I’ve just returned from teaching writing workshops on a three-week Caribbean cruise. I found myself surrounded by memoirists who somehow couldn’t start their memoirs. They seemed to have a memoir hovering somewhere in their future plans, but nobody was writing one.
Writers in my sessions asked me to add a section on memoirs. I asked my fellow voyagers in table conversations why they weren’t writing memoirs, and kept getting the same answer: “I’m not important.” Notice the wording: “I’m not important,” not “I’m not that important.” And the people saying it were mostly accomplished professionals.
I did some informal interviewing to find out what they meant. Most of the men said they didn’t have time. But the women, without exception, said they had been carefully taught not to take themselves seriously, never to think of themselves as important or even interesting. One quoted the Russian proverb: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
One of my favorite writer friends, Jim Nicholson, used to write a daily 18-inch feature obituary on an ordinary person chosen at random. I asked him, “If you pick subjects at random, how often do you fail?” “Never,” he replied. “Everybody’s interesting.”
“Everybody’s interesting” became the motto of the workshops, conversations, and coaching sessions. So I taught them how to write memoirs, starting on the cruise. Here’s what I said:.
First, you have to overcome a disparity in scale: little bitty you against a book-length writing job. Writing a memoir can seem like scaling the Matterhorn, especially for someone who hasn’t written anything since leaving school. So I told them to write just one anecdote, preferably a funny one from their early lives. Some said they couldn’t, so I asked them to tell me one. And they did, and then they wrote it, and others liked it, and they were launched. Writing little anecdotes is fun, like telling jokes, and contagious.
Second, you have to lower your standards. Your first attempts at anything don’t have to be good. You’ll learn more if they aren’t. Beginners have a license to write badly. More importantly, they can ask for help. And the help they need is a friend asking them “What works?” and “What needs work?”
Third, you just get it down, without worrying about spelling or usage or correctness. There’s no teacher and no grading when you write for yourself. And you can get it right later, after it says what you want to say.
Fourth, you have to shut out imagined reactions from your family. I warned everyone that inevitably, something you write in a memoir will piss off somebody, probably a relative, especially your mother. As you write anything, never think about what others will say; you have to shut up that voice in your head that makes you timid. I manage my demon by telling myself after every sentence, “This’s just a draft, Don.”
Finally, as my pal Roy Peter Clark says, you get started by putting your butt in your chair and moving your fingers on the keys.
That’s it. It’s that easy. Forget about yourself to write about yourself.
[If you’re writing a memoir, how did you start?]