Twenty years ago LeeAnn started documenting her very painful life. Her mother beat her every day of her childhood and into adulthood. The woman berated and demeaned LeeAnn without letup. Still LeeAnn kept her journal.
She organized binders of her recollections and other documents about her life chronologically. She crossfiled them by topic. But she couldn’t bring herself to write a manuscript about her life story. She got stuck.
Last year she was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer. She came to one of my six-week workshops on how to write one’s life story. Her diagnosis compelled her to get it down at last. LeeAnn was driven to complete it while she could, for fear that she would never have the chance again.
For most of us, fear keeps us from writing our autobiographies. It freezes us.
So it’s resolution time now, isn’t it? With the turn of every new year we generally reassess the things that we want to accomplish and haven’t yet. Let’s look at some of the things that stop people from writing their autobiographies. They are paper tigers.
Margot during a first session of my workshop wrote a gripping account of her birth during the bombing in the Netherlands in World War II. But she could not persist. Every session after that she came with excuses about why she couldn’t write in the intervening week. From comments she let slip during the class, I sensed that she couldn’t face recalling the rest of her life. You have to be ready, of course.
Like Margot, some of us shrink from reliving those horrible times, the times we failed, the times someone left us. But this is exactly our chance to purge the shame from those memories. We take a step back and see them from a higher point of view. Why would we miss this?
For instance, Alfie Adona, now a young mother, lived through a tragic childhood. Her father was poisoned and lived the rest of his 10 years as an invalid. Two years later her mother was the victim of a debilitating traffic accident. Alfie and her sister had to take charge of the family while they were in their young teens. They lost their house and car from lack of adult guidance.
Their family’s tragedy was covered amply in the local news. This did not mortify Alfie; in fact it emboldened her to tell her own story. You can see it on www.theSeludostory.com. She’s also working on a print manuscript to tell the tale.
If a similar obstacle or tragedy is keeping you from writing a memoir, I suggest you join a memoir writing class for guidance and support. Besides the instructor’s guidance, you can can find a buddy with whom you can share this experience of recollecting and recording. That other student is probably looking for you too.
Another reason people get stuck is for fear of offending the living. In one of our sessions, Theresa asked me how she could write about her mother who was still living without offending her. Despite her love for her parent, she felt her manuscript would have to record her mother’s character traits and certain incidents that would cause pain and perhaps alienate them from each other.
I told her to remove or temper the material that shethought would offend her mother if she intended to disseminate thisaccount while her mother was still alive. After all, what is more important to any of us than our relationships?
“When your mother passes away in the future, you can change your document if you still want to,” I said.
Another thing that immobilizes writers is the so-called writers block. All writers can suffer, not just memoirists.
There are a number of methods for facing this challenge. First of all we need to understand what exactly this impasse is. In my way of thinking, it stems from kind of perfectionism, an inner voice that is self-critical.
Some merely mechanical difficulties may make you feel insecure: such as how to structure of your document, uncertainty about grammar, insufficient research and so on.
My advice: if you can talk, you can write. Simply start writing even if you don’t know what the theme is or where you’re going with it. I call it The Gibberish Method. Put your pen on paper, time yourself for 20 minutes, and don’t stop writing your stream of consciousness. That is, anything that appears in your gray matter. Don’t judge and don’t edit.
From the chaos eventually a theme or a structure emerges. You will read it back and be amazed. Trust me.
My wish for you in 2012: your first draft of your life story.
(Full disclosure: LeeAnn is fine now!)