Need Help with Writing your Memoir? Do as I Say, Not as I Do

By: Carol Es

 

Who Isn’t Publishing?

Is everyone publishing a memoir? When I scroll through all the books on Amazon, I can’t help but wonder. Maybe mothers everywhere have led their children to believe they were extraordinarily special and as unique as snowflakes. Every breath they took should be documented as a book-worthy story.

All too often I’ve heard people say, “I’m going to write a book one day,” as if it’s something cute to do in their spare time. In reality, it’s not an easy accomplishment even for those of us who’ve been writing for decades. I’m an ambitious person, and it was still incredibly challenging. In my opinion, writing in the memoir genre is the most difficult. I felt like I had a compelling story to tell and it took me close to ten years to knock it out. It didn’t have to take that long, but it did.

Well, my bad.

Mistakes Make A Messy Life – and Great Copy

I made a lot of mistakes along the way. Not just writing my memoir, but throughout my life. Since I had intriguing subject matter, I thought I’d at least be able to produce a book with some potential. I mean, you’d think.

Too bad I had a little problem. Let’s face it. I had many. To begin with, I’d never considered myself to be a “good” writer. When I did, the feeling never lasted very long. My confidence was fleeting. One day I’d think I had talent, the next day I felt so embarrassed by my writing that I wanted to dig my own grave and hide in it for eternity. I hear that is a common feeling. Ha! Welcome to the land of art-making.

Somehow, I found the light in the darkness (cue religious music and clouds parting). There’s no magic bullet and no one piece of advice, but I thought I would pass on my trial-and-error experience and insights to those of you who may be interested. Hopefully, I can save you some heartache—or at least give you some anecdotes you might find amusing. So, where do you start? 

  • Find your strengths

Finding out where you excel is a lot better than telling yourself you don’t know the first thing about memoir writing or writing in general. Maybe you can’t quite write like Hemingway (yet), but neither can 99% of most seasoned writers. Far from it.

Try this: instead of thinking about prepositions or the longest word in your vocabulary, look at your life through a broader scope. Find the areas where you excel. Maybe it’s not writing, but you can always get better at writing. You may want to approach your book using your expertise in something else entirely. Fishing. I’m serious. Maybe you’re a stellar mathematician, a good mother, chess player, or are an armchair philosopher. Perhaps you love folding laundry. It doesn’t matter. Find out how your mind functions at its best. These skills could assist you in thematic angles you use, a system you work by, a confidence booster, or your inspiration. Find these strengths and write them down. Trust me, they really could be useful.

  • PurgeLet it all out

Starting from scratch can be daunting. Some writers fly by the seat of their pants. Many begin by writing intricate outlines. You can also stare at a blank page until your brain melts. There is no “right” or “wrong” way. No rules in art. I can only tell you what works for me.

When I started my memoir—or when I start pretty much any piece of writing—I do not think. I just write. I don’t think about the beginning, the plot, the ending, or even a theme really. My brain merely dictates, and I type. I don’t care about typos, horrific phrasing, or alien languages that might be hard to decipher. Bring it on. None of that matters.

I suggest a total purge. Allow yourself to be completely vulnerable and uncensored. You can only do this with an honest foundation. Sort out the privacy issues later.

My first draft was enormous and read like a bunch of gobbledygook, but I didn’t stop typing. I didn’t stop to edit. I didn’t look up for over a year, because it takes as long as it takes.

  • Organize – Clean it up

Thanks to a lot of therapy, I’m self-aware enough to know that I have a sickness skill for being organized. I also know that I’m a decent narrator. I suppose these are strengths that I should have written down before I started! However, I didn’t. But I digress.

Now that my terribly rough draft sat before me, I needed it to be legible and organized. For me, this was more than a little overwhelming. I had one long Microsoft Word file with a timeline all over the place, and no real idea how to chop it into sections. At the time, putting it into chronological order seemed the only logical thing to do.

Luckily, I’d discovered the writing program called Scrivener. Other programs are similar, and some are free. The first year I used Scrivener, I was on a free trial. Now I pay for a license to use it. I would pay any amount for it, as it changed my life.

It allows multiple options to divide parts into sections and easily keep track of different scenarios to try.

You can literally use images of index cards to move scenes around on a virtual corkboard, storyboarding to see what works and what doesn’t. Essentially, that shuffling is what helped me find the way to carve out a narrative.

  • Find your storyline 

The narrative is everything. I can’t stress that enough. If I could do it all over (and to be honest, I wouldn’t), I’d stay on track and would have committed to one storyline.

I believe if you’re a talented storyteller, content or subject doesn’t really matter. You can make the most mundane stuff engaging. If you’re good enough and skillfully persuasive with your words, you can suck a reader into the story like a superpowered shop-vac on steroids, even if your entire story is about how you once fried an egg for breakfast.

I had what I thought was good content for all the moments in my life—interesting relationships, characters, and experiences. But I forgot to look for the story, and none of that content made any difference. Because I wasn’t sticking to a clear, single thread, my vision became murky, and I’d often feel like giving up.

Slowly, I learned the meaning of “killing your darlings.” Of course, it’s impossible to include your entire life story in one memoir. I wound up chopping the book in half. That was not easy. Had I known how to stay committed to a storyline, I wouldn’t have wasted my time editing and perfecting every single scene. I wouldn’t have been so attached, and so it wouldn’t have been so hard to let those parts go.

