When we write about our lives or our families, our challenges aren’t just literary. Emotions play a significant part in our efforts and they can actually undermine our creative process or shut it down altogether.
Emotions that can affect life and family writers:
Fear—of getting the facts wrong or worse, offending someone mentioned in your story.
The fact is that the parts of your story that you think might upset someone may not. On the other hand, someone might take offense at something you wrote about them that you considered bland. You can never know.
(Scroll down to see the book Family Troubles: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family in the right hand column on this page.)
A writer submitted a question on this topic to one of my blog posts. Here’s what I wrote in response. Answer to Question on Writing About Your Life or Your Family.
Guilt—about exposing personal or family secrets.
Above my desk I have a large post card with the words:
“Be brave. Write your story.”
Admittedly, it’s not always easy, but only you can decide how far you’re willing to go exposing details of other people’s personal lives.
Almost all families have secrets. (So do businesses and other types of organizations and groups you’ve been a part of.) So when we write a memoir, personal essay, or family history we’re likely to examine, explore, or expose those closely held secrets.
A writer posed a question about this to the Dear Sugar column in the New York Times: “How Do I Write About My Life Without Alienating Everyone in It?” Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offered quite useful answers (and encouragement).
It also helps to remember the words of author Annie Lamott: Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ― Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Pain —resulting from reliving troubling experiences of the past while you write about them.
See how I handled my discomfort about past incidents I was writing about in When You Hate the Book You’re Writing: My Solution. It worked!
Doubt—at our ability to write the memoir, essay, or family story. And wondering if our attempt to write it is even worthwhile.
First write your story just for yourself. Then let a trusted friend read it and give you their opinion on it. Or engage a professional editor who will be able to provide helpful suggestions and guidance.
Frustration—at procrastinating over the writing we’ve set for ourselves.
Taking a class is a perfect way to keep yourself going. Knowing you need something, no matter how short, to read to your classmates each week has spurred many a writer to get on with their project. (And my students tell me it helps them keep writing.)
When writers engage me to coach them, one of my responsibilities is to motivate them, keep them on track, keep them producing work. (I’ve got a number of painless tactics to do that.)
The 5-minute rule worked for me when I was writing my two memoirs. When I procrastinated, my husband would gently steer me towards my office and say, “Work on it for 5 minutes. Five minutes is nothing.” And sure enough I would find myself writing away for half an hour or more.
Are these suggestions and examples helpful? Have you experienced other emotional obstacles I haven’t covered? In my next post, I’ll address some other roadblocks common to those of us who write memoir, personal essays, and/or family stories. However, if you’d like me to respond to a particular challenge you’ve experienced, just put it in a comment below.