This article was originally published at The Creative Penn.
Art connects us.
It reminds us that we are not alone. It reflects to us that we have so much of our human experience in common with others. In other words, art enables us to say, “Me too. I’ve felt that.”
This is why art matters. And it’s why what you write matters, whether that’s fiction, blog posts, tweets or screenplays.
Memoir, in my opinion, is one form of art that is more overt about offering connection to our fellow human beings. We tell our personal stories in memoir to inform, educate, and perhaps even to assist others.
When we are writing a memoir about a difficult subject, we are in the unique position of having a dual responsibility to ourselves and to our readers. This article it going to share some tips and strategies about how to carry that responsibility in a healthy and constructive way, one that is good for both you and your readers.
First, let’s define memoir so we’re on the same page
Memoir is not the same as autobiography, which is the retelling of someone’s entire life. Memoir is about a certain time, event, or experience in a person’s life. There is a unifying message, theme or purpose to the telling. A memoir can span several years, but it limits itself to focusing on the subject of the memoir during that time.
Memoir is an interesting paradox of internal focus on the writer, and then outward service to the reader. My experience as a reader has been that many authors of memoir do not understand this. They see memoir as a series of journal entries offered in a linear way; “This happened to me and then that happened to me.”
Boring! And that kind of story doesn’t serve the reader at all. If you’re writing a memoir, try to avoid this.
Just as with fiction, the main character (i.e., you) should go through some sort of change. The events you’re retelling undoubtedly changed you. Without exploring that change you’re going to lose the reader’s interest. The element of change that the ‘protagonist’ goes through is especially important when you’re writing about a difficult subject. Otherwise you’re just creating disaster porn.
Memoir can and should use the same story elements as fiction, with surprising twists and turns, climaxes, a good beginning hook etc. A memoir that simply rambles along, telling ‘the story of me’ for 300 pages serves no one.
As mentioned above, when we write a memoir about a difficult subject we have two responsibilities. One to ourselves, and the other to the reader. Let’s talk about you first.
When you’ve decided that you want to write a memoir about a difficult experience or period in your life, you’ll want to forget about the reader and focus on yourself first. This is the time to be indulgent with your feelings and your truth about what happened and how it affected you.
Just as with writing fiction, your first draft can and should be as messy and disorganized as it needs to be. This is the draft you will never, ever share with anyone, so just let it all hang out, knowing you can turn it into a coherent narrative later.
There is no question that by writing a memoir about a difficult subject that you are going to feel uncomfortable. You’re likely going to touch on memories that you haven’t felt in a while. With that in mind, here are some tips for the writing process:
1. Do your healing work first.
Writing is an excellent form of healing, and goodness knows many of us would not be the people we are today without our journaling practices. That is certainly true for me. (I recommend this episode of the Creative Penn podcast with Ellen Bard; she and Joanna dive deep into using writing as a form of healing.)
However, if you’re writing about a difficult subject, I recommend that the writing of the book itself not be your initial healing practice.
Sure, you’ll likely see things in a new way while you’re writing (I certainly did) or come to a greater understanding of your experience, but the actual healing work should be done before you sit down to write a book about it.
2. Are you ready to share honestly?
It’s a strange feeling to have a book out in the world that contains intimate, sometimes embarrassing details of one’s life. If you’re not ready to be honest with your readers, then set the idea aside until you are ready. You’ll know when that time comes. It will still be scary at moments, but you won’t feel you’ve violated yourself by sharing.
Not that you need to share every single article of your dirty laundry, but memoirists do have a responsibility to be honest with their readers.
Remember what I said about memoir being about change? If the reader can’t see how and why you were changed by the events outlined in the memoir, they’re going to wonder what the point of the story is. Those moments of change will be visible to the reader when you’re able to be honest, warts and all.
3. Don’t write your memoir if what you are looking for is revenge or sympathy.
As I’ll say several times in this post, your memoir needs to serve the reader. If it is serving anything other than that (like your need for validation or to prove yourself right) then simply keep writing in your journal and keep healing.
The day will come when you’ll feel yourself tip over into a willingness to let go of your own needs for validation and/or justification and focus on the needs of the reader.
4. As with writing fiction, let your first draft be as rough as it needs to be.
There’s no need for perfection right out of the gate. And when it comes to writing about a difficult subject, the writing might be rougher than you’re used to, if you’re a practiced fiction author.
