How do I get started?
How do I write in a way that feels real? How do I write this authentically?
These are some of the questions my memoir-writing students often ask me when beginning or continuing to write their memoirs. Writing a memoir can be a painful and exposing experience; the process of processing those experiences that make up our lives’ stories can be many things: comforting, healing, therapeutic, and fulfilling, but also terrifying and intimidating. I know; I’m working on writing my own memoir wherein I discuss events that took place in my life many, many years ago that I have never written about and seldom talk about.
But there is a technique you can use to make your writing feel less contrived, more authentic, and really real: Write a letter.
Addressing your writing to someone specific will give you an “audience” for what you have to say rather than a disembodied mirage of what you may imagine your audience to be. This can help to ground the writing and give it a purpose. And don’t worry about anything. You don’t have to send the letter. That’s not the point (although you may find that you want to send the letter, and that’s fine, too). This is simply a technique to get your thoughts on the page in a more uninhibited way. Here are some prompts to get you started.
1. Your son/daughter.
I have journals I write in for both of my kids. When they were babies, I would write about milestones they encountered or just things about myself that I wanted them to eventually know. Now that they’re older, I use them to write life lessons I want to share with them and/or I sometimes use them as a place to vent about my frustrations on parenting them. I hope they will read these later, when they’re adults, and appreciate the time and attention I gave these journals and the awareness I gave our everyday lives.
2. Your boss.
Maybe there’s something you have to say here. Go ahead. Bitch him or her out. He or she never has to read it, and you just may brainstorm through other career aspirations. Or maybe you want to show your boss some appreciation. Go ahead. And then maybe send it.
The lonely woman in the park: See someone out in the world who stopped you, made you think about their life, made you wonder about something? Talk to someone in line at the grocery store check-out line? Write that person a letter. It’s fun.
3. The family member you can’t stand.
Get it off your chest. Put it on the paper.
4. The man/woman you didn’t marry.
Or the one who got away. Or the one who left you. Or the one you left. Seems we always have something left unsaid. Say it to the page. You’ll feel better.
5. Your father. Or your mother.
6. Your religious leader.
Your preacher or lama or rabbi or pastor. Or maybe to Jesus. Or to the Buddha. What have these teachings done to help shape you as a person? Or what would you say to them (Jesus or Buddha) if he were available to talk to?
7. Someone who has shown you racial or sexual bias.
Use words to express yourself and your disappointment in others. Use words to get your point across. Words are powerful. Write them down.
8. Your first love.
It’s been a long time since then, and we’ve learned a lot over the years about love, life, and how to share ourselves with others. Maybe it was the boy you kissed behind the bushes when you were in fifth grade. Maybe it was the awkward teenager who took your virginity on that basement sofa. Maybe it was your first spouse. Maybe it was someone whom you never told how you felt. What do you have to say? Say it now.
This may be the most therapeutic of all, and we are all different, but this is the person to whom you should be the most honest. And sometimes that’s very difficult. What would you say to the 15-year-old you? To the 25-year-old you? What do you want to say to the you 20 years from now? What do you want to say to yourself right now? What have you learned, and what can you teach others? What do you still have left to learn?
It is with this act of letter writing that we can write our thoughts and desires, our longings and wishes, our regrets and mistakes with more abandon, more reflection, and more inspiration than when attempting to arrange these things on the page without any guidance. Once you have these letters written, or have tailored these exercises to your unique story’s needs, you can easily change the pronouns to sound more like a narrative than a letter.
I have found that this technique works well for the creative writing students I’ve had in the past, and they work well for me. I sometimes even send the letters. And I always feel better.
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