Don’t Write to Heal and Other Truths about Writing from Affliction

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Dear writers, don’t we know already that we are to write into our darkest moments? My writing students have heard me say this 1000 ways: Enter the forest, dive into the wreck, face your toothy, hot-breathed dragons, open the closet, hold hands with your enemies, etc. We may remain silent in the midst of them, but at some point we must write. We must steward the afflictions God has granted us. Patricia Hampl reminds us why: “We do not, after all, simply have experience; we are entrusted with it. We must do something—make something—with it. A story, we sense, is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing.” Dan Allender, in “Forgetting to Remember: How We Run From Our Stories,” tells us what happens when we ignore the hard events in our lives: “Forgetting is a wager we all make on a daily basis and it exacts a terrible price. The price of forgetting is a life of repetition, an insincere way of relating, a loss of self.”

How then do we begin to write from within our afflictions? And how might the practice and the disciplines of writing offer a means of shaping our suffering into meaning for both writer and reader? Forgive the brevity and oversimplification, but here’s what NOT to do and why:

1. Don’t write to heal. Really. Our therapeutic culture urges us to write into our pain as a means of self-healing. Newsweek’s article, “Our Era of Dirty Laundry: Do Tell-All Memoirs Really Heal?” rightly questions this cultural assumption. One friend assumed I wrote my most recent book, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom from Hate and Hurt primarily as a means of self-healing. Not so. Writing into our pain can be hellish at times. Know that returning to re-live an experience with language and full consciousness is sometimes worse than the original event. Recognize that writing into affliction brings its own affliction. And even more importantly, recognize that when we are predisposed to heal ourselves, we will not be fully honest in the writing. Healing will likely and eventually come, but only as we engage with the hardest truths.

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2. Don’t write to redeem, to turn inexplicable pain into sense and salvation. We want to bring beauty from ashes. We want to make suffering redemptive to prove its worth. But this is God’s work, not ours. Our first responsibility is to be true to what was, to witness honestly to what happened. Our job is not to bring beauty out of suffering but to bring understanding out of suffering. Poet Alan Shapiro argues that “…the job of art is to generate beauty out of suffering, but in such a way that doesn’t prettify or falsify the suffering.”

smiling old woman with cigarette

3. Don’t write for yourself alone. This is not just about you. You are working to translate suffering to the shared page. Buechner reminds us of the universality we should be striving for: “…all our stories are in the end one story, one vast story about being human, being together, being here. Does the story point beyond itself? Does it mean something? What is the truth of this interminable, sprawling story we all of us share? Either life is holy with meaning, or life doesn’t mean a damn thing.” One of the greatest compliments I have heard from the book and the telling of my own story is, “You told my story.” Writing begins in the self but should consciously move us beyond ourselves, to place our story into the larger stories around us, and ultimately, into the grand story that God is writing. The most powerful work comes from a “self that renders the world,” as Hampl has said—not just the self that renders the self.

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Life is holy with meaning. Pain is holy with meaning. Don’t miss it. I pray for you the strength and faith and wisdom to begin to enter those hard places and to translate your afflictions onto the pages we share—for the good of All.

How have you been able to translate your suffering into your writing?

Frozen in Time: Writing and Healing

Photo/LeahSchultzHealing … is change from a singular self, frozen in time by a moment of unspeakable experience, to a more fluid, more narratively able, more socially integrated self. (Writing and Healing, Charles Anderson & Marian M. MacCurdy)

These words challenged my heart. Am I “frozen in time”?

The writing process helps me work through the painful trauma of my “unspeakable” experiences. It enables me to view my story from a more objective viewpoint, melting my frozen numbness, offering me hope beyond the icy boundaries of emotional bondage.

Helpful process. When I write about traumatic events, I often sense fear closing in on me like the twisted, frozen branches of a tree—wrapping its bone-chilling claws around me, choking the inspiration right out of me.

When I work on certain writing projects—like my book proposals—I freeze. I can’t control my thoughts, and chaos emerges, stealing my creative energy and organizational skills.

I try to forget some things for fear of stirring up painful memories, but they resurface when I least expect them. Often something unrelated triggers a memory—like a smell, a song, a picture, a person, or a place. Then, panic sets in again. And I freeze from the memory, unable to cope, until I regain control of my thoughts and reactions.

Healing narratives. Sometimes I‘m not sure how to begin composing my healing narratives. But I know the writing process will bring restoration. So I just start writing, even if I don’t know where the process will take me.

