I recently had the privilege of presenting at the Capital City Writers Association’s Write on the Red Cedar conference in Lansing. It was a delight. I had such a great time speaking on the topic of memoirs and personal essays that I thought I’d share some of the takeaways from my session here in a little series. Because you’ve always wondered what things I might know. Here are some of them.
WARNING: No matter who you are, or what your intentions were when you sat down to write, you will not be the same at the end of your memoir. You will be changed by the writing of your own story. And your story, in turn, will be changed as well.
Writing so deeply and personally about who you have been and what has happened to you changes your perspective on so many things. Perhaps the most impactful of these changes is how you view yourself after the awkward and enlightening experience of crafting the character of yourself in an honest way. This forces us to be (hopefully) more honest than we’re used to being with ourselves about ourselves.
When I was writing Swedish Lessons, for example, I originally sat down to write a silly story about a weird thing that happened to me: I found myself in an odd place with some odd people and odd things ensued. I knew there was a point to telling this story, beyond it being funny, I just hadn’t put my finger on it yet. I figured I’d write my way there.
It was through the telling this story — including my relationship with a seemingly tangential character back in the U.S. — that I was able to assign some powerful words to that other storyline in my life. My relationship with that person hadn’t just been unhealthy one. The reason, so many years later, that it still felt so raw and singeing to me, was that it been a psychologically abusive relationship. What I had categorized as “on-again, off-again” was actually an abuse cycle that had gone on for years. This hilarious story of me being in Sweden was, in fact, just the most entertaining “off-agains” of that much darker story.
This discovery had, of course, many positive and empowering implications to my life. Hello, recovery. Nice to see you again, sense of self and well-being. But more important to this blog’s narrative, it had implications to my story. Wouldn’t it be interesting to write a book on this topic one day, I naturally thought. A funny book about psychological abuse? An unromantic comedy? And then it clicked: That’s exactly what I was already doing. DUH.
It turns out, figuring out how to untangle myself from this crazy indentured servitude situation in Sweden became a roadmap for how I eventually untangled myself from that relationship. They were parallels. This was the whole point of the Sweden story. It was why it mattered so much, beyond just being weird and funny.
The manuscript was about two-thirds complete at that point. So guess what that meant? Yup. Rewriting. That character had to be much more central to the story. He became, essentially, its ultimate antagonist. The parts of my own character that made me susceptible to being an enabler had to be more thoroughly explored. I was almost done with my book, and I had to go back to the beginning and change so much.
This kind of discovery is the best possible thing that can happen to your memoir as you write. No, going back to rewrite is not awesome. But yes, it will absolutely make your story better. In fact, it will make your story.
There is no predicting the course or destination of the internal journey that will transpire throughout the writing of your story. You simply have to be open to taking it, open to discovering more about yourself and your story, and be willing to trust the result of that journey and do the hard work of integrating it into your memoir. Your readers — and the changed version of yourself — will be thankful you did.
Check out the other topics in this memoir writing series:
- Some Things I Know: Crafting a story worth telling
- Some Things I Know: Balancing yourself and your audience in memoir
- Some Things I Know: What does truth mean in memoir?