top of page

A large stately home from the early twentieth century

Have you heard the expression “There is no there there”? Do you understand the meaning?

In 1937, American author Gertrude Stein published the book Everybody's Autobiography. In Chapter 4, Stein recounts returning to her home town of Oakland, California, while on a lecture tour in 1935. The city had grown and changed enormously since her childhood there. When she tried to find her childhood home, she learned that it had been demolished and new structures had been built on the land. She called the realization “painful nostalgia.”

Here is the full quote:

… I kept searching for the next new city where I would truly find myself, where I would be content in my own skin. But, of course, I eventually realized that, no matter where I went, there was no “there” there.

Today, according to Urban Dictionary, the expression “There is no there there” means “an utter lack of substance or veracity as it pertains to the subject under discussion.” The website defines it as, “The indicated thing, person, or other matter has no distinctive identity, no significant characteristics, or no functional center point.”

Does your memoir have a there?

I did a little Googling about the expression “there is no there there” because I keep hearing it in conversation and I wasn’t sure I truly understood what it means. After reading numerous definitions, such as the two provided, it struck me that this expression could be used to describe a challenge faced by many novice memoir writers: their memoir manuscript does not have a clear and obvious there. As a memoir writing coach, sussing out the central, core point of a memoir is the most crucial and yet the most difficult aspect of memoir writing.

This is another way of saying, a memoir must have a clear theme (point or argument) that every scene, every story told, must support. In her latest book, Blueprint for a Memoir, author Jennie Nash breaks down the essential way a memoir should be constructed. Her approach consists of Scene, Point, Impact. According to Nash, the Impact (in which you make it clear why the reader should care about the scene and how it connects to the larger theme) is missing in memoirs that don’t work. Without it being crystal clear why you have included a story in your memoir, why the story is essential to the overarching argument you are making, you have failed to provide meaning-making for the reader. If readers ask themselves, “Why are you telling me this?” and you don’t provide an answer, your memoir loses its power and appeal.

Can you find the there of your memoir?

Think about Gertrude Stein going in search of her childhood home, longing for the joy the sight would bring her, only to find the house gone and all trace of it extinguished. Such a disappointment. Such painful nostalgia. She was left feeling anchorless, adrift. As you craft your memoir, keep Stein’s story in mind. In your memoir, will you bring the readers to the place you want to show them? Or will there be no there there?


Prolific writer Gertrude Stein wrote Everyone’s Autobiography as a continuation of the memoir The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written in 1933. In addition to her now-famous quote, “There is no there there,” Stein wrote another oft-quoted line, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” in the1913 poem “Sacred Emily.”

Jennie Nash’s book Blueprint for a Memoir: How to Write a Memoir for the Marketplace was published in 2023 by Tree Farm Books, Santa Barbara, California. She is the author of twelve books in three genres.

34 views0 comments

Hello all. This is the first of what will be a long-term series of interviews with memoir authors who turned their stories into activism.

As you might know, I co-authored a book, Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism, with my friend Dr. Terri Lyon. Activism is important to me. Many of the memoir authors I have coached or edited have aspirations to make social change happen through their memoirs. David Pruitt is one such author. He and I talked recently for the first of this new series, Memoir as Activism. Here's what he had to say.

Cover of the memoir Relative Distance

Trish: Hi, David. First, let me congratulate you on your brilliant memoir Relative Distance. It was my great pleasure to serve as your copyeditor. The book is a journey story I will never forget. I’d like to talk with you about Relative Distance. I know it was published in October 2022. When did you start writing it?

David: Thanks, Trish. As always, I appreciate your support for Relative Distance!

I began writing in earnest in the spring of 2018. My retirement and finding my older brother who’d vanished for twenty-seven years (much of it traveling across America as a homeless person), were the triggering events that got me started. I took my time. It was important to me to tell the story well.

Trish: Does the book tell the story you originally set out to tell? Did the memoir change shape and direction as you wrote? If so, were you surprised by that change?

