This is a guest post by certified Kaizen-Muse creativity coach, writing instructor and memoir facilitator Sue Mitchell.
As I’ve studied memoir writing, spoken with and coached memoir writers, written about my own life, and interviewed others about their stories, I’ve developed a set of principles I find myself returning to whenever a writer feels uncertain, overwhelmed or taunted by their inner critic.
Do you agree with these principles? What would you add to these?
1. Your story matters.
This business of being a human is very mysterious. We’re all searching for answers to questions and dilemmas we will likely never resolve. We are just a small piece of a complex web of interactions and don’t really understand our place in it.
Yet each of our lives provides clues. As we share our stories, we begin to see universal themes and patterns. People traveling a similar path may have discovered something we haven’t.
Researcher Brené Brown refers to our stories as “data with a soul.” The more data we share, the more we will all understand who we are.
2. You have a right to tell your story.
Memoir writing often involves revealing human imperfections and can lead to feelings of guilt and shame. Even if a writer can muster the courage to reveal his or her own faults, it’s ethically problematic to expose the misdeeds and character flaws of others.
I believe that the more we all allow ourselves to be seen as flawed, the better off we all will be. We can protect ourselves and others from scrutiny, but then all of us live in the shadow of shame. Only by honestly sharing mistakes and weaknesses can we know true acceptance and connection.
Yes, there may be people who will never forgive you for saying what you did about them, but I believe what’s really going on there is that they’re not forgiving themselves. That’s for them to resolve, not you.
I believe that each time an uncomfortable truth is openly shared, it makes all people a little more free. That doesn’t mean you have to write a “tell-all” memoir or spill the beans recklessly. It just means that if you feel a story asking to be told, you have a right to tell it.
3. Anyone can write memoir.
Professional memoir writers can be a snooty lot. They toss around terms like “dénouement,” “character arc,” and “prose” that sometimes inadvertently serve to exclude and intimidate first-time writers. But I believe you don’t really need to know much about writing in order to write about your life.
Just start writing.
Depending on how far along the memoir writing path you go, you may find yourself needing an understanding of dénouement. But it’s just as likely that you can write an entertaining tale without being a writing expert, and if what you come up with doesn’t hold a reader’s attention, there are wonderful folks known as editors who can help you.
4. It’s best to start small.
Pick a story, any story, and start writing. Write for 10 minutes. Start with a quick list of memories, just random words and phrases. Sharing your life story does not need to be an overwhelmingly large project. It’s okay to let it be an idle hobby for a while. Some people thrive on pressure and do best by devoting themselves to a large project with intense focus until it’s finished. If that’s you, enjoy! But if it’s not, don’t worry about it. Just do what you can–anything you share will have value.
5. Write first for yourself.
There are few things that can inhibit us more than worrying about what other people will think. Forget that. When you begin to write about your life, do it just for yourself. Even if no one else ever sees what you’ve written, you will benefit in many ways by simply doing the writing. For that first draft, tell everything with 100% honesty without worrying about how “good” the writing is.
6. Download before tweaking.
I recommend memoir writers begin by producing a “download draft.” I believe it’s important to get the whole story out before trying to polish it or shape it into a coherent whole.
The analogy I like to use is making a pot on a pottery wheel. It’s impossible, no matter how much planning you do, to throw down a completed pot onto the wheel. You take aim and then just toss the clay down in a relatively formless lump. Once the clay has been “downloaded” in this way, you can then sculpt and decorate it to your heart’s content, leaving it relatively crude or elaborate enough for a fine art gallery. But even that fine art piece began as a formless lump on the wheel.
7. Plant seed questions and trust that the answers will come to you as you write (not before).
Memoir writers have questions! What should I leave in? What should I leave out? What is my message? How should I start? How should I end?
Trying to force the answers to these questions outside of the act of writing rarely works. You might come up with a preliminary decision, but often, in the process of following through on that choice as you write, you’ll discover new angles on the situation and reconsider.
I believe in planting what I call “seed questions.” These are questions that need time to germinate. You plant them in your mind, give them food and water, and patiently await the emergence of the answer.
You can feed these questions by writing, reading, discussing, pondering and, oddly enough, completely forgetting about them so your unconscious mind can have a crack at them for a while. I joke that you can water your seed questions in the shower–we’ve all experienced that epiphany in the shower.
Gradually, your answer will become evident. In the meantime, you haven’t let the uncertainty stop you from writing.
8. Your memoir journey will parallel the hero’s journey.
In the classic hero’s journey, the main character feels a calling. At first, they may resist, but then something happens that compels them to answer the call. As they begin their journey, obstacles arise along the way, culminating in a moment when they may believe that all is lost. But through new understandings or strength of character, the hero does eventually achieve their goal, and all feels right with the world… until the sequel begins.
Besides being a storyteller’s subject matter, the hero’s journey also mirrors what writers experience as they work on their memoir.
After a few false starts or years of saying, “I want to write a memoir some day,” the writing begins. There’s a clear sense of mission, and motivation is usually high in the beginning. But then the inner critic jumps out at you from behind a bush. Your family or job makes off with all your free time. Your buttocks start to take the shape of your typing chair and you start to lose interest in writing.
But for those who don’t quit at this point and instead develop the tenacity to muddle through, eventually, a regular writing practice is established or a manuscript is finished. Huzzah!
9. You can set your own terms of success.
A huge pitfall writers experience is measuring their worth by others’ standards or in black-and-white terms. If their writing group seems less than enamored with their piece, they’ll go into a slump. And often they’ll take criticism of one aspect of their writing and decide, based on that, that the whole thing is garbage.
I believe we should all decide for ourselves what success means for us. And frankly, I think we should assess ourselves on the process, not the product.
So maybe you’ll define success as completing a full-length memoir. That’s a great criterion for success — anyone who has completed a longer piece of writing will attest to how difficult that really is.
For many, success is simply creating a collection of shorter stories that can be shared with friends and family.
Or you may want to honor your personal daring as your self-assessment. You can ask yourself, “Did I take a chance? Did I try something new? Did I express my thoughts just a little bit more openly than I would have in the past?” These, too, are wonderful measures of your accomplishment.
One client concerned about the quality of his writing set a facetious goal of having his book be better than the movie Little Fockers, which, in his mind, was a pretty low standard, but one that Hollywood executives had evidently found acceptable. And at the end, he was able to proudly announce, “My book is at least as good as Little Fockers!”
10. Only you can know if you’re telling the truth.
Perhaps the most common challenge memoir writers face concerns telling the truth about what happened. No one can identify the absolute truth—it’s enough for your writing to be based on your honest recollection of events from your unique perspective, even if others would question the truth of your version.
Deep down, you know whether you’re purposely misrepresenting what happened. If you’re not knowingly misleading and have done whatever research you can to verify what you’re saying, then I believe that’s as honest as any of us can be. If you choose to invent dialogue or other details to make your story more engaging for your reader, simply let them know where you’ve taken any liberties.
Do you agree with these 10 principles?
Are there other concepts you believe it’s important for beginning memoir writers to understand?
What examples can you share from your own writing experiences?
Please share your thoughts in the comments!