Ep 096 -- Write a Memoir with Christine H. Lee

I’m typing this on January 1, but whenever you read this, it is the first day of the next year of your life, and that’s a great time to start sharing your story.

As a stroke survivor, survivor of some other acute or chronic trauma, care giver, professional, or just someone who has lived some life, you have a story to tell. You have experiences to share. You’ve worked through some emotional stuff. Or you haven’ worked through it, but it’s sill there.

And maybe you’ve thought about writing a memoir.

Christine H. Lee joined us last year to talk about her memoir, Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember. She is an author, teacher, and stroke survivor. Today, she’s back to help you start writing your own memoir.

7 Lessons in this Episode

  • An autobiography is about a person. A memoir is about a person’s experience.
  • Understand the roles of author, character, and narrator.
  • There is universality in the particular.
  • The Oxford Comma is awesome.
  • Get a cohort.
  • We are about more than stroke.
  • Keep writing.


Christine H Lee Headshot

Christine H. Lee is the author of a memoir (TELL ME EVERYTHING YOU DON’T REMEMBER), which was featured in Self magazineTimeThe New York Times, and NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in ZYZZYVAGuernicaThe RumpusThe New York Times, and BuzzFeed, among other publications. She also has an urban farm–you can read about her farm exploits at Backyard Politics. Her novel is forthcoming from Ecco / Harper Collins.

Born in New York City, Christine earned her undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley and her MFA at Mills College. She has been awarded a residency at Hedgebrook, and her pieces have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and placed in competitions such as the Poets and Writers’ Magazine Writers Exchange Contest, Glimmer Train Fiction Open, and others. She is currently a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Saint Mary’s College of California’s MFA program and an Editor at The Rumpus.

If you would like to order a signed copy of TELL ME EVERYTHING YOU DON’T REMEMBER, you may order it from East Bay Booksellers and specify in the notes section that you would like a signed copy (or two or three) and any customization (if it should be addressed to a particular person). They will then fulfill it with signature. And you would be supporting a local bookstore, which warms Christine’s heart.

Trailer for Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember

Oxford Comma

Consider these two sentences:

  1. At the support group, we learned about the main causes of stroke, kittens, and Barb’s muffins.
  2. At the support group, we learned about the main causes of stroke, kittens and Barb’s muffins.

The first sentence says that we learned about 3 things:

  • The main causes of stroke
  • Kittens
  • Barb’s muffins

The second sentence says that we learned about the main causes of stroke. Those causes are:

  • Kittens
  • Barb’s muffins

The words are the same. The difference is that comma after kittens. That comma is called the Oxford Comma, and it’s somewhat controversial.

Many folks feel you should only use it if it clarifies the sentence. Otherwise you should leave it out.

I’m of the school of thought that we should always use it when writing a sentence with three or more things in a list like that.

There have even been lawsuits where the decision came down to whether the comma was in the written law or not.

Here is the Wikipedia article with more information.

Understanding the Memoir

One of the big lessons for me was understanding just what a memoir is.

It’s not an autobiography, which recounts the history of the person. As I think about writing my own book, I was getting hung up on this idea. Why is my life interesting enough that someone should read about it? What is the value for the reader?

But that’s not what a memoir is. A memoir is about an aspect of the author’s life and the impact it had on the author’s life. It’s not about the author’s life itself.

People read autobiographies to learn about the person, but that’s not why the read memoirs. As Christine said, “People read memoirs because of the subject, theme, or writing style.”

In other words, it’s not about me.

It’s funny because the obvious things sometimes elude me most strongly.

On mt other show, 2-Minute Talk Tips, that’s one of the key lessons I teach about public speaking. If you’re afraid of public speaking, remember, IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.

It’s about your audience.
It’s about your message.
It’s about your goal or call to action.
It’s about what you hope to achieve by delivering that talk.

It’s not about you.

The story you want to tell and the lessons you want to share — they’re about more than your ego.

That makes it a lot easier.

