To guide writers into the ofttimes difficult job of creating a memoir, I have developed a formula. But to keep the suspense high, here is what this formula is not: As an editor, I’m all about syntax (word arrangement), grammar, spelling, word choice, and all those necessary components of quality writing. As a coach, I’m all about helping the writer identify their audience (who they are writing for), settle on their theme (point or argument), and improve in the art of dialogue, description, and scene creation. My formula isn’t about any of this. Keep reading.
I’m Not a Doctor, I Just Play One
Forgive me, it’s just some old-school humor. No, my college degree is in English, not Psychology. But my years of experience leading support groups and teaching classes for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) have given me extra insight into understanding the effects of trauma, grief, loss, as well as reflection on joyful or happier times gone by. Any time we take a walk through our memories, we never know what emotions we might stir up. I found my NAMI experience to be surprisingly helpful in working with people as they write their memoirs; an unexpected bonus, of sorts.
My formula is not about grammar and syntax, or dialogue and scene creation. It is a guide for writing while exercising self-care and self-kindness. It’s P.O.W.E.R.
Own your feelings.
Write when you feel like it.
Ease into the tough stuff.
Reflect as you remember.
You see, there is no writing instruction here. It’s strictly about protecting your psyche as you delve into memories that at times might sting. Let me discuss each point of P.O.W.E.R.
P: Pace yourself
Let me congratulate you on deciding to write a book, be it a memoir or another genre. It takes courage to start a project this expansive. And it will take courage to finish it. Many first-time writers settle on a self-imposed deadline for their book; they set a date, usually completely arbitrary, by which they want their book published. Then the pressure’s on! They must produce a certain number of words each day to keep up with the schedule. Author Stephen King notoriously recommends writing 2,000 words each day, for a total of 180,000 words in three months. Folks, that’s Stephen King’s output, not mine or anyone else I know! Plus—spoiler alert—don’t write a 180,000-word anything as a first-time author, especially a memoir. Creating an outline for your book is an excellent idea and I highly recommend it. And if you are a very disciplined person, you can come up a timeline that corresponds to the sections of that outline, which can result in a projected date range to wrap up the writing and move into the next phase. But, first and foremost, the process of writing a book should be fun, or at least as much fun as you can garner from it. Self-imposed deadlines are a great way to rob yourself of whatever joy creating your book could offer.
O: Own your feelings
A memoir is not an academic treatise. If you hope to write your memoir without exploring your innermost thoughts and feelings, I suggest that you are not ready to write. Within your family, among your friends, maybe at work, you might gloss over pain or mistakes or abuse or anger. You might be so accustomed to sugar-coating your life’s experiences, you’ve forgotten how to be honest with others—and with yourself. I will ask my clients over and over, “But how did you feel?” If you have a story worth sharing—one that will offer a life lesson to your readers—you will have to dig deeply into your memories, your heart, your spirit, your soul. Grab onto what you find there and bring it into the light. The time for hiding is past.
W: Write when you feel like it
This point works in concert with the P, Pace yourself. If you inflict a self-imposed deadline on your project, you sacrifice giving yourself permission to create when and how it best suits you. There will be days when you write good stuff for hours—you’re in the zone, you’re firing on all cylinders, and other clichés. Then there will be days where you’re lucky to finish a page. You write a scene that consists of four paragraphs, read it, hate it, delete it. An hour later, you do it all over again. Writing is hard, but it shouldn’t feel like torture. If your writing is strained or forced, it shows and you know it. Give yourself a break.
E: Ease into the tough stuff
I know from working with new memoirists that writing a memoir can be emotionally exhausting. I have seen writers get anxious just thinking about the part of the memoir they’re going to be working on next. This is tough stuff. Books have been written about it, one of the best being Melanie Brooks’s Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma. I suggest two ways to come at this. One, just write the bare-bones version of a scene or incident. Report it like a news story. Write the facts and only the facts. During this first round, avoid emotional language to whatever degree the situation allows. Don’t reflect yet (the R in P.O.W.E.R.). Two, this method might work for you: make a few simple notes as a placeholder in the story, then leave it; return a day or two later and add a few more notes. Take baby steps. Do this until you have recounted the entire scene.
R: Reflect as you remember
A quality of memoir that sets it apart from every other genre is reflection. A memoir without reflection is like a murder mystery novel that ends without solving the mystery. By reflection I mean, don’t just recall a memory but analyze it. Merriam-Webster defines reflection as a thought, idea, or opinion formed or a remark made as a result of meditation. What emotion does the memory conjure? You know what happened (it’s your memory), but why did it happen? How did it happen? How did you feel at the time? How do you feel now? If your feelings or impressions changed over time, why did they? How does the scene play into setting up what else is coming in the book? Reflection in the now helps you put your past in perspective. Here’s where you figure out how what happened shaped you into who you are now for the purpose of this memoir.
Exercise P.O.W.E.R. as a Writer
Writing a book is not for the faint of heart. There are so many moving parts: theme, structure, grammar, supporting your argument, adding creative elements, what to put in, what to leave out. . . it can be the challenge of a lifetime. For my website’s blog, I have written several articles to help improve your writing:
But P.O.W.E.R. is about you, as a person, tackling a big job. Don’t let the writing dominate you. Don’t let it drag you into your past and leave you there. This is your book and you are in control now—of the people, of the words, of the scenes. You decide who enters, what they do, and when they leave. They can’t stay longer than you want them to. They can’t say anything you don’t want them to say. Exercise your P.O.W.E.R.
In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.