The Steps to Writing Your Life

Posted on February 22, 2011

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Make a commitment to be honest.  This is the most important step of all.  Take your defenses and put them somewhere for the time being (maybe in a trunk in the attic.)  If you aren’t writing authentically, and you are writing to heal, you won’t be able to heal.  If you are writing for posterity or for the world, your readers won’t know you.  They will only know some mythical you.  And the protected, mythical you isn’t nearly as interesting or of as much value to others as the real you.  

Assemble a team.  Unless you are writing privately to heal, you need a team.  Your team consists of one or more people you trust who will give you honest feedback.  You may love someone and they may love you, but if all he or she will say is, “Oh what a wonderful writer you are,” or “Oh you poor thing,” you are better off with someone else on your team.  If your team offends you or causes you to go into a self-protective reaction, they are doing their job.  It’s all part of the deal.  Also, tell your team you will be sending portions of what you have written to them or will read portions to them on a set schedule.  Then, follow the schedule.

 Know your message.  No matter what your life experiences are, your message is the glue that holds your memoir together.  Your life has a message just as a novel has a theme.  Don’t start writing without knowing what your message is. 

When you do start writing, don’t censor yourself (not yet.)  Every experience you have had has helped shape who you are now.  Therefore, rather than just telling the story, look for the good.  Look for the learning.  Look for the experience.  And tell it. 

Get rid of the notion that writing your life has to be linear or that you must start at birth.  Unless you were born in a manger or were raised by wolves, it’s not necessary to start with your mother’s labor and delivery or to describe your potty training.  Instead, you can do one of the following: 

  1. Write one self-contained episode about your life.  Then write another.  Then write another.  This is without regard to chronological order.  You can treat it like a series of short stories or vignettes, if that helps.  DON’T think about the big picture. Take one step. 
  2. Write about one episode only and include references to the past in that one episode.  Let’s face it, some lives have one huge, overriding event.  Give that event the respect it deserves, but know that your reactions to that event have probably been determined in large part by your past experiences in life, so you are going to weave those throughout.
  3. Choose a list of topics and write about each one.  That’s how we wrote our first book.  Our three lives have been dramatically different, so instead of trying to make anything uniform, we stepped outside ourselves and asked, “What topics are important to women over 50?”  As we wrote about each topic, without concentrating on our lives per se, our lives spun out across the pages.   

Remember: You control this universe (unlike taxes, other drivers, and the creative things kids decide to do with sharp objects.)  It’s your life, your memories, your decisions.  If something seems overwhelming, break it down into really small pieces.  I led a workshop once where, after writing one sentence, a woman started crying.  Clearly, writing that one sentence triggered a story in her that was ready to be told.  

Write your sentence.

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Posted in: memoir, writing