Many of this year's Write Nonfiction in November participants are writing memoirs. I don't find this surprising, since so many people want to find meaning in the events of their lives and to share that meaning with others. Additionally, writing about our lives can prove healing, and sometimes reading about someone else's healing journey can provide just the medicine we need.
Linda Joy Myers, author of The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story, is the expert on memoir as a healing journey as well as the president of the National Association of Memoir Writers. Today she offers a post with 8 tips for writing a memoir and taking that journey through your past life and putting it all down on paper. It's a valuable trip to take if you know where you are going, what you need to make the trip go smoothly and how to arrive at your destination.
8 Tips for Taking the Psychological Trip of Writing a Memoir
By Linda Joy Myers
Writing a memoir is like taking a trip. At first, we’re excited. As we pack our suitcase, we imagine the moments to come. The thrill of our destination courses through us, spurring us forward with high hopes about what we’ll encounter.
Not long ago, I went to France—first to Paris, then Lyon and the southern mountains where Cezanne and Van Gogh used to paint. It was of course a wonderful trip—the vision of the Eiffel Tower even better than my imagination, and the art…I was breathless. Of course, there were challenges—the suitcase was too heavy to lift up stairs, I was crushed in the Metro by TONS of sweaty people, and I got lost many dozens of times on tiny country lanes. There were moments of being exhausted and others of being exhilarated. But the images I had when I packed my suitcase changed. The real journey was different, and it changed me.
So it is when we write a memoir. We begin putting in our suitcase the memories, people and events that we’re eager to celebrate and remember. Even if our story is a dark one, we’re sure that we can handle it. We have been journaling for a long time, and we know most of what we want to write—or at least we think we do. We launch into our writing eagerly, capturing images and moments, freely writing, remembering, and doing research. We even feel brave enough to tell people we’re writing a book!
Then something happens. The doubts creep in, “I’m not sure what I wrote is the truth. My sister says I make things up.” Or, “Gee, I don’t want to reveal x and y and z. It’s too personal. I don’t want people knowing all those things about me.” Or you read a bunch of other memoirs and realize that you can’t write all that well, you feel that it’s really too big a job, this memoir project. You agonize over it until it begins to chase you around, demanding your attention, tugging at your heart.
There’s another scenario: You’ve started to remember things, memories you thought you’d handled; you begin to reflect on the past in a new way, and start to write about it, but you feel sad, depressed, or angry. You try to put it all aside, but you can’t. The writing doesn’t work. You’re stuck in the middle of your book, you feel conflicted.
This is all good news. I know, it doesn’t sound like good news to you. You just want to get your memoir done, you want to brush away the doubts. Now.
The good news is that you are in the middle of your memoir journey, and you’re doing fine. There are three major stages in writing a memoir. The first is the eager beginning, “downloading” as my colleague Jennifer Lauck calls it. I call it freewriting. Then comes the muddy middle, where themes, stories, and memories begin to build into a larger story, one that you don’t have control of. The muddy middle is the biggest part of the journey, by the way, where you will spend the most time.
In the last stage you’ve found your stride, the journey has changed you, and you’re grateful for the riches, the discoveries, the epiphanies. It is not the same journey you imagined. You are different. The muddy middle becomes your teacher, your mentor. Dr. James Pennebaker says, “Story is a way of knowledge.” When you write a memoir or a Creative Nonfiction piece, you find out what that means. It’s a journey worth taking. Pack your suitcase now.
Some tips for your trip:
- Accept that writing your memoir is a longer journey than you imagined. Be patient.
- Take good care of yourself on the journey. Rest, set a schedule, make a map.
- Allow the writing process to guide you, accept the undesirable stories and images, and the memories that squeeze in after the door is closed. They have something to teach you.
- Trust in your creative muse, and the excitement you felt when you began your journey. Allow it to urge you forward.
- Invite your unconscious to help you write and remember. Put your writing under your pillow. Before sleep make requests to your unconscious mind to help you. I did this, and it worked!
- Know that you will write the same story over and over again, but in a new way. Know that you will find the muddy middle, you will get stuck and lost, but you have to keep going anyway. You will find your way out of the muddy middle if you just keep writing!
- Writing your life is like entering a labyrinth. You need to find the thread that will lead you out. It is there, you need to stay long enough for it to reveal itself. It’s a little like magic!
- Write, listen, be still, and invite. Your story wants to be found.
About the Author
Linda Joy Myers is a memoir mentor and editor and the founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers. She’s the author of The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story, and the award winning memoir Don’t Call Me Mother. Linda is co-president of the Women’s National Book Association, San Francisco branch, and past president of the California Writers Club, Marin branch. She is a speaker and workshop leader nationally and helps people capture their stories through coaching, editing, and online workshops. Find out more about the National Association of Memoir Writers at www.namw.org. Read her blog at http://memoriesandmemoirs.com.