In praise of paper diaries

Bonne Anniversaire to my dad!
A Scorpio through and through, he figured out exactly how to live on after physical mortality: he left his words behind for me to find.

I’ve kept a handwritten journal since I was 14, and if dad hadn’t been such an avid diarist, I would never have uncovered the truth of his life. I’ve used my journals to write both my published memoirs, and even before that, I journalled my way to my first published essays and pieces. So, because dad and I share that love of journalling, I wanted to share the love especially for what would have been his birthday!

If you’re struggling to know how to keep a journal consistently, here’s an excerpt from my 30-day journalling e-course to get you started.

And an exciting offer. I’m feeling generous!

November is a brand new month, and  the perfect time to start a daily journalling practice that will set you on the way to a published memoir (whether you’re aiming for an essay, to start, or a complete book).
It’s a 30-day course so what could be more perfect than starting on the first of the month?

Simply comment below this post with the #1 question you have about writing your memoir. 

I’ll email ten lucky winners on Halloween!

In the meantime, why not use the writing prompt below, to start your journalling practice today?

Happy writing, friends!

Daily prompt : In which we make a comeback

“Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

Steven Pressfield

I’ve been thinking about comebacks, how the people I most admire are those who stuck at something even when they failed umpteen times before it came off.

You know when you have a migraine, or are in excruciating physical pain, you can’t see or focus on anything else?

You just think “this is the way life is, now” and can’t even fathom being pain-free. I pulled a nerve in my lower back last year, and it was exquisitely painful even to breathe. I thought that was just my life!

Success and failure are a bit like that.

When you’re pain-free, it’s difficult to even recall such pain.

But that’s how it is with success, too. While I’ve had work published somewhere big, you don’t see all the articles and books I pitched (and wrote!) which were never accepted, which weren’t even rejected – but just met with silence.

There were many times I was face down in the ring, so-to-speak, working at a banal day-job, wondering how to make my creativity work – or even if I should bother to continue trying.

So, today, I want you to consider your own ‘face down in the ring’ moments. When have you felt like you’ve hit rock bottom – through rejection or failure or some other idea or business that hasn’t come off – and journal about it. Write about what didn’t come off, and what you learned from the experience. Was it a creative project? A relationship? A health issue? A career crisis? A financial issue?

Now, journal about your comeback. How did you bounce back? Did you have to lick your wounds before you tried? Write about it.
If you haven’t yet bounced back from whatever it is that you consider a loss or a failure, what would be your ideal comeback? Picture it, envision all the little details about it. What will you see, where will you be, how will it feel?

Write it down.

Writing has a sort of shamanic power to it – from thought to form on the written page, we can bring things into being. Write about your greatest comeback – even if it hasn’t happened yet.

Then, go and create. A word, a poem, a page, a mess.

The powers you have to create from nothing (AND make a comeback) should terrify you! Keep writing, for two pages, and don’t look up from the page until you’ve finished.

Ready to get cracking on a daily journalling practice, and overcome your writing blocks in just 30 days? Comment below with your biggest memoir dilemma to win a course (I’m giving away ten!).

More about my journalling for memoir e-course here.





About the Author:

I write, read and teach memoir. I'm a paper cut survivor from way back. I love cats, kindness and coffee.


  1. Megan October 28, 2018 at 1:29 am - Reply

    My number one question would be how to make time for writing my memoir around full time work and family commitments

    • Louisa October 28, 2018 at 1:36 am - Reply

      Oh, that’s a great question! I’ve actually created a template for mapping that out – the most important thing is regularity and momentum. I’m going to share it in an upcoming blog post so stay tuned. And you’ve won a journalling e-course!

      • Megan October 28, 2018 at 11:11 pm - Reply

        Thanks Louise, I’m excited to learn more from the e-course

  2. Derice McDonald October 28, 2018 at 2:40 am - Reply

    Self doubt is right up there with many others. I don’t have an Arts Degree in creative writing – will my writing ever be good enough?

