Today as I got up and remembered that it’s International Women’s Day, I thought about the history of the women in my family–my great-grandmother Blanche who gifted me with her stories from the 19th century, and the idea that hard work is a valued part of life; my grandmother, Gram, who raised me, who started off as Lulu, a farm girl, who transformed into Frances, an international traveler; my mother, Josephine, who had been left behind as a little girl so Lulu could transform into Frances. Frances left Iowa to work in Chicago as a secretary and clerk in the early 1920s while her daughterRead More →

How to Write Your Truths—and Keep Writing

In the last post, we examined the inner critic—how it can sow seeds of doubt about the validity of your story, and how we can worry about how the family will react, claiming that their own version of the past is the only “true” one. My advice was to accept that you are not alone! That all writers have doubts about their story, their writing, and how others will interpret the story differently and see it through their own eyes. When we write a memoir, we’re called to write OUR story, our version of the truth of our lives, the story we need to tell.Read More →

When you begin to write a memoir, you soon discover several layers to the process: there’s the emotional angst most people feel about writing about themselves, the worry about exposing yourself and your family to public scrutiny when the book is published. And there are questions about the craft of writing a story. After all, your story is so much more than what happened when, though time frames and timelines are important when writing a memoir. When confronted with these complicated questions, there can be a temptation to give up and walk away. Or you can contact a writing coach or join a class to keep going with support and discussion that help you find your way. From having written two published memoirs—my new one, Song of the Plains, will be released in June, and with four non-published versions filed away, I know the struggle well! I’m going to address questions about the process of memoir writing in a series of articles, each one focusing on one of the problems. The first one is about the emotional angst. The angst people feel when they begin to write may lead to these questions: 1. Will my story be interesting to other people? 2. I’m afraid to start because then I’ll feel too exposed. There’s a lot in my story that no one else knows. 3. What about my family? They won’t want me to write this story. 4. The whole world will find out about things that will expose other people. 5. The family will say that I’m making these things up. First, let me tell you that I’ve been a family therapist for 38 years, and I bring to this discussion my years of work with people and knowledge of family dynamics and the challenge of revealing secrets or silence. I know how hard it is. I used to feel I’d dissolve in shame when I first wrote the truths of my life—it was a secret shame then because I didn’t know that other writers went through the same thing. I also never thought others could relate to my story—another issue that I found out most writers have. But I kept writing, alone. I kept trying to find the voice for my story and write it because it wouldn’t leave me alone! You want to know if your story will be interesting to others, but you can’t answer that—it’s really the inner critic talking, the voice of doubt. As I said, it’s a question that every writer asks. We all wonder if we’re blabbing stuff that’s going to be boring, or too shocking, or too something, and we pull back. The inner critic is like that—it creates doubt, and it silences us. The solution: jump in and freewrite your story. A freewrite means to start writing and go for 15 minutes without stopping—this bypasses the inner critic. Get out as much as you can. Announce to your inner critic that everyone asks those questions and right now you’re going to give yourself permission to explore your story. Then there is the problem with family and exposure. While it’s natural for family members to be concerned about how they’re portrayed, when you begin, you are not showing your work to them. It’s important to feel free to write what’s on your mind, to write your truth without censoring. I strongly advocate not sharing your early writing with anyone except your exclusive, safe writing group and your writing coach. And don’t show your work to your family yet. If you write in private for a while, they won’t know about it, and won’t judge it or you. Some writers have told me their family has explicitly told them not to write certain truths about the family, not to reveal certain secrets or embarrassing information. Each writer has to decide whether to step across that “permission” line or not. You need to consider the family “rules”—and whether you’re going to break them. What would the outcome be if you did? What if the revealing of certain stories presented an opportunity for healing? Sometimes there’s positive outcome when you’re ready to share your story with family. There can be fresh perspectives, and a chance for a new kind of conversation about things that have never been talked about before. But I can’t emphasize enough that in the early stages keep your story private so you can explore your memories and your point of view freely without worrying about the feelings of other people or possible outcomes. As a family therapist, I can’t tell you how many times I’d sit in a session with a group of six or eight people and hear how each of them had a different point of view about a single event—the same event, and each believed they were right. It’s common for people to see things differently, but when you’re writing your point of view, it can feel invalidating to hear these different opinions. So it’s best to hold off until later. As you begin writing your story, you’re trying to discover your own truths, you’re writing to explore yourself, your story, and how your past has affected you. Write your story to get it down on the page where you can read it as a witness to your former self. This is freeing and is often a healing experience. In the next article, we’ll look at the issues around publicly writing about other people and how to handle that.

