Dr. Nicole Basaraba

Assistant Professor in Digital Humanities, TCD

Nicole Basaraba


Lessons I’ve Learned About Memoir Writing – Guest Post by Jenny Hansen

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Welcome to Writers’ Uni-Verse-City (or WUVC for short because every university has an acronym), a place where writers/bloggers can meet to discuss the craft of writing in the Internet age. WUVC will involve independent research, setting a curriculum and hopefully finding other participants (like you – readers/bloggers/writers) to: chip in, give tips, suggest books and other materials for study, teach me the ways of the warrior writer, and offer to guest post here at Uni-Verse-City (contact: [email protected]).

Today I’m pleased to welcome Jenny Hansen as part of the Literary Genres Blog Series. Jenny’s letting us in on how to write a memoir and what makes someone’s life events memoir-worthy. 

What an honor to be part of this genre series here at WUVC!

I never imagined I’d write a memoir.

Like most of you, I’ve written as long as I can remember, and from the very first day, I’ve lived solidly in the fiction camp. Before we get any farther, let’s make sure we’re all speaking the same language.

What is a memoir?

The best definition I’ve found of memoir and how it differs from autobiography can be found here. In case you don’t have time to read that fantastic post by Barbara Doyen, here’s a quick summary:

A memoir is a special kind of autobiography, usually involving a public portion of the author’s life as it relates to a person, historic event, or thing. The text is about the personal knowledge and/or experiences of the author.

It’s my personal opinion that memoir writers are made, not born.

  • You need to feel strongly enough about the events in the book that you’re willing to lay them out for the world to see, with none of the anonymous padding that fiction provides.
  • You must be well-versed in 3-Act Structure and story mechanics.
  • You need the objectivity to slice and dice your experience until it fits neatly into this 3-Act Structure.

What motivated ME to write a memoir?

In 2005, I survived a massive bout with blood clots – two big ones (one in each leg) became a swarm of them in my lungs. They call those pulmonary emboli, but really, they’re all blood clots. 1% of the people who experience what I did live through it.

When my treatment was done (after 4 months in bed and 9 months on blood thinners), I found out I have a blood clotting disorder called Factor V Leiden. Many things about my daily living habits had to change to accommodate this disorder.

Was the experience memoir-worthy? I don’t think so. It simply wasn’t universal or compelling enough. I lived and I was thankful, and I had to make some lifestyle changes. End of story.

But what about when I threw pregnancy into the mix?

The four main causes of a blood clot are cancer, obesity, a previous blood clot and a genetic disorder. Obviously, I fit several of these risk criteria. I couldn’t just decide to have a baby, I had to visit the high risk OB and ask permission just to try.

Pregnant women gain four pounds of blood, which increases the risk of forming a blood clot by 8 times. Yowza. My pregnancy journey was rocky – infertility, shots in the stomach twice a day, worries about late-term miscarriage and fetal demise. Was the pregnancy itself a big enough theme to support the frame of a memoir? By itself, probably not.

Memoirs must have themes that speak to a wide audience.

These aren’t how-to books, and they’re not autobiographies. As Barbara Doyen says in the “what is memoir” post I reference above:

A memoir does not contain everything from this particular slice of the author’s life, but rather, events are selected and examined for meaning relative to the purpose of the book.

The author has questioned what happened and come to some kind of new understanding or lesson learned by it. The author shows us how he or she was affected by this experience, how it has profoundly changed the way he sees the world.

And by extension, reading the book will change the way the reader sees the world.

I worried about whether I could make my book universally compelling. A deep soul-search for themes yielded many more than I thought:

  • What if I showed how the lessons learned with the blood clot scare helped save the day during my pregnancy?
  • What if I discussed the guilt and depression that women feel when they can’t conceive?
  • What if there were things that I knew that could help other women, and their family members, have an easier time through their own rocky journey?

This last is at the heart of why I would put my fiction aside.

I was compelled to write about high-risk/high-worry pregnancy because these women feel so terrified and alone. They’re not experiencing the joyous, “fluffy cloud” type of pregnancy so many of their friends and family tell them about. Worst of all, the end-game isn’t guaranteed.

High-risk mommies have all the information overload of “regular” mommies, but there’s a whole lot more. Shots, bed rest, miscarriages, endless doctor appointments. These women spend some or all of their pregnancies wondering things like: “Will I get to keep this baby?” and “Will I die?”

Currently there is no book for them and I could not rest until I wrote one.

In my opinion, this sort of compulsion is the only thing that will sustain you through the hassle of fact-checking, research and structuring of ANY book. But the memoir factor adds an extra dollop of a pain. It’s hard to figure out how to break a true story into 3-Act structure – we simply can’t see our own lives clearly. Still, you MUST do it, the same as you would any other novel.