    • Louisa October 28, 2018 at 2:44 am - Reply

      Hi Derice – that’s a really common problem. The only way to overcome self-doubt is by taking action, I think the journalling course will really be good for you (and you’ve won one!).
      And, you don’t need a degree to be a writer. You just need to write. A lot.

  3. Michelle October 28, 2018 at 2:54 am - Reply

    There are aspects of my memoir that aren’t favourable of the way I was brought up but are intracle to who I am and the way I navigate my life now but I struggle to write them. I start and stop and put them away over and over. How do I get past the hurdle? To not write them in some form feels like I’m missing a pivotal character in my story. I’ve struggled with it for so long now and its really impeded my writing and feeding into my overall self-doubt.

    • Louisa October 28, 2018 at 3:07 am - Reply

      Hey Michelle, thanks for your comment. I actually think this is a really good dilemma as it shows you have some empathy! Please understand that this is REALLY common – and how can we write truthfull about our lives if we don’t bring in some of the more challenging stuff / people we’ve had to deal with?. What will people think if i write about them? How do i write about the negative stuff in a way that doesn’t get me sued? etc etc. My biggest piece of advice there is to get a full first draft down that you promise no-one will see but you. And then you go back and objectively assess it for what actually needs to be included for the story to be whole. I go into a bit more detail here.
      You’ve won a journalling for memoir course!

  4. Liz Hall-Downs October 28, 2018 at 3:08 am - Reply

    I have the degrees and lots of published short pieces, but my unfinished novel and plotted out memoir still sit and fester.
    I have a hard time overcoming the feeling that nobody gives a damn if I write this stuff or not.
    How do you gain enough confidence to (1) finish the work and (2) perservere in trying to find agents and publishers without being totally demoralised from all the rejection?

    • Louisa October 28, 2018 at 3:16 am - Reply

      Hey Liz, really good dilemma. I think there’s a few questions here, but in answer to the first one: you need to write the memoir for no-one but yourself, first and foremost (journalling will help you get used to the joy of writing for no-one but you!). Re: the confidence question, I think it’s less about confidence, thank clarity on your motivation and exactly why you want to be published. I’m going to write a post on clarifying your memoir motivation, soon. Oh and you’ve won a journalling for memoir course!

    • Louisa October 28, 2018 at 5:40 am - Reply

      Also Liz, the free checklist to see if you’re ready to write your memoir (that you should have received when you signed up to my emails?) includes stuff about motivation!

  5. Sharon October 28, 2018 at 3:40 am - Reply

    Sometimes I wake up and think to myself ‘are you kidding, who do you think you are. You can’t write a book’. But then I think ‘hang on a minute! I’m the only one who can do it. Look at the situation and position you’re in. You’re the only one who can do it, so you have to do it. There’s no other choice, so it’s up to you. Just do it’.
    And I keep thinking of your advice Louisa….just write it for yourself.
    Then I procrastinate, make a cup of tea and watch some TV!

    • Louisa October 28, 2018 at 5:32 am - Reply

      Hey Sharon! Ah, the old ‘procrastination is the thief of time’ issue. Another reason journalling every morning is great is because it gets you into the discipline of just pouring something – anything – down on the blank page before your excuses get in the way. So yay! You’ve won one!

  6. Cathy Park Kelly October 28, 2018 at 5:21 am - Reply

    Hi Louisa I’ve always journaled and am now on a second draft of a memoir about a chapter of my life. The first draft was made up of all the journal entries that related to that chapter, along with insights and reflections from the older me. What I’m finding difficult in this second draft is a) converting some of the intensely personal ramblings into dramatic scenes with strong dialogue etc. and b) finding a seamless, ‘non-preachy’ way to include insights / reflections from the older me’ And lastly, c) Not sure if your journalling course will help with these issues? So that’s three questions…sorry! Love, Cathy

    • Louisa October 28, 2018 at 5:38 am - Reply

      Hey Cathy
      Congratulations on attacking the first draft! It sounds like you need help with story structure, not the actual fears of writing a memoir. This post I wrote on the 3-act structure might help, as well as this one on what goes into the first chapter. And next week’s blog is all about finding the central desire of your memoir, which will really help you!
      I don’t think you need help journalling so much as structuring, and I’m so glad you shared your problem so i can write some more content that addresses these questions! The seamless, non-preachy one is an interesting one. I find it helps to focus on ‘showing’ how your insights have changed rather than ‘telling’ – if that makes sense.