When you begin to write a memoir, you soon discover several layers to the process: there’s the emotional angst most people feel about writing about themselves, the worry about exposing yourself and your family to public scrutiny when the book is published. And there are questions about the craft of writing a story. After all, your story is so much more than what happened when, though time frames and timelines are important when writing a memoir. When confronted with these complicated questions, there can be a temptation to give up and walk away. Or you can contact a writing coach or join a class toRead More →

Happy New Year—it’s 2017! I like to begin the year, not exactly with a list of resolutions, but with ways to feel inspired. For many, it was a tempestuous fall season with the election and a lot of emotions that were stirred up by national and international events. Many of my writing friends told me that they comforted themselves with their creative passions, that they threw themselves into their writing as a way to create something positive that made them feel good. Writing is a way to cope with the past and the present, a way to meditate on what has meaning to us, andRead More →

I just returned from a retreat sponsored by She Writes Press, an event offer by my publisher in gorgeous Boulders Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona. Brooke Warner, my co-teacher for the Write Your Memoir in Six Months course for the last five years, is also the publisher for SWP. The amazing stark landscape of Arizona with its cacti, road runners, and cottontail bunnies on the trails, nurtured us with its beauty as we worked on being authors, becoming authors. Trusting that we are good enough and powerful enough to be authors—sound familiar? At the retreat, Brooke gave a workshop that challenged us about our relationship toRead More →

We all have a story to tell, but ah–how to tell it, that’s what keeps us at our desk, scribbling in our notebooks, looking for the scenes and moments that we carry in our hearts. Our job as memoirists is to translate what we know and remember to the page, to put images and wispy memories into language and story. Memoirists sometimes feel they have a story that ought to be easy to tell. After all, we know what happened in our lives and why we want to write about it. But this is where memoir writers struggle. A well-written story is more than “whatRead More →

Visiting the Bronte Sisters - Bolton Abbey ruins

It’s not a place you might have heard of unless you are thinking of literary sites, but that was my plan—to visit a location where “place” was one of the characters in the story. Haworth is three train rides away from London, and you have to get off at Keithley and get a bus or cab into Haworth itself. A lover of landscapes and literature, I wanted to see how where the Bronte sisters lived and what of that place had influenced the Bronte sisters in their books. Writing at a time when they first published under a man’s pseudonym, they created a sensation withRead More →

5 Reasons A Memoir Conference is Good for Your Writing Life

‘Tis the season for writing conferences! As you know, we writers tend to be solitary people—we have to be willing to slave at our desks alone for months and years while we write our book. Some writers are so dedicated to their writing they’re cautious about taking the time away and spending money, but sometimes we get a much needed dose of inspiration and input from taking the time to invest in ourselves as writers. However, there are doubts and questions about such a venture. I already know how to write, so what will I get from a conference that I don’t already know? ARead More →

Truth and Reasons for Writing a Memoir

Recently I had the privilege of moderating a panel at the Bay Area Book Festival. The panel was titled “Why Write Memoir: A Conversation about Truth, Exposure, and the Genre People Love to Hate.” The title shows a perfect combination of the issues that memoir writers struggle with. In every workshop and class I teach, the conversation that brings the most questions and angst has to do with writing the truth, feeling “too exposed,” and writing material that seems to attract pointed criticisms: memoir writers are narcissistic navel gazers, all we do is moan and groan, we see ourselves as victims, and on and on. WhileRead More →

As a writing coach through the years, I’ve often found that women in particular struggle with having a voice—and with feeling empowered to get their work out into the world. I myself spent years battling my inner critic about my own memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, believing that the world would judge a story about three generations of dysfunctional mothers, that it was a domestic story and therefore not important in the world’s eyes. When I started writing, memoir was not a “thing” and fiction was king, so it’s lucky for us memoir writers that the world has shifted to be more welcoming to ourRead More →