The Nine Best Attitudes for Memoir Writers

by Jerry Waxler

When I was still a hippie in 1970, I attended a poetry workshop at the University of California at Berkeley. A member of the group questioned a particular word in the poem I had just read aloud. I felt confused. What gave these people the right to comment on my words? All eyes were on me, and I said, “I used that word because it was the one I wanted.” The room grew quiet, and the leader jumped in. “We don’t allow that response. If you want to participate, you must be willing to discuss your choice.” But I didn’t know how to discuss my poem. It had never even occurred to me that I would need to. I slid into my own thoughts, and at the end of the class, I slipped away.

1) Accept Input

Thirty years later I grew weary of writing only for myself. To find readers, I would need to learn how my words sounded to others. So I joined a critique group. At first I felt anxious about accepting their input, but I overrode my anxiety and began to listen. Soon I realized how valuable some of their suggestions were, and my writing skill took a leap forward.

Learning to accept input was by far the most important step I have ever taken towards improving my craft. And the lesson had nothing to do with language skills. It was about receptivity. From this one life-skill, all others flowed. Here are eight of the most important.

2) Aim towards a goal

To plan the success of your memoir, visualize the top of the mountain, setting long term goals so you know where you are heading. Then break the big goal into steps, and strive to achieve each one along the way.

3) Look inside yourself

To tell your story, you must discover what goes on inside your own mind. Some of us were born curious about the workings of our mind, while others cultivate this curiosity. Meditation provides a structure for your introspective journey. Journaling also helps transfer musings from mind to page.

4) Be curious about other people

To bring your own memoir into focus, read memoirs. You’ll learn things about other people’s ambitions, dreams, disappointments. And they have much to teach you about translating life into story.

5) Embrace imperfection

Ancient artists sketched horses on cave walls. Even though the pictures were primitive, a viewer today still understands their intention. Art only gestures towards reality, and yet the effort reaches deep into the psyche and provides lasting satisfaction. So as you tell your life, look for ways to improve your representation, while at the same time accepting the artistry and imperfection of your product.

6) Give the gift of story

We go to movies, read books, gossip about the lives of politicians and movie stars. Our minds are filled with other people’s stories, but few of us give away our own. Since you have always enjoyed receiving stories, try giving some back.

7) Form and follow habits

People who only write when they are in the mood stop dead when they don’t feel like it. This approach provides sporadic results. To press forward, write every day. Instead of waiting for the mood to move you, learn to move your mood.

8) Persist

When you first start, naturally you’re full of enthusiasm. Then you run into the long middle. To finish, you must keep going. Maintain your energy by hankering for a goal that urgently calls to you, and then overcome the obstacles of fatigue, discomfort, and discouragement.

9) Dare to succeed

To write, you must use your mind as an instrument, and to write successfully you must improve that instrument as much as possible. Dare to acquire the attitudes that will accelerate your success, fearlessly moving upward towards the pinnacle of your dreams.

Note

Writing classes and conferences do not teach great attitudes. That oversight leaves many of us wondering why our writing isn’t moving forward. To fill this gap, see my self-help book for writers, “Four Elements for Writers” available from my website. [LINK]

5 thoughts on “The Nine Best Attitudes for Memoir Writers

  1. Nice, Jerry, and so true. Sometimes I think we should be grateful to the people who ’embarrassed’ us back in the day, because they motivated us to overcome that obstacle. Eventually (smile).

  2. Hi Jerry,

    I’m taking two communications classes right now, and even though I’m past 50, I see that I still have a lot to learn about relating to people.

    I like your list, especially the points about forming and following habits and persisting. If I keep practicing, maybe by the time I’m 80 I’ll be able to put my story together in a way that makes sense.

  3. The other half of a writer is the reader, but I want all the control in the relationship. It’s so hard for me to ask for (or take) criticism. Even my commas become sacred to me, and I don’t want to be questioned about them. Your post today has made me realize I need to relax my reflexes and ask for suggestions more often.

  4. Hi Linda, Marilyn, and Travelinoma, It takes courage to face the discomfort of writing. Learning language skills is for kids, or so we think, until we try to reach readers. That’s the most exciting thing about writing – it’s never perfect, and so we’re always striving. Jerry

  5. Embrace Imperfection struck me right in the “I’m not good enough” fear zone, and I liked the notion that intent is reason enough to keep going and keep trying; with effort improvement will happen.

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