I’ve been talking with and coaching memoir writers—many of them are published now—for about a decade. Before I embark on a project with an author, I always ask this question: Why do you want to write this story?
I ask the question first of all because I’m a therapist. I spend my life wondering about people’s baseline beliefs and, therefore, their motivations for taking actions in their lives. But I also ask this question of writers because the answer guides what we will focus on. Will we be crafting a case for how to heal from abuse? Or perhaps we’ll be taking the reader on an outrageous adventure. The writer’s goal will impact the end result, of course.
Interestingly enough, however, there are only three answers (with variations) to the question of why someone wants to write his/her memoir that come up over and over again. They are:
- I need to get this story out of my body/off my chest.
- My story will help other people/change something.
- I am a writer.
I love these reasons because they resonate with my work as both a writing coach, and a therapist (not to mention as an author of my own memoir). Let’s take them one by one.
I need to get this story out of my body/off my chest:
This reason for writing is therapeutic in nature (and therefore, I can get behind it fully and completely). Events occur or we make choices in our lives that we need to make sense of somehow. We are meaning-making creatures, we humans, and so we mull over our lived experience until we find a way to sort out the whys and whats and hows. Making sense of some period of time in your life—whether it’s your childhood or the marathon you ran last week—is a very compelling drive. If you have this drive, my advice is to WRITE. Write in your journal and on your blog. Write a whole book or more if that’s what it takes. You deserve to make sense of your life and the pen is a mighty tool to that end.
My story will help other people/change something:
This second reason does not exclude the first (in fact, I would say that most often all three reasons are at play for a committed writer). Once you have some inkling of the meaning FOR YOU of what has occurred in your life, you’re likely to get the notion that maybe, just maybe, other people can relate to you. Maybe someone else is waffling around on Planet Earth wondering if the pain they feel from the abuse they suffered as a child can ever be relieved. Maybe someone else wonders if she’s strong enough to push through her own resistance and train for a marathon even though she’s never considered herself an athlete.
Our longing for connection with other human beings calls us to speak our truths and tell our stories TO OTHER PEOPLE as a means of creating belonging and helping others to do the same. If this second reason is one of your motivations, I say WRITE. Push through the voice in your head that says you’re not special enough to have anything important to say. Care gently for your reservations about reliving your trauma (do this VERY carefully, slowly, and with adequate support please), but do WRITE. The world does need your story. I need your story.
I am a writer:
Some who write their memoirs have “writer” woven into their identity. While some of us come to the keyboard with a drive to speak or tell what has happened to us, there are others among us who don’t care what we write as long as we can feel the keys under our finger tips, hear the tap tap tap or scratch scratch scratch and know we are creating tiny symbols on a screen or a page that SAY SOMETHING. For you, if this resonates, your personal life is material for the great love of your existence: WRITING. When something happens to you that makes you angry or sad, when something feels unfair, or when you witness an evil in the world, there is always a part of you composing the first sentence of your response to that experience—the words that will capture the moment, the thought, or the sensation. My wholehearted directive to you if you are in this category is that YOU MUST WRITE. You must write or you will wither. But, then, you already know this.
In short, if you have any sense that you want to/need to/think you might like to write about your life. There is good reason to open your laptop and go at it.
STORY is the most powerful force in the universe. My story about you impacts how I will interact with you (and vice versa, of course). And my story about myself impacts the way I walk about in the whole world. In memoir, we are working with our stories about ourselves as we live in relationship to our environment and the other people/creatures who populate that environment. We are pulling the events of the past into some kind of order that makes sense with a beginning, middle, and end. The “order” we strive for is so that the reader has a good experience, yes, but it’s also in service to our own growth and evolution.