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Monday, November 29, 2010

Women’s Memoirs: Helping Every Woman Tell Her Story

In case you haven’t noticed, memoirs are hot right now. From self-help gurus to genealogy sites to love stories—it’s all about the memoir.

Today, I am very excited to introduce you Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett, co-creators of a wonderful website called Women’s Memoirs.

Ladies, welcome to The Muffin! When I first found your website I was so excited. The site is beautiful, easy to navigate and absolutely full of information, products and offers. What is the story behind the creation of Women’s Memoirs?

Kendra Bonnett: Robyn. Thanks for the invitation to join you today. I’m going to turn over your first question to Matilda since she started us on the path to working in the memoir genre.

Matilda Butler: Hi Robyn. I’m pleased to be talking with you. Women’s Memoirs is the outgrowth of my experience interviewing more than 100 women for what became our award-winning collective memoir called Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story that Kendra and I co-authored. The interviews with the women became a life-altering experience for me. We laughed together; we cried together. These women’s stories touched my life. I became so involved in their narratives that I dreamed about these women almost nightly. Some told me parts of their lives they had never shared with anyone. At the end of these long and intense interviews, so many of the women said a variation of, “Thank you, I never took the time to look at my life before. Now I can see what I was doing and I can change as I move forward.”

For the first time, I realized how important it is to tell our stories.

I’m trained as a researcher and like to say that I started work on the collective memoir as a social scientist and ended as a memoir coach. Although I had been involved in women’s issues for much of my career, helping women tell their life stories once again reshaped my professional focus.

I knew that if I wanted to reach women with information about how to write a memoir, I needed a website. The current site, which is actually its third incarnation, is a blog. That has helped us be able to cover many topics on a regular basis -- much easier than in an earlier version where we had to make changes and additions in html code.

I get the feeling that Women’s Memoirs has a mission; would you like to share a little about that?

Kendra: I’m glad that our passion comes through in our website and in the information we provide. Our mission is simple, yet decidedly grand. We want to help every woman tell her story. Women’s life stories have been, and in many cases continue to be, shortchanged and undervalued. We offer women the tools and support that it takes to write their memoirs. Some women, of course, want to write for themselves or for their families. A life story should be captured, considered and shared, even if the message goes no farther than a daughter or grandchild.

For that matter, the very act of capturing the story is beneficial as it often helps the writer resolve issues and heal. It’s important that the process of writing not stymie the process of healing and recovery. We have people in our classes, critique groups and coaching sessions that are learning to communicate through writing for the first time. In truth, we’ve discovered that many of the memoir writers we meet (aspiring as well as published) didn’t start out with grand plans to become writers. So it’s important that Women’s Memoirs be there to help them conquer the writing.

Of course, for those who want to publish their memoirs, writing is only half the battle. A published author is, in effect, a businessperson, and that requires a different set of skills. I have more years in marketing than I care to admit to, and I’m using my expertise to focus on how the best of traditional marketing strategy and new media tactics come together to help author-entrepreneurs succeed.

So whether writing or marketing, it’s our mission to share as much information as we can through our blogs and free eBooks. Given the number of women who thank us for being “so generous” with our content, I think we’re probably achieving our objective of opening the field to all women, regardless their previous experience and skill.

As these women become more focused on their projects and want to work directly with us, we have a number of courses, coaching programs and critique groups. We’re also always adding to our product line of workshops on DVD and in-depth eBooks. In January, for example, you’ll see the first of our new marketing tools, a comprehensive look at how writers can use Twitter to build a platform and promote their books.

You’ve mentioned an important point, and one I would like to call attention to as I feel this is what separates Women’s Memoirs from the other memoir-writing websites I have seen. Writing the memoir and publishing the memoir are two separate acts and require different skills, yet you address both.

Let’s focus on the writing aspect for a moment. Writing requires both inspiration and action. You address this by offering tools and incentive for people at all levels. You inspire your readers through author interviews, memoir book reviews and brief videos with writing tips; then encourage activity through memoir writing prompts, journaling explorations, writing contests and classes. In fact, your classes were so well received that you have created a DVD version; tell us a little about this set.