      • Cathy October 28, 2018 at 9:58 pm - Reply

        Thanks so much, Louisa!

  7. Yolande October 28, 2018 at 6:41 am - Reply

    My number one question is how best to revise a memoir you’ve been working on for over a decade and feel very overwhelmed with all of the various revisions and changes and versions of multiple chapters that you have everywhere. I feel overwhelmed just at the thought of putting it together. I know I just have to do it, but I’m wondering if you have any suggestions for most effective methods, or gentle tips. Maybe this is an opportunity for me to even write everything from scratch all over again now that I have a better idea of my story. Maybe I shouldn’t put all the different versions together. I don’t know. That would be my question. Thank you so much.

    • Louisa October 28, 2018 at 7:05 am - Reply

      Hey Yolande, thanks so much for the great question. I find momentum is so important for something as sysiphean as a manuscript draft, and when you’re looking at revising, you need to give yourself a good few days to just lay the whole manuscript out on the floor and write your own ‘manuscript appraisal’, if you will. Use the last version you worked on, and write yourself a plan so you don’t feel completely overwhelmed and confused (I know that feeling!).
      Make yourself a visual ‘map’, using post-its for each chapter. Jot things like when each character is introduced or referenced, clarify where each ‘act’ of the story sits. Re-write your synopsis and pin it up for when you’re working on the book so you don’t lose that sense of clarity on the shape of the story. Clarify your universal theme and driving desire (my post on that will be up next week), clarify your ‘point of view’ at the beginning and end of the book. And when you start reworking the manuscript (which probably will involve a lot of re-writing, if not the whole thing), keep at it regularly so you don’t lose the ‘thread’ of the story.
      I hope this helps. Here are some posts you might find helpful, too: 3-act story structure, finding your focus sentence, and writing the synopsis.

  8. Sharon October 28, 2018 at 8:06 am - Reply

    My question is how to deal with the unpleasant emotions that come up when writing a memoir about a difficult time in your life.
    Michelles’s question (and your answer) was great about dealing with the uncertainty of including stories of people who have hurt you, but writing about these things can also mean re-visiting the trauma as if it’s occurring all over again.

    • Louisa October 28, 2018 at 8:21 am - Reply

      Hey Sharon, that’s a really good question. I think a lot of people avoid going too ‘deep’ in their memoir for this very reason – and I talk about it in the bestselling memoirs e-book, how it’s so necessary for a good memoir to explore those painful parts just as deeply as the victories and happy moments. And yes, it brings it all back (writing is a form of time travel, in a way), I found this really painfully when i was working on A Letter From Paris. But focusing on the end game – that by writing, you are actually transforming something into a narrative that you control, can be very empowering. BUt it takes patience, and sometimes you need lots of breaks on either side of writing a particularly painful part.
      I also find lots of sleep is necessary when you’re working on hard parts of the story. I wrote a post on how to look after yourself while writing memoir, here, you might find helpful too.

