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, and it can help us find a perspective about where we stand, what we think and feel. Writing invites us to express ourselves with freedom and safety, especially if we are writing first for ourselves. When we decide to make our work public, we then move into another realm of exposure and intent—which can also be rewarding, even when it’s challenging emotionally to do so. I hope you feel satisfaction in your writing, whether it’s in your journal, a blog, or chapters of your book. Or perhaps you are submitting to online literary magazines, or to contests. There are so many ways to get your work in the world, and it’s always a brave decision to hit “send.”
If you are working on a memoir, you know that it’s an act of courage to get your story on the page. There is so much that we have to confront to find our way to a book. Sometimes we just need to start with a single moment, a single story and see how far we can get, to test how it feels to find the words to bring that moment to life. To write a book, we will be finding scene after scene that shows moments that are deeply meaningful to us, moments that shaped and changed our lives.
To write, and publish, a memoir, we need to wrestle with a bunch of demons too—worry about family and friends’ reaction to our story, whether or not we can find the words to adequately express what is in our hearts. I know from writing two memoirs—the new one Song of the Plains will be released in June of this year—how tough it is to dig through the past and to find the images that resonate—as a memoir is not a collection of facts but a work that explores meaning and helps us make sense of our experiences. When we do that well, the reader’s experience will parallel our own—they will take their own journey with us and reflect on challenges they’ve had and problems they’ve tried to understand and solve. When you can write a book that puts you in synch with your reader, you’re offering a profound gift to them. But of course, you have to be willing and able to take that journey yourself.
We’re kicking off the year in our first Roundtable discussion at NAMW with Dorit Sasson whose work is all about courage—the willingness to dig into her painful past and unearth her story. Join us to learn about the journey that inspired her memoir and what she’s learned from deciding to become a writer and author. The great thing about having authors that are not famous or well known-yet—is that their story can inspire you to fulfill your own dreams of authorship. You learn that it’s possible to start at the very beginning with hope and courage and create a writing life.
The idea that you can get stuck in the “Muddy Middle” of writing your memoir came up in teaching Write Your Memoir in Six Months with Brooke Warner. We were talking about the place where suddenly there’s a lag in energy, where the forward motion of the writing slows to a stop. As soon as I said it, we both laughed with recognition. All writers experience some kind of breakdown/slowdown as part of the writing process, but it’s a challenge to figure out what is happening and how to move forward again. Naming the problem is the beginning of figuring out how to solve it. And it often involves that pesky inner critic.
How do you know you’re in the “Muddy Middle” of your memoir?
You start off with a bang, you’re excited and can’t wait to get to your writing, but suddenly something happens. Your energy level shifts when you have gotten into the story but there is so much more to write—and this might happen as early as chapter 2. Your writing doesn’t feel fun anymore and you’re slogging through each paragraph instead of feeling excited and ready to move forward in your story. Your writing feels like a burden instead of a joy. You start to hear voices of doubt, you worry about how revealing yourself the way you have to in a memoir will affect your life. You stop writing, and worrying takes up a lot more time, as does house cleaning and gardening.
It’s important to maintain a positive mind-set when we write our memoir, which means we have to manage the voices of doubt that start to plague us. Mostly we need to not believe them. As you may have discovered, there’s a powerful psychological element to writing a memoir. We’re exposing ourselves, sharing personal details that have been held as private until we put them on the page. Or try to. To write a memoir, we have to pull open the curtains that reveal subjects and information about ourselves and our family and friends that may never have been talked about before. We are faced with whether we should reveal these previously held secrets, we worry about how much we dare tell the private stories. While we think about all this, we re-arrange the spices and clean out the closet.
Like explorers, we venture into dangerous emotional territory when we write memoir. Beyond this place, there be dragons used to be written on maps to show the edges of the known world. This signifies a boundary of risk and danger. For writers, this is where we encounter protective scouts at these edges who come in the form of your inner critic voices.
Writing a memoir means that your inner critic(s) will inevitably show up. Some of you may have a “mild” inner critic, but others—and I’m one of them—have a deadly shaming inner critic. My critic comes from being criticized a lot when I was younger, and I’ve had to do a lot of work to get it to speak more softly and/or show up less often as I developed my voice as a writer. I had to learn how to separate that voice from the “reality” of what I wanted to write, my truth. My story. To help me not just run away from these scary voices, I’d write down what they said, argue with them, and reclaim my intentions to keep writing no matter how uncomfortable I felt. Each time I practiced writing past my nasty inner critic, I made more room for my own voice.
The inner critic makes you wonder if what you’re writing is important or if anyone will care about your story. The inner critics tells you all the reasons you shouldn’t be wasting your time. Whatever voice hinders your writing is your inner critic. Sometimes it’s nice and teases you to not stress yourself, to sit down and have a glass of wine. “You don’t need to write today,” it says. That may be tempting, but if you are not writing, your seductive inner critic is getting in the way. Many people don’t realize their “nice” inner critic is keeping them from writing—they’re on the lookout for the nasty one.
An aspect of the inner critic voices are what I call the “outer critics.” Those are the very real voices of family, friends—people who may indeed be afraid of what you are writing or critical that you are writing a memoir. These voices whisper, “How dare you write that. Your grandmother will roll over in her grave if you she knew you were sharing things like that. You’re shaming our family.” Or “this was my life too. I don’t want you to write about me.” I am not going to get into the legal and ethical decisions you may have to make before you publish, but in the early stages the voices that try to stop you are your critic. You don’t need to deal with family or being published until you write your book. We suggest that you use the first draft to get everything out, and decide what to share and publish later.
These are the kinds of things that I hear people say who are worrying in the Muddy Middle.
1. I’m afraid of hurting someone I love by writing my truth.
2. I know my xxx—fill in the blanks: ex-husband, friends, siblings, mother—will not agree with what I’m writing.
3. Some of my memories are traumatic—I know my family would be shocked.
Sometimes memoirists are tempted to leave out all the difficult parts, yet they know that the traumas and challenges are part of the core of their story.
Follow this tip: the more you want to leave something out, the more likely it’s something important. You need to write the stories you want to hide—they are calling to you to bring the light of day into the darker places. Writing the truth is a very powerful antidote to shame, to staying small, to hiding.
Here are some “anti-getting-stuck-in-the-muddy-middle tips:
• Write your first draft all the way. Put everything in. If the inner critic voices start, write them down, argue with them, and write what you are tempted to leave out.
• Tell yourself it’s your first draft, that you are practicing having a voice, that you will decide later what to publish. No one’s first draft is their final draft—EVER.
• Give yourself permission to say it all. With permission comes freedom, and the doors of your creativity will open once again.
• It’s important to offer yourself support during these tough writing challenges, and also to reach out to other memoirists. To create a memoir community, or join one. I have started the National Association of Memoir Writers as a way to offer something to memoirists they may not get in “real life.”
The upcoming Magic of Memoir conference in Berkeley October 17-18 is another opportunity to join a community of people who are struggling with their Muddy Middle, Beginnings, Writing the Truth, and all the things that memoir writers go through.
Stand strong with your memories and your stories. Defeat the inner critic, and write all the way to the end!