Sarah Hepola Guide To Memoirs

Author explains capturing one's own story

April 3, 2023

Memoir writer Sarah Hepola’s LitFest workshop, “The Power of Memoir and Personal Writing,” successfully helped teach students how to identify the origins of their own personal memoir.

Hepola has been a writer for a lot of her life. Her most well-known contribution is her memoir “Blackout: Remembering the things I Drink to Forget” which became a New York Times bestseller in 2015 and was for sale the evening of March 2 during the Keynote Speaker Event and during the school day March 3 in the library. 

The memoir follows her alcohol addiction. Hepola was an early drinker because of the influence of her cousins and she wanted a release from being shy. When she was 23-years-old, she got a job at a newspaper company where they openly did drugs at work and they enabled her to drink at work. She did eventually quit drinking at the age of 35 and she doesn’t drink anymore.

To start off her workshop, Hepola broke the ice by asking us what we would like to know about writing memoirs and she asked this same question throughout the workshop, which was nice because I could tell she wanted to help us with our memoir writing.

Hepola delved into her background, saying that she was an alumni graduating in 1992 and she originally wanted to be an actress because she was a “drama nerd.” However, she realized she wasn’t going to be able to become an actress. Her family didn’t have a lot of money, but she was able to get a great education at Highland Park. One thing that she knew was that she knew that she had a great imagination and enjoyed writing, so she decided to go pursue that.

One thing that I liked a lot was that Hepola brought pictures from the Hilites dance that she attended as well as her graduation pictures and she wanted us to pass them across the room. I think that by showing the pictures to us, we were able to connect a little bit more because we still have dances like Hilites.

As we passed the pictures around the room, Hepola asked what memoirs we know. She had pulled up a list of the bestselling memoirs and not very many of us knew many of the memoirs, but she said that it was okay that we didn’t know many. We then talked about all of the memoirs on the list and those people’s stories.

Then Hepola asked us what the difference was between something someone posts on social media and a memoir. She said that social media is a means of telling someone what they want to hear, whereas a memoir is how life really was.

Since Hepola wanted to get to know us better, our first exercise was to write down six nouns that describe us that we all later shared with the class. She said that through those six nouns, we had created a story of our lives.

The next exercise was to choose one noun to describe ourselves and it could be separate from the six nouns. Once we were done sharing those to the class, Hepola said that that one noun would be the title of our memoir.

She then asked again what we wanted to know from a memoir writer and someone asked how she remembers what she’s already said. 

Hepola explained that memory is a good selection of drama. However, she shared her pages of certain scenes with the people who were in those scenes and she said that if someone relies on their own memory, it will most likely be fiction. She continued by saying that if someone wants to keep a good relationship with the people in the scene, they should share those pages with them. She also stated that someone should not pretend to know more than they know and to always stick to what they said and not what someone else thinks they meant.

Someone else asked how important it is that we tell a story. Hepola explained that it was essential that we have one and that we identify our story and our voice in our memoir.

The story, Hepola stated, is the beginning, middle and end of the story someone wants to tell in their memoir.

The voice, however, is the style of someone’s words and ability to transmit their storytelling into their writing. Hepola compared Taylor Swift to Nicki Minaj to help us identify different types of voices. Both of them are singers, but they have different music styles and sing differently. 

To conclude that discussion, she said that the voice has to stand out in ordinary stories and vice versa because if someone has an ordinary story and an ordinary voice, their story won’t be differentiated from other people’s stories.

A common feature of some memoirs is that they aren’t actually written by the person in the story, but rather by a ghostwriter. Hepola expressed that she did not like ghostwriters because she couldn’t hear the actual person’s voice, only the ghostwriter’s. She said that memoirs need to be the most direct access to someone’s story and a ghostwriter could block that path.

Near the end, she said that nobody has to give anyone permission to write and they don’t need to go to college to become a writer. Hepola said she hoped that we will know that our lives are interesting and worth writing about.

Overall, her workshop was very informative. I didn’t know much about memoir writing going into the workshop and it was a fun experience. Hepola was very down-to-earth and I thought her story and her journey to quit alcoholism was incredible.

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