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The Thing You Think You Cannot Say: Writing a Memoir You Can Live With

This post originally appeared on the San Francisco Writers Conference site.


Writing a memoir is like writing a detective story where you get to find out what happened—except, it’s to you. It’s a complicated challenge. In the first place, you have to find your best stories, and tell them in a way that is interesting to other people, with the proper level of detail to convince your readers these things happened, but enough emotional resonance that they step into your shoes and live your life as if it was their own.

None of that compares, however, to the skill level required to handle the times when you hurt people or when people hurt you. It’s a Catch-22. On the one hand, you’ve got to reveal your truth. We need to know it in order to understand your problems. We need it to root for you and understand your personality and your drive. On the other hand, you may still want to have Thanksgiving with these people. Or not get sued by them. Or just generally be fair about how you’ve decided to expose (parts of) your life and now you’ve made a decision for select other people that you are going to expose theirs, too.

Before you start leaving out the best parts, or disguising people’s true identity with greater or lesser success, let me suggest you just write the first draft as clearly and honestly as you can. Assemble your possible materials and try them out; get the feel of what you’re even talking about. When you do that, then one of three things might happen:


  1. You might find out that what you wrote is not really a big deal at all. The person or persons you are referring to review the text and barely shrug their shoulders. They might even suggest additional dialogue or plot twists that improve the overall presentation. And the extra momentum generated by their approval inspires you to new heights of connectedness and inventiveness.
  2. You might find out you don’t need it. You were all set to relate a dark and depressing scene, but it doesn’t fit the overall theme. There actually isn’t a place for it. It’s always better to find that out first. It doesn’t pay to seek out an approval from others over very sticky material that’s going to get dropped from subsequent drafts anyway.
  3. You might have to face the music. And when that time comes, you might find that even the process itself can shift your understanding. I recently sent off a section of my memoir to some good friends of mine. It was a third of a chapter, thousands of closely observed and thematically relevant words…but the moment I pushed “send,” I knew it had to come out. Even though I was present in the events I related, it just wasn’t my story to tell—and my friends confirmed that.

While I do recommend writing a first draft free of external influence, I don’t recommend skipping the stage where you show your material to the people you are writing about. Sometimes authors will just hope that a featured subject doesn’t come across their writing, or they hope they do come across it, and that way settle some scores with them in public. Neither of these options has a lot of lift to them.

Mary Karr gives this advice in her book on memoir writing, “I notify [those mentioned] way in advance, to give them a chance to shoot it down (nobody has yet). I keep pages private till the book’s done, and at the end, I send work out to folks I wrote about long before type’s set. As a side note, it’s not my nature to write at any length about people I don’t like. Save portraits of a grandmother who pissed me off and two pedophiles, it’s mostly love that drives me to the page.”

Knowing that you are going to have to show a passage or a chapter to some other people might stop your heart at first. But that’s the same heart that has been stopped by these conflicts and hurts for years. Now, you have the process of writing on your side. Working through the introduction of your memoir to your community might actually help you find the way you want to write your book after all. I simply love the memoirist Susan Steele’s construction: “The first draft was the gory, adult, vengeful Susan; the second healed me; the third healed my family; and the fourth was the story others needed to read.”

This kind of last draft is you reaching out to others with fairness. It is also reaching inwards to find transcendence. It probably doesn’t require arcane Buddhist commentary to believe that our healing necessarily includes other people’s healing. When a delicate topic gets exposed and stays stuck there it doesn’t help anyone. When it goes through an arc, however, when exposure is followed by inquiry, development, and understanding—well that might create a mini-monument to how we want to live in this world.

Letter Writing as a Powerful Prompt

This originally appeared as a guest post on Jane Friedman’s website



When Franz Kafka handwrote a 45-page letter to his father, he may not have been conscious that it would end up as a literary document to be studied through the ages. When Bob Dylan wrote a not-very-nice 20-page letter to an ex-girlfriend—whom he had the courtesy never to name—he probably didn’t know that he would end up extracting from it the lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone.” But what these examples, and many more throughout history, show is the power of letter writing to benefit a wide variety of projects, from memoir to creative nonfiction to fiction.

My forthcoming memoir started as a letter to my daughter when she went off to college. I chose someone with whom I could be honest and self-revealing; fortunately, we have that kind of relationship. Getting to intimacy with an imaginary reader is hard; if you write to someone you can talk to, on the other hand, you can more easily achieve a confessional and arresting tone. This is because there is no such a thing as “voice” in the abstract. There is the voice of a speaker, and there is the audience of a listener or listeners, but what carries the words from one to the other is the tone of voice. This tone is carried by everything from word choice to content that reflects a shared approach to life.

