Three memoir-writing tips from Pamela Jane

My Choices guest today, Pamela Jane, shares how she wrote her memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story. It took her twenty-two years. However, it was well worth the time and effort. Here is Pamela Jane and her three tips for those of us struggling with our own memoir writing. Please give her a warm welcome. She will gladly respond to the comments you post below.

Pamela Jane Book Cover


Shaping Your Narrative
What to Leave in and What to Take Out of Your Memoir
 by Pamela Jane

“The writer of any work, and particularly any nonfiction work, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out…”  Annie Dillard, author of An American Childhood

You want to write a shapely story with a taut narrative thread, a story that will draw readers into the world you are creating. But how do you know what to leave in and what to take out, especially in a memoir? In early drafts everything you write seems evocative and beguiling. There are so many different roads to take, and the scenery is spectacular!

I spent many months, drawing elaborate plot diagrams in an attempt to discover my theme so I could attach all those beads (episodes) to the string (theme), as the wisdom goes. I had many strings break and hundreds of beads spill on the floor, and I still couldn’t figure it out.

Supposedly there is a left-brain (logical) advantage to drawing plot or theme diagrams while the right brain secretly creates, like a teacher writing a math formula on a blackboard while a kid colors in the back of the room. This paradigm may be true, but ultimately both brains have to get involved.

I identified the plot and theme of my memoir the hard way, by writing thousands of pages over two decades. In the process I learned a tremendous amount about writing and shaping a narrative. Below, in three tips, are some of the most important things I discovered.

Tip #1 Just write.

Hopefully you won’t have to write for twenty-two years like I did, but writing is a discovery process, and relaxing into your story without worrying about the theme will allow you to develop your narrative and natural writing voice. In this sense, your first draft is a kind of blueprint or map in itself.

Tip #2 Tell your story to someone else.

Often we don’t know our story when we start out; it may take another person to help bring it into full awareness. Telling or showing your story to a receptive listener can help you identify elements or themes you had not considered.

When I was working with memoirist and writing coach, Tristine Rainer, she likened my memoir to Jane Eyre the story of a woman who has no home, no security to go back to, and the places where she finds herself, she doesn’t really belong ­­ a scary story that gets scarier when she nearly loses her sanity.

I’m not a Bronte fan, so I never would have seen my memoir in those terms. Glimpsing this angle brought my story more fully into focus and gave the narrative a richer, deeper texture.

Tip #3 Find the connection.

If you have a scene in your book that you feel belongs yet seems unconnected, don’t toss it out at least not yet. Instead, try to find what connects this experience to your story and how it relates to your theme.

Think of your scenes as stars shining in the dark sky (no, not beads on a string; those beads are always popping off and rolling on the floor). Find the thread that connects them through an association or transition. The following is an example from Natalie Goldberg’s memoir, Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America. In this episode Natalie takes a trip to New York with her family to celebrate her tenth birthday. She describes her impressions in a fun and engaging chapter. But what does it have to do with her becoming a writer?

Here is how she makes the connection:

We rode home on the railroad. It was dark as we traveled through Rockville entre, Baldwin, Merrick, the lights of towns made into white and yellow streaks by the speed of the train.
This was my tenth birthday.
Who was I, anyway, who wanted to write?

The last line of the chapter connects the stars.

Alternatively, it may become clear to you that a particular episode doesn’t belong maybe it’s a star in another constellation.

I’ve read that some writers don’t really want to write a book; they want to have written one. But I think most of us relish the process. And though I’m happy to have finished and published my memoir, I do miss writing it. I miss the research, the adventure, the discovery, even the rocky trails where I got lost and didn’t think I’d ever find my way back again. But I wish I could have written it faster, and I hope my tips will help you do just that, while enjoying the journey along the way.


An Incredible Talent For Existing: A Writer’s Story book summary: 

It is 1965, the era of love, light and revolution. While the romantic narrator imagines a bucolic future in an old country house with children running through the dappled sunlight, her husband plots to organize a revolution and fight a guerrilla war in the Catskills.

Their fantasies are on a collision course.

The clash of visions turns into an inner war of identities when the author embraces radical feminism; she and her husband are comrades in revolution but combatants in marriage; she is a woman warrior who spends her days sewing long silk dresses reminiscent of a Henry James novel. One half of her isn’t speaking to the other half.

And then, just when it seems that things cannot possibly get more explosive, her wilderness cabin burns down and Pamela finds herself left with only the clothes on her back.

From her vividly evoked existential childhood (“the only way I would know for sure that I existed was if others, lots of others acknowledged it”) to writing her first children’s book on a sugar high during a glucose tolerance test, Pamela Jane takes the reader along on a highly entertaining personal, political, and psychological adventure.

Paperback: 246 pages
Genre:  Memoir
Publisher:  Open Books Press (February 1, 2016)
ISBN-10: 1941799213
ISBN-13: 978-1941799215
Amazon Link: click here

Pamela Jane bio:

Pamela Jane Head ShotPamela Jane is the author of over twenty-five children’s books with Houghton Mifflin, Atheneum, Simon & Schuster, Penguin-Putnam, and Harper. Her books include Noelle of the Nutcracker illustrated by Jan Brett, Little Goblins Ten illustrated by NY Times best-selling illustrator, Jane Manning, and Little Elfie One (Harper 2015). Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp Through Jane Austen’s Classic (Skyhorse) was featured in The Wall Street Journal, BBC America, The Huffington Post, The New York Times Sunday Book Review and The Daily Dot, and has just come out in paper. She has published short stories and essays with The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Antigonish Review, Literary Mama, and The Writer. She is a writer and editor for Her memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story has just been released.

Below are three clips of her work:

Literary Mama:

The Ambivalent Agnostic: An Adoption Story


Find Pamela Jane Online:

Website: (children’s books) (humorous book)
Twitter: @memoircoaching, @austencats
Book Trailer for An Incredible Talent for Existing:










  1. Crystal Otto says

    Lovely post Pamela! Thanks for the great ideas.

    Thank you Madeline for hosting!


  2. Thank you Crystal and Madeline!

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