Don't Get Mired Down in Your Memoir
Updated: Dec 29, 2020
I want to begin this post with a heartfelt congratulations to anyone who is not a writer by training or profession but who is attempting to write a book—any kind of book. Writing is hard. That’s not an original thought; it is a well-known fact that writing is a difficult process, even for those who have an education that focused on writing or who have written throughout their career. Simply being comfortable with good grammar and having excelled in school with book reports and the infamous five-paragraph essay are just the most basic building blocks for creating book-length prose.
Fortunately, I had a knack for stringing together interesting sentences and compelling paragraphs at a relatively young age. Math and science? Meh. My university majors of Mass Communications and English were the only two tracks that made any sense to me, at least at that time.
But for the last three months or so, I have been tasked with ghostwriting a memoir for a man with whom I have nothing in common; a middle-aged man of color, a retired Army veteran with twenty-one years of service, three deployments to Iraq, a traumatic brain injury and severe PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I cannot personally relate to any aspect of who he is or what he’s been through. But I’m determined to do his service and sacrifice justice, tell his story with empathy, and let his experiences produce a survival guide for others in similar circumstances. That is my promise to him and to myself.
I have a habit of starting my blog posts with a personal story that in my mind is connected to the true topic of the post. I’m doing it here again. I am struggling with this ghostwriting in a way I’m unfamiliar with. I spend an hour at a time staring at pages of notes I’ve transcribed from this man’s audio recordings, trying to make sense of his war experiences, timelines, injuries, and challenges in retirement so I can organize them in a way that will make an inspiring read.
Recently, I asked a social media memoir-writing group why it has taken some of them years to write their memoirs. I will add, the way in which I worded the question put some of them on the defensive, because they felt I was implying that a memoir is something they should be able to crank out in a few months. Even though it was a misreading of my intent, I apologized. But I do believe that if all aspects of the writing process are perfectly in place, they could produce a good first draft in a matter of months, not years. In other words, in a perfect world, they could. But few of them are writing in a perfect world.
My post garnered about eighty original comments plus comments about comments. From these, I identified four issues at play for those who say they have been writing their memoirs for anywhere from two to ten years. These are the recurring obstacles:
The writers are creating book-length prose for the first time and have no formal training or career experience with extensive writing projects, so they are learning how to write as they go. And the struggle is taking time.
The memoir is dealing with traumatic events in their lives, such as disease, abuse (physical and sexual), addiction, suicide attempts, and mental illness, causing the writer to unpack this baggage slowly and painfully.
Other aspects of life are interfering with their writing: full-time jobs, children, school, or family issues such as caring for elderly parents.
They have no support or are facing active resistance (including threats) from ex-partners, spouses, family members, or others who might appear in the memoir.
The other issue that emerged is that some of them are frustrated and unhappy about how long it’s taking to finish, while others don’t care and have an “it takes as long as it takes” attitude. I’m trying to formulate a process that will help the ones who really want to get their memoirs finished, either because they just want to be done with it or because, more importantly I think, they have a story to tell that they know will be helpful to others in similar situations. They desire to “do good” for others with their memoirs. I want to produce a formula that will guide those who are already writing as well as those who are still thinking about it.
Looking at the list of challenges for these folks, I plan to write a series of blog articles that will address each one, with the hope of helping writers make progress and get off the fence about starting their personal stories. My agenda looks like this:
Resources to provide training and guidance with writing skills. I can’t teach talent, but a collection of books, websites, and online courses to improve your writing are achievable tasks.
Determining if you are ready to write your memoir. This might sound contrary to helping someone produce a memoir, but I feel strongly that the writer must be able to determine if they are truly ready to write about trauma. Or if it’s just too soon.
Learning to manage your time to make writing a habit in your life. Many authors have documented their techniques for making the writing process part of their daily routine. I’ll share them.
Dealing with the ramifications of resistance to your writing. I cannot fix personal problems and I will not disregard your fears, but I’ll collect some personal and basic legal advice that might give you comfort.
Like many of you, I will write these blog articles as I can after my work and personal obligations are complete. Let’s see how I do.