I’m happy to announce that I’m speaking for Nina Amir’s Nonfiction Writers University March 17, 3 PM PST. I’m focusing on one of the most challenging parts of writing a memoir: the Muddy Middle!
The Muddy Middle—this is where you wrestle with truth, the inner critic, family and how to bring a focus and universal message to your story. Here is where your healing and transformational journey deepens and you find yourself exploring the larger territory of your story and your life.
During this teleseminar, you will learn about these issues:
• You find out that you’re writing a healing memoir after all.
• You’re starting to see new perspectives on the past and how you want to tell the story.
• Truth—you have been wrestling with it alone, and now you’re doing it for a memoir? Yikes.
• Family—what will they say; will they cast you into the darkness?
• The inner critic—what if it’s right?
• The now narrator—you were feeling brave and wanted to share your knowledge about life…but now?
• You make surprising discoveries—that are not so comfortable.
In May, I present the final section of these talks about “The Three Stages of Memoir Writing.” This series is based on my book Journey of Memoir–The Three Stages of Memoir Writing. We’ll be talking about the final stages of writing a memoir: Birthing Your Book—this stage includes developing your platform, and the revision and editing process that leads to you having a book that’s ready to be published and shared with the world. This stage is usually longer than we wish!
Sign up for this FREE event by clicking this link: http://writenonfictionnow.com/landing/nfwu-teleseminars
It’s a new year, and if you’re like most people, you’re either making new resolutions or resolutely deciding not to. But let’s face it—many of us take the opportunity to begin a new calendar year to reflect on our lives and creative projects and start to think ahead about what opportunities, books, blogs and projects we want to commit to. It helps to weave our right and left brain together as we consider our ideas. To feed the right brain process, we need to get into a reflective mode and take some time to refresh and reconnect with our creative flow.
The first weekend of the year, I attended a writing retreat that offered time to write and time for silence and meditation. We were invited to sample the art materials at the center, which included paper making, collage, and calligraphy. The focus was on going inside our own silent creative process. We had our own small room and plenty of time to write, but we also had group time when we could share bits from our journals, make paper and create collages together. There were even “adult” coloring books with complex mandalas and flowers. I couldn’t believe that I spent over an hour coloring! It was so refreshing and fun. The retreat was not about production, it was about taking the time to slow down, reflect, re-energize, and reconnect with what needed to come through us. We need to be able to do this in our daily lives too.
Committing ourselves to an ongoing practice of inner listening enhances our creativity. There is so much stimulation in our lives now—TV screens, tablets, phones, loud musak in every store—it’s hard to tune out so much noise. The challenge in “everyday” life is to find ways to connect with our creative muse regularly, to create openness and enough silence to hear our emerging thoughts and ideas. I made a promise to myself that I would turn off the noise makers every day, and early in the evening. It was refreshing to make more time to sit in silence to listen in to what I might want to write.
• Find some time to walk in a garden, slowly putting one foot in front of the other, keeping your focus only on your steps, and banishing thinking from your mind. When you start thinking or obsessing, focus on a flower or tree branch and take a deep breath to return to the present moment.
• Take a long luxurious bath, staying in the moment as you listen to the water and feel it relax your body. Sink into the quiet and the warmth of this time to be with yourself.
• Set aside moments to write in your journal, time to reflect, let go, or create something new several times a week.
• Buy flowers to put in vases around your house and enjoy the fragrance and colors they add to your environment. Write a poem or sketch your flowers.
• Turn off your screens—TV, computer, tablets, and phones during the day if you keep them on “for company” and again early in the evening. Lessen the amount of time you are stimulated by electronics. Read or write in your journal during that time.
• If you like to draw, paint, sculpt, work with clay, save some time each week to go non-verbal and listen to what your art wants to manifest.
• Buy a beautiful journal and give yourself permission to write in it—whatever needs to come out. Don’t save it for “perfect” writing!