  9. Cax October 28, 2018 at 8:36 am - Reply

    Hi Louisa
    Every time I get an email from you it feels like an encouraging prod. But like all prods it’s a tad painful. I have a messy, half completed, unfocused memoir sitting in a drawer and I struggle to even think about the process of extracting a worthwhile, coherent story.
    I read memoirs compulsively and have such awe for those who complete them and then actually put them “out there”. So I guess I’m saying – thank you and please keep prodding. Much love Cax

    • Louisa October 28, 2018 at 8:42 am - Reply

      Thank you, Caryl! Sorry to prod! So many people have the same feeling of overwhelm at picking up that manuscript. Be cheered by that. And even for those of us who completed or published the memoir, it was intensely painful getting over that overwhelm, too! This is why I’m trying to simplify the process for people. I’ll try and send a more fun prod next time 🙂

  10. Pilar Arsenec October 28, 2018 at 12:14 pm - Reply

    You are very kind and generous to help others. I am struggling on what to focus on in writing a memoir. Memoir is not an autobiography, but a chapter from your life. So much has happened, and my memory is not that great. I have no idea what to write about, where to begin or how to do this. Plus, who is actually going to care about reading my men out when I do not have an MFA and am an ordinary middle aged woman who is not in prestigious literary circles?

    • Louisa October 28, 2018 at 12:24 pm - Reply

      Hi Pilar – thanks for your comment! What ‘chapter’ of your life is begging to be told in a story? Write about that. What idea slightly scares you, pulls you out of bed, intrigues you enough that you could develop it into a story? Write about that. Start with your focus sentence, perhaps map out the synopsis, and keep going. If your memory isn’t that great, see if you can find some old letters, emails, photos or journals from that time in your life, to prod scenes and memories.
      I like your other dilemma about wondering who will be interested in your story, and I’ll write about that in an upcoming post (PS you don’t need an MFA!). Louisa

  11. Nancie October 28, 2018 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    Good morning, Louisa. Happy Sunday. One of the questions I’ve struggled to answer while working on my memoir is how to structure it. Essays about a topic for each chapter, chapters that follow a time line. Any suggestions for how to approach this?

    • Louisa October 29, 2018 at 12:28 am - Reply

      Hi Nancie
      That’s a great question! I think this was my biggest dilemma, too. One way you can look at structuring it is in relation to the ‘3-act’ story structure. It can be chronological or it can be flashback. If each chapter is an essay, are they stand-alone or do they build up to a key ‘crux’ or turning point in relation to the entire book? These are things to thing about. I’ll be posting more on structure in the coming weeks, but in the mean-time, you could have a look at this (very basic!) overview of the 3-Act structure. I hope it helps! Louisa

  12. Nancy October 28, 2018 at 8:12 pm - Reply

    I would love to take my story of growing up and old with a “mean mother” and instead of it being a completely sad affair, I want to demonstrate the positives. For example, my I dependence is directly tied to wanting my financial freedom from my mother. The dilemma…..I dont want to appear to trivialize anyone pain because real.

    • Louisa October 29, 2018 at 12:29 am - Reply

      Hey Nancy, I think you’re not trivialising people’s pain if you’re writing deeply and thoughtfully about it. But you have to dig deep to make it sensitive.

  13. Annie Sisk October 28, 2018 at 9:59 pm - Reply

    Right now my biggest question is: Should this be a memoir at all, or should it rather be a slightly autobiographical novel? Making that decision seems to affect everything else.

    • Louisa October 29, 2018 at 12:31 am - Reply

      Hi Annie
      That’s completely up to you! You do need to be willing to open up and be vulnerable to publish a memoir rather than a fictional novel, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling. Did you download the cheat-sheet when you opted in via my website? It explores a bit about motivation, which might help you, too.

  14. Elinor October 29, 2018 at 2:00 am - Reply

    I want to write about my life, and I’ve been working on personal essays, but how do I do that when it includes a bad marriage to the father of my three children??? It was a very painful time for me. He was, obviously, a large part of my life – we met at 18, married at 24 and divorced 14 years later. I can’t just not include him, but I don’t want to hurt my children. How does one handle such a tricky situation?

    • Louisa October 29, 2018 at 2:06 am - Reply

      Really good question, Elinor. I think you need to get really clear on the theme of your memoir and then map out the story arc to see what is absolutely necessary to include. You might also like to read the post I wrote on what will people think? I reiterate that good memoir exposes much more about the author than it does of other people (which is why memoir takes bravery!).