Do you fear writing certain projects? Are the stories too painful to consider? Do you fear the memories will trigger hidden emotional scars? Can we escape being “frozen in time”? Yes!

Hopeful vision. I long to write my stories without fear of a panic attack rooted in painful memories. But sometimes the writing process seems impossible. Luke 1:37 promises, “… nothing is impossible with God” (NLT).

I’ve observed the power of writing and healing as a writing instructor. Many students seem compelled, like I am, to write their own gut-wrenching narratives. And many of those writers come out of their secret hiding places, free from their emotional bondage. They experience change and healing—“to a more fluid, more narratively able, more socially integrated self.” And they begin to live new stories, delivered from their “frozen in time” memories.

As I write my healing narratives, I pray that I have the faith and courage to tell the stories that matter most and encourage others to experience the power of writing and healing.

What stories have you written that have brought healing to you and others?

Photo/LeahSchultz

Tell Your Story

Tell Your Story

Each year thousands of folks descend on the tiny town of Jonesborough, Tennessee, for the National Storytelling Festival. Tucked in these southern Appalachian hills, the International Storytelling Center hosts storytellers and attendees from throughout the country for exciting performances.

What New Orleans is to jazz… Jonesborough is to storytelling.
 Los Angeles Times

Watching this unfold for many years now, I’m seeing how the crowds gather, yes, for the exceptional story-telling, but I believe for more than that. More as in the exponential healing power that story holds.

There’s just something about story that somehow makes our lives better, easier to live.

As writers, we understand this, how the greatest stories of all time evolve from a raging internal conflict. As writers, we can also use this. I don’t mean “use” as in “cheapen,” I mean “use” as in put to good use, aligning with God’s purpose.

We live in a self-aware generation that craves authenticity and real connections with writers who are willing to share raw and real, willing to share the story of overcoming, yes, but also the backstory. Today’s generation wants real hope, seeded in Truth, from folks who have been there.

We can use our stories to make a difference.

I’m passionate about this, believing we’re part of a selfishly divine design. Our stories hold the potential to unlock hardened {or even hopeless} hearts, our personal experiences serving as a point of reference for others in similar places.

Consider the Israelites—an intimidating Jordan River standing between them and God’s future, the imposing waters (seemingly) blocking God’s promise. Remember how God successfully led Joshua and his people through those waters? We know this story because God called them to establish a memorial. He had them return to the trouble-spot {that very place they thought they would never endure} to gather twelve stones to mark the occasion of His divine deliverance. These twelve stones served as an invitation for a future generation {including us}.

“In the future, when you are asked, ‘what does this mean?’ God said, “tell them the story (Joshua 4).”

He meant the whole story. The storyteller was required to be careful and exact. To share the intricate details and not change one single word. The Israelites story of deliverance began in back-breaking bondage as slaves to the Egyptians. The oppression was as much a part of their story as the victory, the pain as important as the healing, and God wanted their children, and their children’s children, and all future generations to know that.

Will we do this, ground our legacies through the power of authentic story?

Oh, that our epitaph would read what was said of King David. “David served God’s purpose in his own generation, then he died (Acts 13:36 ESV).” Yes, God has a purpose. And I pray that by the time I arrive at my grave I’ve lived out mine, that you will have lived out yours, and the same can be written about us.

Everyone has a story. It’s time to tell yours.

Deeper Still: Do you ever feel stuck in the “in-between”? This stalled out place somewhere between the joy of using your story to make a difference and the daily to-do’s of parenting, a busy career, or even a fear of failure? What is one step you can take today to move you closer to using your story?

(Photo: Shanyn Silinski)

Failure to Freedom

DSC_0486Last year I flew with my co-writer and friend, Dena Dyer, to Indiana for a television interview. The Harvest Show interviewed us about our newly released book Wounded Women of the Bible. This was my first television interview and I had no idea what to expect. The night before, Dena and I walked through thoughts and questions, so I felt ready and prepared.

Our host helped us feel comfortable in every way. Once I stepped onto the platform, beneath the lights and cameras, I sank like a marshmallow in the heat of the sun. Someone should have blindfolded me or thrown a towel over the monitors.  I didn’t like my appearance on camera and fidgeted too much. I had too many pillows behind my back and stuck out like a sore thumb. Dena sat proper and polished while I sat like a huge lump on the couch. I smacked my lips and swallowed hard. I even needed a trip to the bathroom.

