Author Insights: 5 Lessons Learned from a First-Time Memoirist (+ an Autographed Book Giveaway!)

And we’re back! It’s time for the next installment of our “Author Insights” series. In this series, I’m introducing you to writers who’ve taken their writing all the way to the finish line of publication, and they share their “lessons learned” with you. There’s nothing quite like learning from a writer who has made to the other side.

Plus, if you leave a comment at the end of the post before Friday, March 24th at 5 p.m. Pacific Time, you’ll be entered to win an autographed copy of the author’s book in a random drawing. (IMPORTANT: You must be located in the United States to win.)

Meet Mary Montanye, author of Above Tree Line

I’m thrilled to introduce you to Mary Montanye. Mary joined my Called to Write Coaching Circle at the beginning of 2013 in order to finish the memoir she’d been working on for five years before she joined us. She’s now tackling her next big writing dream with the help of the Circle: Writing a romantic suspense novel. Mary quickly became a staunch advocate for the approach we use in the Circle and joined the team as a coach after participating as a member of the Circle for about a year and a half.

I asked Mary to share her insights about writing her memoir with us. 

Mary Montanye on 5 Lessons Learned in Writing Above Tree Line

My memoir, Above Tree Line, took seven years to write and publish. During that time, I made a lot of mistakes. Here’s what I learned and how I’d do it differently now.

1. Find support early in the process, but don’t let that support stop you from completing the project so you can move on to others.

I worked with a brilliant writer and teacher for much of the writing of Above Tree Line. I learned a great deal from her and will always be grateful for the time I spent as her student. But eventually I realized that somewhere in my work with her I’d become stuck. We were spending all our time together going over and over the same material — changing, tweaking, finessing. I began to wonder if my resistance to publishing and her desire to keep me as a student, might be getting in the way. I ended our working relationship and joined Jenna’s Circle instead. I completed my memoir within a couple of sessions and moved into the publishing stage.

2. Don’t start at the beginning when writing a memoir. (This might be true for other types of writing as well. I’ll let you know when I finish the novel!)

Start anywhere you feel the heat — a memory, a taste, a color, an image, a sensation, a fragrance. Write from there. “She was born on August 16th at such and such hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii…” will bore you and make it more difficult to continue. Your reader won’t like it either. So why bother?

Let the first draft be all over the place. Let it be messy, filled with what was powerful and exciting for you. Ask yourself what interests you about your history or your family. Put it all in, even those parts you know you’ll never let stand. This draft is not the time to censor yourself. If you worry about what your readers will think, you might find you’ve left the gold in the ground and can’t remember where it was when you want to dig it up later.

3. Recognize fear and resistance for what it is — just fear and resistance. It doesn’t mean that you’re not a writer or that it is time to quit.

Fear and resistance got the best of me during the writing stage because I was not separating the creating of a project from the publishing or marketing of it. If I was in the middle of writing about a painful period of my childhood, for instance, and suddenly flashed on the idea that someday someone, perhaps even someone I knew and loved, would be reading it, I froze. I also stopped myself from writing when I’d compare my writing to that of others or when I read posts about the impossibility of publishing in the current marketplace. My coach and fellow writers in the Circle gently guided me back to what was in my power to do: write. Write the best story I could write now, they urged, and leave the rest for later.

4. When you share your writing other than with friends and family, it’s a pretty safe bet that someone won’t like it, that you will get rejections or negative reviews.

I was devastated when a woman who reviewed my memoir for a contest said that, even though the writing was good, she didn’t like either me or my husband. She was a stranger and still it hurt that she didn’t like me and that I’d portrayed my husband as unlikeable as well, at least in her eyes. I made this one review more important than it was — even more important than the complimentary reviews I’d received. A negative review almost stopped me from ever sharing my writing with anyone again.

The lesson in this for me, and I hope for you, is that if you write honestly, if you allow yourself to be vulnerable on the page, you will affect people. And that’s what we want, right? It’s okay if some of our readers don’t approve, like the writing, or even us. Feel your feelings about the review. The Circle and my coach helped me with this, too. They shared my pain and helped me to put it aside, to  continue on.

5. Keep at it. If you have a desire to write, you are meant to write. Jenna would say you have a calling, and we both believe that callings are meant to be followed.

When I held my published memoir in my hands, felt the weight of it, and flipped through its pages, it was one of the greatest days of my life. I was so proud. I wish you the same experience. No matter where you are in your writing, no matter how unsure you may feel, keep going. Get help if you need it, but whatever you do, don’t give up. It is so worth it!

