The emotional benefits of writing your memoir

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Memoir writers have a few different motivations.

“I want to share my story with other people in the same situation.”

“I want to give hope to women.”

“I want to make people laugh. (Or cry… or both.)”

Something that we memoir writers sometimes think, but don’t often say, is that we may want to write our stories to make ourselves feel better.

Telling your story is a cathartic experience. It changes things in your heart. It focuses your mind. It resolves stuff.

Sometimes, it helps you clarify your present, understand your relationships, get a hold of your motivations.

Overall, it acts as a stage curtain, sweeping across one ‘act’ of your life. “This is finished now,” it says, in a dramatic way. “You can move on.”

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The physical act of writing your memoir has an effect on you that you can’t understand, and you can’t quantify until you’ve done it. Somehow, in the thinking, and the writing, and the reliving of the old experiences, you’re able to make peace with yourself.

And then, the changes happen. I’ve seen people write their stories and grow in confidence and purpose. They’re able to move forward and break new ground.

I experienced this myself several years ago. After the diagnosis of my son with a chronic condition that brought trauma to our family life for over five years, I felt like I was swirling. Things had improved, but I was still stuck in what I’d lived through.

I decided that writing my story was something I needed to do – for myself, and my own peace of mind. It did help, in remarkable ways. Even as a writer, I was surprised by the effect it had on me. Where there was mostly grief and crisis, now there was mostly peace and acceptance.

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Not everyone has a story of trauma and grief to tell. But if you’re read this, it’s likely you’ve got some kind of story itching in your heart, waiting to get out.

Maybe you’re scared of revisiting old feelings. Maybe you feel guilty for putting so much time into something that doesn’t seem that important to anyone but yourself.

But be encouraged: the simple act of writing your story is going to be powerful and transformative in your life. The more you allow yourself to go along with the process, the more you can gain from the huge emotional benefits of memoir writing.

 

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How long does it take to write a memoir?

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How long does it take to write a memoir? Both longer, and shorter than you’d think.

Many famous memoir writers had their stories swirling in their heads for years, before they even began writing.

A career full of stories

James Herriot, author of the classic veterinary stories from Northern England bored his wife for years over lunch with stories about incidents from his work as a vet. ‘I’ll put that in my book one day,’ he said, constantly.

‘You’ve been saying that for 25 years,’ she said one day. ‘If you were going to write a book, you’d have done it by now.’

Herriot took the challenge, bought some paper, and began almost immediately to write.

A life of memories

Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, a Pulitzer prize-winning memoir had thought about writing down his childhood memories for years, but his biggest fear, was that no one would think his life was interesting. When his high school writing students showed interest in his stories, however, his past ‘began to assemble itself’ in his head.

Finding his writing voice was a challenge; it wasn’t something that emerged for years, until once Frank had retired. But he always had the material, ‘circling around my head and lying there in my notebooks waiting to be tapped.’

Trial and error

The Glass Castle author, Jeanette Walls wrote version after version of her memoir over 25 years, always throwing away the pages afterwards. Finally, when she felt she was truly ready, she created a new version in about six weeks. Similarly, Mary Karr says that she threw twelve hundred pages of her memoir Lit in the garbage, and broke her delete key doing constant rewriting.

The writing process

After Jim Herriot purchased his paper, he would click clack the keys of his Olivetti typewriter in half hour bursts in front of the TV in the evenings after work.

Jeanette Walls put her hard work in on the weekends, about 11 hours a day, when she was creating her draft of The Glass Castle. She then spent five years polishing the draft before submitting it for publication. Walls writing advice is simple: “Just sit down and write. Tell the story from beginning to end. Read it out loud. It takes a lot of work to seem spontaneous.”

Acclaimed author of Eat, Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert makes a ‘two hour’ rule when she’s starting a book. For two hours every day she must not stand up: the idea is to sit in the chair and write. Whether or not she gets words on the page, she can’t move from the chair until the two hours is done.

Commitment

Every writer has a different way of getting their words on the page. The thing all successful writers have in common, however, is persistence, doggedness, and making their writing a priority.

Your memoir isn’t going to write itself. You’re going to have to put every single word of it in there on your own. What time are you committing to the writing process?

 
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How to write inner dialogue

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I had a question from a writer, who asked: What is the best way to show internal thinking? Your personal thoughts may differ from the conversation. Do the same rules for spoken dialogue apply to internal dialogue?

As we know, the 'rules' for spoken dialogue are these:

  • The dialogue must be important. (In other words, it must contribute to the overall plot of the story or development of the character.)

  • The dialogue must be authentic.

  • What's around the dialogue is just as important as the dialogue itself.

  • Dialogue needs to be written correctly.

It's pretty easy, then, to say that internal dialogue is going to follow similar rules to spoken dialogue.