Dena’s eyes and beautiful smile said, “Stop fidgeting.” Confession: My thoughts not hers. I looked around for a brown paper bag, feeling I might hyperventilate, but then came the questions. I knew these stories. I spent twelve months writing about these particular wounded women in the Bible. I could share in-depth thoughts and notes on each one. I was ready.

The host said, “Tell me about Ichabod.”  Ichabod who? I completely froze. Blank. Nothing. Empty. I grasped at something to say. I couldn’t gather my thoughts or remember that Eli was Ichabod’s father-in-law. As if an eternity, a long pause of silence fell. I had no idea what came out of my mouth after that moment. Before long it was over and I drooped off the stage. Needless to say, I wasn’t pleased with my first television interview, but so grateful to have had the experience.

After Dena left the hotel to fly home, something hit me – I felt despair, inadequacy, and insufficiency. I would be lying if I said tears weren’t involved in that moment of self-pity. While packing, I turned the television on and flipped through the channels to find something to cheer my mood. I stopped on a well-known female pastor. The first words out of her mouth were, “Listen! God uses people all the time who have no idea what they’re doing!”

My heart leaped and the words slapped me in the face – starting with “Listen!” Leave it to God to reach through our self-pity and grab hold of our collars. I was reminded that life is full of experiences and God uses “the least of these.” If I hadn’t heard those words that day, I may have carried my feelings of despair (among others) home, placed them on a shelf, and allowed them to identify my character and abilities. God recognized my “stinkin’ thinkin’” (as my friend says) and burst forward with one bold statement: “He uses people all the time who have no idea what they’re doing.”

Sometimes we have those frozen cloud crowding moments when our mind appears broken. God understands and desires to free us of anything the enemy may hold over our heads. All we have to do is be willing to step into Him and God will teach, grow, and strengthen us, even when we feel like we have no idea what we’re doing. God takes our offerings and uses them for His glory.

One other word of affirmation from God came when my husband, who is one of two men on Sheila Walsh’s launch team for her new book, shared a story she wrote. In her book, Sheila shares a story of one particular television interview. My mouth dropped as it mirrored mine! (But you’ll have to wait and read the story when her book comes out). As if what God shared through the television wasn’t enough, He said, “You see, Tina, even the big girls start out in similar places.”

Let me encourage you to never give up, push through those feelings of failure, and move forward with God at your side. God turns our failures into faith walks when we trust He can use every part of what we offer Him. May this year be the beginning of great things, especially allowing God to free you, and you freeing yourself, from any past failures.

A new dawn awaits.

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Reflections from a Songbird

Photo/KarenJordan

When you have seen one ant, one bird, one tree, you have not seen them all. (E. O. Wilson) 

“Silly bird! Why are you pecking on the window?”

“She’s defending her territory,” my husband Dan surmised.

We watched in amazement as the female cardinal, fooled by her own image, continued to swoop down—over and over again—attacking her reflection in the window.

Dan snickered. “I know you’ll find a story here.” Then, he closed his eyes and dozed off in front of the TV.

I turned my attention back to my laptop and whined, “I’ve got to get this blog post written.”

Dan mumbled from his recliner, “Why don’t you give yourself a break?”

I agreed under my breath. “I AM taking a break! I’m sitting here with you, watching a movie.”

I needed rest. But I stared at my never-ending “to do” list. I felt the pressure of some impending writing deadlines and speaking commitments, along with our holiday plans. The weight of my schedule and expectations pushed me beyond my comfort zone.

Dan interrupted my thoughts. “I’m just saying, you’ve had a lot on your plate lately.”

“Thanks for the reminder,” I grumbled. I took a deep breath, trying to focus on my project and forget about my failures and limitations.

My head ached. My heart fluttered. I felt short of breath. Oh, no—not another panic attack! Red flag!

I closed my eyes. Focus on breathing. Inhale. Exhale. REST. Remember, “ … The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything …” (Phil. 4:5-6 NIV).

How do I NOT be anxious? “ … in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (6-7).

Like the songbird, I continued to attack my own image, focusing on my worries instead of the truth revealed in the mirror of God’s Word.

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like (Jms 1:23 NIV).

I took another deep breath and exhaled. “That’s enough!”

“What … what did I do?” Dan muttered in his sleep.

Realizing that Dan thought I was fussing at him, I sighed. “I’m just talking to that crazy bird.”