I’m always curious about what the antidote is to those times when we are unable to write, when it seems the words and ideas have dried up, when it’s better to binge-watch “Homeland” or “Outlander” or “The Good Wife.” I recently came upon one of these “dry” spells, where I had no motivation at all to go to the computer, though the “shoulds” plagued me every day. I should work on the three chapters I still need to edit, and start chunking out four chapters for a book on creativity and silence. I’ve started another memoir, and where is that project anyway? I must be fooling myself. Me, a writer? Where? When?
There are blog posts to write, and ideas for another workshop. but…I fast forward to season 4 of Downton Abbey as I get ready for season 5, as always enjoying the costumes and accents and English customs—and tea in cute cups for every stressful occasion. I tell myself I’m resting from having been sick—it’s true I was sick, but really, it’s time to get back to work. I find books that I think will stimulate my mind so I can write again, flip through some pages, and put them back on the shelf while I make more tea. Then it’s time for another “Homeland” episode in the new season! I’m mesmerized by the characters and plot twists, even though I already know what happens. Anything to sit on the couch away from the computer. My mind is mush.
Perhaps it’s because it’s nearly Christmas, or because of the antibiotics I was taking, I tell myself. But I started to worry about and then mourn my lost writing self. Facebook posts from other writers show an intense amount of activity, non-stop writing, it seems. Some people post that they write six hours a day, every day. Sigh.
Then I took the book off the bookshelf that has always lifted me away from such moments in the past, though I didn’t think anything could do it this time: If You Want To Write by Brenda Ueland. I have quoted her in many articles and in my books, and I can tell you how uplifting her words are and how we should heed them: that we are all amazing creative creatures, that every one of us has something important to say and it’s imperative that we say it. But just as you can play that magical game where you open a book and put your finger on a sentence and notice how it fits for you right then, this book offered me something I know but forgot that I know: We need to write out of love.
Ueland’s example is Van Gogh—how he speaks in his letters to his brother of drawing a scene outside his window with a tree and a star and a luminous sky. He drew it because he loved it. She offers other quotes from his letters about painting what he loves, being with what is real and meaningful to him, sinking his presence into this love.
…”the creative impulse of Van Gogh, a great genius, was simply loving what he saw and then showing off, but out of generosity….I understand that writing is this: an impulse to share with other people a feeling or truth that I myself had. That writing is not a performance but a generosity.”
And then I get it—I have been a victim of the “shoulds,” me, who “should” know better. How many people do I support to do their writing—dozens—but finding my way back to my own writing? Difficult. Yet this fallow period seems a useful experience because I know that as long as I’m struggling with the same things that my students struggle with, I will be freshly tuned into the same challenges that are hard for them. As long as I’m writing essays to try out a new voice or form (when I’m able to write), or trying to come out of a bleak writing period like now, I’m close emotionally to all that goes on as we write, as we try to shape worlds from words. I’m inside the struggle, just like they are.
After I read the quote about writing from love, I took a long walk with the idea of writing from love tingling in my mind. I realized as I walked that the burden of “I should write today” was clogging up my creative process. Very gently I began to think about what I loved, and why I write about creativity and passion and memoir, and what it does for me to carry that torch. After my walk, on the way home in the car, another bit of synchronicity happened: on NPR Armistad Maupin was interviewing Alan Cumming about his book Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir.
I recognized him from his role in “The Good Wife,” and as the host of Masterpiece Theatre. In the interview with Maupin, he spoke about the journey that his family took as part of a program on genealogy. The producers research the family’s past and come up with surprises that are presented on the air without previous warning. His memoir goes into that experience/shock along with the story of his own personal past. His book tells the tales of his childhood, which include heart stopping details about the physical and mental abuse by his father.
He told the audience how empowering it was to take the stories and memories that have always been a secret and bring them out into the open. Most of the time we find ourselves protecting the abusers and carrying the shame ourselves for what happened, but telling our truth frees us from the trap. He acknowledged it was difficult for him and his family to be so exposed in the program about their past, and then in the memoir, but now he, his mother and brother are free from protecting the father. They have healed and moved on.
