Denis Ledoux redux

I’m so happy to have Denis Ledoux return to Choices. His knowledge of all things memoir is priceless. His website The Memoir Network and his books are huge resources for you who are writing memoirs now or about to get ready to start one. I wish I knew Denis when I was writing mine.

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When Denis was last here, his subject was: Writing Painful Memories: Three Tips To Make It Easier. Today he discusses Writing Your Memoir: This Might Be A Challenge. Without further ado, here’s Denis.

Writing Your Memoir: This Might Be A Challenge

by Denis Ledoux

Your initial—and perhaps most fundamental—challenge as you settle into writing your memoir will probably not be scheduling, nor discipline, nor writing itself—although these challenges are not to be dismissed. It is likely to be something more fundamental:

Your initial challenge is likely to be how you think about writing and about yourself as a writer! Without addressing this—and in a positive way, you are not likely to have an easy time of writing.

Where it began

Let’s go back to how you most likely developed your concept of yourself as a writer. Let’s go to the time when you learned to think about writing, about what made good writing, and about what was worth writing about.

You probably learned to write in high-school English class which were usually taught by teachers who were not themselves writers. Of course, they knew about “good writing.” Identifying “good writing” is what they themselves had studied in college and they had become adept at describing it. They had been trained to be critics—not writers. But…

Somebody had to teach writing in your high school, and the best choice was the former English major who was your English literature teacher. The problem the former English major faced was that the process of writing, the process of how one goes about putting a text together and creating a polished manuscript—writing—is entirely different from how one takes a finished piece—literature—apart and talks critically about it—critiquing.

Unfortunately, many—perhaps even most—high-school English teachers knew very little about this process of writing a story. They had never been taught to write as a writer, nor had they devoted themselves to lengthy creative-writing apprenticeships. Their apprenticeship was in logical writing—the essay—but how many of them had ever attempted an essay longer than a term paper? And how many had embellished their prose with images and extended metaphors? How many had gone public with readings and publications?

So how could they teach you about being a writer of a two or three-hundred page memoir that reached for style and clarity? A book that combines fact—but not logic particularly—with imagination—but not making things up. These men and women could teach you to be a literary critic as they themselves had learned to be, but how could they acquaint you with the process of taking an idea, a feeling, a memory, and transforming it, word by word, into a book-length manuscript? How could they teach you not only to feel comfortable undertaking to write a lengthy manuscript but also to be successful at bringing the writing to completion—by way of a story arc and sustained imagery and appropriate pacing?

Doing the work of being a writer

Obviously, without the apprenticeship, your teachers couldn’t think like writers. They had not done the work, never let themselves be “writers.” What they could do, however, what they were good at from having done a lot of it in college, was to critique your text—tell you what wasn’t “right” about it.

As you heard what wasn’t right about what you had painstakingly written, your confidence probably sank. You had done everything you could to make the text as “good” as it could be according to what your teachers had told you to do and now you were being told it wasn’t good enough to meet the standards of the exalted writers they had studied. Perhaps you were simply not a good writer. (Well, there was a high probability you weren’t, but isn’t that why you were in writing class to begin with: to become a good writer?)

Overvaluing the role of editor

Another consequence of having teachers who were critics rather than writers was that you learned to over-esteem the editor role. This is not to say that the editor role is not important, but the emphasis may have unfortunately impressed upon you that getting stuck in the editor/critic mode was a virtue for which you should be praised. But…

Being stuck, remaining too long, in the editor/critic mode is not good for your writing. When you are mired in the editor/critic function, you write, you re-write and re-write so as to “get it perfect.” The problem is that no one can ever gets it perfect—no one.

A better scenario would have been to have been trained to write much, write voluminously, and get your thoughts down, if not elegantly, then perhaps clearly. You needed to learn to trust your voice and your instinct. You needed not to be criticized but to be led by a sure hand, a confident sensibility, into literary creativity. You needed to be taught to collaborate with an editor rather than assume that role totally.

We must admit, to be fair to those of our teachers who could not depart from this critique model, that they themselves had been taught by former English majors who had been asked to teach writing without having the opportunity themselves to be trained as writers.

I’m not throwing stones here—I’m just trying to explain what seems to be the reality so many people have lived, the reality that makes it difficult to believe in ourselves as writers..

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Action step

Write about your writing history:

~ Who taught you to write and what were their “hang ups?”

~ What role has writing played in your life?

~ Have you felt confident in your ability to create a manuscript?

~ Do you call yourself a writer? If not, why not?

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DenisheadshotDenis Ledoux is the author most recently, of Should I Write My Memoir? and Don’t Let Writer’s Block Stop You and Write to the End / Eight Strategies to Thrive as a Writer. These are part of the Memoir Network Writing Series. A complete list of publications is available. Receive free downloads at My Memoir Education.

 

 

 

 

Thank you so much, Denis, for your generous advice. I hope my Choices readers will benefit from your experience on writing memoir.

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