David: The purpose of the book evolved. As a youth, I was told I would never amount to anything. The three of us were brutally beaten. My mentally ill mother abandoned us. I watched my siblings struggle as teens and adults. I had struggles of my own, but somehow my life worked out. I became a first-generation college graduate, a CPA, a CFO, and a CEO in Corporate America. I’ve been married to my best friend for thirty-four years now. My kids have done well, one’s doing his residency in cardiology and the other works successfully in Artificial Intelligence – more importantly they’re good human beings. I retired relatively young and financially secure. I say all this not to tout my good fortune but to describe my state of mind at the beginning of the writing process. I felt deep gratitude - and slightly bewildered at the positive direction my life took after such a difficult beginning. Instinctively I knew I was an exception to some sort of rule. The question became why had my life gone the way it had while my siblings struggled? I’m certainly no better than them, and we endured the same trials in our youth. After a time, as I wrote, it became clear to me the “trials” we endured were the larger issue.

Through additional research, I learned there are approximately thirty million adults in America who endured some form of dysfunctional upbringing. And children are still suffering today – there are four million reports made to child protective services annually. At some point, my purpose switched from answering my personal existential question to telling two very different stories (my older sibling and mine) of successfully moving beyond a dysfunctional upbringing.

Trish: We learn that your father was a violent, physically abusive man. What emotions did you experience as you relived your childhood?

David: First and foremost, I didn’t hate my father. I loved him. He passed on his strong work ethic and sense of responsibility. I made sure he was properly cared for until his death. But the hard things he did to us never left me. At times, my severe anxieties and wavering self-doubt, the fears that were borne into me as a child, were my biggest obstacles to success. It’s a struggle to this day. Sometimes as I wrote or read a particular passage to my patient wife, the tears came. But I don’t hate and I don’t resent. I do, however, feel a sense of loss. My brothers and I missed out on the unconditional parental love that is critically important to the development of a child purposefully raised to meet their full potential.

Trish: We also learned your mother had a mental illness that prevented her from protecting and comforting you and your brothers. When did you first recognize that your mother did not behave as a healthy, supportive mother should? What do you think of her today?

David: The truth is my mother never took a meaningful, active role in raising me or my brothers. When she went to the hospital for electroshock therapy - and then locked herself away in her bedroom for days at a time, I figured it out - I was on my own. I think my brothers already knew. I was eight years old at the time. As you know from the book, we had a pivotal, final encounter when I was in college, and, as a result, I unequivocally cut her out of my life.

As an adult with a better understanding of mental illness, in her case schizophrenia, and the associated symptoms, I regret what I did. It was an act of self-protection and festering resentment. In retrospect, I would’ve been more of a help to her in later life. But, when I see how wonderful a mother my wife is to our two sons, I do miss the idea of what a loving, engaged mother might’ve felt like. Sadly, we never formed a meaningful mother-son bond.

Trish: Your two older brothers suffered a fate as a result of your dysfunctional upbringing far harsher than your own. What conclusion have you come to about why your childhoods so adversely affected them? What is it about your personality or choices that saved you from a similar fate?

David: First, I’m very proud of both of my brothers today. They are financially independent and good men. I’m particularly proud of my brother who spent over twenty years traveling the backroads of America as a homeless person. He somehow survived and came out the other side as a decent human being carrying a profound faith that today is a cornerstone of his life.

To answer your question, I think I benefited as the youngest of three siblings. I saw their struggles brought on by the verbal and physical abuse we absorbed in our adolescence. I saw options narrowing, doors closing and their challenging early lives living homeless on the streets of Greensboro, North

Carolina – our hometown. It scared me and motivated me to set aside my fear and expectation of failure. I decided to reach for something better. It made me try. It drove me to persist.

In the end, life choices matter, the mix of genes matter (two parents, multiple children), individual wants and desires matter, and circle of friends matter but the gift of youth and a watchful observant eye made a meaningful difference in my life.

Trish: After working on Relative Distance as your editor, I got a sense that you were doing two things: first, paying loving tribute to your brothers and their struggles throughout life. And also, trying to come to grips with how differently—you say blessed—your life turned out. Since memoir is the story of a life transformation, a transcendence, what is the takeaway your readers will receive at the end of Relative Distance? What is the gift you are giving your readers with this memoir?

David: A victim of child abuse will find a viable, achievable path to their most productive life. An interested reader will learn more about the lifelong implications of early child abuse and a better understanding of the homeless plight. A lover of books who reads to be educated and emotionally moved by well-considered words will find both in Relative Distance.

Trish: Writing about abuse can be cathartic if someone is ready to tackle the issue. Would you encourage those who have experienced abuse or neglect to write about these experiences as part of a healing process?

