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More on writing memoir

Saturday, February 28, 2009 by Marianne Elliott

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This week I spent my first, precious, writing day unable to write. I had been reading this fantastic book by Judith Barrington on writing memoir and I was frozen with question about my writing, my stories, my ability to achieve any of the things Ms Barrington insists are essential to any memoir worth the name.

As I read I came across all my questions and fears about writing memoir, and one after another the author gave clear, wise advice about how she and other writers have addressed these challenges. Initially I was elated. Here was a book, and an author, who had identified all the same doubts and challenges that I was facing. But then as I read on, reading advice like:

"Without [an] attempt to make a judgment, the voice lacks interest, the stories, becalmed in the doldrums of neutrality, become neither fiction nor memoir, and the reader loses respect for the writer who claims the privilege of being the hero in her own story without meeting her responsibility to pursue meaning. Self-revelation without analysis or understanding becomes merely an embarrassment to both reader and writer."

Or this:

"Do not make the mistake of thinking it is easier to tell the stories you have lived than to make up fictitious stories about imaginary people. It is no easier to write your own story well than is it to write anything well."

And this:

"Your memoir will assume enormous proportions and quite possibly leave your readers confused or exasperated if you obscure the story with irrelevant details. … It is inevitable that you, as both the writer and the subject of the story, will know far more than you can tell. For the memoir to work, you will always have to lop off a piece of a bigger story."

There was nothing in any of her wise advice that I hadn't already concluded on my own. But reading it all laid out in one place like that suddenly made me aware of how very far wrong I could go with this memoir.

Thankfully, the demands of my day job in the world of development policy, climate change and humanitarian crises kept me frantically busy for the next three days. By the time I sat down again to write yesterday I had decided that there was nothing else to do but to write all day.

My day began at 6 am across the road in my neighbour's sewing studio where I've begun meeting her to guide her through an hour long yoga practice a few times a week. My focus in this practice was on trusting my own inner wisdom, relaxing my grip on the 'class plan' in order to allow more space to flow with where she wanted to go with the practice. I also knew that this was the intention I needed to set for the day of writing ahead of me. After our yoga I stopped in to her kitchen for a cup of tea as her family woke and got ready for school and work.

By the time I got home I knew I was ready to write. I started out in an entirely different part of the story and I wrote. By the end of the day I had 6000 words of a relatively self-contained story about my 35th birthday in Afghanistan.

As I wrote I was dimly aware of some of the advice I had gleaned from "Writing the Memoir" but I was, more importantly, once again writing without too much thought. I knew, as the words came and the sentences folded out into scenes, that this was the story as it needed to be told today.

I have a lot to continue to learn on this memoir-writing apprenticeship, but one thing I know above all else. My writing will only ever get better as I continue to write. So with that, on this rainy Saturday, with a clean house and a fresh cup of tea, I will get back to writing.

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3 Responses to "More on writing memoir"

  1. megg says:

    Can I please offer some advice? It is the best advice about writing I have ever gotten:
    Just write. Get anything on the page in whatever form it wants to be there and DON’T edit as you go (don’t even read it back.) Sometimes we get so caught up in the process that we get freaked out if it isn’t GOOD.
    Once you have written all that needs to come out, THEN go back and edit and read other people’s advice, but in the mean time, the raw, honest, open stories that want to be told will be the most powerful!
    I’m sorry if I overstepped, but it was good advice for me to get at a stuck time, so I thought I would pass it on!
    We write quite different things, but if you are interested, I would love to talk writing with you – maybe be each other’s accountability partner or something – I am just starting a new book…
    LOVE to you – you CAN DO THIS!!!

  2. susanna says:

    Oops, I lost the comment I left here…how…? In any case, I wanted to say that I agree with Megg – write everything down in your own voice and then listen to other writers’ advice as to how to write. You have your own unique experiences that are interesting, insightful, frightening, inspiring. I’m glad that you are writing about them and one day I’m going to buy your book.

  3. Myrthe says:

    I wanted to give the same advice as Meg: just write and edit and delete later.
    I should heed my own advice, as I have been stuck with my own writing as well, not even managing to write blogposts I ‘should’ and want to write.

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