If you choose the right addressee, eventually, the general reader can become a stand-in. You will be able to remove the direct address yet retain the warmth of tone. The best writing makes this journey from being a personal exposé to a larger, cathartic vision of how we all can live. The author Susan Steele once put it to me this way about her memoir: “The first draft was the gory, adult, vengeful Susan; the second healed me; the third healed my family; and the fourth was the story others needed to read.” I saw that firsthand with my own process, even though I would describe the finished product a little differently: The fourth draft really felt like the draft I could live with select other people not loving.

Your specific addressee does not need to be someone you see eye-to-eye with. In both Kafka’s and Dylan’s examples above, they were writing to someone with whom they had a difficult legacy. Some very powerful personal writing can be addressed to once intimate connections with whom you have fallen out. Not to complicate matters too much, but you may find both audiences present at once: someone who you believe will understand what you are saying, and someone who you fear won’t (or will refuse to) understand.

Your addressee may never read your letter in either its pure or its refined form. Sometimes issues of libel come up, and sometimes there are other considerations, such as wanting to continue to have Thanksgiving with your family members. But getting into your material via the prompt of letter writing—with the understanding that you don’t need to send the letter as is—can help you dig deeper into the things you think you can’t say. Without the fear of being interrupted, you can really hear yourself think. True confessional moments bring up grief, anger, and shame—those emotions we prefer to keep to ourselves. That material is why readers turn to writers in the first place—because writers are people who are brave and put themselves out there to help others through their struggles to be conscious.

What you can’t say face-to-face, you can say in a letter, especially one you will continue to work with. How you shape the material after that is up to you, of course. You might turn it into fiction, using the same hallmarks of storytelling you can employ in a letter—finding the scenes that ground the discussion through sensual detail, action, and point of view. You might write a letter from the point of view of one character to another as an exercise that can help reveal the inner workings of the relationships in your novel. Novelists often know each of their characters deeply in a one-on-one relationship, but those characters may not always know each other as well. The drama of a closed fictional world is always enhanced when characters are more clearly aware of what they want from others and what information they are withholding.

Whether you use your letter as a starter to get you somewhere else or use it to help you heal a living relationship in real time, letter writing can be more than a prompt or an exercise. It can be a portal that projects you into the discovery of a world.

Insights on writing “Letters to Doris”

This post originally appeared on How to Write a Book, a platform which provides writing advice from best selling and emerging authors. 


Lisa: What an inspiration. How did Letters to Doris come about and were you involved from the beginning of the project or how did you get involved?

Stuart Horwitz and Anita Mumm conducting an interview for Letters to Doris.
Stuart Horwitz and Anita Mumm conducting an interview // Stephanie Craig Photography

Stuart: We have the wonderful distinction of having the reputation as the team that helps people get their books done. The Letters Foundation had been talking about doing a book for about 5-6 years and when word reached the right person who knew of us, she said: If you want to git-r-done, you should call these guys.

Anita: I just have to add how serendipitous it was. I’d been having this itch to go around the country asking people about their stories for a project highlighting social welfare issues, but nothing had coalesced. As I’m mulling it over, Stuart calls and says, “How would you feel about a project where we go around the country asking people about their stories? It would be about social issues, but told through personal experiences…” I said yes before he could finish the sentence! We feel enormously blessed and honored that this project came to us when and how it did.

The Letters Foundation

Lisa: Tell us more about the work of Doris Buffett and the work of the foundation.

Stuart: Doris created the Letters Foundation as a last resort that provides humanitarian grants to people experiencing a crisis when no other options exist. These one-time grants provide a hand-up to individuals as they work to stabilize their lives. To date they have given away nearly $9 million, but all in small-batch grants that are individually tailored to the lives of individuals, rather than target blanket grants that go from organization to organization.

Lisa: Can you explain the “Letters to Doris” concept—the foundation’s system for making grants?

Anita: The Letters Foundation reads and replies to letters from individuals living within the United States. They aim to honor the dignity of every person who writes to them and collaborate with grantees to assist in overcoming the barriers currently preventing them from moving forward in their lives — often they will invest a lot of time and resources in helping people in non-monetary ways that don’t even count towards the $9 million Stuart mentioned earlier. Sometimes, individuals need connections or information or coaching just as much as financial assistance. Doris’ lifelong commitment to individuals, and her kind but practical approach to problem solving, informs all of their areas of grant making.

The process: choosing stories and conducting interviews

Lisa: How did you choose which stories to include?

Stuart: The selection was actually done before we arrived at people’s doors. Our subjects had gone through such struggle; we felt if they were willing to share the intimate details of those struggles, they shouldn’t also be treated to the indignity of their stories not making the cut. We relied on the Letters Foundation Program Officers to help us identify interviewees who would be good spokespeople for some of the various ills facing American society today. And of course they had to want to be part of the project.