David: It can be cathartic but I’m sure it could also be painful for some. To each his own. My thought is to, early on, proceed slowly and mindfully. See how you feel.

I’m not sure it profoundly changed me. Once I got ahold of where I was going, I wrote with a mission in mind. It became less internal, less self-oriented, and much more an attempt to make some small positive difference in the world. It remains that. All proceeds from the book go to the Center For Child and Family Health in Durham, NC. I’m building a relationship with them that I hope will allow me to help abused kids and dysfunctional families even more in the future.

Trish: Thank you, David.

You can buy Relative Distance at Amazon and all major bookstores and online booksellers. Let me know what you think of David's story.

31 views0 comments

Updated: May 17

woman's arm, pen in hand, poised over blank journal page in her lap
Just write, but have a purpose.

Just write.

Don’t think, just write.

Just write and see where it takes you.

First-time writers (and would-be published authors) often ask for advice on social media as they wrestle with creating their first-draft manuscripts. Just write is the #1 comment I see. I always chime in that to write a long-form piece (such as a memoir), you really need to have a sound purpose in mind when you begin. A direction. A compass heading.

I’m always in the minority.

I decided I needed to re-evaluate my position. Maybe I’m being too rigid, too narrow in my advice. So I pondered. . . .

Where to Begin?

As I am a writing coach and as I specialize in memoir, I have had to give a lot of thought to how to help newbie writers get started with their memoir, or improve existing work. I have read innumerable first-draft manuscripts (and one or two first-draft chapters). They are often the product of the just write school of manuscript development. A few show immediate promise; this writer understands where they ultimately want to take this book. But most, sadly, suffer from what I refer to as being all over the place. When you just write, it shows in how your narrative jumps from one subject to another, one time period to another, one argument to another.

Let me be clear—I do not enjoy dashing a writer’s dreams. Seriously. It takes a ton of tact and empathy for me to objectively critique a piece of writing that someone has poured their heart and soul into for months or years, but it just doesn’t fly. My defense is putting on my coaching hardhat and remaining objective and professional to offer my guidance as to how this draft can become a successful published book.

Where are You Going?

I feel like a vinyl record with the needle stuck in a groove. I have offered the same advice in every article I’ve written about memoir. So, I apologize. But if this is the first one of my blog articles you have read, I will repeat the two questions I ask of everyone I work with:

  1. What is the personal transformation story you want to share in this memoir?

  2. Who is your audience for this story; who are you writing this for?

In my article Memoir is a Journey Story, I discuss this in detail. So, there’s no point in repeating myself. Is there?

Oh, heck! Let me ask you—why are you writing this memoir? If it is for yourself, to get clarity or catharsis about some particular aspect or experience in your life, that’s okay. But that’s not a memoir. (See my article Is it Time to Write Your Memoir? for more about the transition from journaling to writing memoir.) If you are writing for your personal legacy or to leave a record of your life or specific experiences for your family, that’s okay too. But that’s not a memoir either.

People who fall into one of these categories rarely intend to publish their writings. “It’s just for me,” they say. Or “It’s something I want to leave for my family.” I applaud anyone who puts the time and effort into such an endeavor.

But a memoir—a real memoir—that you hope to publish must be more than this. If you hope to publish, I assume you hope to sell. I have been told, “I don’t care if it sells. I don’t care if anyone buys it.” That's your choice. But maybe—just maybe—if we focus the message, carefully detail your journey, and highlight your transcendence, this could be a story that helps others. In the way author Caroline Knapp used her memoir Drinking: A Love Story to describe her journey from alcoholism (and one alcohol-soaked bad choice after another) to recovery, sobriety, and taking control of her life, your memoir could potentially be a game changer for someone else.

Just Write—Good Advice?

Far be it from me to tell anyone that they should not follow the just write advice for memoir. Just write certainly makes the process feel less intimidating, less daunting to a new writer. Just write can kickstart a manuscript when the thought of knowing exactly where you’re going with the writing eludes you. But I wouldn’t be much of a writing coach if my coaching consisted of, “Just write. Don’t think, just write. Just write and see where it takes you. Here’s my bill.”

Go ahead. Just write. But know this: You must just write with the knowledge that you will definitely—100 percent—have to just rewrite extensively if you want to produce a book that people will read, enjoy, and recommend.

In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism, including how to place bulk orders. Also available at

321 views0 comments
bottom of page