In the last post, we examined the inner critic—how it can sow seeds of doubt about the validity of your story, and how we can worry about how the family will react, claiming that their own version of the past is the only “true” one. My advice was to accept that you are not alone! That all writers have doubts about their story, their writing, and how others will interpret the story differently and see it through their own eyes.
When we write a memoir, we’re called to write OUR story, our version of the truth of our lives, the story we need to tell. To do that, we need to trust in the process, which is its own challenge, as there are so many layers—of time, identity, truth, and outcome—to explore, and more will show up as we write. “The process?” my students say. “How can I trust in that?”
It means that each stage of writing and each challenge has a possible solution that will evolve as we write. We need to keep writing with the faith that it will all work out. It’s important to keep the passion and motivation to write our story no matter what. We build strength for each new stage of the process as we keep writing.
Let’s explore the very real problems memoir writers face crossing the boundary of what most people consider private—the family and its history. When we write memoir, the family stories will become public when your memoir is published.
But remember this: when you are just starting to write, the story is not published yet. It’s still in your head, clamoring to get out. So worrying about publication early on is a cart-before-the-horse problem. As I mentioned in the previous article, we need to feel free to write without censoring ourselves as we explore what our story needs to be. We need to feel free to dig deep into the moments that shaped us into who we are now, and reveal what we’ve learned once we understand it—which is part of the process for the writer. When we understand that, then we offer the reader a chance to learn from our experiences—we offer universal truths. We explore these insights privately though at first as we write scene by scene.
There’s so much wisdom to be found in discovering the stories you need to tell and getting them on the page. When you first start writing, most likely you’re not fully aware of how deep your wisdom may be.
So at this stage, keep in mind these points about exposure and family:
- Write for yourself first, imagining your family far away from your writing space.
- Dig into your own truths, the experiences that shaped you. Go beyond what you’ve already written or said. Freewrite—write without stopping for 10 minutes to blow by the inner critic.
- Imagine that you’re writing in a sacred, safe space where only your voice matters. Some people create a ritual to help them remember they’re writing in this space by lighting candles or putting on soothing background music. Sometimes it helps if the music is from the era you’re writing about.
- Put photos around you that inspire you to write. Write from a photo—telling the story of that moment as you remember it. Who is in the photo; when, where, and why was it taken? What is your favorite memory about the photo you chose. What happened after the photo was snapped?
- Much later in your writing process, after your first, or even third or sixth draft, you’ll have a sense of how much of the family story needs to be in public form, how much you need to tell, and what you feel better about editing out. You’ll be able to draw upon your inner editor, not your inner critic, to make those decisions.
- Write your story! See what it can teach you. It’s an exploration.
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.
‘Tis the season for writing conferences! As you know, we writers tend to be solitary people—we have to be willing to slave at our desks alone for months and years while we write our book. Some writers are so dedicated to their writing they’re cautious about taking the time away and spending money, but sometimes we get a much needed dose of inspiration and input from taking the time to invest in ourselves as writers. However, there are doubts and questions about such a venture.
- I already know how to write, so what will I get from a conference that I don’t already know?
- A conference costs money—what value will it offer me?
- Maybe going to a conference is just a distraction from my writing.
- How will it help to get my book finished and published?
These are valid points, but as a veteran of dozens of different conferences, both as a participant and a presenter, I’d like to offer you some great reasons to consider a writing conference.
- You network with everyone, have fun, and build your platform
Yes, there is that term “platform” again! What it means is you’ll get to know people who will become your audience when your book is published. Networking is one of the best reasons to attend a conference. Just think—a whole room of people who are normally solitary get together to talk nonstop about writing, the current state of publishing, agents, social media preferences, where and how to use commas, and other geeky interests writers have.
- At a conference, you connect in person and build your community for outreach, endorsements, interviews, speaking engagements, and publicity in the future.
Virtual events are great and they help us broaden our outreach, but there’s nothing like shaking someone’s hand and looking into their eyes, cozying over to a corner to talk more about—your book, their book, their mentor, agent, or web designer radio shows and podcasts, and sharing yours. The best way to learn the path to successful published book is through networking with others and building trustworthy resources you can draw on when the time comes.
- Even if you’ve heard about writing craft, platform, or query letters before, there’s always the chance you will learn something new!
Every time I go to a conference, I hear experts talk about craft—writing scenes, character development, dialogue, language and description techniques, manuscript presentation—and each time I go, I hear something new and learn a new skill—and I have been going to conferences for 30 years. Though I’m already engaged with social media, I learn new stuff about Facebook, Twitter, and other ways to reach out, which are changing every day. I find out more about the inner workings of these systems and how to use them more effectively. Publishing is changing rapidly as well, and there are always challenges, new practices, and technologies to learn more about.