Stuart Horwitz and Anita Mumm conducting an interview for Letters to Doris.
Stuart Horwitz and Anita Mumm conducting an interview // Stephanie Craig Photography

Lisa: They made great choices. The stories in Letters to Doris are both inspiring and have an “everyman” quality to them. It seems like the details of people’s stories were mostly gathered in personal interviews; is that right? If so, tell us more about the interviews:

–  How did you conduct the interviews?

–  How do you prepare for an interview?

–  What are some of the questions you asked most people?

–  How do you get at the deeper aspects of a story?

–  Any other tips for having a powerful interview that results in deep material for the book?

How To Conduct a Great Interview

Stuart: Great question, Lisa! I think a good interview starts with the interviewer/s being open to receive the unexpected. We prepared extensively, through discussion with the Program Managers, access to certain documentation, and internet research…but that was only a starting point. Anita, if I may, is a wonderful empath — she taught me how to read the tones of voice and body postures of our subjects to know how and where to go deeper while still being respectful.

Stuart Horwitz, co-author of Letters to Doris: One Woman's Quest to Help Those with Nowhere Else to Turn
Stuart Horwitz // Stephanie Craig Photography

Anita: And Stuart has an uncanny talent for getting to the heart of a topic—going beyond the obvious questions to the ones that bring out raw honesty or an “aha” moment for the interviewee. We really tag team well and we’ve found that this partner approach puts our subjects at ease while allowing us a breadth that might not have been possible as a single interviewer.

Lisa: it seems to me you do a great job of capturing the person’s voice in each story. Any specific tips for how to do that?

Stuart: All of our interviews were recorded and then transcribed. What took place between those transcriptions and the final product was a careful alchemy of doing some stuff but not too much stuff. For example, we restructured everyone’s story to give a full narrative arc. And of course, the work was copyedited and proofread. But at the same time, we didn’t want to bleed out the unique voices of individuals in the pursuit of sameness, or even worse “good writing.” As Duke Ellington once said about unconventional music, “If it sounds good, it is good.”

Making choices on structure, photography, and design

Lisa: How did you decide on the book’s structure?

Anita: When a client commissions us for a project like this, we meet with them to talk about their vision before making any decisions about big-picture aspects like structure. Sometimes they already have a lot of specifics in mind, and other times they look to us for ideas and collaborative brainstorming. For Letters to Doris, we consulted with the leaders of the Letters Foundation and Doris’ family members to get a clear sense of their goals and aspirations for the book, and then we presented a model that we believed captured that. They loved it and gave us the go-ahead, and we got to work.

Anita Mumm, co-author of Letters to Doris: One Woman's Quest to Help Those with Nowhere Else to Turn
Anita Mumm // Stephanie Craig Photography

Lisa: The photographs are gorgeous. Can you tell us a little about the photographer?

Stuart: Stephanie Craig is the bomb! We actually were able to participate in the hiring process where we were presented three photographers to help choose from. Her images blew the others away.

Anita: Totally. We opened Stephanie’s portfolio and knew pretty much simultaneously that we’d found “the one.” You can look at a portrait she has done of a stranger and come away feeling like you actually know that person. She’s that good at capturing their essence.

Stephanie has said that she learned more in one day of working on this project than she had in 6 years of being a photographer. As soon as she felt like she was getting the hang of things and everything was coming together artistically, she would be thrown a curve ball. Equipment malfunctioning, children playing with her lights…you name it. Since she couldn’t get away from spontaneity, she took advantage of it. The clock was always ticking but she found a way to slow down time and really be present with people. To capture their soul and their story without exploiting their grief. 

Finding the Right Book Designer

Lisa: The design of Letters to Doris is also beautiful. How did you find the right book designer? Had you worked with her before? Tell us a bit about working with the designer and your input into the design process.

Stuart: Our designer is Cara Buzzell, who is also a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. She came to us through our cover designer, Molly Regan, another RISD grad. Honestly, we didn’t have a ton of input into the design — Stephanie and Cara really started speaking a language all of their own, and then Richard Denzer at Puritan Capital brought the last piece forward with his wonderful printing expertise. I will say that as the project manager of this book — and others like it, as our team does full-scale projects like this regularly— I believe in finding the best people to fill every role and then elevating them to the level of expert in their domain. So we are there to help cut through red tape for them and weigh in on decisions where they want input, but it’s their show.

“What empathy actually means”: connecting with the Letters Foundation mission

Letters to DorisLisa:  That’s a powerful working philosophy and one I like to use myself! In your newsletter, you mention that the project inspired you to think more strategically about the philanthropy of Book Architecture and how you might be more focused in your giving. Can you share the result of that exercise?

