By Richard Campbell
Overcoming the Questions that Hold You Back
Lots of people say they want to write a memoir. Very few ever start. Why is that the case? People commonly let their doubts and fears keep them from starting. In fact, we find there are 7 tough questions that often need to be answered before a person can begin this writing journey.
1) I don’t understand the point. Why should I write my story?
2) I’m not a professional writer! I haven’t written anything in ages. Why start now?
3) My family history is dysfunctional. Should I stay quiet about our problems?
4) Whenever my family is together, there is a proverbial elephant in the room. How could I ever get around our family secrets?
5) I don’t know what stories to tell. Are there legal ramifications to naming people?
6) It sounds like a huge undertaking. What if I can’t finish it?
7) I think I am too old for this. Is it too late?
These are indeed seven hard questions. The writing process is tough enough as it is. Throwing fears into the mix makes it even more challenging. So let’s look at these seven areas of concern, find some answers, and then focus on an unstated question that is often the real problem.
1. I don’t understand the point. Why should I write my story? This is easy to answer. I’ll let my students do the talking.
(Linda) Sharing your life story is one of the greatest gifts you can give to family members.
(Tom) It’s a great way to find out how your life has unfolded – in other words, has it been working for you?
(Jenna) It’s a way of transitioning from one life stage to another, such as retirement.
(Donna) It offers a sense of belonging to something beyond yourself, most often your family.
(David) Writing can be an act of healing.
2. I’m not a professional writer! I haven’t written anything in ages. Why start now? Here’s the great news. You don’t need to be a professional writer. At the very beginning of my first orientation class, I ask my students: “Have you ever written a high school essay? Or have you ever written an email?” Everyone nods. Yes, of course, every time. Then I tell them how they need only write short 2-3 page stories, each based on a particular life theme. That means their writing project gets chunked into bite-sized bits. That’s the simple beauty of Legacy Writing — you can choose from dozens of themes — and ultimately they come together in one cohesive life story.
3. My family history is dysfunctional. Should I stay quiet about our problems? We all live dysfunctional lives. That, I believe, is why we are here in the first place, to sort out our own messes and move past them. It comes down to one point. You have a right to your own life perspective. In other words, you have the right to tell your story. If it involves other people, you are not telling their story, but you do have the right to share how their actions affected you. Do remember this quote by P.G. Wodehouse: “I am not always good and noble. I am the hero of this story, but I have my off moments.” That’s okay too.
4. Whenever my family is together, there is a proverbial elephant in the room. How could I ever get around our family secrets? This is always a delicate issue. Some secrets are best kept that way. At the same time, many of those secrets are not really secrets at all. Telling your truth can add clarity to a muddied situation. One of my students wanted to write about her life growing up with a brother who ended up in prison – most significantly, how his actions impacted her. He was now a respected citizen. She wrote a draft and showed him. He gave his approval, hoping that it might help others along the way. Sometimes it works out just like this situation. It’s always worth a try.
5. I don’t know what stories to tell. Are there legal ramifications to naming people? You don’t want to write something that hurts another’s reputation and is not true. However, you must write what is your own truth taken from your own memories. Just realize that memory can be a slippery slope. What we think we remember is often not the case. Always get legal advice before putting any contentious issue into the public domain. Point to remember: Don’t write with revenge in mind. You will come across as unsympathetic.
6. It sounds like a huge undertaking. What if I can’t finish it? All projects take some investment in time and energy. In the end, that’s what makes them worthwhile. Look at it from two perspectives. (1) Remind yourself that you have started and completed projects in the past – likely far more than you realize. (2) You don’t need to write all the time! Pick a few moments each day where you can quietly concentrate for just a short timeframe – if 15 minutes is all you can set aside, that’s fine.
7. I think I am too old for this. Is it too late? How could it ever be too late? Tell that to the vast majority of memoir writers who are either baby boomers or belong to the great generation before that. Your time is now. Those coming after you need to hear your stories before it is too late. Take heart with these words by C.S. Lewis: “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.”
These are the seven most common concerns about writing your memoir. If you can navigate these primary hurdles, you are almost ready to write your story. But wait! These seven questions all revolve around an often-unstated worry:
I’ve lived an ordinary life. I’m not famous. What possibly could I say that would interest anyone?
There is no such thing as an ordinary life. We are all survivors of something or other. We have all overcome challenges. That’s why we are alive. That’s where our greatest stories are – the ones that have taught us our greatest lessons – lessons that need to be passed on. Okay, so you aren’t famous. The only difference between a celebrity and us is this. Celebrities live out their challenges in the public eye. We don’t. Some of us want to be like them, but the irony is – we are like them, and they are like us. Aside from surface gloss, our stories are amazingly similar.
I’m convinced. I want to get that story done. How do I start?
The hardest part is the beginning. It’s tempting to start on the day you were born and move chronologically forward. This can be done, but experience shows that one thing happens and another doesn’t. What happens: You get your story down, but it lacks context. It’s flat. What doesn’t happen: people reading your story. It becomes boring too quickly.
Try this. Write your life story in themes, short 2-3 page segments that cover all aspects of a life well-lived. The very first theme focuses on an early life incident, a turning point, a fork in the road. It could be something as simple as your first day at school when you realized you had a deep hunger for knowledge. It was your opening to a different world. The next theme may be family, the third, your passions, and so on. Everything follows the first. With the end in sight, you will have a new understanding of your own life, and the power to share it with loved ones, your community, and the world. Perhaps the words of Søren Kierkegaard explains it best: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
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Richard Campbell has his M.Ed. in Adult Education and is coauthor (with Cheryl Svensson of Los Angeles) of Writing Your Legacy – The Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting Your Life Story, released worldwide by Writer’s Digest Books (Available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble locations throughout the country). Over 850 copies are now carried in over 250 U.S. libraries, most Canadian ones, as well as others in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore. Harvard and Princeton also carry the title in their library systems. Richard is a professional writer who has done freelance work for Canadian newspapers and CBC Radio. He has also appeared on several Top 50 CBS affiliate radio stations across the United States. He has sailed on several Windstar transatlantic crossings where he has offered his Writing Your Life Story enrichment opportunity. Another is scheduled for April 2018. Richard’s work has appeared in two annual issues of Writer’s Workbook as well as Writer’s Digest Magazine. A chapter from Writing Your Legacy is featured in the book Writing Voice, published in 2017 by Writer’s Digest Books. Richard runs his own business, Guided Life Stories, near Toronto, Canada. Contact him at www.guidedlifestories.com.