Fear–everyone experiences an uncomfortable tension, a flutter in the stomach, when they think about writing about their lives and revealing themselves. But most of us come to the page with a need–to explore our lives and memories. To understand something. To muse and wonder about life, relationships. What are the stories that haunt you? What do you need to say and what stops you? What memories won’t leave you alone? Write them down. For now, just write a list.
What gets in the way of writing your truth: shame, fear of judgment from family and friends? Sometimes it’s hard to express the truth of what we’ve lived through, what we’ve done to ourselves and others. And what others have done to us. In writing memoir, we have the opportunity to explore the deeper layers of memory and self. We try to make sense of what happened. Writing allow us to explore our minds and dreams, it gives us permission to discover who we are.
How can we break through the voices of doubt? It’s not easy—just “deciding” to push through may not be enough. Our intellect, our thinking mind, understands that we need to write our stories. But the real problem is our vulnerable emotional self–it wants to protect us from hurt or criticism. (Often we are our own worst critic.) The silencing voice, “the inner critic” is a part of everyone. Every famous author will tell you in their presentations how hard it was to write, how their inner critic started shouting or whispering. But they write anyway!
Journaling, morning pages, a poem a day–you don’t have to write a great deal to feel the joy of seeing your words flow onto the page. Then celebrate and reward yourself for your efforts. Bit by bit you will be able to write more. Someone once told me “Writing leads to more writing!” It’s true. Every time you write, you’re breaking your silence and freeing your voice.
Make lists of the significant moments you remember, moments that won’t leave you alone. Lists help to contain overwhelming emotions and allow you to slowly immerse yourself in a few memories at a time. Be sure to balance the light and dark memories.
Another technique: Keep your writing private through the first draft. Share carefully and protect your vulnerable early thoughts and remembrances from outside comments until you have written a lot without worrying about what your family might say. Remember that family and friends might have a different perspective of events. Negative feedback or the fear of it stops us from writing freely and honestly. Protect your creative self! Get your stories down and live with them for awhile before sharing them.
- List the 5 things that you are most afraid to write about.
- Take each one on your list and freewrite for 3 minutes why you are afraid. What would happen if you wrote your truths?
- List the secrets you aren’t ready to write about.
- List what you imagine people will say if you write what you really think and feel.
- Make a list of the 5 best memories in your life.
- Each week, choose a story from your lists and write at least 500 words.
- Keep writing! Find a writing buddy you can send your work to and who can support you. Mutual support and witnessing helps with the process.
- Take classes and engage with other writers regularly–it’s like watering your garden. Your veggies will grow better with more nurturing.
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.
While a few writers may be guilty of this, most memoirists are working to tell an authentic story Because It Needs To Be Told and to give testimony about life as it is lived. One of my former students who decided to continue working on her memoir after taking a break told me, “I want to write this so I can be in charge of my story, instead of it being in charge of me.”
While I could cite statistics and studies about how writing our stories is healing—and there are many of these studies—or mention the current epigenetic research that shows how we carry inherited trauma from previous generations, the truth is that memoirists use writing as a way to ask questions that have not been asked before, to seek answers that only reveal themselves through writing. This process offers new information, firing up our nerve endings and giving us a new experience. We are changed by it. Writing comes from deep within and draws upon hidden and unconscious layers of who we are. Often we write what we didn’t know that we knew! Not all of that writing will end up in a book, these essential truths that we mine get us closer to figuring out what belongs and what needs to be told. The process is about finding out who we are as well as who we are not.
During the panel discussion the panelists—Jessica Fector, Jasmine Singer, Faith Adiele, Meredith Maran—and I talked about how each of us struggled with the “what happened?” version, fighting our own inner critics along the way. In this wrestling with the truth, and balancing that with the art and craft of shaping our own stories into books, something transformational happens. In the act of creation, we develop a new relationship with the truths in our story. Our story changes us. There were a lot of great points made but a couple of them stand out: Jasmine said that her mother was a major character in her book, and she told her that she could not read it until it was completely done, and that she had to read the WHOLE book before she commented to Jasmine about it. This gave her room to write her truth and also she took shaped her experience with her mother by offering boundaries. Faith talked about structure—there are so many ways now that memoir is being written: using subtext, journal entries, poetry, and various voices—the “you” voice in memoir is being used a lot. Feel free to experiment with your voice and your structure. Be creative and be true to your vision. My advice to memoir writers is this: write your truth, and put your worries about exposure and family voices and your own inner critic aside. Write out everything—it can be edited later. Keep a journal of your process—it helps take the heat off of writing “for the book.” Find a writing community, a supportive writing buddy and/or coach who will hold your story with respect, and cheer you on, make you accountable. Your story deserves to be told. And it won’t leave you alone until you do.
If you want to learn more about writing memoir, join us for the Magic of Memoir Conference in October. The Early Bird Rate ends July 1st. As an active memoirist, I will be moderating a panel on Why We Write Memoir.
Register here: http://magicofmemoir.com/