I turned again to face the songbird, still flapping and responding to her reflection. “Silly bird!”

What experiences have you had in beating yourself up lately?

Photo/KarenJordan
YouTube/KarenJordan

The Loss of Words

Fountain pen over Script1 John: 1-5. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

I have to confess, I’m fascinated by words. How we use them. How we use them against each other. Pro-life. Pro-abortion. Pro-choice. Each of these words casts the same issue in a totally different light.

I also have great wonder about how God chose to communicate with us, which I believe happens in two ways–through the written word and through creation. Whether or not you believe that is a whole other discussion.

When I write a book, I choose words carefully. I imagine God being the same way. Not wasting anything. The words, phrases, paragraphs, and chapters of the Bible have multiple layers of meaning. Enough layers to satisfy a reader for longer than one human lifetime.

This Christmas, I find myself pondering 1John and how Jesus Christ was referred to as the Word. I think of how words bring enlightenment. Then I think about how the use of our words is changing.

As an author, I’ve been concerned about the loss of words, even though there seems to be more words than ever before. Texts. FB posts. Blog posts. The number of books that are now available through publishing (in all formats) is greater than at any time in history.

But are they meaningful words? Do they have the same impact as the Bible passage above?

We don’t write anymore. Not in the form of handwritten notes, anyway. And what we do write is abbreviated with little context. I wonder what our children will show their grandchildren. Once e-mail accounts are deleted, those messages are lost. Do you print out e-mails, texts, etc., and archive them?

I know I don’t.

So I wonder, a lot, about the meaning and context of our words and what will be lost in this technological age. Handwritten love letters. Diaries. Journals. I doubt even this blog post will survive me.

Often, we don’t think about the impact of a loved one, a job, or an event until it is gone. I’m amazed how people strive to communicate even when they can’t physically speak. Sign language. Speaking with the use of computers.

What if you couldn’t speak anymore? What if there never had been the Bible? How do you think God would have communicated with creation about Himself?

Glenn Beck is a polarizing character. I totally get that. I’m not a fan of everything he says but this is a powerful message to ponder. It’s a written monologue delivered on large postcards because, for a period of time, Glenn couldn’t speak and it caused him to think of what he had spoken in the past. If you want to avoid his political message, you can stop viewing the video after about 3 minutes.

But consider the loss of words and what you can do to maintain an actual pen-to-paper history. Remember this Christmas the impact of how God chose to communicate with us–with words.

John 3:16. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Every day, I think about losing our written words. Do you?

Have a Merry Christmas.

Writing Down Our Faith Stories

Photo/TaraRossIn the Psalms, David expresses this divine purpose for writing our faith stories.

Write down for the coming generation what the LORD has done. So that people not yet born will praise him. (Ps. 102:18 GNT)

What has the Lord done for you? Do you have stories about God’s intervention?

God expressed His love to humanity with the gift of His Son, Jesus.

This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. (John 3:16 MSG)

Have you ever considered how much God loves you? I never really did, until the birth of my only son, Adam. I cannot fathom the love that it takes to sacrifice your only son, so that others might live. I’m sure many parents of soldiers come close to knowing how that feels, and I love to read their inspiring stories.

Someone once challenged me to ask God to show me how much He loved me. I believe God can speak to us. He speaks to me every day—through His Word, prayer, worship, people, and His beautiful creation. But I had never asked God how much He loved me.

So, I shut my eyes in prayer and asked, Lord, how much do you love me?

The answer I received still seems too intimate to share, for fear of being misunderstood and judged. I did not hear an audible voice. I just caught a little glimpse of Heaven, where God promises,

He will wipe every tear from (my) eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things (would be) gone forever. (Rev. 21:4 NLT)

When I faced the death of both of my parents, this vision of heaven brought comfort to my grieving heart.

I challenge you to ask the Lord that same question, Lord, how much do you love me?

Then, listen quietly. And be sure to write down your story.

God told His Story to the world when He sent His Son—the Word of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14 NIV)

Jesus told His stories (or parables) to teach us “the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 13:6).

Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. (Luke 18:1 MSG)

Is there a biblical mandate for sharing our stories, especially our faith events?

In Acts 1:8, we read this charge from Christ to His followers,

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (NLT)

What stories are you telling about your life? Or rather … what stories are you not telling? What about your faith stories? Who can write them, but you?

I hope you will consider writing down some of your faith stories as you celebrate Christmas this year.

What faith stories have you written down? I hope you’ll share one of your stories in the comment space below.