- It feels good to connect with others who face the same kinds of emotional challenges you do—the niggling inner critic, worrying about family critiques, and writing the truth.
Every memoir writer struggles with the process of getting their truth on the page and standing by it. It’s daunting to dig deep inside our memory banks and come up with memories that were buried, some for good reason. But it’s been shown that writing helps to heal the past, and that getting your story out of your body allows you to move into a better present and future. When you write your story, you become a compassionate witness to the younger you who lived through the events in your story, and lived to tell about it!
- You will leave with new skills, connections, and excited energy about writing and publishing your memoir.
A conference chock full of information about craft, process, networking, social media, and publishing and the process of learning and connecting fills the room with a great energy of excitement and plans for the future. You leave with not only more skills, but with the feeling of being buoyed up and supported. You’ll have dozens of new friends, writing buddies, and social media connections to help you get your memoir finished and out into the world. It’s a great investment in yourself as an author. Wear that title now!
If you hurry, you can get the Early Bird Discount for the Magic of Memoir Conference in Oakland. CA Oct. 15-16.
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/
Authoring Your Life—Encouragement to Write Our Stories by Brooke Warner
As a writing coach through the years, I’ve often found that women in particular struggle with having a voice—and with feeling empowered to get their work out into the world. I myself spent years battling my inner critic about my own memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, believing that the world would judge a story about three generations of dysfunctional mothers, that it was a domestic story and therefore not important in the world’s eyes. When I started writing, memoir was not a “thing” and fiction was king, so it’s lucky for us memoir writers that the world has shifted to be more welcoming to our stories eagerly awaiting the inside stories about our lives. We learn from others’ stories about ourselves, and take these profound lessons to hear. And the world still offers profound challenges and blocks that women struggle with.
My colleague and co-teacher Brooke Warner presented an inspiring keynote at the Story Circle Conference that addresses many of the issues that women struggle with. It was worthy of a standing ovation by the audience, so I want you know what she said to encourage us all.
First, she talked about how lucky she was to have been raised to believe in herself and her ideas. Many of us in the audience had grown up with the messages that we should stay silent, or mute our expression. Particularly, we often feel we have to be careful about saying or writing anything that might offend, hurt, or make someone uncomfortable. Brooke told us about her passion in championing women to publish during her eight years as Executive Editor at Seal Press. She was happy to be exposed to the huge variety of women’s stories, but came to realize that only a small percentage of the stories she loved could be published in the publishing environment that’s developed over the last decade. She began to think about a press that would publish women’s voices based on the merit of their writing and not their brand or platform—and She Writes Press was born in 2012. This year the press is celebrating multiple winners in the IPPY, Ben Franklin, and Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
Brooke became aware through her experience and research to the degree to which women writers have been silenced. Messages from society and our upbringing, both subtle and overt, affect our ability to claim our stories and get them out into the world.
Brooke cited statistics about women and publishing, pointing out the huge gender bias in publishing for women, and particular memoir. Women are less likely to be reviewed, less likely to win contests, and less likely to resubmit after receiving a rejection. Women tend to take rejection harder—and these statistics are sobering. Men are 5 times more likely than women to resubmit if their piece has been rejected. We need to change that!
Well-known writers such as Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, have been subjected to the bias against memoir. Gilbert likely received less accolades for her novel, The Signature of All Things, as a result of writing Eat, Pray, Love. Mary Karr, in her book the Art of Memoir, dedicated one chapter to discuss how Katherine Harrison was attacked for her book The Kiss.
We need to be reminded of our passion and motivation to write and to express ourselves. For some of us, including me, the story has been chasing us and won’t leave us alone. We need to write the book we couldn’t find in the bookstore. If it doesn’t exist, write it! We write to understand ourselves and our families, or to help someone who will benefit from our life lessons. There are many reasons to write, and reasons not to become discouraged.
“We have to keep saying yes, our story matters!” Brooke said.
Brooke offered 5 C’s that can help us stay inspired to write our stories.
- Community—we write our stories in community and we need the support of community.
- Commitment—we need to keep the commitment to ourselves and our story—and stay committed to getting our story out in the world, to share it with others through publishing.
- Championing—we need to champion each other and all writers by supporting, reading, and reviewing each other’s work.
- Claiming your work—we have to claim our right to write and publish our stories. No one will do this for us.
- Courage—it takes a lot of courage for us to dig deep and reveal our stories, and more courage to publish.
Brooke ended by urging us to take the time to get our stories written and to get past the fears and critical voices we carry. We have to champion ourselves and take the risk to be seen and heard. We need to write, and keep writing! We can change the world with our stories.