Who am I to write a memoir?
I asked myself this question before I decided to go full steam ahead with a writing project that felt huge in scale and just as large in ambition.
The question called out of my childhood saboteurs, the voices of those pesky inner critics, to the playground of my imagination as if a gang of kids had materialized in my head to taunt and intimidate me. I shook off the early interludes with those voices as if swatting away flies.
I recovered to what I intuitively knew to be true, that there was something important for me in writing my story. I knew it had a lot to do with being dedicated to unraveling the mystery of it, of looking closely with a stillness in my body that I rarely occupy.
It all felt like an unknown realm, and yet, I knew myself well. What was the hold that telling my story had on me? There was something in the promise of it that I needed to explore. The idea of writing my life down in words was already I felt so comfortable doing as a life-long journaler, but a memoir—that would be next level, a deep dive into the mystery of me, my choices, and the meaning I had of it all.
There was a ground-swelling desire that was mine alone to answer. But I needed to get clear on my why if I was going to be able to face those taunting voices in my head.
Why was this so important to me?
Why does the exercise of telling my story feel so essential?
What even was a memoir? The examples I was familiar with spanned the gamut of near autobiographical-in-scope coverage of one’s life to deep and intimate recountings of time-specific, and usually traumatic, events. I recall my fascination in reading Jon Krakauer’s memoir, Into Thin Air, for the first time as a new High School English teacher, thinking that my students would love to read about his ascent of Mt. Everest, as harrowing as it was.
Memoir, as far as I could figure it, was a tally of my life choices and behaviors into a topography that was my story to tell—all the memories, experiences, the details of moments of my life that stood out as almost tangible as if my hand could reach back in time to grasp it all again.
Once I grasped that my life is my story to tell, and why it was so important to do so to me, I still struggled to work out why it felt so hard to tell it.
But, I persevered and began writing. The more I wrote, the sooner I realized how closely woven my story is to the stories of those for whom I care most deeply. Our stories, like our lives, are interwoven.
This made the nagging voices in my head a bit louder, as I struggled to sort out as a new writer of personal narrative where my story ends and another’s begins.
The voices were saying things like . . .
You better get it right.
Are you sure it happened like that?
Are those the words she used?
Are you sure,
are you sure,
are you sure?
Now, I was conscious that my choice to write my story had a splash zone. I was the whale bellyflopping into the pool, splashing my story everywhere and those in the pool with me, were not the one’s choosing to share. I was. It was me.
Who am I to write a memoir?
What makes my story special?
Isn’t it better to keep my story tucked away
where no one will know it’s there?
I was very quickly facing an existential crisis—Why is writing my story so important?
I answered my own question in a myriad of different ways.
I’m the only person who can.
I’ve got this; this is not the hardest thing I have done.
Telling my story moves the story through me, allowing me to integrate the lessons it offers and release the hold on me it had.
Eventually, I settled on the only answer that seemed to matter to me:
I’m writing my memoir to understand what I feel about my life and the meaning I make of it.
This, I decided, was reason enough.
Where I Started . . .
When I embarked on writing my memoir in early 2021, I was excited, but making little headway. I signed up for two six-month group memoir writing programs, one offered by Brooke Warner, called Write Your Memoir in Six Months, and the other by Jen Louden, which she no longer offers, but you can read about her other offerings here.
Both were great for different reasons. Brooke offered an intellectualized, left-brain approach to learning about the craft through the element of structure, style and offering an overview of the process. Jen’s program focused on launching us as writers with a positive, empowering approach designed to build us up as new memoirists to own our identity as writers.
What I still lacked was accountability to get me going and keep me going. I also wavered in my confidence that I had a good plan ahead. I solved that dilemma by hiring my book coach, Kim O’Hara, who was exactly the partner I needed to move me from idea to execution.
With Kim’s help, I came to know the scope of my timeline. I knew what I wanted my memoir to convey to my readers. I was full of hope and ambition while keeping an eye on what it would take to sustain my enthusiasm and focus for the long haul.