So between Brenda Ueland’s wisdom and Alan Cumming’s confessions, I returned to myself and my writing, and the reasons that I do what I do—out of the love of helping others heal and my belief that the truth does indeed set us free. In the middle of our struggles with voice and permission and truth, sometimes we need to lay low, to muse and to dream, and not give ourselves too hard a time about it. We need to look for the clues that can pull us out again into the light. We need to circle back to doing what we must do—because we love it and it gives our lives meaning.
In writing this, I came back to myself.
When we talk about our inner critic, do we understand where it comes from? Or do we assume that it comes with being born into the world? So many writers and artists talk about their inner critic, which I find helpful in normalizing that inner, irritating voice of doubt. Dani Shapiro, novelist and memoirist, talks about it in Still Writing, where she lists the voices that come to her—is she boring, can anyone understand her, does she make sense?
Some of my inner critic voices: “How dare you write about that.” “You should be ashamed to put that on the page.” “Everyone will think you’re crazy if you write about that.” “It’s terrible that you did those things, and now you’re going to write about them so someone will read it? What’s wrong with you?”
My inner critic was so bad for a while that I couldn’t even write in my journal. Each word and each sentence seemed wrong, I had no right to write, it was a useless activity, what was the point? But I’d been to enough book readings where I listened to each author talk openly about their inner critic and all the work it took for them to get their books done despite that voice. Each author held a book and read to us, a published book they wrote in spite of all the obstacles. That’s when I realized that if you just keep writing, eventually the mountain of inner critic boulders that seem to pile up in front of you will get smaller as you climb. I learned that even if you are a famous author, you have to wrestle with these forces. That this is what happens to all of us, not just beginners, and not just me.
Sometimes the inner critic is more of a feeling than an actual voice. It weighs us down, makes us detour around the tough stuff. We pull back to avoid uncomfortable feelings, like when we need to offer details about a situation where we feel ashamed or guilty, when we need to encounter some of the darker passages of our lives, to go into the labyrinth again where we fear getting lost.
When we can define and see the inner critic clearly enough to write down what it says, it’s conscious enough to work with, but what if we just don’t feel like writing, what if we don’t exactly hear a voice—we just don’t write. We don’t get to it, we have to clean the house, wash the dog, vacuum the drapes and weed the garden. We need to have coffee with our friends, though we tuck our iPad into our purse “just in case there’s time to write.” Which there never is because the groceries need to be bought and cookies made. On and on it goes. There are all tasks in life, along with car washing and repair and vet visits, but really—there IS time to write in there somewhere too—if you’re not harboring an unconscious level of the inner critic’s brakes on your creativity.
As a therapist, I have worked with people for many years to help them release the psychological bonds that keep them from living the life they’d rather live, and help them uncover the hidden regions that are beneath consciousness that block them from their creativity, whether it’s in the arts or in life itself. I find that writers can be more astute than most in hearing the inner critic’s voice, mostly out of sheer practice of fighting it off, but even they can have these hidden areas that keep them silent.
I think that sometimes hidden shame and guilt about what we want to write can fuel the inner critic’s power. It’s like an iceberg, we don’t even know it’s there or how large a space it takes underneath, where we can’t see it. When I coach my students, I look for clues to the hidden elements that signal they’re getting in their own way, making themselves small. Sometimes it’s clear in the story—for instance if they are writing about abusive parents, or if they had a harsh English teacher, or had been taught they had to be perfect. Those are ideal situations where shame can grow, and the inner critic develops from that—but of course many people have an inner critic who aren’t abused. There seems to be a continuum, from a “mild’ to “mean” inner critic.
What to do? First, don’t ignore those negative voices—they can slow us down and get in the way of our writing. The voices often do not just “go away.”
Write down what the voices say and talk back to them! If the voice says you don’t have a good memory, counter with, “These are my memories and I as I write, perhaps I will remember more.” Or if it says, “You can’t write,” answer back, “I write well enough for this first draft, and I will get better the more I write, so I should get started now.”
