The email landed in my inbox on Saturday afternoon. That’s when they always arrive. Every week, a new chapter released, with video and text lessons, interviews, suggested reading, and of course writing exercises.
The subject line read, Writing is Prohibited. I breathed a sigh of relief.
After beginning the memoir writing course with an excited and optimistic gung-ho attitude, by week five I found myself struggling. I completed the exercises but it was a challenge. For the first time since I started the course, writing felt hard. I’ve written for years but not like this. I questioned whether I had it in me to write in this new way. On top of that, after reading a handful of the recommended memoirs I began feeling overwhelmed, thinking “I’ll never be able to write a book like these authors.” Especially since I still had no idea what my book would even be about. A memoir is not an autobiography. It’s more than a chronicle of a person’s life. It’s a story, with a theme and a message, that uses select life events to tell it.
The instructor, Alison Wearing, clearly knows the learning-to-write-memoir process, and her students.
When I read the email, I silently thanked her for this well-timed reprieve. The pressure to write every day now gone, I could avoid the frustration I’d felt the last few times I’d sat down to write, only to delete the words from the page and close the document. I couldn’t even manage to eke out a vomit draft, what Alison calls the first draft, and what writer Anne Lamott terms shitty first drafts. It’s often what we start with, just getting content onto the page. Editing and re-writing eventually turns those shitty first drafts into pieces worth reading. But I couldn’t even manage to write a shitty first draft. The words I kept typing in an effort to express the story in my head never quite materializing into any coherent form.
I had already undertaken a self-imposed writing break before the email showed up.
Now it was my instructor’s directive. Instead of assigning more writing exercises she advised, THIS IS READING WEEK, acknowledging that reading is passive writing. Though I’ve never thought of reading that way, since enrolling in this course I’ve found that statement to be true. I read with a completely different eye now. One that ingests not only the content, but the way it’s delivered, the author’s voice and writing style, and the bigger story it tells. Reading memoir is helping me determine what kind of memoir writer I want to be. I immediately resonate with some author’s writing styles, while others have me returning the book to the library after just a few chapters.
After removing the pressure to write for a few days, something pretty exciting happened: the theme for my memoir revealed itself! For the past five weeks I’ve been writing whatever comes up, trusting the process, and hoping it would become clear what the book I’ve felt called to write for more than a year is supposed to be about. Alison has repeatedly remarked that’s often how it works. The story finds us, as long as we keep writing.
Sure enough, in the midst of this writing break, I believe my story has found me.
I’m going to stay open to the idea that landed, as well as to the fact it may still evolve, but oh does it feel good to have a clear direction! It’s like a light has been turned on to illuminate the path as I move forward on this memoir writing journey. I will continue to write short essays as ideas present themselves but now I can also start thinking about stories that illustrate the larger theme I believe I’m supposed to be writing about.
I’m going to continue this week with passive writing (i.e. reading) because even that is now bringing me clarity instead of frustration. And with family coming to visit for the holidays I have another reason to step away from writing for a bit. I know when I resume the memoir writing course after this short hiatus I will return to the lessons and writing exercises with a renewed sense of curiosity, inspiration, and excitement for what lies ahead.