About Above Tree Line

From “The traumas and losses of childhood are often buried. The child grows up appearing normal, unscathed and perhaps even successful. But often what is buried comes back to attack at the very moment when life is reaching its pinnacle. This is the story of one woman’s spiral downward into physical and mental breakdown and her return to wholeness by courageously, and some would say recklessly, following her intuition. Ms. Montanye’s intuition leads her to a tiny town in a Colorado canyon alongside the wild and scenic Cache La Poudre River. There, she immerses herself in the grandeur and beauty of the surrounding mountains. When her journey begins, no one involved can know that it will lead to such a powerful and bittersweet end: an end that includes healing for herself, her marriage and for the difficult relationship she endured with her mother.”

Above Tree Line is available on:

About Mary

Mary Montanye, her husband, George, and two rescue cockers, Pepper and Chrissy, live on the central Oregon Coast where Mary gratefully writes and coaches while often resting her eyes on the beauty of the natural world that surrounds them. Mary has a master’s degree in clinical social work from the University of Iowa and counseled individuals and families through nonprofit agencies and her own private practice for many years before retiring and following her dream to write. Mary now coaches other writers in the Called to Write Coaching Circle and is working on completing her first novel.

You can find Mary online at

Read more from Mary on Called to Write here.

Enter to Win an Autographed Copy of Above Tree Line!

Mary has graciously offered to give away 3 autographed copies of her memoir to my readers. Leave a comment on the blog about one of your own writing lessons or something you learned from Mary’s insights before Friday, March 24th at 5 p.m. Pacific Time and you’ll be entered in the random drawing. You must be located in the United States to win.



  1. I loved your book Mary, and an so grateful for the time in Taos!

  2. Laura Del Gaudio says:

    It’s Mary that is giving me my soul support in writing my memoir right now. She cares, she understands and she is the only other person I know and can speak with about the process. That helps alot when I hit fear, procrastination, insecurity, she bridges it all with compassion. Then I get back to writing. I am so grateful for Jenna not only having the writers circle but for Mary.

    • Laura, you’re so right, Mary is a wonderful coach! I’m so glad you have the opportunity to work with her on your own memoir. Thanks so much for commenting. I can’t wait to see your memoir in print too!

    • Ahhh, such sweet words, Laura. Made my day!

  3. SuSun Conway says:

    This came at just the moment when I needed a nudge to write about my crazy, wonder filled childhood.
    I like, #2 Don’t start at the beginning… I saw that while taking a shower just yesterday.
    I liked #3 too. I have do have fear and resistance. For the longest time I thought, Who would want to read my stories? Well I would, for one.
    I look forward to reading your book, Mary. It sounds amazing.
    Thanks for the nudge.

    • SuSun, It seems like Mary’s post came just at the right time for you — I love it when that happens. And I’m thrilled that you’re going to write about your own childhood. Go for it!

    • I love that you’re ready to write about your childhood, SuSun! And if any of my words could help you jump in, then that makes me very happy indeed.

  4. Mary,
    Congratulations on your book. And thank you for the tips; all are relevant to any type of writing. I appreciate your honesty and willingness to be vulnerable in your writing journey, and in providing the above tips.
    Regarding tip #4 “When you share your writing other than with friends and family, it’s a pretty safe bet that someone won’t like it, that you will get rejections or negative reviews”. I’m reminded of words of wisdom I received early in my professional speaking & training career, which came from a seasoned and highly regarded speaker, ” Know that 25% of the people you meet flat out won’t like you.” That wisdom has helped in my speaking, writing/publishing, relationships, and all areas of my life. One key insight from this wisdom is that it’s not personal–it has nothing to do with me.
    Mary, my best to you as you continue to honor your calling.


  5. Jeanne St.John says:

    I loved reading these suggestions–I’m just beginning to take up writing again and all of the suggestions were helpful. I’m a recent widow and currently my memoir efforts are focused on a series of letters to my wife. I’m trying not to think about how these will fit with dozens of other memoir pieces I’ve written and filed away over the years. Just doing the writing is healing and centering. Thanks to you, Mary, for sharing your life and your writing with us.

  6. NMargalit Persing says:

    Your tips help. I hadn’t thought about how much fear of rejection and criticism has been holding me back from starting even. And I am not even thinking of publishing-just of sharing!

  7. Congrats to Annie, Antoinette, and Jeanne who are the winners of our random drawing! I’ll be emailing you to ask for your mailing addresses. Thanks so much for entering.

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