  • Consider others: But only to a point

Some things to consider are weighing your personal ethics over the legality of stating your truth. But first, be aware: though you are writing in the nonfiction genre, your memories are not fact. They’re still open to the interpretations of the reader. Though, if your reader doesn’t understand that everyone remembers things differently, that’s not your problem.

That’s not to say you’re not liable. If you’re talking about others, especially in a bad light, I’d suggest having an attorney look over your manuscript (just to be safe), because nicknaming everyone won’t put you in the clear. Wording sentences like, you think or feel your sister was a terrible person might be technically legal, but are you okay with the probability of her reading it, or her children reading it? You may or may not want to take responsibility for what comes with that. However, you can’t worry too much about hurting others. Don’t be afraid to speak out or stand up for something you believe in.

Years before publishing my memoir, I lived in such fear. I felt more alone than I can describe. But if being brave were easy, it wouldn’t take so much courage, would it? Dig deep. You’ll know what’s right for you.

My suggestion here is: build yourself a support system before bringing your book to market. Gather a team of people that believe in you and your story.

  • Take care of yourself: Get plenty of sleep!

Here’s my biggest “do as I say, not as I do” suggestion. If you don’t get enough sleep, you might as well delete all the work you did that day, especially in the editing process. You might think you’re sharp on a few hours of sleep, but you aren’t. You’ll miss a lot more than you think. You aren’t creating at your best. One of the few things my father taught me: don’t half-ass anything.

This is about safeguarding your integrity as an artist—something that should always be a priority. Your efforts and hard work mean something in this world. If not to the world, it’s meant something to you. Your efforts toward your passion have been keeping your heart ticking and getting you out of bed every day. Am I right?

Lastly, it was right here on Two Drops of Ink where I read an article about not getting too overwhelmed with the whole writing and publishing hustle. All I remember was it made me feel so much better because I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself. Maybe you do too.

This advice was straightforward. Breathe. Relax. You can only do so many things in a day. Pick one or two things, at the most. You’re more likely to feel a sense of accomplishment that way. If you don’t get everything done all at once (let’s face it, nobody can!), it’s not the end of the world. Besides, it will all be over soon, so try not to worry too much. As said by the ultimate worrywart.

 

Your story, whether you publish it or not is worth writing. What you experienced, dealt with, or overcame needs to be recorded, so you see where you came from and how you got to where you are now. And if published and it helps someone else, that’s just another benefit of cathartic memoir writing.

 

 

 

Bio: Carol Es

Carol Es is a self-taught artist, writer, and musician born in Los Angeles. Using a wide variety of media, she is known for creating personal narratives that transform a broken history into a positive resolution.

Her paintings, drawings, installations, videos, and books have been exhibited nationwide in venues such as Riverside Art Museum, Torrance Art Museum, Lancaster Museum of Art and History, and Craft Contemporary in Los Angeles. Some of her works can be found in the collections at the Getty and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. Her collaborative film was also featured in the 2015 Jerusalem Biennale.

Awarded many honors, including several grants from the National Arts and Disability Center and California Arts Council, she is a two-time recipient of the ARC Grant from the Durfee Foundation, a Pollock-Krasner Fellowship, and the Wynn Newhouse Award.

She has written articles of art critique for the Huffington Post and Coagula Art Journal, as well as having poetry published with small presses. She also received a writing grant from Asylum-Arts—a Global Network for Jewish Culture.

For more info, visit: esart.com

More posts from Carol Es on Two Drops of Ink

Pre-order Carol’s book

Available April 6, 2019: Shrapnel in the San Fernando Valley, Carol Es’s first novel of nonfiction—a memoir, about Carol’s dysfunctional family, childhood sexual abuse, music, art, mental illness, and Scientology.

 

Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing

What have you discovered about writing? We welcome guest posts on the art and craft of writing, whether it’s a how-to for the blogger or writer, memoirs that relate to writing and blogging, poetry, or the personal essay. Consider a guest post today. 

5 comments

  1. Hi Carol, Thanks so much for sharing your bits of wisdom here. I gleaned a lot from it, and plan to use it as I write my own memoir – 7 years and counting now! 😳 I don’t know that I will ever publish it, but I do want my children and grandchildren to have “My Story” to read and pass down.I must say though, that as much as I enjoyed your article, I am even more fascinated with your Memoir which has just hit the shelves, and even more impressed with the bravery it took to not only live the story, but to share it! Congratulations!! I wish you much success!!

    • Seven years seems short! LOL. I thank you for your words. It means a lot. I think if I had children and grandchildren, I would have possibly written a different book, or it would’ve been even more difficult to publish it. It was hard enough as it was, as I have nieces and nephews. I tried my best not to say anything that wasn’t already known among their family’s community. Still, there are things that aren’t wonderful, but I kept the focus to my story, not someone’s else’s.

  2. This is so useful – had heard about Scrivener, but had no idea it had such superpowers. Will look into a free trial! Thank you.

    • sradjy, I worked on my book for almost seven years, but once I really got into Scrivener, I seemed to work on it non-stop and get to a true rough draft I was able to work on and see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.