If the voices are more of “what will people think,” you need to create a safe bubble by committing to write only for your writing group or writing buddy or coach. After all, no one will know what you’re writing about the family or your secrets unless you tell them or show them.
I suggest that writing needs to be protected like a new plant in your garden. Protect it until you have most of a manuscript, until you know what you have to say, when you see it on the page. Most people freak out too early in the process about what people will think someday, when they have written nothing yet.
Step by step your book evolves, chapter by chapter, sentence by sentence. Allow and invite your writing to show up, and your inner critic will become softer and perhaps less belligerent. You can win over your inner critic by writing!
1. What does your inner critic say to you, and when?
2. Do you talk back to it? If not start today!
3. Is your inner critic really the “voice” of your family?
4. What do you need to do to feel safe to write your memoir?
40 years of journals–a sample
As you can see in the photo, I have years of journals to draw from as I write my new memoir about transformation in the 60s and 70s! When I wrote Don’t Call Me Mother, I didn’t use journals, as most of what I had to write about happened long before I started journaling. However, there were a few entries about my mother’s death that were helpful–sometimes we don’t want to remember everything! But for most of writing that memoir, I wanted to draw upon memory as my method and context.
Writing now from my more recent past, a time when I underwent major changes and development is different–and I’m finding the journals illuminating–even surprising. So that’s what I was thinking when I was thirty years old! I knew a lot, and I knew nothing. I see that my choice of journals were workaday lined notebooks where I could write messy and fast. What is your favorite style of journal?
Do you like that delicious feeling of holding a brand new journal and a new pen to go with it as you sit down to write? As you hold it, perhaps you imagine what you are going to write and feel the invitation of the paper and the pen. Some people are journaling online now too, which has a certain appeal to, a safe place complete with locked password. But for many of us, there is something seductive and wonderful about cracking up that new journal. Whatever your method, in your journal you’re inviting the words lead you to new places within yourself as you explore your thoughts, feelings, and your life story.
Most of the writers I work with come to memoir writing from having journaled for many years. I remember how some women in my workshops talk about the boxes of journals they’ve hidden in their closets. One woman says, “What will I do if my children find them. Should I shred them now?”
Another one answers, “I want to save my journals so I can draw upon them as I write my memoir.”
Yes, therein lies the dilemma that both journalers and memoir writers have in common: “How do I feel about other people reading my private thoughts and feelings?”
But there is an important difference—we write our journal in an atmosphere of privacy, not for other people to read. In a journal, we write freely, exploring our psyches, digging deep to try to understand ourselves more, seeking peace, transformation, resolution. Sometimes we need to rant, we need to make lists of what we love or hate, we need to write letters that we don’t send, we need to express anger, fear, joy, sorrow, ecstasy, hope. We write to find out what we think, inviting the flow of words to emerge from us in whatever way they wish.
To write a memoir, we need to invite that same kind of free writing at times, to get the juices flowing, but a memoir is written ultimately to be shared with readers. We need to shape our stories, thoughts, and narration so readers can see, hear and feel the world we create on the page. We draw upon fictional tools of description, scenes, character development and sensual details to bring the reader close to our experiences. As memoir writers, we need to learn these tools for creating that world and keep the reader in it. John Gardner calls it “the fictive dream” in his book The Art of Fiction—and the same idea applies to memoir, which reads like a novel—only everything is true!
I advise all my students of memoir writing to dig back into journal writing to keep the flow going, to explore their memories without being self-conscious of the structure and style. In the early stages, your memoir is being assembled, dreamed, quilted together and you need to allow that process to unfold.
This week at the National Association of Memoir Writers member teleseminar, we’re so pleased to speak with a journaling expert Dr. Jackie Swensen. She is going to talk about self-discovery through memoir writing, and bring her considerable skills as a therapist and avid journaler to all of us. Please join us!
In the meantime, keep your journal handy. Or go out and buy a new one! Enjoy filling those empty pages. Now, back to my research in my inky, messy but oh so informative journals!