  15. Cecilia Whitaker October 29, 2018 at 9:15 pm - Reply

    Hi Louise, how do you strike the right balance between recording memory and crafting a story? I struggle with the proper way to honor memories (or what I think my memories are since they can be spotty and unreliable), while also keeping the story moving and interesting. I know writers have to embellish or recreate moments we can’t totally remember, but how do you do that with tact and in a way that feels truthful to the rest of the story?

    • Louisa October 30, 2018 at 12:01 am - Reply

      Hi Cecilia
      That’s an interesting question. I think it was Mary Karr who said that the minute we choose to include one event over another, we’re shaping teh past’s meaning. Only you can decide what to include and what to embellish, but ultimately, the story has to keep moving and the story has to be well-crafted. I didn’t include many actual events that happened as I researched my father’s life for A Letter From Paris because if i’d included them, the story would have slowed down monumentally. And they didn’t drive the ‘story’ forward.
      That’s more a second or third draft question (which I really appreciate) because i feel like that’s when things get fun – when you’ve got the chronology and the ‘truth’ down, and then you’re working on shaping the story. It’s very fulfilling.
      Not sure if I answered your question but I hope it helps!

  16. Jay Jay October 30, 2018 at 2:22 am - Reply

    Hi Louisa. I love your blogs and thank you for sharing your wisdom and passion with others. Would you Please be able to advise / suggest how best to navigate the technical mine field of how to actually get from hand written journal entries to computer chapters. Is word the best program and is it still as simple as opening folders and labeling them under headings and chapters? I seem to collect many documents labeled “chapter 1 final” “chapter 1 final#2” etc. I have heard of Scrivener but I haven’t purchase or used. How do you arrange your documents and stories and photos and diary entries and extracts so you don’t lose control of them all? Thanks in advance for your support. Keep up the good work. Jay

    • Louisa October 30, 2018 at 2:26 am - Reply

      Hi Ja – lots of writers use Scrivener but I found it too confusing. I actually create the memoir outline on word and then start Draft 1 / draft 2 etc. Don’t save the chapters separately (too confusing!) – I’ll have a post on writing the outline soon, and have you seen this post I wrote on going from paper journal to memoir?

  17. Gill Brookes-Parry October 30, 2018 at 10:06 am - Reply

    Dear Louisa,
    Thank you so much for all the information you have sent me. I am quite overwhelmed at your generocity in sharing your knowledge, but also for your time, which must be limited. Very inspiring.
    I am about to start writing at any moment .The only thing that has held me back until now has been my lack of technical knowledge. I have been wrestling to produce a recognizable sentence on a laptop for about three months. Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration actually, as for much of the time it has been locked in a drawer so I wouldn’t have to look at it. But since I have received your messages I have girded my loins and taken myself in hand so to speak and, although I still would not describe myself as proficient, I feel confident enough to go for it now.
    I have lived in Catalunya for over forty years and the subject of my memoir, for the moment, is the first year that I lived here along with all the challenges that I encountered, and how I overcame some of them and failed to do so with many others.
    The only qualm I have about this is that the way I got through living under a dictatorship and all the challenges that it entailed, was to employ my, at times, very irreverent sense of humor.
    Do you think that humor can be used successfully. In a memoir? I have always felt that the genre is more an example of soul searching and, sometimes but not always, angst.
    I will be very interested to receive your answer.
    Many thanks again,

    • Louisa October 31, 2018 at 9:09 am - Reply

      Sorry I’ve only just seen this. Of COURSE humour can be applied! Humour makes things bearable, haha. David Sedaris essentially writes memoir, and part of what makes his style so noticeable is the wry humour he uses. Mary Karr in The Liar’s Club was also very self-deprecating, just not slapstick-funny… I will try to find some more examples for you… But in answer to your question – YES, humour can most definitely be used, and often keeps the reader engaged in what would otherwise be too hard to bear!

Leave A Comment