I always say that memoir is the most dangerous thing you can write. You sit down, spill your heart onto the page with the best intentions, and the next thing you know you are getting angry emails from your former mother-in-law, cease and desist letters from Grandpa Joe, or dirty looks from Cousin Ned over the Thanksgiving table. But why? You’ve done nothing wrong. You’ve relived your pain, retold the wrongs you’ve suffered, and when the mind became cloudy, as it often does, you invented a little here and there. Maybe a conversation you had with your ex-husband over dinner seventeen years ago, maybe the exact words you used when you told your mother you were pregnant—we all take harmless liberties with our history. It’s how the human mind remembers: equal parts memorization and emotion. There is a wide divide between reality and remembering, and the memoirist is often left alone in his or her struggle to straddle that gap.
That’s why organizations such as the National Association of Memoir Writers, or NAMW, are so vital to a memoirist’s world. It’s the most important thing you can do for yourself as a writer: surround yourself with other writers. And for memoirists in particular, it’s often therapeutic to meet and converse with others who are facing the same challenges.
I was fortunate enough to talk with the President and Founder of NAMW, Linda Joy Myers. Here is our interview:
Q: Can you describe a little bit of what the National Association of Memoir Writers does? (For people who aren’t aware of the organization?)
A: We at the National Association of Memoir Writers are passionate about memoir writing in particular, and all writing, literature, and books. Most of us are the kind of people who have books piled up everywhere, and many of us were the kind of kids who read books under the covers with a flashlight! We know that memoir writers need extra support for writing those true stories, for being so exposed when they write, and they also need to know the current knowledge in the field of memoir and creative nonfiction writing. We offer over 15 member benefits when people join NAMW, including special monthly member teleseminars with amazing experts—Jennifer Lauck, Sue William Silverman, Denis LeDoux, Mark Matousek, and many more authors, agents, marketing experts, and publishers.
Memoir writers often find themselves on a path of self-exploration, even if they wanted to write a humorous memoir, so another goal is to give them that kind of deep emotional support through the teleseminars and tele-workshops we offer. An ongoing benefit is connecting with each other by phone through various kinds of teleseminars, and in the future through webinars and video conferencing. The new technologies and social media are offering more ways to connect and support each other as writers and creators. Members have access to free ebooks on the craft and process of writing and over 70+ audios created over the years from all our experts since NAMW began as resources. The amount of learning available is unique and wide ranging, and we are happy to provide as much as we can to help writers from all over the world get their memoir written, whether it’s for family, for their own healing and learning, or to be published and shared with the world.
Q: How did you come to create NAMW? Where did the inspiration come from and how did you start the process?
A: I’ve been a therapist most of my working life, and kind of a closet writer, as my inner critic didn’t allow me to think about writing seriously until much later. As I attended book readings through the years, I discovered that all authors and creative people have that inner critic voice, and there they are—at the bookstore holding their published book! So I began writing a story about three generations of mothers who abandoned their daughters, and how I broke that pattern. I wrote it messily and in fiction writing groups—that’s all there was then—in the middle of trying to heal the aftermath of coming from a fractured family. This was nearly 20 years ago, before the big memoir boom. I saw that writing a memoir was very different from writing fiction, and realized after my memoir was published how important it is for memoir writers to have their own support system. I discovered that there were online organizations for other kinds of writing, so why not memoir? I have to admit I didn’t know what I was building or how time consuming it would be. That’s a good thing—because sometimes we need to just jump off the cliff into the full ocean of our inspiration and start swimming!
I have made many new friends through creating NAMW, even though I have never met them in person, and I’ve been lucky to find an amazing team to help me with the technical aspects of an online organization. I celebrate all kinds of learning and expertise, and enjoy all the new edges of technology myself. Blogs, social media, e-publishing—it’s all changing, and memoirs and the word “I” are no longer slightly shabby and unacceptable cousins to the god of fiction. It used to be that if you wanted to be a respectable writer you had to write fiction, but things have changed a lot, though even now, a snarky editor or book reviewer strikes out at the personal storyteller and puts down the genre. Now we can just laugh, and keep writing!
I saw that writing a memoir was very different from writing fiction, and realized after my memoir was published how important it is for memoir writers to have their own support system. I discovered that there were online organizations for other kinds of writing, so why not memoir? — Linda Joy Meyers
Q: How important is it for memoir writers to surround themselves with other writers in the same genre?
A: As I mentioned, I attended various fiction workshops as I was writing Don’t Call Me Mother, and I attended a lot of poetry workshops as well, including some by Galway Kinnell. Poetry is helpful because it helps to find words for the liquidity of human experience; it focuses on moments and sensual experiences that cup a moment of time in your hands.