Write Your Memoir Now—Retreat in Connecticut
A Special Opportunity for Memoir Writers Do you want to write a memoir? Maybe you have already begun the amazing journey of transforming the pivotal stories in your life into a story. Writing to share your life lessons for others to benefit from your experience is a wonderful goal. Your story can help others gain perspective, not only of your story, but within their own lives. This is why I think memoir is so popular now: people are eager to learn from others who have traveled through life’s paths—whether thriving in success or overcoming the challenges of hard times. And readership for memoir is greater than ever. You can reach out to others by sharing your story and create community through writing. As the publishing world transforms, we’re offered many new choices for how to share our stories with the world, from e-books to traditional publishing, and options in between. Memoir goes beyond journaling, using the tools of fiction to create a world true to your life and what you’ve learned, and story that offers hope and insight to others. A memoir draws upon all aspects of who you are and explores the meaning of your life. It goes beyond fact, to how you understand yourself and your life. As most of you know who receive this newsletter, six years ago I started the National Association of Memoir Writers because I felt that memoir was an important genre. I saw that memoir writers had specific needs in order to nurture their craft. When they begin, writers need to decide how to access and manage a lifetime of memories. And memoir writers need support, accountability and a safe writing community where they can see their stories take shape. My first Annual National Association of Memoir Writers Retreat, this October in Connecticut, offers that safe community along with the support and expertise of three accomplished memoir writers and teachers. Check the retreat website for more details about program. Join me, Judy Mandel and Jerry Waxler Judy Mandel is the author of Replacement Child, a memoir that explores family and memory. Her memoir features a plane crash that happened before she was born, which killed one sister and gravely injured another. She faced the responsibility of truthfully telling her family’s story while exploring the depths of her own truth. At the retreat, Judy will talk about how to begin your memoir, finding your structure and your voice, and the themes of memory and truth. Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution, presents reviews of memoirs on his blog Memory Writers Network. He will talk about structure, theme and the magic of story at the retreat. In his study of hundreds of memoirs, he tries to answer the question: how do you structure memories to turn them into a story? In this retreat, he will share some of the secrets he has learned about the internal and external journey, and the arc of character that’s necessary for a good memoir. Linda Joy Myers, author of The Power of Memoir, Journey of Memoir and Don’t Call Me Mother is passionate about helping memoirists develop their idea for a story into a first draft that can be developed into a book. A therapist for the last 35 years, Linda brings her experience with healing and transformation to memoir writing, and is an expert at helping groups of writers deepen into the truths of their story. Her new book Breaking the Silence will focus on ways the inner critic and shame get in the way of writing and how to break through to having a full voice. Linda Joy will teach how to begin your memoir, confront the silences within, and how to use craft to support your forward progress. Sign up now for the early bird discount that ends August 4th. As soon as you sign up, the free bonuses will arrive in your inbox so you can start reading and working on new ideas for your memoir right away.
You will receive these 3 Bonus Gifts
immediately after you Register!
Please join us for this special opportunity immerse yourself in your memoir for three days. You’ll be supported by Judy, Linda, and Jerry to explore the territory of your memoir, and learn new techniques to help you get your work to a final draft.
THE RETREAT WEEKEND INCLUDES:
- Three private consultations—one each with Judy Mandel, Jerry Waxler, and Linda Joy Myers— about your memoir. Learn from all three presenters in a private coaching session. $300 value.
- Handout packet of information and resources to draw from after the conference.
- Drawings to win a free year-long membership to all the benefits of being a member of the National Association of Memoir Writers. $149.00 value.
- A post conference group call and Facebook private group to support your ongoing work.
We will meet in workshops, one-on-one mentoring sessions with all three presenters, and in informal gatherings. Each workshop offers supportive guidance and feedback to help you develop the vision and structure of your memoir. You will leave with many new vignettes, and new friends that can be part of your memoir journey in the future. Information about the weekend schedule and travel plan options are on the Write Your Memoir Now website.
Remember our motto at the National Association of Memoir Writers: Be Brave—Write Your Story! Hope to see you there!