There’s some weird and frankly unhelpful stories about writing memoir floating around the ether. Perhaps your terms for memoir is autobiographical writing, perhaps you call it personal story writing, perhaps you call it life-writing. A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet (!) so I just wanted to clear up a few of these (frankly, unhelpful) myths!
I’m guilty of using these myths as excuses not to work on the books that have tugged me out of bed at night, but you need to see them for what they are: untrue. Let me take you through three memoir writing myths that aren’t serving you, and their much-better (and more empowering) alternatives!
MYTH #1: Memoir writing is self-indulgent
This one really confuses me. Are we supposed to spend all day, every day, reacting and moving, without any time to consider or process all that’s happened in our lives?
I don’t think so. Everyone needs time to dream, to vision and reflect. In fact, focusing for a little time each day reflecting on your life, and your habits and tendencies, has been proven time and again as a helpful tool to manage addiction, moods, depression, and help us reach our goals.
By taking the time to reflect on what you want, what you need, what’s upset you, what fulfils you, how your story has played out, you can re-align or re- calibrate yourself if you’re wobbling or on the wrong path or just feeling bad for whatever reason. It’s that whole idea of ‘re-filling the well’ that Julia Cameron talks about in The Artist’s Way.
You can’t fill anyone else’s cup if yours is empty! Self-aware people are kinder people, and journaling (the right way) makes you much more self-aware – because you’re not reacting unconsciously to people and things around you anymore. You’re literally bringing your unconscious or subconscious patterns into a three dimensional form (ie. A written narrative).
Perhaps I’ll leave you with this statistic from a study I found recently on the use of journaling in prisons: inmates who kept a journal were less likely to return to substance-dependency (which had led to their crimes) than those who didn’t.
Now if that’s not a case for the positive effects of memoir journaling on society alone, then I don’t know what is!
Bring on the ‘self-indulgent’ criminals who reflect on their self-sabotage and clean up their lives!
MYTH #2: You should be writing a ‘proper’ book (or thesis, or something more ‘worthy’) instead
This one dragged me down for a long time. There’s a certain stretch of the literary establishment who looks down their noses on memoir. When Mary Karr revived interest in the genre in the 1990s when The Liars Club came out, some people weren’t happy.
But reading is reading, and story is story, and who can honestly say that one type of book is more literary or worthy than another?
Personally, I find truth much more fascinating than fiction, and I love the way good memoir pulls you into a person’s life and helps you relate from your own narrow perspective, too – regardless of whether or not you share practical details in common with the author.
Memoir writing is hard. You still need to be able to tell a good story. You need to be able to structure your book like a novel (this is why memoir falls under the genre of creative non-fiction). And perhaps the toughest part is being able to objectively assess what’s happened to you, and how you experienced it, from the perspective of a storyteller, or a creative artist. Not a small child feeling ‘hard done-by’ and wanting to expose others’ faults on the page. Anyone who has actually written a memoir will know that the self-scrutiny the author pours onto themselves is a whole layer of what makes the genre such a challenge to write well.
Humans are hard-wired for story. And personal story is particularly resonant, and powerful, because it assures us that we aren’t alone in our experiences.
Yes, writing a novel is difficult. Writing a PhD is difficult. Writing anything – an essay, an article, even this blog post! – can be difficult if we want to do it well.
But memoir is JUST as valuable, if not more so, than other literary or academic writing endeavours. It’s as though we’re reaching out an arm to the future and the past, calling people into our story. It’s personal because it’s your life (not a made-up one, or someone else). It’s vulnerable for the same reasons.
And – just as you do with the other types of writing – you need to be able to write a good story!
MYTH #3: Memoir writing = wallowing
Life is happy and sad, colourful and boring and wild and messy and everything in between. Writing is simply paying attention to the full spectrum of our lives. If you know how to write about your life in the right way, you’re not wallowing.
You’ll start to see that the details, major and minor, that make up your life, are not insignificant. By using journals and memoir writing to pay attention, instead you’ll be honing in, almost like a zoom lense, on the most sacred details of your life.
You learn to notice, like an artist, that everything and everyone around you is part of a complex and multi-layered story that is your one wild and precious life.
You will start to see your life as a heroine’s journey and you as the star of the show. What could be more empowering than that? You don’t wallow in a journal, even when you’re writing about stressful experiences. You unravel, and by unravelling your story, one truth and one sentence at a time, you create something beautiful and a new way of seeing. A new perspective.
One of my favourite memoirs is WILD by Cheryl Strayed. I read it a few years after losing my own mum and it both inspired and uplifted me, to read how someone else had trekked their own way out of the wilderness that is grief. To learn that Strayed overcame addictions and the grief of divorce as well as her mother, and how, showed me that it was possible and that there was a way out. Strayed has said openly that she journaled through that hike and used her journals for the book. To have a record of one of the most powerful experiences of your life, and how you got through it, is both empowering and a tool for self-development. It’s another reason I’m so passionate about journaling, particularly for memoirists.
“My journal was enormously helpful to me as I wrote (WILD), often providing me with details I’d have forgotten.” Cheryl Strayed
So what are the alternative truths to these three myths? I’m currently re-reading Steven Pressfield’s Do The Work which is reminding me that often we repeat certain myths as a form of resistance or procrastination. So it’s scary when you realise that something you’ve been using as an excuse is actually not true. Read the following statements and see if they sit true for you.
And if they do? Then do the work!
- Memoir writing helps build self-awareness and conscious behaviour
- Memoir as a literary genre is incredibly valuable, powerful and significant
- Memoir Journalling (in the right way) can empower, uplift you, and help fuel your book-length memoir!Human stories are so powerful in connecting us to strangers than a list of facts or a piece of reportage. Perhaps this is why Humans of New York now has over 18 million followers on facebook and memoirs constantly hit the bestseller lists (over fiction and other genres). We are WIRED for story. It’s the most deeply primal force in human experience.
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Thank you for posting these myths. As I am writing these thoughts have come up so this is very timely.
I would like to send you my short focus statement to get feedback from you or should I just include it in my first draft sometime in February 2021?
Hello Esther! I hope you’re enjoying the new 90 Day program and making headway with your draft! I’ll be in contact in Feb to see if you’re ready for your bonus feedback session. Best, Louisa
I really enjoyed this post Louisa. I’ve only read non fiction for the pasr 30 years as I feel it’s been a way to learn about life and in some ways historical moments!!!
Thank you Carla – me, too! Although I’ve been getting into historical fiction lately, too, but only when it’s based on true people and events… 🙂
Thanks so much for a great article! I found all three myth-busters both inspiring and helpful, and I love the affirmations you’ve provided at the end. (I hope you don’t mind me calling them that? I think affirmations are a great tool for changing thinking habits that aren’t giving us the results we want and these three are bound to help any would-be memoirist who’s feeling a bit stuck in self-doubt reorient themselves towards their memoir goal.)
As far as the fiction vs non-fiction debate, I personally don’t think we book lovers need to limit ourselves – I’ve learnt loads about life from both true story AND fiction. I also think a person can pour their deepest selves into their personal story and their fictional worlds, and it’s that authenticity that shines through the page and can teach us things about ourselves and our own lives that we might not be able to see in the normal course of things.
Thanks again for a great article Louisa. The information you share about memoir writing is so valuable in so many ways and I’m truly grateful for all your informative and thought provoking content!