her? Or are you writing from here keeping her very still and not reanimating her, just having a look at her? Who is writing this book? So, the first, second, and third person, the present tense, past tense, those are all questions that come into memoir. It’s not necessarily first person present tense. Sometimes, it really works to use second person; sometimes, it really works to use past tense.

Bryan: Okay, and, well, I suppose another question I have about it is, if you’re writing memoir about something that you’re not necessarily known for, is it still okay for you to do that or is it more just a creative project that you should just do for yourself rather than for someone else?

Marion: Well, if it’s something you’re not really known for, do you mean like a profession or do you mean a subject?

Bryan: So, I’ll give you an example. So I’m writing a parenting book at the moment. It’s kind of like the advice that I wish I’d known when my son was born 15 years ago.

Marion: Yeah.

Bryan: I just write advice, stories of all the things that I did wrong. So —

Marion: I love it.

Marion: — I was telling somebody about it recently and I have a site for writers and he listened to me and then he said, “But —” like he’s a marketing person but he said, “But that’s off brand. That’s nothing to do with your writing site.”

Marion: Okay, I get it. So I think that’s the craziest advice we give to writers: “Stick to your lane.”

Bryan: Yeah.

Marion: Right? Art is jazz, right? Jazz is art made on the spot. Art is cooking. Art is knitting. Art is everything. It’s being creative. So, why in the world would we say to a writer, “You can’t write a children’s book if you’re writing memoir”? Nonsense. Write whatever you want. Writing begets writing. And, by the way, I love the idea of your book because I never learned a thing being right as a parent, but boy, oh, boy, did I get walloped when I was wrong and learned. I have a 25-year-old and I’ve lived through it and she’s magnificent and I adore her but I was wrong a lot and those were the big learning curves of my life.

Bryan: Okay. That’s good advice. I’ll bear that in mind when I’m editing it. So, how does somebody go about positioning their memoir? Like you’ve worked with a lot of successful authors when they have the finished draft.

Marion: So, the market differentiator has gotta be there. We don’t want the run-of-the-mill whatever it is. There’s a book that just came out by Samantha Clark that I helped years ago when she first was writing it. She lives in Orkney, she’s from Scotland, and she proposed this astonishing concept. Her assignment was just to go clean out the house that her parents had lived in, they had both just died, so that’s where it takes place. But Samantha is an artist who sees the space between things, the ether, as she calls it, and so she had this market differentiator right from the beginning to explore the distance between us and our experience, the distance between us and our possessions, the distance between us and our parents, our siblings and it is brilliant. 

So, what have you got is the question. What do you think about parenting? Like when you distinguish yourself magnificently, we only learn when we’re wrong, right? Most parenting blogs are so treacly and horrible. “I’m the best parent in the world. Only I know how to do this.” It’s like I’m not even vaguely interested in that. I wanna see somebody fall on their face as a parent and get up and try it again. So, you do need to figure out what it is that’s outside of a diary that you have to say and that’s what the argument allows for people to do. 

What do you really know, I ask people all the time, the writers I work with. What do you really know about grief? What do you really know about mercy? What do you really know about family, right? And what are you willing to write this book about? And that’s your market differentiator.

Bryan: So, another person said to me recently that they were being friendly, they were giving me like editorial feedback, they said, “The question you need to ask, Bryan, is why are you the right person to write this book?” I was a bit stumped at the time —

Marion: Yeah.

Bryan: — and I’d imagine that’s something anybody who writes memoir gets a question like that at some point.

Marion: Yeah. Every single editor in a publishing house, everybody I’ve ever worked with at the New York Times who has an editorial op-ed or editorial editor, every single agent will tell you that they ask two questions when they get something over their desk or over the transom or over the e-mail: “Why this writer? Why now?” So, the “Why now?” is the news peg. Why would I be reading this right now? And we need to think about that. Right now we’re in COVID. As we’re coming out of COVID, next year, as people are emerging in a complete way, what are we gonna be interested in reading? 

So, I don’t know. Like I doubt I’m gonna wanna read a forensic science book next year where I’m looking at dead bodies. I just really doubt it. I think I’m gonna wanna read about somebody’s spectacularly interesting, although maybe it could be very small, recovery from something, how they emerged from it, right? And “Why this writer?” that’s what you have to determine. What’s that argument you’ve got? You don’t have to be a former prime minister to publish a memoir. 

You have to be somebody who has something to say to us in the universal sense. We all want to live honorable lives and just help me to do that, so, “Why this writer?” is you gotta be smart with a good argument, “Why now?” that is absolutely about understanding what we’re talking about, what we’re gonna be talking about then. Now, parenting, we’re always gonna be talking about, it’s what we do to survive. And, again, the idea of the things we do wrong? Perfect.

Bryan: Yeah. Okay. You mentioned that some of your clients and students have written several memoirs. So, is that something you see a lot, that people have more than one in them?

Marion: Yes, I do. Once I get my hands on them. Once I talk them out of writing that one big book that goes on —

Bryan: The one big autobiography from when I was born until right now.

