10 tips to make writing a memoir easier
During a recent interview, I was asked why writing a memoir is easier than you think. I wanted to say, “Easy? God no, it’s not easy. It’s bloody hard work! If it was easy, everyone would be a memoir writer!” And then I realized that these days, it seems like everyone is a memoir writer, judging by the soaring interest in memoir courses and classes not to mention the umpteen memoirs being published every week. To make things more problematic, I told the interviewer I was in the middle of writer’s block and not finding it very easy to write. But that’s not what my audience wanted to hear.
So, I went home and thought more about it and I came up with 10 suggestions that can make memoir writing easier. They’re based on my experience as a struggling but reasonably successful memoir writer. If you follow them, they can certainly make your writing easier and more productive. Here they are in no particular order:
- Eliminate the blank page. That’s right. There’s nothing more daunting than a blank page staring at you, daring you to blot it with your ink or type. So just type or write some nonsense. Mess it up. Start anywhere. Remember, you’re not writing your life story, only a small part of it. Think of your life story as a play and your memoir as a memorable scene in that play. Not sure which scene to go to. Go to the story that hurts not to tell it. Go to where you feel vulnerable. Listen to the voice of your inner child or teenager or wild woman or man and let them speak. I often begin by imagining two of my principal characters (e.g. my 9-year-old child self and my mother) and start them speaking to one another. I just try to capture their dialogue and forget the description until the second draft when I go back and begin to add it in.
- Create a writing habit. Writing is a habit. Successful writers commit to their craft and show up even when they don’t feel like it. Commit to writing at least 20 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week. But don’t make promises you can’t keep. Don’t promise to write for an entire day or for hours on end. You’ll end up exhausted and not feel like writing for days. Start with small daily amounts. Set your timer and start creating your writing habit. Build-in rewards for completing your sessions — a cup of tea, a walk, listening to music, reading, playing with your kids, hugging your partner for no other reason than you’re becoming a writer. Try that for a couple of weeks. Adjust accordingly. And please don’t punish yourself if you fall off the wagon! Simply get back on and start again. Habits are like muscles: you have to exercise them to make them stronger.
- Let go of perfection. I’m a recovering perfectionist. Years of academic training and teaching turned me into an intolerable literary drunk. I couldn’t write unless I could write like Shakespeare or Neil Gaiman. And so, I didn’t write at all or, if I did, it was so self-indulgent I ended up hating myself and tearing up my work. These days, I’ve sobered up. While I’m appreciative of the technical and editing skills my academic experience gave me, I no longer let it dominate my writing. Remember that old adage: “Perfection is the enemy of the good.” Write as if no one is watching. Let it all out in the first draft. This one is for you. Share with a trusted reader when you’re ready to start editing and wanting feedback.
- Sharing your work with trusted readers. Writing is a solitary act but good writing is a social one. By that I mean, good writing requires feedback and that means sharing your precious scribblings with a trusted reader. After all, if you’re looking to get published, you’re looking at sharing your writing with the world. Choose a loyal friend, ideally, someone whose opinion you trust and who is willing to challenge your literary choices. My writing substantially improved once I opened myself to constructive feedback from others.
- Join a writers’ group. These days, it seems nearly every city, town, and village has a local creative writers group. Join it. If you can’t find one locally, search online. There are dozens of them. Once I joined my local writers’ guild, I found support from fellow writers, helpful resources, and, most importantly, accountability. Accountability is a powerful motivator. Once I tell a fellow writer that I’m going to share with him or her three pages by the end of the week, by gosh, I do it. I don’t want to let them (or myself) down. Setting dates with one another to share your work keeps you going. It’s motivating to know that there’s someone who’s keen to read your work and offer you feedback. Joining a group was the single most powerful motivation I’ve experienced. My productivity increased and so did my self-esteem and confidence. You want to build on that energy.
- Read other memoirs. Reading other writers’ memoirs comes with a warning. It can become a distraction (like eating chocolate and doing the dishes). You think I’ll read this memoir and maybe it’ll give me some ideas. Then halfway through, you hear about another memoir and off you go to the library, your local bookstore, or Amazon. And there goes your writing schedule. Read too many good memoirs and you can end up feeling useless. “Why should I bother writing? I’ll never be as good as Stephen King or Dani Shapiro or Zora Neale Hurston.” Be judicious in your reading. Dip into other memoirs as a reward for completing your own writing session. (By the way, I do recommend Stephen King’s memoir “On Writing”, especially for beginners. He has a lot of useful things to say and is very motivating.) Finally, once you’ve read a number of memoirs you realize there’s no one way to write a memoir. Don’t be afraid to experiment. A little poetry, journaling, stream-of-consciousness, creative non-fiction can all make a memoir. Write from the heart with a little guidance from the head and one of your favorite memoir mentors.
- In the event of writer’s block, use a writing prompt. Every writer experiences ‘writer’s block’ from time to time. If stuck, try a writing exercise in another genre; use writing prompts. I like to open a book at random and pick a sentence as my opening and go from there. Set yourself a time limit. I like 7 minutes. Keep the pen moving and see what happens. Approach the exercise like a child embraces imaginative play. Have fun. As a change from writing prompts, use photos, cartoons, overheard conversations as your starting point. Create an imaginary conversation between two unlikely people.
- Join a memoir writing course. Fortunately, there are many teachers of memoir writing out in the virtual world. Google ‘memoir courses’ and you’ll come up with loads of them. Ask other writers if they can recommend someone. Prices can vary widely. More expensive doesn’t always mean better quality teaching. Don’t overspend. Stick to a budget. And beware of becoming a course junkie. Taking classes can become another distraction from your writing. Teachers can’t write your memoir for you. They can pass on advice and give you support as well as recommend relevant reading to motivate you. But at the end of the day, the writing is up to you. But a class can be a good place to find the support you need. Consider asking a few of your classmates to form a feedback/accountability group to share your writing with one another.
- Record your story. Mix up the time you spend writing by recording your story on your smartphone or Google Docs. Sometimes my best ideas come when I’m out walking or driving. I could stop and pull out my notebook and begin writing but often I’ll use my smartphone instead. Most mobile phones these days have free voice recording software installed. I’ll start a recording and simply talk out my ideas. Google Notes and Google Docs also have a voice recording capability that allows you to speak while the app transcribes your speech. It’s not perfect; you’ll have to go back and edit but it’s good enough to capture the essence of your thoughts.
- Don’t punish yourself. We all have an inner critic, that voice that’s a culmination of all the authority figures in our lives that exists to take us down a peg or three. “You’re not good enough” and “Give up, you’re useless.” Be compassionate. It’s only trying to protect you from harm, like an extremely overprotective parent. Don’t stand for the abuse. I often negotiate with my inner critic. Sometimes, I let him have a page in my journal in exchange for his silence. It may take time but I believe you can tame your inner critic and convince him or her that you are a capable writer. If necessary, take breaks. Get up and move about. Do something that makes you feel good. Don’t sit and wallow in self-pity. Reflect. Let the writing process percolate. Keep hydrated. Get plenty of sleep. Self-care.
Writing a memoir is not the easiest thing to do but if you follow these ten pieces of advice, I guarantee you’ll find the experience more enjoyable — and easier — than you imagined.
Michael Williams is a writer, storyteller, and end-of-life planning facilitator and educator. His award-winning memoir story “All Things Shall Pass” was published in 2019 and he is currently working on his collection of memoir stories tentatively entitled Neverland: the memoir of a storyteller. After living and working in Scotland for 30 years, Michael currently makes his home in Hamilton, Ontario Canada, although a part of him will always belong to the Highlands. Web: www.michaelwilliamsstoryteller.com