I have no scientific data to back this up, but I would say—based on experience and observation—that it takes an average of four years to write a memoir, and by that I mean the kind of well-crafted story others would want to read.
In the process, memoirists not only learn a lot about their lives, they also frequently come to regard their life experiences in new ways. Maybe my mother wasn’t the heartless villain I thought she was. Maybe all my spiritual wandering was an attempt to heal rather than escape. Maybe I contributed more to my divorce than I originally thought.
Watching a client’s perception of their life change and grow is one of the great privileges of coaching memoirists. I get to see people transform through their own focused effort.
But I don’t think you need to spend four years writing a memoir to experience the transformative power of personal storytelling. You can start the process right now with an exercise I call, “Your 30-Minute Myth.”
The idea behind the exercise is that each of us creates a personal myth whose details are like no other story in the world. Understanding our mythic view of our own life story can go a long way toward helping us understand who we are, how we view the world, why we’ve tended to repeat the same experiences, and how we might write our way into a new sense of self. (And yes, should you be drawn to crafting a book-length memoir, this is a great way to get started.)
Before you begin, know that this exercise invites and allows you to play with the “facts” of your story as a way of uncovering deep emotional truths.
Writing Your 30-Minute Myth
(Read all six instructions before starting.)
Grab some paper and a pen and let your pen move quickly in response to the following prompts. Writing in longhand (as opposed to on the computer) allows you to enter into more of a meditative state.
- Write an autobiography of your life using third person point of view, as if you are writing about someone else. Situate the story in any place and time period that calls to you.
- Begin your myth with the words, Once upon a time…
- Writing as quickly as possible, focus on what you regard as the main chapters, significant turning points, and key characters in your life. Be sure to include your wounds and losses as well as your victories.
- Write until you get to a moment of great triumph or transformation. Or, if you like, project into the future and fictionalize a new triumph for yourself.
- If it sounds like fun, give yourself a mythic name such as Night Hawk or Raven Hair or Young Warrior. Or simply use the term “hero.”
- Write for at least 30 minutes without stopping.
Interpreting Your Story
Once you’ve finished writing, review what you’ve written and see what you can determine about your own myth by considering:
1) Your story’s mythic form Literary scholars believe there are four general story forms—comedy, romance, tragedy and irony—that can be used to describe our personal myths.
–Comedy features ordinary people trying to find happiness.
–Romance celebrates the excitement of adventure and conquest.
–Tragedies are concerned with heroes falling from grace, sacrificing themselves and accepting isolation.
–Ironic myths record failed attempts to solve the mysteries of life.
What mythic form does your story conform to? Where does it deviate? If you were to write your story using a different mythic form, what might it be? What does this form tell you about how you view your life experiences?
2) Your mythic hero All of us unwittingly cast ourselves into the role of particular kind of hero. Carl Jung called the mythic characters at the heart of our stories “archetypes.” Some of the most common archetypes are: the caregiver, the warrior, the healer, the homemaker, the lover, the counselor, the explorer and adventurer, the escapist, and the rebel. Which of these archetypes do you relate to? How has this role helped or hindered you? What does this archetype tell you about yourself? Is there another way you would describe your hero? If so, what is it?