I have a friend who absolutely loves to write. For the last six years, she’s gotten up early every Saturday and Sunday morning to devote several hours of writing time to her book. She loves carving out time in a busy schedule to focus on her project. She loves experimenting with different approaches, even though she throws most of them away. I remember seeing her after she discovered that the third person point-of-view wasn’t working and that she’d have to rewrite the entire manuscript in the first-person for it to have any impact on readers. She positively glowed as she told me this news. “I know the book will be sooooo much better after I do this,” she said.
Clearly, this friend is a freak (which I’ve lovingly told her on several occasions).
For most writers, writing is difficult, if not downright painful—especially for those of us who are working on stories about our lives.
Memoir writing typically involves remembering sad and shameful events, as well as re-experiencing the pain that went along with them.
Memoir writers must honestly recall their own less-than-perfect thoughts and behaviors, and, in service to the story, be willing to honestly report those recollections to readers.
To find the right approach, memoirists must experiment with voice and structure, they have to confront privacy issues, and—like all writers—they have to learn craft techniques such as scene setting, character development, and the reflective voice. Add up these tasks, put them inside of a busy schedule, and you have perhaps the greatest challenge of all: finding the time to write.
This difficulty blindsides most memoir writers. After all, we’re taught how to write in school. How hard could it be?
But stringing together a coherent sentence is a very different from crafting an engaging book-length story. The quickest writer I ever worked with completed her memoir in three years by writing from nine to eleven o’clock every weeknight. More typically, the effort stretches out to five or seven or twelve years.
This difficulty means that writing a memoir will take much longer than most authors anticipate. And when the expectation—that you can finish a book in two months or six months or a year—doesn’t match reality, writers tend to feel deeply disappointed … in themselves.
They assume they lack talent. That their ideas are stupid. That it was folly to try. They believe they should have done this, shouldn’t have done that, and that they’ve wasted their time.
I spend the largest percentage of my coaching time talking writers off the ledge when disappointment and frustration threatens to overwhelm them, and these are the comments I hear most often. Every time, these comments break my heart.
Can you imagine judging a toddler who’s learning walk with the same brutal words we use against ourselves?
You fell when you were learning to walk? How lame is that?! You must really be bad at walking. Why do you even bother? You’re clearly not talented enough to walk. Even the idea of walking—I mean, what were you thinking?
Ridiculous, isn’t it? But this is exactly how many of us sound—to ourselves—when writing become difficult.
And yet, I don’t believe disappointment and frustration are inevitable. Yes, writing is arduous. Yes, writing takes time. Those things can’t really be changed. But one thing canbe changed and that is the writer’s expectations about what the process will entail.
For example, instead of thinking that writing “should” be easy, try to realize that you’ll be learning and growing with every sentence.
Instead of believing that writing a book will take six months or a year or whatever, try doubling or tripling that amount, and/or reframing the process. Instead of thinking of what you’re doing as writing, realize that what you are really doing is honoring your life, your story, and your calling as a writer. Realize that when you’re writing, you’re engaged in a sacred activity, one that you’ve been called to do—and you can’t rush the divine.
Instead of expecting to feel happy and energized every time you sit down to write, realize that all of your emotions will show up to the party, including doubt, fear, anger, frustration and shame. To be any good as a writer, you have to be in touch with these emotions. But recognize that emotions, in and of themselves, don’t mean anything. Emotions only get us into trouble when we attach meaning to them and/or assume we shouldn’t feel the way we do.
I suspect that my friend loves writing so much because she’s freed herself from artificial expectations about what her book will become … and by when. Instead, she controls the one thing she can—which is when to show up and write—and focuses on what she’s learning, how she’s growing, and the fact that every weekend she’s honoring who she is at heart: a writer.