Marion: Right. Then we can start — you know, hit that with a hammer and you see you’ve got 8 or 10 book-length memoir. So, yes. I have a client that I just got off the phone with who has published one book and is starting another one. He’s an old radical from Brooklyn, New York, who pretty much should have been in jail for all of his life and, instead, managed to stay out of jail, dodge the draft, and go on to live an alternative lifestyle that’s really, really interesting but his next book is very different than his first one.

Bryan: That’s almost a roadmap for creative work for years, what you’ve described.

Marion: I think so. I do.

Bryan: Yeah.

Marion: But I’ve also met some very — scientists who have spent their lives dedicatedly in the lab, who have kept their heads down, who have not dodged the draft, who, if they can write beautifully, can show us what a life of science can be. 

So, it’s not just the alternative person and it’s also, very importantly, not just the bummer. Memoir is not just a bummer genre. You could write a wonderful, funny, hilarious, delightful, life-affirming story. It does not have to have a horrible tragedy, and that’s a great misconception about memoir is that it’s always bummer all the time.

Bryan: Yeah. That was actually one of the takeaways I got from your course and also from some of the other craft books I’ve read about non-fiction and personal essays. So, just to go to the actual balancing the business of writing versus creative work, because I know you’ve a fairly active community for writers and it sounds like you’re working with clients who have busy professional lives, so how does somebody balance going deep into something creative versus going out and being a scientist or a journalist or whatever they’re doing?

Marion: Yeah, it’s assigning time. I speak to writers all the time. I do a podcast, I work with writers, but also my friends are writers and some of them are very well-known writers and they all have a writing life, which means they have a word count or a page count that they hit every single day. 

So, for instance, I just finished a friend’s novel, Russell Banks is his name. He’s a very well-known American novelist. He’s an extraordinary human being. He writes a page a day and every time I tease him about that, he says, “Marion, that’s a book a year,” and he’s right. I teach people in a master class that I teach to write three pages a day, five days a week. That’s 15 pages a week, that’s 60 pages a month, that’s a 300-page first draft in five months. 

Now, how you fit that in with your busy life is you get up a little earlier, you stay up a little later, you take your lunch break at your desk. You figure it out because I know I raised a child and I wrote three books during her youth and, sometimes, I have to admit it, I was shampooing her hair while writing scenes in my head, but you just have to forgive yourself for that.

Bryan: Yeah. So a page is about 300 words?

Marion: Yeah, about 300 words and really just — the great Graham Greene wrote 500 words a day, meaning he stopped in the middle of sentences. He counted the words and when he hit 500, he stopped. Not a bad ethic. He did pretty well.

Bryan: He did. He did. So, could you give listeners a flavor for what you offer in your courses and some of the services that you have?

Marion: Oh, how kind of you. Yes. So, I teach online many, many different courses. The first one is called Memoirama. It’s an introduction to everything you need to know to write memoir. It’s live, it’s 90 minutes, and I now actually have recorded all of my classes because COVID put such a demand on us that our classes were full all the time. So, Memoirama is the beginning class. Memoirama 2, we learn book structure. I teach a class in the op-ed or now the hottest thing going is Substack which is a newsletter that you can write and produce under your own name but Substack publishes it for you, so the op-ed, the online opinion piece, the radio essay, that’s a really popular class right now because people wanna get their voice out there in the world. 

Then I teach a class in — it’s called The Master Class and you spend six months with me, you and six other writers, and we get your first draft of your memoir in six months. So, in between, I’ve got recorded classes on the personal essay and a variety of other things, how to start a perfect memoir and how to keep to a schedule. So, it’s all at and it’s fun for me. I love it because I get to meet so many writers every day.

Bryan: Just in terms of the personal essay, is there any avenues writers can publish personal essays these days?

Marion: The personal essay is everywhere and it has been now for a while so, you know, even Golf magazine has one and Pet Fancy magazine has one but, online, they are everywhere and my agent, who’s at a very big agency in New York City, always tells me to tell people this: Go where the eyeballs are. Do not just try to publish for the biggest, most famous literary magazine in the world, whether it be The New Yorker or The Paris Review. Go to where the eyeballs are. And for some people, that’s the big online site. How do you find the one that’s tailored for you? Put your identification in a Google search, “woman,” “over 40,” “with kids,” “biggest blogs for women over 40 with kids.” Oh, you’ll find six places that will publish your essay and it’s as simple as that.

Bryan: Do you have plans to write any more memoir or non-fiction —

Marion: Yeah, always.

Bryan: Always? 

Marion: Every day. I write my 500 words every single day.

Bryan: Okay. It was very nice to talk to you today, Marion.

Marion: This was lovely. Thank you so much and thank you for taking the course twice. Honestly, I just may needlepoint down onto a pillow with your name like this quote.

Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today podcast. And did you know, for just a couple of dollars a month, you could become a Patreon for the show? Visit or look for the Support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce, and publish more episodes each month. And if you become a Patreon, I’ll give you my writing books and discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.