I sat with memoir facilitator and writing instructor Sue Mitchell and talked about stories, the memoir writing process, and the lifewriting genre.
Sue Mitchell is a certified creativity coach who has facilitated creative learning for over 20 years. An avid advocate for the power of self-compassion and baby steps, she is on a mission to provide newer writers with the strategies and tools they need to overcome the obstacles to sharing their life stories.
Her unique approach combines the Kaizen-Muse tools designed by creativity coaching pioneer Jill Badonsky, the Guided Autobiography framework developed by Dr. James Birren of UCLA, and elements of Denis Ledoux’s Turning Memories Into Memoirs workshops. When she isn’t teaching or writing, she’s out collecting life experiences in the wild places of the American Southwest. Get to know Sue by joining the discussion on her Facebook community page An Untold Story.
Q: Like Brené Brown said, “Stories are data with a soul.” And everyone has stories to tell. Why should one consider sharing their stories in writing? Why should one care?
SUE MITCHELL: Lifewriting benefits both the writer and the reader. The list of benefits to the writer is long, and includes emotional benefits like personal empowerment and the healing of emotional wounds, as well as physical benefits like better sleep and a strengthened immune system.
Your question about why others should care about our life stories is one that many who consider writing about their lives are concerned about. We tend to take our own experiences, struggles and accomplishments for granted while being amazed by what other people have gone through. What seems like an ordinary life to you might seem quite intriguing to others—especially your children and grandchildren.
The popularity of memoirs is exploding right now. That’s because people are fascinated with each other’s stories!
Q: What are the most common challenges people experience when they set out to write about their lives?
SUE MITCHELL: The ones that seem to come up the most are related to what we were just talking about, concerns about readers’ reactions. Writers worry that either people won’t care much at all or that they will care a lot—and be angry or judgmental. How much to reveal about yourself and others is an ongoing challenge.
Memoir writers also face all the usual challenges of the creative process like perfectionism, procrastination, and overwhelm. For some, writing about their lives is the first time they’ve written much since they were in school, so these common pitfalls of the creative process are unfamiliar. Because they are entering into new territory, beginning memoir writers may think they are somehow inadequate to the task, but actually these struggles are a normal and predictable part of any creative work.
Q: What are some of the typical mistakes you see almost every time you teach memoir and lifewriting?
SUE MITCHELL: Mistakes are to be encouraged—they show that you’re in the creative process and going for it! The only mistake I would worry about is not writing out of fear of making mistakes or doing it wrong.
That said, there are some misconceptions. A common one is thinking you have to start at the beginning of your life and write through to the present. Another is believing you have to write a single, long, coherent book rather than a collection of shorter memoirs. Those shorter memoirs, which are what we’ll be writing in the course, can turn into a longer work, but often would-be lifewriters get stymied because they feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. It doesn’t have to feel so huge!
Q: What are your favorite books in the memoir and lifewriting genre?
SUE MITCHELL: This is a very personal preference. When we read memoirs, we observe other people’s lives and how they handled difficult situations, so I tend to be drawn to the ones that either allow me to vicariously experience something I otherwise wouldn’t or to resolve personal challenges I am facing at the time.
Books like Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa and Beryl Markham’s West with the Night allowed me to travel to Africa, a lifelong dream of mine. Reading Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions in my early 30s helped me resolve the ambivalence I had about having children, and Julia Indichova’s book Inconceivable helped get me through infertility. Sandra Steingraber’s Having Faith, which is about pregnancy and having a newborn, was a great read after my son was born.
More recently, I’ve been recommending Tina Fey’s Bossypants as an example of a memoir that is made up of somewhat disconnected stories. Bossypants shows that you don’t have to write your life story like a novel, which beginning lifewriters are often advised to do.
Along the same lines, I would have to say my favorite memoir of all time is the 8-page, hand-typed booklet my great-grandmother, Anne Bronson, wrote about the loss of her 13-year-old son to appendicitis in about 1910. The glimpse into rural life in the early 20th Century and the emotional relatability of a mother’s grief make this short work incredibly precious to me. As far as I know, she didn’t write anything else about her life, but I’m so glad she wrote that one piece!
Q: You teach three different ways of finding the juiciest memoir topics—through conflict, emotional relatability and passion. Can you briefly tell us about these methods and why they work?
SUE MITCHELL: A conflict or problem is at the center of every story. Our brains are designed to focus on problems, so without a conflict of some kind, you may not hold a reader’s attention. In the class, we’ll look at several types of conflict and go digging into different chapters of our lives to find the most interesting ones.
Emotional relatability just means that you share your emotional reactions to the life events you write about—even when those feelings might make you feel vulnerable. We are all looking for confirmation that we are okay, and by sharing our foibles and mistakes, we form a bond with our readers as they see themselves in our emotional responses. I’ll show class participants where to look for these emotionally relatable topics.
Passion just means that you care deeply about the topic you’re writing about. When we write on topics we’re passionate about, the process flows and readers will be drawn in. In Hooked, I’ll share a few different ways to assess how passionate you are about the writing topics you’re considering.
Q: What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give someone who is just starting to write about their life? How does one begin?
SUE MITCHELL: Boiling it down to one nugget is hard. In my article 10 Principles for Memoir Writing Success, I narrowed it down to ten! But ultimately, I think it comes down to giving yourself permission.
Give yourself permission to tell your story. Allow yourself to write stuff that’s awful. Let it be okay to devote time to your writing instead of always looking out for everyone else in your life. Give yourself permission to write the truth as you see it in those first drafts, without worrying about how others will respond. Your story matters—just begin!