Dear memoir: I'm afraid of you.
I received many heartfelt questions about writing after my last letter. After spending some time reading people's deepest writing troubles, I came away feeling moved and humbled by the experience. If you were one of these contributors, thank you!
One thing is clear: a lot of people are writing from personal experience, and this is proving to be difficult territory. How honest can you really be? What does it mean when you feel too afraid to go back and revise? If you do publish your stories, what will people think of you?
There’s good reason for all of the questions and worries. In memoir, the stakes are high. When you write about deeply personal events, parts of your life that are integral to who you are, you can’t expect to just breeze through it. As nice as it sounds, the truth is: that would be weird.
If you have chosen to write about personal events and you’re challenged or confused right now, that’s good. That means you’re probably on the right track. Here are some thoughts to help you navigate the fog.
Q: How do you know if it’s worth it to polish and revise all of your stories? What if it was just cathartic to write all of that down?
A: You get to decide what kind of relationship you have with your writing. That means that you can't know if something is worth publishing or not: you decide to make it worth publishing or not. Writing is like any other intimate relationship -- it doesn't exist outside of your intention. A marriage works not because two people are meant to be, it works because two people have chosen it.
So ask yourself honestly: are these stories for your own therapeutic use? Do they feel finished? Do you feel finished? Or do you want to go deeper, and polish them so they are ready to be shared?
Be honest with yourself. You will find that you already know the answers to those questions.
Note: If you do want to share your work with a wider audience, it is not enough to write for catharsis and confession.
It's important to write early drafts with brutal honesty - this is definitely a valid place to start. But then you have to craft the stuff.And if you're going to go back into raw and emotional scenes in order to craft them, you have to be prepared to face those raw emotions again. And again and again, as you revise your stories. It's a big commitment, for sure.
No wonder resistance comes up at this point.
Which brings me to a second question.
Q. How do you recognize resistance and fear when it is holding you back? When is it simply time to move on and write something else?
A: Ask yourself, "Do I feel I afraid to do go deeper with these stories?" If your answer is yes, then fear is probably trying to get in your way.
Here’s the good part: you can train yourself to experience fear as a motivator. Fear is an excellent signpost. It’s telling you, Here’s where the action is! Fear is wonderful because it’s hard to miss it.
That terrified and panicky feeling is a sure sign that what you're writing is of interest to you.
When you are uninterested in reading what you've been working on, when looking at it doesn't make you feel guilty or scared or excited or resentful, when your stomach doesn't twist up when you think of it anymore, not even a little... that's when you should move on and maybe write something else.
As soon as you decide to commit to your stories, it feels better.
It's always worst when you're at the threshold of commitment, struggling to make a decision. So much power comes out of the decision itself! Your writing will respond to your commitment. But if your writing feels like you're only half-there, it won't rise to meet you.
One more thing: if you ever start freaking about what other people will think of your stories, ask yourself, What are you writing for?
Would you want to read your stories?
Write your stories so you would want to read them. Don’t just write them the way you want to write them.