That’s okay. Let your story come out and be as messy as it needs to be. Remember that:
- you can’t fix a blank page; and
- you’ll have as much time as you need down the road to mold your draft into a book.
5. Take a break.
Note that there may be times when you need to take a break from writing the first draft. And that’s okay too. Treat yourself very kindly during this process. You’re likely dealing with deep emotions and possibly things you haven’t thought about in a long time.
I remember that several times while writing the first draft of my memoir about being in a cult, I would be writing a painful scene and many strong emotions would come up.
I’d be sitting on my couch with my laptop on my legs, and I’d have to give myself a moment to let those emotions wash through me. I’d sit and sob over the keyboard, feeling the hurt and grief of the time I was writing about. Eventually the wave of feeling would pass. I’d mop myself up, have a glass of water, and carry on.
If you find this sort of thing is happening too often, or is too painful for you, take a break. Set the book aside and come back to it in a few weeks or months when you are ready.
When your first draft is done and you are ready to begin to take it from organized chaos to something useful, this is the moment to recognize that you are taking off the hat of the person who had the experience you are writing about, and putting on your professional author hat.
At this point, the book is becoming something that is no longer for, or even about, you. It is now becoming something for your readers.
This requires a somewhat ruthless approach to shaping the story from something deeply personal that has been for your eyes only into something that will inform and educate others.
I bumped into someone recently who is writing a memoir about her experience escaping from an abusive marriage. The manuscript that she is shopping around to publishers is currently 800,000 words long.
That’s not a book for readers to consume. That’s a catharsis.
I applaud this author for writing down all that pain. I’m sure that work was incredibly healing and helpful for her. But I could tell that she was really struggling to make the switch from first draft mindset to author mindset. She insisted that every word of what she’d written was necessary and must be left in place.
Were those words necessary for her process and healing? Yes, absolutely, and good for her for doing all that work.
Will all those words be necessary for her audience? No.
Here then are a few tips for the revision process:
1. The self-indulgence stops here.
Now that you’re taking your writing from draft to book form, you’ll find there’s a razor sharp line between telling the truth and being indulgent. If you notice that you’re unable to make this switch, then leave the book alone for a time.
2. Once again I say, you must be willing and able to serve the reader.
When we write a memoir about a difficult subject, it is not only difficult for us, it will likely be difficult for the reader as well. Someone who picks up a book about living with bipolar disorder, for example, is likely either having that experience themselves, or knows someone who is. Your job as the writer in that situation is to serve the reader by being informative and truthful without being self-indulgent. This is not an easy line to walk and you may find you struggle with it more than you do when you’re writing fiction. Keep going. You will be able to find the right way to balance these elements.
3. Be VERY careful about choosing an editor.
This is one painful mistake I made. Without realizing what I was doing (my memoir was my first book) I choose a story editor who had very little sensitivity and who was more interested in stroking her own ego than helping me shape my draft into something valuable for readers.
Look for an editor who has experience with memoir. Also, try to find one with whom you feel you have a good personality fit.
If you are an experienced author you may have editors you already work with, which is fantastic. But if you don’t, take some time at this stage and proceed with caution. This book is so personal and close to your heart that ideally you want someone with a very skilled hand to help you.
You might not be able to do it. I don’t mean that as an insult, but as a piece of advice. If you start writing the memoir of your difficult experience and find it’s just too painful, and / or you feel too close to the story to be objective and serve the reader, set it aside. You can always come back to it in a year or three years or a decade. Sometimes we’re just not ready to take a painful or difficult experience and turn it into something useful for others. That’s okay. There’s no rush.
Also, if you’re causing yourself pain by writing the story, don’t do it. There will be a tipping point when you do feel objective enough about the experience to write about it for others. But if you’re not at that point yet, don’t force it. Please don’t re-injure yourself by pushing yourself and your book into being when neither of you is ready.
I receive more feedback about my book about my cult experience that any other book I’ve written. I still get emails from people thanking me for writing it, nearly ten years after it was published.
A memoir about a difficult subject can be an enormous gift to the people who are in the same, or similar, position you were in.
Remember what I said at the outset of this post? Art connects us.
Writing your memoir can be healing for you and for others. It is a sacred gift to be able to be honest about your experience so that others might benefit. Just remember to take care of yourself while you’re doing that.