“Memoir wrenches at your insides precisely because it makes you battle with your very self – your neat analyses and tidy excuses…nobody I know who’s written a great one described it as anything less than a major-league shit-eating contest. Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there’s suffering involved.”
Mary Karr, bestselling memoirist
Bringing up the past and re-framing it in a book-length memoir, (no matter if your topic is heavy or light!) is exhausting. Which brings me to the Messy Middle of Memoir. It’s different to the messy middle of writing a book (authors commonly refer to the sometimes paralysing moment midway between the first and the third act when all the momentum of starting has gone, and you can’t see the end). With memoir, it’s almost a cumulative effect of sitting in our memories for the time it takes to write the book. It can be absolutely paralysing, and feel awful, if you don’t have systems and rituals set-up to get you through.
It takes a lot of psychic mettle to stay in there with the story, to re-frame things accurately and honestly, to battle with your own delusions and craft something that’s not only extremely authentic, but quite exposing.
Good memoir always tells us more about the writer than the other players involved in the story, and all this self-reflection can get a bit heavy!
Self-care isn’t just for memoir writers, I read somewhere that care of one’s self ensures we can be of service to the world.
If your ‘service’ comes from writing a beautiful, true, authentic and powerful story which is pushing you to reach the edges of what’s comfortable, you need to look after yourself properly so that you can continue to stretch yourself.
Before you get really intensely invested in that first draft of your memoir, it’s important to set up a few non-negotiable self-care routines to keep yourself sane during this massive project. Make sure you include some or all every single week you’re working on drafting your memoir.
Make a list of twenty things that make you feel good, inspired, happy, relaxed, creative, rewarded or just replenished in some way. Then incorporate them into your writing routine. I once read that what you do ‘off-stage’ all contributes to the quality of your performance ‘on-stage’. I truly believe good self-care = a much better memoir. Through feeling safe and secure within yourself, you’re better able to stretch and challenge yourself on the page (and internally – most of the first draft of a memoir is internal work, anyway).
Some of my own ideas to sprinkle through your writing weeks:
- Be around animals, particularly cats (RIP beautiful Sabrina, I couldn’t have written A Letter From Paris without you!)
- Take myself to the movies
- Get out of the city
- Have a bath
- Go for a bike ride
- Browse a beautiful shop
- Go to a park
- Buy fresh flowers
- Go for a rambling walk with no fixed destination
- Have background music always playing
- Avoid the news
- Make a new playlist
- Make my home a complete refuge (flowers, candles, tea, cat, crumpets, soup, soft lighting… you get the drift!)
- Wear pyjamas at unacceptable hour (s)
- Have a crafternoon
- Watch old movies
- Get some sunshine (even if it is just sitting on the doorstep)
- Watch Younger and revel in the awesome that is Diana Trout (I wish she had her own show!)
- Read poetry or beautiful quotes. Pin some up.
- Get out in nature
- Buy a token object (cup, pen, special tea, candle, notebook) which I use when I’m writing
- Get a hot stone massage
- Read interviews with some of my favourite writers
- Make a big casserole or batch of soup while listening to writing podcasts (Magic Lessons by Elizabeth Gilbert is a favourite)
I find when I’m working on intense writing projects, movies and music are really good to get me out of an intense head-space and freshen my perspective. And walking NEVER FAILS to send me home with new ideas for a particular conundrum in the plot or how I think about the story.
Some other self-care ‘treats’ and rewards to get you out of your head and back into your body / spirit / heart might involve:
- Going to an art gallery solo
- Giving yourself a facial
- Making something home-made from scratch
- Sleeping in
- Having a sauna
- Doing a yoga class or a boxing class (I have a friend who likes to do muay thai to ‘get out of my head’!)
- Pottering in the garden
- Catching up with friends
- Making something for someone (soup, lasagne, a gift, a card…)
- Getting out of town
It’s so important to keep these rewards in your life during the course of writing your first draft, so that you don’t feel absolutely ‘cut-off’ and you stay connected to who you are.
I also think it’s important to reward your effort, not the result, particularly when you’re working on the first draft, which is always going to be crap and unfinished and imperfect. The result will drive you mad. Just focus on the effort, and meeting your word count and moving forward with the story, and telling yourself you’re doing a GREAT job.
For more on avoiding the very unique ‘messy middle’ of memoir including digital training and my favourite methods for staying strong while writing personal story, check out Memoir Academy.