Do you feel that memoir writing is like taking off your clothes in front of everyone? Being raw, exposed, and vulnerable on the page for all to see?
According to Susan Shapiro, author of this NY Times article, Make Me Worry You’re Not O.K. that’s what memoir writers need to do. She has her students write a “humiliation essay” where the masks of being perfect, acting properly, or using dainty language are torn away to reveal layers of experience, an imperfect person who isn’t what we feel we “should” present to the world. In her class, the students had to reveal their vulnerable selves. Memoir writing does demand that we explore, reveal—if only to ourselves at first—who we are and what makes us tick. Shapiro says in her essay, “The author Phillip Lopate complains that the problem with confessional writing is that people don’t confess enough. And I agree.”
Having offered many workshops on “Writing as Healing” and “Spiritual Memoir,” I have been blessed to spend time with writers whose goal is to strip down and reveal themselves, exploring beneath the superficial story of who they are, digging deeper into their psyches—motivations, needs, fears, revealing the confusion that reigns underneath the personas that we normally show the world.
You need trust for this kind of writing. First, you have to trust yourself—you need to stand behind who you are or were, you need to invite your true voice to appear on the page. If you’re in a class, you need to feel assured that you are safe in pulling away the masks. Remember that each vignette, chapter, or meaningful moment contains a takeaway, a lesson in how you’ve lived and what you’ve learned. It’s in the silent and small moments that we turn off the noise and come to terms with who we are in full. It takes a strong person to be vulnerable, willing to confess and tell the truth. And when we do, we offer hope to others who are trying to be authentic and real too.
Each of us decides how much to expose our private self. Ask yourself: does the piece show a side of yourself that no one else knows? Are you writing about events you’ve never told anyone about before, exposing secrets? Are you afraid of being judged by who you were or who you are now? Do these questions make you move away from the computer?
Remember, in a first draft no one will see the writing but you. Take a risk and write, whether in a class, workshop, or at your private computer, moments that you’ve been afraid to encounter, give yourself permission to discover layers of your truths, and keep writing to explore and expose yourself.
Your first draft is for you. It’s where you can try out “peeling the onion” of the layers of who you are and putting these insights into words. Allow yourself to freewrite, and also set a goal of setting a theme and word limits to challenge yourself not to just write “this happened and that happened.” Writing reveals surprises, writing invites our whispers of knowledge on the page. It exposes us to parts of ourselves we may not even know.
In this New Year, offer yourself the freedom and the invitation to reveal your inner life in stories—that illuminate you, and that allow others to learn from you. That is what memoir is—sharing through literature our common humanity.
Reminder: I’m one of the editors for the Times They Were A’Changing—Women Remember the 60s and 70s anthology and contest. I have to say that I’m very moved by many of the stories that have been shared. The writers have dug deep into their histories, writing stories that bring us readers back forty years into an era that no longer exists. We see those two decades through their personal lens and their translation of those times. They offer us new insights through their vulnerability and honesty about how they lived then.
Please consider “exposing” yourself and sending your 2500 word piece. Go to our website and submission page to find out the rules and address for submission.