I’ve been told it takes an average of ten years to write a memoir. If this is true, I’m right on track—maybe. Let me explain.
Ten years ago, with my new husband’s encouragement, I read his deceased daughter’s journals. Reading about this dead girl I’d never met, a young woman who died by suicide at age twenty-four, unveiled secrets and hard lessons from my past—secrets about faith, trust and honesty I didn’t want to confront. And so, a book idea was born.
Like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my story has interconnecting plots linked by a central theme. Weaving the character threads into one story has taken discipline and drive, qualities that are not obstacles for me until I’m mining the next layer of honesty in myself. Then I get lost in the forest of “Revision Times Infinity,” a place where fairies with magical potions like Puck cause me to imagine my name on the cover of a book. The book whose revision I have yet to finish.
I’m currently in the forest of “Revision Times Infinity.” Can you show me the way out?
Lost in a Midwinter Night’s Dream
Dear Lost in a Midwinter Night’s Dream,
Revision times infinity. Don’t many of us know it. There is no easy way to write a book and no exact timetable to follow, though memoirs generally take longer than fiction. Memoir poses unique challenges. Unlike fiction, where writers build truths around the worlds they’ve created, memoirists mine their experiences to excavate truths that are sometimes deeply buried. Wandering in the dark and bumping against the walls can lead to disorientation. No wonder you feel lost.
The first step in re-orienting yourself is determining what kind of book you’re writing. Some books work on us while others work through us. Writers of the latter form frequently describe their books as having been channeled. These rare projects require just as much effort, but the way forward is clear. Most memoirs are meant to change us. We’re inspired to write them because our experiences aren’t integrated. We spend years patiently picking them apart, trying to understand their meaning. As Andre Dubus III says in Melanie Brooks’s Writing Hard Stories, “Just because we know what happened, doesn’t mean we know what the hell happened.” Melanie adds, “It’s the figuring out the meaning within the chronology and understanding its impact that makes the writing part challenging.” In other words, until we know what the hell happened, the narrative arc eludes us.
I could offer the standard fare about taking classes, joining writing groups, finding beta readers, and working with professional editors, but I sense you’ve already done these things. You’re looking for something deeper.
Here’s your first question: What kind of book are you writing? (One that works on you or through you?)
Once you’ve identified the type of memoir you’re writing, envision your success. Create a collage of your narrative arc. Then create another one that reveals how you will have changed as a result of completing this project. Clip pictures from magazines or print them off the web. Get out the scissors and glue. Let your unconscious guide you as you pictorially imagine the comfortable resting place for your story. In the world of images, you may discover something that’s been evading you.
If you still feel stuck, pause. Sometimes we wander in the dark forest and feeling tricked by illusions because the ego mind is trying to defend a deeply held core belief or a traumatic experience. Fearing the examination will destroy us, the ego creates detours and impasses. If you already know this is happening, proceed with caution. Remind yourself of this book’s purpose: to change you, not the world. This work shouldn’t be rushed.
Counseling can sometimes help writers navigate these dark forests and create a safe space for an honest exploration of secrets and hard lessons. While traditional talk therapy is very useful, some writers benefit from sand tray therapy. Sand tray is an intensive form of projection therapy that bypasses the ego’s defenses. In sand tray, you arrange a series of objects in a sandbox while talking about your story. To the untrained eye, it looks like play. But in sand tray, blocks are revealed. Unexpressed emotions or needs rise to the surface so they can be attended to. By manipulating the items in the sand tray, you not only develop a new understanding of the story you’ve always told, but you can also change it at the brain level.
I’ve experienced sand tray therapy and have been trained as a practitioner. It’s a powerful healing modality. You’ll feel your feels and come away with realizations. But be forewarned. Sand tray is not for everyone. Consider it a possible source of inner guidance, but only follow this path if it speaks to you. Forcing yourself to confront things before you’re ready or for the wrong reasons (like getting published) is never helpful.
Sometimes the best thing to do when your draft is lost in the woods is to let it go. I’m not suggesting you give up on your manuscript, just that you may need more time away from it than you think. Distance may lead to new insights. Or, something may happen in your life that changes your memoir’s trajectory. While you’re waiting, write something new. Using the knowledge you’ve earned from this challenging process could be very satisfying. It could also lead to insights in this manuscript.
Dinty Moore writes about the benefits of letting go in his book The Mindful Writer. He spent four years drafting 360,000 words toward a book with unresolvable problems. When his agent finally told him to let it go, he was devastated. But within hours of releasing the manuscript he felt free. This freedom allowed him to write the book he’s most proud of.
Letting go is an act of faith. Anytime faith is involved, fear arises. Writers worry that letting go of a manuscript is a failure or that they’ll never write again. We misconstrue the work manuscripts do on us with something that must be published. We forget that personal transformation is the real miracle of memoir and that sometimes this is enough.
But you’ll tell me, I’m writing to get published.
And I’ve worked so hard.
Letting go is an act of courage. It’s living into the belief that your best work is in front of you, not behind you. It’s believing that nothing has been wasted. Anything you’ve learned over the past ten years will make your new projects even better. If this book is meant to be published, you’ll return to this manuscript. When you do, it will not only work on you but through you. At that time, a clear path out of the forest will appear.
You are a courageous writer, Lost. I have faith your wandering days will soon be behind you.
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Lisa Ellison is a writer, editor, and writing coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health and a background in mindfulness meditation. She teaches experiential workshops on The Art of Forgiveness and The Gifts of Grief as well as classes in memoir and creative nonfiction through WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Lisa is passionate about fostering authors’ creativity. Whether she’s working one-on-one or with a class, Lisa uses her knowledge of craft and love of human relationships to empower writers as they approach the page. Clients and students have commented that Lisa’s insights as well as her compassion and heartfelt encouragement have helped them achieve creative breakthroughs and complete their projects. Learn what writers have to say about working with Lisa.