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.
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.
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]