Author — Narrator — Character

This is another structure that Christine shared that helps in writing. We got into it when I started talking about Pathos, Logos, and Ethos in public speaking. You can learn more about that concept here.

In many books, these concepts are more distinct. In fiction, especially, a character is different from the author.

In a memoir, it can get a bit squishy. A writer needs to understand what role the words on the page are serving.

The author is writing and knows the whole story.

The narrator can provide hindsight and wisdom the character hasn’t acquired yet.

The character is going through it as the story progresses.

Understanding those relationships helps you write a stronger book.

That is some advanced stuff, and Christine does a much better job explaining it in the interview.

For my part, this is a structure I’m going to need to explore and noodle on a bit more.

A Cohort

A stroke survivor benefits greatly from a support group. We need that connection to other people living through something similar. We can share our victories and losses. It can help us cut through the isolation and loneliness that many survivors experience.

Writers need a group, too. Find your writing cohort. Maybe it’s a group you take a class with. Maybe it’s a writing group you form through school or that you find in your community.

Find a group of people that you can share experiences with — where you can celebrate one another’s wins and support each other through your struggles.

Writing can be an isolating experience. It’s just you and a blank piece of paper or a blinking cursor. That’s why it’s so important to find your cohort.

Stroke is part of us, but it’s not us

Christine and I, of course, talked about our strokes because they make us who we are today. At the same time though, the conversation itself isn’t about stroke. It’s about writing and what authors need to know. Christine’s advice isn’t specific to stroke survivors; it applies to anyone who has gone through a major event and wants to share it with the world.

In a stroke focused podcast, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea of stroke. It’s why we are part of this community. It informs who we are, but it doesn’t define who we are. We are writers, speakers, teachers, trainers, Harry Potter fans, parents, kids, friends, co-workers, bus passengers, and so much more.

Stroke and disability impact all those relationships and characteristics, but they don’t erase them. A conversation like we had today lets us share the expertise we do have beyond our stroke survivor status.

Walk into any stroke support group meeting and listen to people’s stories. The things we have in common are healing and empowering. The things about us that are different are fascinating. The roads and lives that got us in that same room are different with their own flavor. We bring varied lives to this community and we live varied lives as part of the community.

And that’s why despite all the survivor stories that have already been written, there’s still room for your personal, powerful, one-of-a-kind story.

Hack of the Week

The biggest tip to writing is just to keep writing. That’s it.

You don’t have to get it right and perfect at the start. Just keep writing. Revisions and edits are what turn it into the final product.

Walking into any book store or library, and do you know what you will not find on the shelves?

First drafts!

Just keep writing. If you get stuck, just write about being stuck.

If you can’t think of anything “good” to write, try to write badly. Try writing the most cheesy, confusing, inappropriate, meandering, and cliched thing you can.

But keep writing.

Don’t worry about grammar and spelling.

Just keep writing.

Because wonderful things can happen when you keep writing.


Christine H. Lee Website


Christine’s previous blog


Christine on Twitter


Christine on Instagram


Christine’s Mailing List


Christine’s Buzzfeed article that started it all


Buy the book at East Bay Booksellers


Buy the Book on Amazon

https://www.amazon.com/Tell-Everything-You-Dont-Remember-ebook/dp/B01EFLYG UO/ref=sr_1_

Christine on Catapult


Stroke Net


Oxford Comma on Wikipedia


Oxford Comma Lawsuit


Pathos, Logos, and Ethos


Where do we go from here?

  • To learn more about Christine, find her book, or check out her classes, or learn about her chickens, visit the links above.
  • Share this episode with your stroke support group, Instagram family,writing group, aspiring writers you know, English teachers, or anyone else who may have a story to tell. Give them the link http://Strokecast.com/writeyourstory
  • Start working on your memoir, and let me know about it.
  • Don’t get best…get better.

Strokecast is the stroke podcast where a Gen X stroke survivor explores rehab, recovery, the frontiers of neuroscience and one-handed banana peeling by helping stroke survivors, caregivers, medical providers and stroke industry affiliates connect and share their stories.

Here is the latest episode of The Strokecast