A quick note on 3-Act structure:

Many, many writers don’t have a clear concept of it. I know I didn’t until I saw Stephen Cannell (creator of the Rockford Files and like 40 other TV shows) give a talk. If you want to read an entire post on this topic, click here. In the meantime, here’s a quick summary of 3-Act Structure using Stephen Cannell’s words – feel free to skip this if you’re a 3-Act Pro:

“When I ask young writers what 3-Act Structure is, they say it has a beginning, middle and an end. This is not the answer. A lunch line has a beginning, middle and an end. The Three-Act structure is critical to good dramatic writing, and each act has specific story moves.”

Take the movie, “When Harry Met Sally.”

The First Act is all about the hook, or the premise. In this case, it’s that “men and women cannot be friends.” So you’ve got the set-up where they meet and then decide they’re not going to be friends.

Act Two opens with Harry and Sally meeting up again in the bookstore and slowly becoming friends. Their friendship becomes the single most important thing in their lives and the worst thing in the world would be to lose it.

The scene in the wedding is the dark moment climax of Act 2 because it is the end of their friendship as we know it. The curtain closes on Act 2 because the WORST thing has happened…the two of them are no longer friends.

Act Three is the “clean up” act, the resolution to your story. In this case, it’s all about Harry trying to get back into Sally’s good graces so the two of them can be friends again, just as they were. Sally’s having none of it.

Finally, on New Year’s Eve, Harry has his turning point and we get the final scene of the movie where he runs through New York City to get to Sally before midnight. When he sees her at the party, he gives his now famous I-Love-You speech.

When I heard this talk, the light bulb turned on for me. Hopefully, it did the same for any of you that were iffy about why there’s such a time disparity in the three acts. Just remember the 25-50-25 rule:

  • Act 1: First 25% of your story – the hook
  • Act 2: Next 50% of your story – ends with the black moment
  • Act 3: Last 25% of your story – the resolution of the black moment, leaving your main character with a new understanding.

To see Stephen Cannell’s “official description” of 3-Act Structure click here – he does a fantastic breakdown of the movie, Love Story.

Are you attracted to memoirs, either as a reader or a writer? What interests you the most about this genre? What do you dislike about it? Feel free to ask any questions or share any insights you have in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!


About Jenny Hansen

Jenny fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after her toddler Baby Girl). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing.

When she’s not at her blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at jhansenwrites or at her group blog, Writers In The Storm. Every Saturday, she writes the Risky Baby Business posts at More Cowbell, a series that focuses on babies, new parents and high-risk pregnancy.

Thanks so much for the insight Jenny. I know I sure find your story inspiring and I can’t wait to read it.

See the schedule of the upcoming guest posts and genres for the rest of this blog series, in this post.

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34 thoughts on “Lessons I’ve Learned About Memoir Writing – Guest Post by Jenny Hansen

  1. Wonderful post you two. I had no real idea the different between an autobiography and a memoir and now I do. I also love how you show us how you must implement 3-act structure into a memoir. Wow. I can imagine how hard that is…yikes…but I LOVE memoirs! Love them. I am a huge fan of true stories and there’s something enticing and inspiring reading someone’s memoir. I think it’s because if they can go through it and learn…then so can I…real life rocks!
    Here’s to your mind blowing success Jenny – I can’t WAIT to read your memoir! 🙂

    1. LOL, from your lips to God’s ears. My goal is to get it to the mommies that are losing their minds. 🙂

      The 3-Act structure helped me figure out what COULDN’T go into the book, actually. But it was really hard to sit down objectively and look at it. I had to get major involvement by my critique partners over at Writers In the Storm – in fact, they’re still helping. LOL…

  2. I love memoirs because they are not just the telling of a person’s life story, but one part that has an Aha! moment or a subtle lesson for the reader. There’s factual info as well as a personal story which is sometimes heart-wrenching and sometimes uplifting.
    I think the hardest part would be to get the reader involved in the emotional journey to its true depth. I look forward to reading your memoir, Jenny. For those who know you, at least, I’m sure part of it will be a tear-jerker.
    Great post, and Nicole you chose the right person to write about memoirs, imho.

    1. There are some tear-jerking parts of the journey but I have to confess, in retrospect a lot of it was funny as well. All that stuff will be included as well. My goal is to make people laugh and cry, but more than anything to not feeel so alone.

  3. Jenny, your memoir writing tips are a must read for all fiction writers. We’re writing stories that are supposed to be fiction but if you look deep enough the writer leaves a piece of himself in the story.