YouTube/twofiress (“I Love to Tell the Story” – Alan Jackson)

Photo/TaraRoss 

The Trick to Becoming an Author

Pavillion_d'Armide_by_A._Benois_05The other day, a colleague asked me if I thought the burgeoning popularity of memoir-style books of the sort I had published had to do with the fact that the people who read them wanted to write such books themselves.

Reflecting on what he asked, it occurs to me now that—the underlying argument being that my writing’s appeal had nothing to do with my writing itself but only the envy of my readers and that the underlying argument of my readers’ envy being that anyone could write as well as I could—I should have gotten offended. But I didn’t. (Thanks, surely, to the Holy Spirit, who tries to protect me, usually in vain, from bouts of narcissism that make me think I’m a great writer and cause me to take offense at any reminder that I’m not.)

I didn’t get offended, too, because I knew, as anyone who’s ever published a book of any sort does, that what he said was true. We know it from the people who show up in our doorways wanting publishing advice. We know it from acquaintances who know about our good luck as writers and come up to us in the grocery store, or sitting at the vet’s office, or walking to our cars after church, and want to tell us their latest book idea. We know it from the mail we get when our books come out. Fast on the heels of a fan email, if not within the fan email itself, comes a question about how to get the fan’s own work published.

Everyone these days has not just a story in them, as they used to say, but a published book—even though it’s rarely written or even begun. All it takes to write a book, the would-be writer hopes or believes, is an idea and the need to tell it. What happens between that and getting something published is a trick they plan to learn from established writers.

But there is no trick. Just the arduous and time-consuming work of writing and rewriting and sending stuff out and waiting and trying to believe there’s a chance that someone who makes a difference in the world of publishing likes it and finding out there mostly isn’t (or, if you really are lucky, that there might be a chance with some major changes to what you’ve written) and then writing and rewriting again. That’s the part no one wants to hear or even know about. That to be a writer is to write. Period.

They’re like Simon the Magician, that guy in the book of Acts who—though Luke makes clear that he’s a genuine believer—tries to buy from the apostles the trick of touching people and thereby filling them with the Holy Spirit.

“Just teach me the trick of getting published!” EveryWriter begs. Often, as Simon does, they even offer to pay for the trick.

But there is no trick.

Sermons on Simon’s story often go on about how wrong-headed Simon was, thinking to buy the Holy Spirit, and sometimes they posit that Simon wasn’t really a believer at all, even if Luke says he was. But such sermons miss the point, I think—whether it’s the gift of writing we’re talking about or of imparting the Holy Spirit. Being a servant of the word, or the Word, is not a magic trick. You have to get out there and do it.

Hard Work--George Herriman 1907-11-24That said, I remember having had the same response to other writers’ writing—not just to their memoirs but to their novels and even textbooks. I’ve thought to myself, if they can do it, why then so can I. And so began this article and that book. So began my current writing project, a novel–my first. So began, indeed, my entire career as a writer.

If others can do it, so can you, but don’t sit around hoping to discover some trick to make it happen effortlessly. If you want to write, if you want to inspire others, if you want to fill them with good news, with the very spirit of God, you’ll just have to get out there and do it.

Choosing Thanksgiving

Photo/KarenJordanAs the autumn leaves began to fall this year, I had to admit to myself that I didn’t feel very thankful. So, I asked God to change my viewpoint as I focused on this Thanksgiving season.

In the past, I struggled with similar emotions, like love, forgiveness, and hope.

Love. After 40-plus years of marriage, I know that love must be a choice in every relationship. Our emotions and feelings ebb and flow with time. But as we invite God to intervene, He helps us navigate through the seasons of life.

Forgiveness. How can we release our anger and bitterness when we can’t forget the offenses? Impossible! That kind of forgiveness requires a divine source. But the Bible encourages us to offer ourselves and others the same forgiveness that Christ provides for us. And as we choose to remember what He’s done for us, He enables us to forgive ourselves and others.

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13 NIV).

Hope. In the past, I’ve been guilt-ridden when shame covered me like a dark, heavy cloak. I lost hope and succumbed to despair and depression. But when I choose to seek God and embrace His Truth, I experience His hope and peace. Hebrews 10:23 says to embrace hope, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.”

