Friday, July 5, 2013


Some weeks ago, one of our life story writers asked, "What are the benefits?  What are the take-aways?"

One of our other life story writers quickly responded, "Well, writing out these thoughts and stories is very cathartic for me."

"I meant what are the benefits for the reader?" the other writer countered.

This exchange perfectly characterizes much f the talk around life story and memoir writing, and in trying to address the controversy, I want to engage in a little benefit/risk analysis.

Life story writing certainly rewards its writers in a number of ways that do not stop with the writing itself.  These rewards fall into all of the different aspects of the writing:  the initial writing, the fact-checking, the revising, the sharing with others in a critique group, the sharing with your family, the publishing, and the sharing with the world.  Not all writers will choose to take all steps, but that's okay.  We simply need to remember that no endeavor is entirely without risk and reward.  We all must make the decision of how much risk we are willing to take.  Let's look at the steps one by one.

The Initial Writing:

The initial writing is the first time you begin putting your thoughts on the page.  It includes coming up with the ideas, ruminating over them a bit, and transforming the images, feelings, and memories into words (contrary to popular belief, our thoughts are not pure language).

Benefits to you:
  • Forcing your memories into words helps you organize your thoughts and makes processing what happened more manageable.
  • If you focus on making meaning out of your story, then research shows that the writing can make you significantly happier.  Chapter 7 of Jonathan Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis gives a terrific integration of the works of Beck, McAdams, and Pennebaker, who all studied this phenomenon to various extents.  If you are more interested in the relation between depression and life story (or self talk), you may find David Burns' Feeling Good, which is a portion of Beck's work, of great interest.  If you are more interested on the types of life writing that touch us, then you may want to consider reading Jamie Pennebaker's Opening Up.
  • Revisiting the events of the past can be painful, and you may end up reliving some of those past experiences in very present emotions.
  • If you don't try to make sense out of the stories, or if you can't, you may find yourself facing a bit of a crisis.

The Fact-Checking:

The fact-checking step can take several forms and is sometimes skipped altogether.  Sometimes, fact-checking is very academic.  You may research your story's background with books from home, with materials at the library, with newspapers you have access to, or with documentaries on the radio or TV.  Fact-checking may also be journalistic (although social) in nature.  You may find yourself interviewing friends and family or other people who lived through the time or experience you discuss in your story.  Alternatively, fact-checking can be very introspective.  You might spend the time rechecking your journals, old yearbooks, and scrapbooks of one type or another.

  • Sometimes looking at pictures, either your own or others, helps you remember more about the incident.
  • Speaking with others about the events may open your eyes to other points of view. 
  • Speaking with others about the events may open a connection that you will appreciate or that you didn't know was there.
  • Fact-checking can help you put the event in a different perspective.  What I mean by this different perspective is not a different point of view but a different valuing of the event itself.  In his book, Evil, Roy Baumeister contends that a major difference between victims and perpetrators is the weight that they give to certain events.  In the cases he was discussing, both the significant weight accorded by many victims and the light weight accorded by the perpetrators were skewed.  We can correct much of this skewing of events by checking the facts surrounding them and re-evaluating how much import we should actually give them (and it could be more or less).
  • Sometimes seeing events in a new light can really shake your grasp of the way things are or were.  Coming to grips wth a new perspective can be scary and make you feel ungrounded for a while.
  • Some people don't want to talk about the past, especially when or if it involves difficult events.  Remember that, although I'm sure that you care about these people and your relationship with them, sometimes you may need to explore something on your own.  If they don't want to talk about it, by all means, honor their decision.  But if you need to talk about it, work it through, etc., do not let their reluctance stop you from doing what you need to do.

The Revising:

The revising is any time that you revisit a story that you've already written for the purpose of making changes.

  • You will remember more than you did before.
  • Your writing will become more readable.
  • You may find yourself giving yourself more credit and appreciating the value of your story more.
  • There's always a moment when you look at your work and think, "What a piece of crap!"  Ignore that voice.  If you can't ignore it entirely, tell yourself, "There's a pearl inside this ugly oyster, and I can get there!"

The Sharing with a Critique Group:

There are several types of critique groups, and no one critique group is right for everyone.  Just because one group doesn't work for you doesn't mean you should give up on them all.  In the benefits and risks section, I will briefly touch on the different types of critique groups and their distinct benefits and risks.

