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Guest Blog: Write Now Coach, Rochelle Melander

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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

 

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  • tournesol - Helpful tips
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    I shall read this fascinating article more carefully later when I have more time. Skimming it, I noticed many useful tips for writing (try writing as a list etc.). If I had to write my memoir in six words (and what a good exercise for all of us!) it would be: Loved him, lost him, found better.

  • Patiana

    Thank you Rochelle for such sound advice on writing a memoir. I can relate to your description of re-experiencing trauma when writing about it, and the body and mind's natural resistance to doing so.
    I also share your view that writing can be cathartic and healing. sometimes when I begin a project, inspiration follows work (not the inverse, as many believe.) Words, sentences and remembrances seem to come to me as gifts, when I apply myself to the task. But as you so astutely pointed out, actually making the time to devote oneself to writing seems to be the hardest thing. Thanks for your suggestion about the deadline. You didn't give us the title of your completed memoir. I will look for it.
    Thanks Again!

    Patiana

  • AnneMorgan
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    I like the idea of treating myself as an athlete in training and the differnt ways one can write eg as shopping list etc I can see how this might assist the writing process laterally.
    I fell helped by your honest and open comments of you own process.
    Thanks
    Anne

  • djuna - Athlete in training
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    I like this image of an athlete in training too. It conveys a powerful sense of mission - something we writers must learn to generate for ourselves because there are usually no fans other than perhaps a small collection of fellow-writers (if we are fortunate) cheering us on to the finish line.

    In addition to everything else -- we have to be our own cheering section too!

    dj

  • djuna - Writers Clinic in November
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    For one week, at the end of November, Rochelle will be participating in a Writers Clinic on the TW forum. So gather your challenges & questions for Rochelle and stay tuned for my updates via the site newsletter.

    dj

  • AnneMorgan
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    Rochelle, you ask 'what has helped you to write about difficult events in your life?'It set me thinking and there are three stories that i have written which relate to that and which have helped to somehow get it out from inside or something like that.One is on the web site 'Her father'and was in response to my duaghter saying that she found a book of poems on her fathers desk after he died.Writing about it,for my daughter was also for myself, it is part fiction and based on fact.His death affected me a great deal and it was a way of connecting with him and our past.The other was one about my first husbands funeral and a subsequent problem with his will which was lost/stolen or strayed.The third was an event that affected me deeply when a woman who was in a staff group that i work with was murdered by her husband.I called it Ezekiel it is on the web site but i am reworking it.
    I think they helped to work through the feelings i had about the people and the situations.I wanted them ...

  • tournesol - Difficult events
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    Anne,
    I found the above fascinating. I also wanted to tell you that, thanks to you, I bought a copy of Simone de Beauvoir: 'La Femme Rompue'. Now I just have to find time to read it!
    I also thought Rochelle's tip about 'just start writing' rang a bell - I usually force myself to start at 8 pm each evening, saying I'll only spend 20 - 30 minutes at my laptop - then find it's 10 pm and I'm still gripped by which section of text to work on next.
    Still got 15 more minutes of 'play time'! (It's 7.45 here on the south coast of England.)

  • AnneMorgan
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    Glad that you were spurred on to get the Simone de Beauvoir, it is interesting how these little conversations motivate one.Meant to reply sooner but couldnt find my French dictionary for the word 'rompue'.Now i have forgotten what it meant but i realise that i dont know that book.
    I have been reading a book about Fanon[sort of post fanonian writers] and it is very clear how translation can make a more than subtle difference to meaning .The Dammned de la Terre doesnt really mean the Wretched of the earth does it? I think there is a subtltey which in a European translators mind alters it's specific meaning.I hope you dont take offence as a translator as i think that it must be really difficul and an art.
    I like your writing times i am afraid i am not so regular but i do think that it would be a good idea.My life has been a little chaotic recently and i have been having difficulty in creating space. still trying!
    Anne

  • yacht
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    Re: November Writing Clinic: Chat with Write Now Coach, Rochelle Melander

    I enjoyed Rochelle's article but am struggling in 2 areas: Recalling the specifics of some events 50 years ago and developing the characters from that time period to make my memoir more accurate and interesting to the reader.
    For example, I met my step mother to be when I was about 12, and although I can see her in my minds eye, I cannot recall her in any specific scene from that time period, nor can I describe her in any more interesting detail than age about 30, blond and blue eyed, , nice figure and physically fit...which to me is quite bland and does not make her stand out as secondary character in my story. So now I have a mental block as to how to proceed.

    Any suggestions,

    Bill
    The more you learn the more you find you have to learn.

  • AnneMorgan
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    Hallo Yacht,It is difficult to recall things from so long ago accurately and anyway what is accurate?I think that episodes that are very emotional may be the ones we sometimes assign to the dustbin[of our memory]I noticed recently, when i tried one of Dara's excercises from her book, that something fresh arose about my relationship with my mother.I have done lots of therapy over many years but this way of looking at it was somehow different and captured a feeling that i had long forgotten.It was an excercise in which you mind map places in your childhood and then associate to memories of the place and also activities of childhood and do the same.It is fascinating how the forgotten comes to light.Have a go at it you may be surprised. I was becuase i was not expecting such a thing to emerge .It actually left me feeling very sad for days.
    Anne

  • yacht
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    Thanks for the constructive feedback Ann . I'll give the mind map a try.
    Refresh me if you would on the title of the book you mentioned.
    Thanks again.
    Bill

  • AnneMorgan
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    The book is Dara's 'Great Space of Desire;writing for Personal Evolution" the mind map i refer to is Worksheet 1,'Creation Myths' Have a go it is fun.cant give a page number as i dont seem to find page numbers on Kindle.
    Anne

  • tournesol - Worksheet 1: Creation Myths
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    I have found 'Worksheet 1: Creation Myths' in Dara' "Great Space of Desire" - yes, it does look fun; I'll have a closer look later.
    I meant to say before that "La Femme Rompue - The Broken Woman" (Simone de Beauvoir) is, I think, about a woman broken by the patriarchal society she lived in. But I haven't had time to start it yet.
    Yes, these exchanges definitely are very stimulating!

  • tournesol - P.S.
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    I must have a further think about "The Wretched of the Earth"... I think that's the title on amazon but you are right about there often being a subtle difference between the English and French translations.

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