Internal dialogue must be important

If the character's internal thoughts are different from what they are verbalizing in the dialogue, you can definitely argue that they are 'important'. The tension between what's said and unsaid contributes a lot to the tension of the plot and the development of the character.

Here's a  lovely example of this. (All the examples I'm using in this article are from Annie, a young writer, who's working on her first full length novel. The excerpts are in first person Point Of View, so it's very applicable to memoir writers who also use the first person POV.)

‘I mean, what was it like in the city?’
    I shrug. ‘Not that much different to here.’ Except for, my thought-voice corrects, the marching in the streets and the headlines on every newspaper declaring something important and the way everyone didn’t know your business.
    ‘I’m moving away first chance I get. Brisbane, maybe even Melbourne. Wouldn’t that be something else?’ She takes a small bite of her patty cake, almost wistfully.
    ‘Yeah.’ 
    We’re silent then, lost in our separate worlds. You don’t know anything important about her. And she knows just as much about you.

The internal voice can also be used to channel other people's voices, or talk to people who aren't actually in the room. Below we hear our character channelling her elder sister being bossy to her, and then apologising to her father. This is a lovely example of character development without the person even having to be in the room.

Instead of my mum’s voice, I hear Elsa’s inside my mind: You’ll be too tired later if you don’t go back to sleep, Alisha. After a while, she started giving the instructions. She didn’t realise I’d already been giving them to myself.
I pull The Encyclopedia of Australian Birdlife off the bedside table, nearly knocking my photo frame. Sorry, Dad, I apologise, setting it upright again.   

Internal dialogue must be authentic

When we think about internal dialogue being authentic, we need to be careful about how the thoughts are expressed. In these excerpts, our thirteen year old character has a very distinct internal voice. It often corrects her, or tells her to do act differently. It's almost a separate character in the story - the tough, misunderstood unhappy girl, who can't be shown to anyone else.  Below, her internal voice scolds her for nearly breaking out in tears, and sounds authentically harsh, as anyone who has ever scolded herself will know.

‘I know you won’t say it, so I will: I’m going to miss you, Alisha,’ she tells me.
    ‘Really?’ I’m sarcasm mingled with hope.
    Elsa nods. ‘And I’m sorry I never said good-bye.’
    For the first time, I truly want to believe her. She’s said what she couldn’t be bothered to yesterday – what she forgot. Why are there tears pricking the backs of your eyes? For heaven’s sake! ‘I … might miss you, too.’

When this character's internal voice is cynical, it can almost sound funny. Again, this is very authentic. We've all had that inner snarky voice say internally what we can't express in public.

‘Want to come over to my place and watch television?’ Mike asks as the bus pulls out of town. ‘It’s Thunderbirds today.’
    I don’t break my staring out the window to answer. ‘Can’t. I have chores and homework.’ 
    ‘Alisha?’
    ‘What?’
    He clears his throat slightly. ‘Um, I heard what Kathryn said about you.’
    Of course he did. 
    ‘It’s stupid. Who the heck would believe it?’

What's around the internal dialogue is as important as the dialogue itself

When we write with a very deep Point of View, so that everything on the page is seen, heard and experienced from the character's viewpoint, we are essentially privy to all the main character's thoughts and inner dialogues anyway. Below we see our character's internal surprise twice - when Elsa is already in the kitchen, and when she hugs her - even though it's not written specifically as internal dialogue. Annie could have written these two emotional responses as her character's thoughts, but if there were too many specific internal thoughts in the paragraph, the strength of all of them would be diluted. Yes, you can include too much internal dialogue!

Instead, Annie has saved the internal dialogue for the last sentence, 'But not to Mum' which is short and sharp and makes a powerful contrast with her spoken words, 'I might write to you.'

Elsa surprises both Grandpa and I by already being in the kitchen, eating breakfast, completely dressed and almost ready to leave, when we come in from the milking shed. When it’s time to say goodbye, when her suitcases and record player are once again packed in her car, I surprise myself by hugging her before she hugs me. ‘I might write to you,’ I whisper. But not to Mum. 

Dialogue needs to be written correctly

First, distinguish between the exact words that are thought, versus the gist of the thought of the character. 

I thought that Elsa might know what I was talking about.
I thought, Elsa might know what I'm talking about.

See the 'that' in the first example? That means it's not internal dialogue anymore, so you don't have to worry about how to format it as such. The only thing that gets formatted as internal dialogue are the exact words that are thought by the character.

A complete phrase or sentence of words which are said internally is often written in italics with no speech marks.

But not to Mum.
Of course he did.

For heaven's sake.

If the words are written with speech tags, they may either be in italics, or using speech marks, but not both. 

It’s as good a time as any for breakfast, I decide, wrapping a blanket around my shoulders as I walk to the kitchen.
'Well, that's a surprise', I think, as I see Elsa in the kitchen

 
 

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