Eventually, months into the project, my energy waned and the first wave of confusion set in. With the dip of my spirits, the voice of the inner critic(s) came back:
What was I thinking taking on this size of project?
Who am I to write a memoir?
Do I even know how to write?
I expected to hear from my saboteurs. I gauged they offered about 2% of truth and I took into consideration the concerns they raised and dumped the other 98% as unhelpful fearmongering. I was embarking on a huge learning journey and discomfort and fear of the unknown were just part of the journey, like fellow travelers along for the ride (but definitely NOT driving!).
I felt myself coming undone at the seams. But because I had Kim holding my focus on the agreed-upon concrete deadlines weekly, I managed to continue chugging along, week by week, month by month.
Learning to Trust Myself to Get It Done . . .
I reconfigured my life around the book writing project—I had to!—creating a morning ritual for myself that ensured I was prioritizing my writing before my work day began and family time followed at the end of the day. I learned the hard way that, like exercise, if I waited to do it, it just never happened.
Demands on my attention were high, but I was energized knowing that I was finally making a dream of mine that I’d nurtured since I was 8-years-old come true each time I set my booty in the chair and lit the candle to signal the start of my now sacred morning ritual.
There was a calling I heard to write my story, and I didn’t know where the process would take me, but I knew I had to answer the call.
I had no idea how to write a book at first. Truly, zero idea. Part of my reason for this project was figuring it out. Learn by doing, that’s how I do it. It feels like the hard way to go, but it’s the way I learn best.
On occasion, if I was tempted to question why writing a memoir was the best choice for me, I return to the feeling I had in my body that told me everything I needed to know when I made my choice: This is what I want and this is what I’ll do. What will come of it is part of the mystery of life and I can let go of needed to have all the answers for now.
A second and just as ruffling question that came up was, Does my story matter? And to whom?
There were a few occasions when I lived out this exchange of discourse, not with my inner critic, but with another person who, upon learning of my memoir project, scanned my 46-year-old frame and shot me a side glance, asking, “You’re writing a memoir? Aren’t you a little young for that?”
On one occasion this initial comment was followed by the more annoying passive-aggression, “Boy, you must have lived a pretty remarkable life already.”
I wish I had said in response what Ira Glass, host of This American Life, said about storytelling: “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”
Last week, when a student in my current Narrative Alchemy course voiced the same self-sabotaging question I had grappled with as a new writer, I leaned in and listened intently to her version.
“Who am I to write a memoir?” she asked into the Zoom screen, hugging her arms across her lap, looking as protected. I instantly translated the subtext that I knew so well, “My story isn’t worth telling.” But it is!, I wanted to shout into my laptop, but instead swallowed my urge and paused, listening, waiting to see if she had more to add. She did.
“I mean, it feels so . . . so egotistical to tell my story. It’s just—”
“Like nothing you’ve ever done before?”
“Yeah, it feels uncomfortable to make it about me.”
We were 7-weeks into 9-weeks of Narrative Alchemy, a program designed to deepen self-knowledge and connection through the practice of naming and writing personal narratives from a place of self-awareness, and self-honoring truth.
I said the first thing that came to mind, “Your story deserves space and attention. What you know and how you will tell your story is 100% unique to you. If you don’t tell it, no one will.
I shared my story of facing this gremlin in my own writing journey, and how it still comes up today.
What I shared with her and the whole class is what I will share with you now—
Do things that force you to feel brave for the sake of stepping into the fullness of your power. This is an act of deep self-love and honoring. This you will never regret.
Your courage will fortify your commitment to being more fully aligned with your true and best self in all areas of your life.
So, who am I to write a memoir?
Like you, I am a storyteller. I have experienced life and have a perspective to share, wisdom and truth to offer.
As Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” So don’t let it happen to you.
Your story is your power, connecting you to your truth and creating a conduit to connect to others.
Writing, like any creative endeavor, is an expression of self-trust in action.
Commitment creates courage. When we commit to what we want, we are ready to take a stance to back it with action. Each choice a writer or artist makes is a choice of commitment to believing in one’s self and the vision that inspires the art.
If you feel called to write your story, your way, what are you waiting for?
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