By Anne B. Howard
Our willingness to make ourselves vulnerable while writing honestly in an authentic voice can pose challenges for even the most seasoned of memoir writers. Linda Joy Meyers, a practicing therapist and president of National Association of Memoir Writers likens the necessity, in memoir, to invite strangers into our homes, and lives, and psyches, sometimes even to our bedrooms, to that of being on a stage with no clothes on, and I think she’s right. With each story committed to the page, we memoirists must repeatedly make the daunting decision to keep writing. And, write we must if we are to uncover and reveal anything meaningful or useful to ourselves, and our readers.
For some people, this is much harder than they ever imagined. Opening up to the scrutiny of others such personal information as our dreams, thoughts, secrets and shame, as well as our pleasures and joys, can be a very scary proposition. The old adages of “what’s private should stay private,” and one should “never air one’s dirty laundry in public,” prevent many a poignant story from ever seeing the light of day. Past beliefs and family mottos inferring that we should keep everything tucked neatly away—even things that might encourage and inspire others, or change our own lives if we’d allow ourselves to dig deep enough—are almost always based on fear.
Just when I thought I’d conquered my own fear, at least enough to approach the completion of my first long-form memoir, Evil Beloved, I decided to take a crack at the fiction writer’s character-development homework from Lisa Crohn’s excellent new book, Story Genius. Although intended to help writers of fiction pinpoint the underlying motivations of their characters—so their stories make emotional sense—the same writing exercises were incredibly revelatory to me, a memoirist. So revelatory, in fact, that I realized some very painful but important details I’d unknowingly tucked away. Details that I now realize must be included in order to answer, for the reader, some very important questions I hadn’t even considered.
It was damn scary. I felt vulnerable and exposed. The work was a lot like therapy in that I completed each assignment, but then had to step back, mull it over for a few days, before pressing on. This wasn’t some contrived character under the microscope, it was me—my life, my decisions, good and bad, my delusions, my incredible misbeliefs—and my memoir is now a better representation of the story I need to tell, just for having done that work.
Writing memoir is an act of courage. It requires fearless self-examination and a willingness to claim—actually, to own—your life experiences. Good, bad, or in-between, they belong to you, and you decide if you will keep them hidden, simply record them, or share your story with others. For anyone considering writing a memoir, I highly recommend seeking the support and instruction of a professional organization such as National Association of Memoir Writers. And remember, you are not alone. Be brave—write your story!
What excellent advice on memoir writing. I have a friend working on one right now. I can see what bravery it takes.
I love this blog post. My fiction is thinly-veiled memoir. It often leaves me feeling exposed as you describe, so I can’t imagine how your memoir cuts to the bone. Still, we must tell our stories. Good for you, brave woman! ~ Ann
Your post on writing memoir is thought-provoking and rewarding, both in your discussion of the fear it presents and the rewards to be had in owning your experiences and putting them into written form. I know a bit of both from writing poetry. Maybe a lot, from writing poetry, but you have me wondering how the challenge of writing memoir might work. And you provide a good reference. Thank you!