Memoir Writing: A Passion that Blows by the Inner Critic


In the course of my work as a memoir coach, I have met so many people who have a passion to write. To live that passion, often we have to wrestle with a fierce internal adversary: the critic who says we have to use perfect grammar and eloquent language. It tells us that if we were “real” writers, the writing would flow, we’d write every day, we get published on the first try.

The critical voice says you’re boring, that your words will be a burden to the world. Does this sound familiar? “Why bother, who cares, what makes you think that anything you have to say is important?”

 If you have a “writing wound” caused by having had your creative efforts minimized or ridiculed, trying to write may seem like a battle, fought between the part that wants to write and the part that criticizes.

Memoir writers worry about family too: “Don’t write that story, you’ll shame us. We’ll never speak to you again!” We become afraid to unleash our authentic voices and speak our truths.

One woman in a workshop I was leading wrote a about her young son, a beautiful golden boy of eight, the center of her life. She read to us afterward how important he was, coming into her life after she thought she would never have children, the joy he’s given her, the years when she was in despair about having no children. The group witnessed her story and held her in respectful, embracing silence. Kleenex was passed silently from hand to hand. The room was filled with compassion and support. She finally looked at us and wiped her eyes.

“Wow. I took up a lot of time. I’m sorry.”

Everyone began telling her how deeply the story had affected them, reflecting back what she had written and lived. As she was witnessed by the group, she began to relax and smile. “I’ve never told anyone all this. I have never had the space to do this before.”


 The healing this student experienced was not only in the writing of her story but in the sharing of what had been private. Later she wrote: “Attending this workshop was my gift to myself. It gave me the opportunity to reach deep inside, draw a circle of words around my heart, and share my deepest feelings with a group of fellow writers who were waiting to receive me and hold me with compassion and acceptance. I left the workshop feeling fuller and more whole.”

You are Talented and Original

Brenda Ueland, in her wonderful classic If You Want to Write, says everyone is talented and original. All of us need to share our ideas with the world; it is part of our right as human beings to express ourselves. Ueland says that criticism destroys creativity. So-called helpful criticism is often the worst kind.

Whenever I got discouraged about writing I’d read and reread Ueland’s book. It’s full of wisdom and a positive spirit about our deep, inner creativity. She says we must write freely, as if to friends who appreciate us and find us interesting. We should write as if they are saying to us, “Tell me more, tell me all you can. I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you. Let more come out.”

If you want to write, think about how you can create space for writing in your life, a time where you can nurture this spark into a roaring blaze. Think of yourself as a listener, a translator. Focus inward and hear the stories that whisper to you in a low key; tune into your desire to capture your grandmothers’ history, your mother’s face, or your father’s character. The creative spark lives in everyone—just feed the flame.

Even after completing two books, I still wrestle with words, phrases, and internal permission to write my truths. We all need to urge the creative self forward, to tune in and listen.

If you are to write your memoir in the coming year, find some regular times, journal and freewrite, and tell yourself, “I’m talented and original.” Positive affirmations go a long way!

Writing Prompts

1.         Name ten reasons you want to write stories from your life.

2.         Write about what being a “real” writer means to you.

3.         What did you learn about writing, creativity, and artistry as you grew up?

4.         What are your favorite stories? List at least ten you grew up with. List the last give books you read and why you liked them.

5.         Describe the town, city, landscape you grew up in. Include buildings, weather, your favorite things.

6.         How did the place where you grew up shape you into the person you are today?

7.         What family stories that you overheard as a child fascinate you? Write some of them down as fast as you can. Don’t stop to correct or edit.


Defeating Your Writing Critics While Writing Your Memoir

Defeating Your Critics While Writing Your MemoirIn my third post on the topic of  how to Write Your Memoir and Still Go Home for the Holidays, I want to focus on the writing critics–both inner and outer–that often creep into our writing life.

All creative artists, including writers, must wrestle with negative and doubting critics, both inner & outer voices, the kind that are defeating and discouraging. The source of the inner critic can be from society,

“Why do you have to write THAT? Just get on with your life.”

Or from family, “How dare you air our dirty laundry!”

Sometimes we have internalized the inner English teacher—the kind that demanded perfection,

“You can’t write, you don’t know how. Just stop while you’re ahead.”

There are “nice” inner critics: “You’re tired, you’ve had a hard life. Just have a glass of wine, put up your feet, and start on that story tomorrow.”

And many people, especially if they were mistreated, criticized or abused, have a harsh inner critic:

“You should be ashamed to put such drivel on the page.”

“Shut up! How dare you speak like that? You will kill us if you say that.”

One of the worst: “You are soooo boring. Stop now.”

Everyone I have coached over the years has some kind of inner or outer writing critic, and we must all wrestle with them and come to terms with them if we are to write.

In my upcoming  telephone-based workshop at NAMW, we will keep the line open so you can share your inner critic voices—and I expect that some of you will have “outer critic” or family voices to add to the chorus—so we can come up with a method that you can use to help you keep writing.

Sue William Silverman said in her NAMW interview that rewriting and being committed to writing your story is the way to succeed, and Mary Karr said, “being a writer is not about talent, it is about perseverance.” So let’s trust in these experts and their experience. They both had to combat their inner and outer critics too.

Join me to find new tools to work with your critics. I promise to tell you about some of my outer critics and how really BAD my inner critic was, and how hard I had to work to tame it so I could keep writing.