Fiction writers, though they write in prose and use the kinds of techniques that memoir writers are urged to adopt, have a different mindset: they can make things up! We all know that memoir writers have a particular task—to mine their memories and their hearts for the nuggets of truth that illuminate their personal experience. Memoir writers are essentially asked to unzip themselves and stand exposed before the world saying, “This is my story. This happened to me.” There is very little hiding that can be done, and that puts memoir writers into a unique mental space, one often fraught with anxiety and more than the usual inner critic voice—because the “critic” is often the family too, and friends and the home town whispering, “It didn’t happen that way.” Or, “that’s wrong.” Or “How dare you expose us like that!”
When memoir writers gather together, we can swap stories of truth and depth of experience as real manifestations of who we are as people, and in that is great freedom and immediate emotional support. As I say to my workshop students the third week of class, “Isn’t it amazing how well we all know each other after just a couple of stories?” There is a deep and immediate bonding, and of course I endeavor to create a safe space and trust in each group. NAMW is about providing a safe space as well as the tools and techniques needed to write a memoir. Some writers may later decide to fictionalize their story, which can be a solution to the dilemmas memoir writers face. I talk about this in my book The Power of Memoir and in my new book Truth or Lie. I don’t consider it any kind of cop-out because each story and each writer need to find the right form, and there are many situations where it would seem undesirable to present the story as “the truth.” It’s wonderful that we can choose the best voice and form, but for many, part of the power of their story is that it is indeed true. You know, the old saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Memoir is also one way to share the truths of our human experience as fiction has done for so long. However, people these days seem to hunger for “real” stories. Perhaps it is a way of connecting with each other on a deeper level, a curiosity about how each of us is making our way on the journey of life.
Q: I know NAMW does a lot of wonderful workshops for its members, which are the most requested, most popular?
A: We offer 9-week long writing workshops conducted online and by phone. Through our teleseminars, we have presented workshops on techniques such as structure, plot, description, and how to begin memoir. The longest running writing workshop is Writing a Spiritual Autobiography-Healing Memoir. One of the amazing and wonderful aspects for me as president of NAMW is connecting with other writers and experts in writing—memoir, nonfiction, poetry, and fiction writers in our monthly member teleseminars and the free roundtable discussions that anyone can sign up for. It means a lot to me to inspire the members of NAMW to write, share, support, and learn. Writing a memoir is a long journey and one that has meaning and satisfaction beyond most things I know of. Our society I think is hungry for meaning, and we yearn for stories that inspire us—why else would there be such a boom, not only in memoir writing but in sales of memoirs? I think something interesting is going on in the world right now!
Q: Can you describe what you mean by a spiritual autobiography?
A: A spiritual autobiography/healing memoir is a way to explore who you are and your philosophy of life. A spiritual memoir draws those who search for meaning and purpose, and who want to learn about themselves and understand their place in the world. Part of their search may be to understand the spiritual and psychological themes in their life. A spiritual memoir is about growth and transformation, and the amazing lessons learned.
Q: Do you think there is ever a risk of a memoir being too cathartic?
A: In a first draft, you tell it like it is/was, and open the floodgates to invite out of you the hidden stories and memories of your life. Research has been done on the healing power of writing the truth, which I discuss in two of my books—The Power of Memoir and my first book Becoming Whole. The benefit of writing a memoir is that the process can help us understand ourselves better, and gain a new perspective on the past and even our identity. As many writers know, so many times when we sit down to write about x, we end up writing about y and z. Something comes through us and lands on the page—information, insights, and even memories that were not in our conscious mind. This is the magic of opening to just be with the stories. Dr. James Pennebaker, who has done the major research on the power of writing to heal says, “Story is a way of knowledge.” I found that to be a profound statement of truth about the writing process. The story will take us to where we need to go, the story we are telling has a power to guide us toward what we need to say. All we need to do is get out of the way and allow the flow to happen. After the first draft, the writer looks at what’s there, and writes another, and another draft. During the process of crafting a memoir, it becomes clear what voice, tone, and content is needed. In the final drafts, of course the reader will be considered because the work has been shaped and is ready for the world.
Q: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received that you’d impart to others?
A: Read, read, read. Get your writing on the page and out of your head! Write that “shitty first draft.” You see, I can’t just quote one piece of good advice—but I think the most important point is not to linger in agony over where to begin, how to start your book, or the idea that you are writing a personal story. No one will know what you are writing about until you tell them. I advise that people create a sacred safe space where they can dig into the layers of their memory and story without alarming the inner and the outer critics. Look at photos, read your journals if you want to, do character studies of people who meant a lot to you, or list your favorite moments. List your dark nights of the soul. Grab a thread and start writing. Write vignettes, small stories, without worrying about where they fit. Just write. You can quilt them together later.
Our motto at NAMW is “Be Brave—Write your Story Now!” That’s the best advice I know.
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