Thanksgiving. Today, I choose to give thanks. Often holiday seasons bring painful memories and cloud my vision of God’s blessings. But as I confess my ingratitude and ask God to change my focus, He always offers His promises.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, notice four powerful strategies that can help us when our circumstances and emotions distract our focus on God’s blessings: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

  1. “Rejoice always …” (16). First, this passage reminds us to rejoice, even if that choice seems impossible. In Mark 10:27, we observe the disciples struggling with a seemingly impossible teaching. But “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God’” (NIV).This message is repeated in Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
  2. “… pray continually …” (17). The Bible also teaches us to pray all the time, in every situation. Philippians 4:5-6 reminds us, “The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
  3. “ … give thanks in all circumstances …” (18). Notice my emphasis of the words “with thanksgiving” in the previous passage. Again, the scripture tells us to give thanks in every situation.
  4. “ … for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (18). Why rejoice? Why pray? Why give thanks? This verse answers these questions for me. Philippians 4: 7 offers this promise, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Today, I choose to give thanks, even if my circumstances never change. And I plan to begin by focusing on my blessings.

YouTube/LoveOneAnother2011 (Laura Story “Blessings”)
Photo/KarenJordan

What strategies help you as you enter into this season of thanksgiving and celebration of God’s blessings?

Want to Write a Memoir? Read These Books . . .

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Now that I published my memoir, I’ve received a few inquiries about how I accomplished my goal.

Good question.

The genre of memoir is tricky. I worked on Sun Shine Down for four years and then spent another two years writing the book proposal, finding an agent, and landing a publisher.

Here are a few questions I get about writing memoir.

“I have a story to tell, but how do I get started?”

“What is your advice about writing?”

“Any words of wisdom regarding the publishing world?”

I am by no means an expert, but here is my best and most basic advice for those who want to write memoir (this goes for breaking into the publishing world as well because if your book isn’t at its best, you won’t break in): 1) Read a lot 2) Write a lot and 3) Find a class or a group of people to read and critique your work.

In this post, I’d like to tackle my first piece of advice: read a lot. Here are three books every budding memoirist must read.

Situation and the story

In “The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative“, Vivian Gornick explains the art of writing personal narrative by reviewing key elements like the persona (or narrator) of the writer, her writing voice, and the importance of knowing who she is at the point of writing. The book is broken up into four parts: Intro, Personal Essay, Memoir, and Conclusion. Gornick draws examples from famous books and essays, explaining the situation and story of each, thus causing the reader to pause not only to appreciate beautiful words, but also to break down and understand what makes a memoir or essay sing .

“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story,” Gornick writes. “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” (page 13)

My copy is covered in red notes and underlining. There is just so much good stuff in this book.

writing the memoir

If your not certain about the ins and outs of memoir, this book is for you. On the cover of Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington, it states the book is “A practical guide to the craft, the personal challenges, and the ethical dilemmas of writing your true stories.” My writing instructor at Story Studio Chicago, where I participated in an advanced memoir workshop for two years, uses this book with her beginners class. In my opinion, it is a book even the most seasoned writer can glean knowledge from. The table of contents includes chapters on finding form, dealing with the truth, writing about living people, and getting feedback on your work. It also has short writing exercises at the end of each chapter.

“Telling your truths — the difficult ones and the joyful ones and all the ones between — is a big part of what makes for good writing. It is also what brings you pleasure in the process of writing.” (page 74)

If you write memoir or want to write memoir, this book must be in your library.

Handling the truth

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart just came out this year and I picked it up a couple of weeks ago. This book is not so much about the ‘how to’ of memoir, but more about the value of the genre of memoir. It is broken up into four parts: Part I: Definitions, Preliminaries, and Cautions, Part II: Raw Material, Part III: Get Moving, and Part IV: Fake Not and Other Last Words.

“If you want to write memoir, you need to set caterwauling narcissism to the side. You need to soften your stance. You need to work through the explosives — anger, aggrandizement, injustice, misfortune, despair, fumes — towards mercy. Real memoirists, literary memoirists, don’t justify behaviors, decisions, moods. They don’t ladder themselves up — high, high, high — so as to look down upon the rest of us. Real memoirists open themselves to self-discovery and, in the process, make themselves vulnerable not just to the world but also to themselves.” (Page 8)

See … you need to buy this book.

Attempting to write and publish a memoir is an arduous task. Start by writing, sharing your work, and reading these three books.

“Penetrating the familiar is by no means a given. On the contrary, it is hard, hard work.” (page 9)

Right on, Vivian.

I would add that it is worth it, if you are up to the task.