Robyn, let me jump back in. I started teaching women’s memoir writing in 2006 through local colleges and privately. Not long after that, Kendra began coaching on a one-on-one basis. By 2008, we added online teaching. That took us in the direction that we knew we needed to go. Although Kendra teaches on the East coast and I teach in Northern California, many women contacted us through our website and wanted to study with us but couldn’t work out their schedule or logistics to connect with us either locally or on the phone.

The next logical step was to create a DVD product based on our all-day workshop. We call it The [Essential] Women’s Memoirs Writing Workshop: 21 Steps from Planning to Publication. When we decided to develop a DVD of our workshop, we realized we had to create separate lessons because we couldn’t count on the flow from topic to topic that works in a group setting. The development of the 21 lessons caused us to create more writing exercises as well. The final product includes almost eight hours of video lessons, 40 writing exercises, and the electronic version of our 57-page workbook. Some of the footage for the DVD comes from a class I was teaching at the time.

That leads me to the special offer we’re making to WOW women. Right now and for a very limited time we’re offering our 5-DVD workshop (a $132 value) for $59. And because it’s the season of giving, Kendra and I will give $10 of each order to the Alzheimer’s Association to help support their good work. We invite all WOW women interested in writing their memoir or helping a mother or friend write hers to take advantage of this special offer, go to:

Such a generous offer, thank you so much! I love that you have chosen to support the Alzheimer’s Association. When someone loses their memories they lose everything, their sense of self, their loved ones, etc… I can think of few things worse than Alzheimer’s.

In addition to the memoir how-to, you also offer book business how-to.

Yes, Robyn, we’ve been running parallel content threads on both writing and book business since almost our first day online. The reason is we want women writers to be successful. And if they define “success” as publishing and selling their memoirs, but then either can’t get published or fail to sell more than a handful of copies…well that’s just not going to cut it for them. Even if they just want to share their work freely with other women online, there’s more too it than getting a Facebook page.

The Internet, of course, has redefined the book business every bit as much as it has changed the face of journalism, politics and traditional business. I mean, it’s literally turned convention on its head. While that’s often good, it’s also terrifying. Change by definition closes many doors; the trick is to be able to see the new ones being opened. We see Women’s Memoirs' job to be to point women toward the new opportunities and make it an exciting time for them.

Starting in January, we’ll be releasing a series of very inexpensive eBooks and videos that will guide writers through the challenges (and opportunities) of blogging, social media, publicity/promotion, even self-publishing.

Matilda and I view this as a great time to be in publishing, provided writers can find their way. Our goal is to help writers who are having trouble embracing online marketing tactics make the transition as painlessly as possible. You might say that we’re putting women in charge of their books—from writing to sales.

That’s wonderful! Internet business can be so confusing.
This year you two are celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of your professional partnership. Where do you go from here?

That’s a great question. Kendra and I spend a month together once or twice each year. During that time we have some fun and plan our coming year. About 18months ago, Kendra was visiting and our conversations focused on a new approach to writing that would move our students beyond their current level of writing. Our all-day workshop, whether offered in person or on DVD, seemed quite effective in getting women started. However, we found that while our continuation workshops went well, we couldn’t seem to significantly elevate their writing. We knew several components we wanted to emphasize, but we still needed a cohesive approach.

One evening we drove to San Jose for a music performance. The composer strode on the stage and began to describe his approach to the composition we would hear the quartet play. Kendra and I turned to each other and whispered at the same moment, “That’s it.” He gave us an idea that we both realized could help us take our series of ideas and put them into a logical framework.

After developing the concept and teaching materials of what we eventually called Writing Alchemy, we began working with students and conducting workshops. We’ve been doing this now for 16 months. That has given us ample time to see the incredible change in the writing of everyone who uses the method, independent of their initial skill level.

We are in the final stages of completing our book, Writing Alchemy: The Art and Science of Turning Your Words into Gold. We’ll supplement the book with workbooks, videos, teacher handbooks and much more. Writing Alchemy should have been finished this summer except that my husband and I were finally persuaded by two of our sons and two grandchildren to move to Oregon to be near them. That turned out to be a major distraction from writing. As I talk with you, we have movers in the house and we’ll be in the car driving north in a few days. I should be back to finishing my part of the book by mid-December. We’re eager to share our new approach to writing with both writers and teachers of writing. Then while continuing to teach and promote Writing Alchemy, we’ll develop a DVD around the concept.