  • Many times critique groups read their works aloud.  Hearing your written words spoken and acknowledged can have a profound effect on you.  Some people feel valued and justified when they hear their work read aloud.  Others may feel uneasy.  If you think you will feel uneasy, consider visiting a group first.  You may want to find a group that does more connecting and less critiquing.
  • When you hear your words spoken aloud, revising becomes easier.  New issues that don't work will jump out at you, and you will also be able to see what does work from your audience's reaction.
  • A critique group provides a buffer before you share with those closest to you.  If your critique group hates it, you may sting for a little, but it's much easier to bear than if your sister hates it.
  • A critique group is filled with others in the same boat.  Ideally, you want to find a critique group doing exactly what you are doing.  So if you're writing a science fiction novel for mainstream publication, you want a group of people writing science fiction novels for mainstream publication.
  • The most common risk is not finding the right kind of critique group for you.  If you are looking for the courage to write your story for your family, a critique group made up of authors writing young adult fiction for publication is probably not for you.  In fact, you may want to run for the hills after your first meeting.  Likewise, if you are looking to publish and find a critique group that only encourages and never offers any critique, you probably won't be sending successful queries.
  • The biggest emotional risk is finding a group which judges (rather than evaluates) the content of your writing and not its quality.  Now, bear in mind, evaluating content is also important in a critique group, but it is different than judging.  For example, perhaps a woman wrote a story about being too heavy to fit into her favorite dress. 
    • A judgmental comment might be: "Well, you should just have gone on a diet.  Obviously you were just too much of a pig."  This kind of judgment is obvious.
    • But this kind of judgment is less obvious: "Who wants to hear about that?  That's not important!"  It was obviously important to the woman who took the time to write it!
    • This comment, however, is evaluative although still critical:  "Who would the audience be for this piece?  I'm not sure who you're writing for?"
    • This comment is evaluative and encouraging:  "You're writing on an important topic here."  But you may need more than just encouragement.
    • This comment is evaluative and constructive:  "Wow.  This is an important topic, but I need more information to really feel it.  Can you show more of your emotion?  I also need to see the dress.  What did it look like on you before?  What did it look like when you tried it on at that moment?"
Remember that a truly helpful evaluative comment will not only talk about the content but also how that content is helped by the writing.

Benefits to others:  Now that you are finally sharing your writing with others, there are some reader take-aways as well!
  • Your writing can encourage others to continue or give them ideas to tell their own stories.  It's very hard to steal a memoir, so you don't need to worry quite as much about sharing.
  • Sharing with a group helps us build empathy for each other, for ourselves, and for those in our stories.  We all walk away enriched.
  • Brene Brown writes about the importance of courage, connection, and compassion in what she calls "wholehearted living."  Bringing your writing to a critique group takes courage.  When it is shared and when others talk about it meaningfully (evaluatively), you develop connection.  As your empathy increases. you grwo in compassion.  When we do this as a group, though, we are all enriched in ways we couldn't be alone.

The Sharing with Your Family:

There are many ways of sharing wth your family, and there are both many benefits--and many risks.  Many of these benefits and risks have to do with your own expectations and hopes as well as your own openness to hearing a different side of things and/or dealing with the emotions of those with whom you are sharing your story.  Before I even go into the benefist and risks of sharing with your family, I have two pieces of advice, which (as always) you are free to take or leave:
  1. Never share with your family until you have at least run over their possible responses in your mind and done your best to both prepare yourself and to be kind (within reason) to them. 

    By being kind, I mean that you should attempt to empathize with them and paint a balanced portrait if possible.  I do not mean that you should lie or make the truth a little brighter than it really was.
  2. Never share a story with the world until you have shared it with the people it most directly affects.  I know that it's emotionally tempting to skip sharing difficult stories with your family, and I know that the members of our Friday group know better than to skip this step, but to those of you who follow this blog who have not been to the group, please know that, as tempting as it is to just put it out there, it's often not a good idea to do so without running it by those most directly involved.

  • You may learn things that you never knew before.
  • You may feel valued and known in ways you hadn't been up to this point.
  • You may be able to give others in your family a stronger feeling of place and belonging.  The importance of this belonging has been documented in MARIAL program at Emory University. (FYI, the program has been mentioned in the New York Times, but the story itself is shortsighted on one count.  The stories that the program found that mattered were ones that involved the specific place of the individual in his or her family.  Additionally, I've read several articles that refer to this article, and they all neglect to mention that the stories were even more effective when they showed a family's fluctuating circumstances, i.e., that things don't stay bad all the time and they don't stay good either.)
  • We often come to our family with certain expectations (that we may not share), and when our experience doesn't meet our expectations, there can be some emotional discomfort.  Some of that discomfort may be fairly severe.
  • Our family may not see things the same way.
  • Our family may not want us to write our story.  Determining what is and isn't our story to tell is difficult and not something that I have completely figured out.  So far, the line I use is the potential harm or embarrassment.  I try to avoid both.  But that isn't always possible.  To some extent, when I told the stories of my children, it was about getting there first.  In other words, they had already been labelled, and I was determined to take and make that label minor and their personality and potential major.  But it's a line we all need to take seriously.  It's also one we need to decide personally.  If your family did something openly that affected you deeply, you don't necessarily need to hide that.

The Publishing:

Publishing can be a collaborative process in terms of traditional publishing, or it can be a more solitary process in terms of self-publishing.  In either case, however, there is an element of revision with an eye to the conventions of the business.  This process of seeing your work through the eyes of your genre, your publishing house, or simply the conventions of the physical book format can reveal aspects of your work that you never pondered before.

  • You see yourself as one of the others in your field--on a level with other professionals.
  • Going through the entire process really does make your book more professional, especially if you take the time to be hypercritical and thorough.
  • Putting your book in a format that others are used to seeing makes it more accessible to them.  
  • Sharing your experience with the world can help others in similar situations feel less along.
  • Sharing your experience with the world can help others who have never experienced what you have gain a little empathy or a priming for empathy with those who have had your experience.
  • You are open to more criticism on many more levels than you were before.
  • There will always be those who attack, and you will need to steel yourself or develop a plan for dealing with them.

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