Writers will sometimes tell me that they are blocked and can’t seem to get back into writing. I have a surprising answer for them: don’t write just now to complete a memoir. It’s ok to be stalled for a while.
Let me give you a little scene in which I came to the viability of this conclusion.
One summer when I was serious about gardening, I went away on a late June trip. It was a fun vacation with my family, but the trip fell at a time when the garden seriously needed daily weeding, hoeing, and watering. As you can imagine, when I returned home, I found my garden overrun with weeds. The vegetables that I had so carefully planted were just about choked out, so I was, to say the least, challenged seeing the overgrown mess of weeds.
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Rather than tackle the job immediately, however, which would certainly have been reasonable, I made a counter-intuitive decision: I spent time across several days just sitting on the edge of the garden, envisioning how I wanted the various parts to look once my work of cleaning up was done, imagining the lovely vegetables I would have.
Action will come.
After three days of on-again, off-again scrutinizing and visualizing, my time for action had come. I started weeding, hoeing, trimming and applying compost. It took many days of work—during which time I not only cleared the overgrown parts but also kept each newly-reclaimed portions in great condition.
In time, a beautiful, productive garden emerged as a result of this approach. So…
Before you resume writing your memoir
Let’s do the literary equivalent of sitting on the edge of the garden.
Take your journal out and spend time writing in it—a time analogous to sitting on the edge of the garden, contemplating what needs to be done and, crucially, how to best do it.
Action Steps to Complete a Memoir
In your journal, linger with the points below and certainly any others that come to mind as important to you. (Remember to use as many details as possible. Vivid details not only reconstruct a story but they also help us make our way through a story to more meaning.)
- Why did you want to write this memoir in the first place? What was your impetus to tackle this project that now lies stalled? Do the original motives seem sufficient now? Do they motivate you? Do you need to expand on your reasons
- If different than your original motive, what is your motive today to complete a memoir? Is this motive compelling enough to see you through to the end? If not, how can you make your motive more compelling? What is missing? What is the “if only it were possible to…” element? Embrace it.
- What difference will finishing this memoir make in your life—and possibly in the lives of its readers? Is there significance in the text? If not, where in the story lies significance? How can you expand on the significance of the story so that it will engage you profoundly—and by extension the reader?
- I would hope the difference would be positive, but it is possible that you experience the difference as negative. It is discouraging to write when one anticipates a negative effect. Can you reframe the outcomes? For instance, you can say to yourself: “I write honestly and without rancor. I am not responsible for the reactions and feeling of other people choose to have.”
- What is most frightening to you about the content of this memoir, about finishing this memoir, and about having it read by others? What is most satisfying?
- Is there some way in which not finishing this memoir meets some need of yours? Deep down, is not finishing more satisfying to you than actually completing it? In your journal write what benefits you may be deriving from not finishing. Benefits might include: holding on to emotions that you do not want to relinquish because you have not yet resolved them, sustaining a negative sense of yourself because you are afraid of success, fearing being judged on the finished product—as long as you are not finished, you cannot be judged.
- How can you re-conceive the memoir so that you will be able to finish it? What would need to change in its content, its point of view, its theme or its structure?
- Find the spot in the manuscript where change is most needed. Is the problem that the memoir lacks details, that it squirts the truth, or that it contains too many favorite little stories that don’t add to the memoir’s meaning? What do you need to accept to begin rewriting from where the problem is?
- Is this memoir the most important piece of writing you could do right now? If not, what memoir would be more important? (People sometimes choose to write one story which is easier but less meaningful in order not to write another that would be foundational)
- Were there any specific points of prior constraint to your writing that you could redress? For instance:
~ someone was adamant that you should not write this memoir? You wonder how you can write and still remain in relationship with this person. How do you see working your way through this problem? How can you reframe the constraint?
~ your finances or domestic situation made it challenging for you to be comfortable devoting time to a writing project that did not produce income—and probably never would? Does this condition survive into the present or does it lie in the past? If in the past, why do you continue to live out?
~ the research you have undertaken did not support your prior interpretation of the story. How can you change your take on the story? Sometimes, accepting that you need to change how you interpret the story is not easy—especially if you have invested in the point of view that is getting in the way. This requires what is called “personal work.”
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