    1. I agree that every writer is shouting “this is who I am” when they put their fingers to the keyboard. Thanks for stopping by to comment, Tom! 🙂

  4. I think a memoir must be one of the harder genres to write in. I think its so great that you’re writing this to help other women. Thanks so much for the post Jenny and letting us in on what it takes to write a memoir. 🙂

  5. Lovely! Just what I needed as I have just finished my first draft and am about to start work on my second draft. My first draft sits at 92,000 words with words yet to come in relation to my husband and children. I am one of those who is a writer because I write, not because I’ve done a lot of craft classes, so I do feel I am floundering a little – or just feel naive about the process. It is good to read your words and feel I’m not too far off the mark, perhaps.

    1. Good for you! I’m glad you found the post and I hope the 2nd draft process goes as well as the first. There are many courses offered online that would likely help you flounder less – they cost less too. 🙂

      Thanks for taking time to comment!

  6. Jenny, getting to know you these past few months through your blog tell me you’re the perfect person to write this memoir because you can be serious without being preachy and because you are just damn FuNNy. I enjoy reading memoirs that have the elements above. Love Nora Ephron!

    I just became a big fan of scriptwriters and screenwriting and how it helps write fiction, it definitely helped me understand 3 Act Structure better and right now I’m reading Peter Dunne’s Emotional Structure. It’s a must-read.

    I’ll be back Nicole. Love your blog!

    1. Ooooh, Kate, I hadn’te heard about Peter Dunne’s book – it sounds like it’s right up my alley! Also, you said Jenny Hansen and Nora Ephron in the same sentence…SQUEEEE!! I should ever be so lucky. 🙂

  7. Great post. I knew you had a high risk pregnancy, but I never knew it was so tough. What a terrifying and amazing journey it must have been. I completely understand why you chose to write a memoir, and I think it’s a great topic. Thanks so much for sharing with us!

    1. Thank you, Stacy. It’s interesting…you realize AFTER how terrifying it was. When I asked my honey about having another one, he looked at my like I was nuts and said, “Um, NO!”

  8. Thanks for this, ladies! There is so much good information no matter what genre we find ourselves writing. My heart went out to you as you shared your incredible journey and I know how much joy Baby Girl brings to your life. Thanks for all the laughter and good information you bring to ours.

  9. Excellent post on memoir, clear and precise. Thank you so much, in particular for the links and discussion regarding the three act structure. Most helpful and well-written.


    1. Thanks, Karen! That bottom link is actually part of a 4 part series Stephen Cannell did and the entire thing is just stellar. You’ll see all the links once you go in – enjoy!!

  10. It’s too funny that I recently switched my WWBC project to a memoir and that I posed to my whole team the question “what do you know about writing memoirs?” A lot of them said not much and directed me to the library, which was good advice. But I have to laugh that right under my nose was you, Jenny! Fellow Life List Club member and writer extraordinaire! I love your breakdown of the structure points because that was really hard for me to see switching from fiction to non. I’ll definitely be checking out more of the resources you gave and may be pestering you via email when I run into walls. 🙂

    1. Not a problem, Jess. I had to bang up against all those same walls. You have to pick it apart and really understand your themes and only include the parts that support those themes. I think you’ll be a fantastic memoir writer!!

  11. What fabulous insight, Jenny! (And nice to “meet” your blog, Nicole. :))

    I love reading memoirs and am continually amazed by what people have gone through, overcome and achieved—you included, Ms. Hansen! I also know that memoirs are tougher to get published than they were in previous years, so your points are crucial (if traditional publishing is one’s goal). Broad messages, well-put together story lines and all the elements of a great fiction novel apply.

    1. Lovely to read your comments, August. ALWAYS! My current goal is to get the book done and out there – I don’t really care how. I just want to get it into the hands of the women who need it. 🙂

  12. Thanks for sharing your knowledge about memoir writing, Jenny, and for baring your soul in your own. I’ve considered writing a memoir about parenting my autistic child, and now you’ve given me a framework for my hundreds of journal entries.

    1. Jolyse, autism is such a timely subject, especially because (like pregnancy) each child is different and each situation has new challenges. I have a friend who has formed a foundation because there are so few resources here in California for her high-functioning autistic child: http://asi-f.org/

      She is crying out for resources, as are many parents.

  13. I very much enjoyed reading this post! I am fascinated by other people’s stories, especially those of Mothers.

    One of the things I love doing is to take a walk through our neighborhood in the evening. Seeing the lights on in each house as I walk by leaves me wondering what the people inside are doing, what is their story? Memoirs are kind of like these walks, only I get to see inside the houses and get a glimpse of life inside.

    I look forward to making connections in the memoir world and sharing stories with you.

  14. While celebrity memoirs are popular, I don’t usually care about anyone’s memoir unless it teaches me something. Having gone through a pregnancy complication and having a premature baby, it was SO GREAT to have resources available to help me understand that time. I think Jenny is doing a great service by writing a memoir for those with high-risk pregnancies like this.

    Memoirs that teach important information can be lovely reads and have you walking away with new knowledge to put to use.

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