And...Kendra and I always have more ideas than we can get done. This means that we are frequently vetting our brainstorms in order to find the next idea that will be useful to women writers.

More good stuff on the way!

Ladies, thank you so much for visiting with us today and for the special offer on your DVD class.

Robyn, on behalf of both Matilda and myself, thank you for this opportunity to share this exciting world of Women’s Memoirs with your readers.

Matilda Butler graduated magna cum laude from Boston University. She earned an M.A. in communications from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in social psychology from Northwestern University. Listed in the Who’s Who of American Women since 1975, she has taught and conducted research at Stanford, created the nationwide Women’s Educational Equity Communications Network, and co-founded Knowledge Access International, a software company specializing in CD-ROM information products. Together with Kendra Bonnett, she co-authored Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells its Story which won the 2008 IPPY National Book Award’s Bronze Medal and three national book festival honors. She and Kendra Bonnett now help women tell their life stories in their women’s memoir writing classes online and in person and through a 5-DVD set, The [Essential] Women’s Memoir Writing Workshop: 21 steps from Planning to Publication.

An award-winning author with over 300 magazine articles and seven books to her credit, Kendra Bonnett graduated cum laude from Arizona State University with degrees in history and anthropology, completed a Master’s in history from the College of William and Mary and further graduate studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She was editor of the Women’s Educational Equity Communication Network, designed computer curriculum for secondary school students and co-founded Digit, one of the first computer magazines for children. She later founded Profit: Information Technology for Entrepreneurs and Beyond Computing, a joint magazine publishing venture between IBM and The New York Times and was Profit’s first Editor in Chief. Throughout her career she provided marketing to companies ranging from Fortune 500 to small, entrepreneurial startups. In the late 1990s, she was president of Westchester, NY-based marketing firm Mark Stevens & Company.
Interview by Robyn Chausse


  1. Robyn: Thanks for such a fun interview. It was great talking with you. We're delighted to have an opportunity to share our knowledge of memoir writing and publishing with WOW.


  2. I was re-reading the interview and though I've heard Matilda say it many times before, I was struck again by her comment that she started the memoir process "as a social scientist and ended as a memoir coach."

    She also ended as a memoir writer. And in that process she is every woman who has ever considered sharing her story. Here's what I mean: In all our memoir writing workshops, online classes and coaching sessions, most of the women are aspiring authors and first-time writers. I make a distinction between aspiring authors and first-time writers...the latter being women who are compelled by the need to share their story (not necessarily a desire to write).

    In the process of working through their memoir, they learn a lot about writing. And many become what I would call writers. It's an interesting transformation. The need to tell the story keeps them going. Keeps pushing them to write better, with greater force, more energy and descriptive power. It's the compelling raison d'etre behind memoir that keeps them going. And it's pretty cool to watch the process.

    For the same reason that memoir can make writers out of non-writers, I think memoir is the ideal genre for aspiring authors. They are freed up to focus on their craft because they already know how the story is going to come out.

    Well sort of...I know that's over-simplification. There's a lot of interesting work that goes into finding the right way to tell the story. But the bones, nevertheless, are there and well known to the writer.

    Thanks, Robyn, for this wonderful opportunity to address the women of WOW.

  3. Hi Matilda,
    I've had great fun talking with both you and Kendra and just love being able to share your work with our readers. I've met many women who have really interesting life stories to share and no idea how to even begin. Women's Memoirs is a beautiful answer for them.

    Hi Kendra,
    I was struck by that same phrase but for me the picture was a bit different--I guess it's that Aquarian humanitarian side of me--I was thinking of all the different goups of people who have stories we all need to hear yet have no voice. Women in India, young girls in Africa would be two examples. Memoir Collections (similar to your Rosie's Daughters) would open up eyes and doors for these people. Memoirs are powerful tools.


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