Guest Blog: Write Now Coach, Rochelle Melander
Tackle Your Memoir, Save your Sanity By Rochelle Melander
In August 2007, while choosing between several writing projects, I asked myself: if you could only write one more book in your life, what would it be? The answer came swiftly, from deep in my gut: my memoir.
In 2002, I began collecting notes for a story that revolved around two distinct periods in my life: my experience as the pastor of a conflicted two-congregation parish in the mountains of western Pennsylvania and my subsequent battle with anxiety connected to my professional life as a minister. I reviewed my journals from that time. I wrote scenes. But I struggled to organize the story in a way that would be readable to my audience. By 2007, I had a three-ring-binder over flowing with ideas and a folder on my computer filled with failed beginnings. How would I finish this book I’d struggled to write for so long?
I did what had worked for previous projects: I gave myself a deadline. I signed up for a writing conference in October, where I hoped to get feedback on the book from editors and agents. I set up a writing schedule that would help me meet my deadline, giving myself time to both structure and write the book. And then I wrote. Every day, no matter what, I got up before the kids and worked on the memoir.
It wasn’t an easy project. Writing about past difficult experiences brought up long-buried hurts. Sometimes in the middle of the day, I’d feel angry, sad, or anxious for no apparent reason—until I remembered that I’d written about a challenging event that morning. I’ve since learned that this is a pretty common experience for memoir writers. Because our body does not know the difference between a real and a remembered event, when we write about trauma, our body experiences it all over again. But here’s the thing: according to research by James Pennebaker and others, people who write about traumatic experiences may feel crappy right away, but they generally experience an increase in health and well being after a few days have passed.
I finished my book right on time but decided not to show it to any editors or agents at the conference. It was too soon. Still, writing the book gave me a priceless gift: it helped me heal deep wounds. I gained wisdom from taking out my past experiences and examining them, searching for the hidden gem—much like I imagine a jeweler rescues the gem from the rough gemstone.
No doubt, you also have gems hidden in the experiences of your life. If you’ve yearned to examine and transform your life through memoir writing, here are five tips to get you started:
1. Choose the project that you are passionate about writing. Ask yourself, “What is the one project I need to write before I die?” If you do not come up with an answer right away, do not worry. Keep asking the question. The answer will surface.
2. Set a deadline. I’m a big fan of National Novel Writing Month, because it gives writers an external deadline. But you can create your own deadline by signing up for a conference (like I did), making a pact with a friend or colleague, or finding a contest with a deadline that you can submit a portion of your work to.
3. Give up your excuses. I’m a mom; I know about excuses. When I ask my kids to walk the dogs or clean their room, they whine: I’m too tired, I have homework, it’s raining, I need a snack. No doubt you have similar excuses for not writing: I don’t have time, I’m sick, I’m not ready. Dump the excuses. You are the only person who can write this story. If you don’t put it on paper, your lessons will be lost. Accept that it will never be the perfect time and write anyway.
4. Embrace good enough. When I finally wrote my memoir, I had to give up the idea of a perfect book structure and embrace good enough. When it comes to writing your story, don’t worry about writing a great book. Write a bunch of good-enough scenes. You can always go back and fix them later.
5. Practice extravagant self-care. Winston Churchill said, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” In order to thrive while writing about difficult experiences, writers need to lavish themselves with kindness. Start by practicing the basics: get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise. Then surround yourself with a protective bubble: create a safe writing environment, let go of any toxic connections, and don’t read or watch much news media. Finally, add in any extras that you find helpful—massages and other body work, connecting with close friends, afternoon naps, art therapy, and food treats. Think of yourself as a pro athlete in mid-season—only you’re writing instead of swimming or tossing footballs—and treat yourself accordingly.
Whew! Are you ready to get writing? Use these three prompts as starting points for writing about your life:
*Write it short. At the site FlashMemoirs (Flashmemoirs.com), writers are challenged to write a very short personal story with a twist at the end. Write about a difficult event in your life using less than 100 words.
*Write it shorter. According to legend, Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a story in six words. He wrote: For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn. SMITH magazine issued a similar challenge to its readers: write a six-word memoir. Now it’s your turn: write your memoir in six words.
*Write it as a . . . ? Sometimes the story we need to tell does not emerge in the traditional memoir style. It’s helped me to try telling the story in unusual ways. When you can’t get a story told, tell it as a: list, newspaper announcement, protest document, lesson plan, how-to article, or field guide.
Your turn: What has helped you write about difficult events in your life?
Rochelle Melander is an author, speaker, and certified professional coach. She is the author of ten books, including the National Novel Writing Month guide—Write-A-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days (and Live to Tell About It) Rochelle teaches professionals how to write good books fast, use writing to transform their lives, navigate the publishing world, and get published! In addition, she is the founder of Dream Keepers, a writing workshop to help risk tweens and teens in Milwaukee write about their lives. For more tips and a complementary download of the first two chapters of Write-A-Thon, visit her online at www.writenowcoach.com