Writing the Hard Stuff: Some Tips

Author Dorothy Allison says, “There’s no way to be a good writer and be safe.” She believes in visiting the edges; it’s where the energy is, and good writing often starts in exactly that same place.

Truth in memoir is expected, but it’s not always easy to tell. It may be what brought you to the writing desk, but it can also be what scares you away from it. It hurts! Why would you want to remember pain and write about it?!

There are a few good reasons:

1) Writing is proven to be healing for the body as well as good for the mind.

2) Writing the truth can help you accept your own version of your life and let go of other people’s versions of who you are, were, or should be.

3) Putting the truth in print can keep assumptions and mistruths from being passed around and possibly passed down in your family. If you don’t say it someone else may, and they won’t necessarily be telling your truth.

4) Truths change, like we do, over time. What was shameful to you in earlier years may not have to be shameful any longer, and it can be freeing to realize that. Ask yourself if you need to be ashamed of it at your age in the here and now.

I always tell my memoir students to remember this: when you’re writing the hard stuff — and hard stuff is part of all of our lives — it’s especially good to quiet the inner critic AND to remember no one is watching over your shoulder. You are as free as you are able to be.

How do you write through the hard stuff? First, write as much as you comfortably can, quieting that inner (and imagined outer) critic. Next, stretch just a little out of your comfort zone. Read your story over and notice if you got to the heart of it. Is there more to say? Write everything you need to say until your story is complete. You can even use a writing prompt and freewrite for 10 minutes on a separate sheet of paper to loosen up and say it all, then decide what of it you want to include in your story. Start with these words: What I really want to say is….  Or try this: I have never told anyone …

I’ve seen people mend holes in their hearts through writing, bridge gaps in their relationships, surprise themselves by not only surviving sharing the hard stuff through their stories but feeling better than they have in a really long time.

Be brave and see what happens.

The 6th National Story Circle Conference, Stories from the Heart 2012, starts April 13 in Austin, Texas! Come and enjoy all it has to offer, and be sure to come to my workshop Saturday April 14 and learn about Writing the Truth: Issues, Ethics & Poetic License. I’m also offering free coaching sessions for 2-day conference participants Friday April 13, on getting published, including query letter critique. For more on what I do when I’m not in Texas, see my website: www.suzannesherman.com.

5 responses to “Writing the Hard Stuff: Some Tips

  1. Suzanne, I love the Allison quote. I should tape it to my computer! And thanks for the wonderful reminders of all the reasons why we should write our truths, in spite of how difficult it can seem at times.

  2. Suzanne:

    Excellent observations and advice. Transitory ‘truth’ is debilitating. Universal truth is liberating.

  3. Susanne,

    One key is not to consider that you are writing for publication during the first draft. Write with the door closed. Write as if you are writing a letter to a friend. Then, at the end of your story, you can decide what’s next.

  4. I found writing my memoir to be the most challenging, frightening, and rewarding thing I’ve done since I intentionally and deliberately became a mother over forty years ago. The book felt like my baby, which was at first a thought, then a wish, and at last I was pregnant with it and then in a long, painful labor of delivery. I was surprised to discover afterward that in the writing of it I had healed to a new level.
    I remember reading once, “If a section of your book feels too difficult to write, and you find yourself wanting to get through it as quickly as possible, or omit it altogether, that’s a sure sign that it’s the part of the book that most needs to be written.”
    Would you agree? I would also add that sometimes if there’s something you are very eager to get off your chest, using the opportunity to blame and slam someone who hurt you, that’s a sign that it’s a part of the story that needs to be re-examined, – edit out the anger and hatred and look for some balanced perspective.
    I’m happy to have found you here, Suzanne, and sad that I can’t be in Austin, this year. I’m recovering from surgery and forbidden to travel yet . . but I’ll be following your blog.

  5. Samantha, Thank you for your wise words here, and for sharing some of your experience of writing your memoir. I love that: challenging, frightening, and rewarding. That’s living! Congratulations to you for staying with it (or returning to it) when things got tough. And I agree with you 100 percent: memoir should never be written for retaliation. But “balanced perspective” is very interpretive. If there’s a lot of raw emotion at the surface, chances are good the healing process is happening but not where it needs to be for anything but the first draft, where you get to and should say everything you need to say. The next draft of it comes when the soul is more at peace, which often comes from doing that first writing. I’m sorry you can’t come to the conference, but check out my blogs and offerings on my website for more on memoir and see if anything catches your eye! Be well —

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