Stuart: Yes, one thing that working with the Letters Foundation has taught us is that our charitable giving has been all…over…the…place. Previously, we had funded conference scholarships, given some of my books away to underserved communities, did the editing of a work pro bono, or mentored aspiring editors — all great and worthy things to do. Then the Executive Director of the Letters Foundation, Amy Kingman, challenged us to really think about where we wanted to focus our efforts. What do we think is most helpful for the writers that we work with?

The answer was resoundingly clear: A travel stipend for the author of a work-in-progress to get away and finish their work. Book Architecture thrives as a finish line business. Like I said at the beginning of our time together here, our proudest testimonials go something like: “We’ve been thinking as an organization of doing a book for ten years and with your help we were holding it in 9 months.”

Hence the Book Architecture Git-R-Done Grant was born. We will award $2,500 in grant money with a deadline for application of Jan. 15th.

Lisa: That’s wonderful, Stuart! It makes so much sense, knowing what I do of Book Architecture and your philosophy and skills. Letters to Doris seems like a profound project. How did working on it change or affect you?

Anita: We did find ourselves deeply affected by this work. Some days, the three of us would finish an interview and the effect was so powerful we wouldn’t speak for a long time. We just had to sit with it and think about how to honor the story we’d been entrusted with. We came away with two dozen examples of the strength and resilience of the human spirit. Of everyday people rising above tragedy to rewrite the story of their lives. That’s unforgettable.

Stuart: Yes, it was intense, for sure. We had to open ourselves up to talking to people, in many cases, about the darkest times in their life, and listening well enough to their process and their pain to replicate their story faithfully. That was some pressure!

The good news is we have a job where if you’re listening, you can hear everything you need to know. I look back on our travels for “Letters to Doris” as the summer when I learned what empathy actually means. I am very grateful I didn’t get to age 50 without knowing that.

A great accomplishment and a feel-good experience

Lisa: The grant recipients featured in Letters to Doris come from all walks of life—people trying to keep their family together, people looking to rise from poverty by furthering their education, and others, such as Robert Solomon, who found themselves in new circumstances (his by medical error). I loved that you included aspects of his story before he came to the foundation. He spent lots of time developing a relationship with the MBTA, the public transportation system throughout greater Boston, to make the “T” more accessible for those with disabilities that impaired their mobility. He had a lot of success with that. But then he even had trouble riding a wheelchair as his health declined. After he raised some—but not enough—funds through a gofundme campaign, the foundation helped him purchase a van he could drive with a stick shift (rather than foot pedals). How does the foundation make its decisions about projects to fund?

Anita: The Foundation has a very thorough vetting process to ensure the projects they fund are legitimate. Beyond that, it comes down to whether an applicant meets the target criteria: they’ve fallen on hard times through no fault of their own, with nowhere else to turn. If for some reason an applicant doesn’t fit those criteria, the program officers and volunteers do their best to refer the applicant to another organization that can help. As you pointed out in Robert Solomon’s story, collaboration—taking steps to help oneself in tandem with the Foundation’s aid—is also an important factor.

Stuart Horwitz and Anita Mumm present Letters to Doris: One Woman's Quest to Help Those with Nowhere Else to Turn at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting
Stuart and Anita present Letters to Doris at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting // Stephanie Craig Photography

Lisa: I discovered this terrific book in your newsletter along with a wonderful photograph of you and your team presenting the book at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. Can you share more about that experience?

Anita: We had so much fun taking that picture! At each Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, Warren Buffett presents a selection of “recommended reads,” and we were honored to have Letters to Doris featured on that list.

We laughed because the main theme of the featured titles was how to make a lot of money, and our book is about giving it away. But the Buffetts are probably as well known for their philanthropy as for their financial acumen, so it made sense.

Warren and Doris have always been very close and he saw it as a way to share her unique approach to giving, in the hope that it will inspire others to initiate similar projects. We had a lot of fun “selling” people on the idea of direct philanthropy. And since the proceeds of the book go back to the Foundation, it was a feel-good experience all around.

The Most Famous Person


It takes a certain kind of organization to make money and develop its people in equal measure. The national PR agency, InkHouse, recently created Hindsight 2020, a book of essays written by the team about moments of consciousness that opened them up to new points of view. According to CEO, Beth Monaghan, such moments of clarity are important in PR because new connections are the essence of stories; they are what allow someone else’s experience to exist next to our own. That is the very job of PR, to bring people and ideas together.

I was honored to write the Afterword to InkHouse’s Hindsight 2020, and to close the book launch with a reading of it. Here is me describing my moment of clarity—occasioned by having a drink with the most famous person I have ever met. In less than 600 words, because clarity also needs brevity.