“I’ve always wanted to write a memoir.”
That’s what friends told me when they found out I was writing a memoir. Then after my memoir was published and I started speaking in public and teaching memoir writing classes, strangers confessed their desire to write a memoir as if they were revealing a long held secret.
Everyone says they want to write a memoir, and why not? Writing about your life is the best opportunity you will ever have to stand up and say this is who I am and why. It’s a brave and noble act. It’s liberating, cathartic, and for me, one of the most wonderful and rewarding adventures of my life.
There are three important things I learned during the process of writing a memoir that I believe all would-be memoirists need to know:
#1 - Somebody you know and/or love will dispute your story
Memoir writing is a lesson in vulnerability. When you write about your life experiences, you reveal deep truths about who you are, and how you perceive the world. You open your thoughts and feelings to criticism and it’s inevitable that somebody who knows you will claim that your story is wrong because they remember things differently.
My sister disputed the date of one of my stories. My mother claimed to have no memory of an event that I know happened. My aunt revealed that she was the one who sewed the hideous orange polyester T-shirts that I was certain my mother made. (What?!)
At first, I found it unnerving to be told I was wrong, but I learned that disagreement was okay. It’s completely normal for people to remember, forget and have different impressions of things that occurred in the past. A memoir writer’s responsibility is not to please everyone, but to write their story 100% to the best of their integrity and memory.
#2 - Nobody has an ordinary life
While I was writing my memoir, I worried that my life was too “ordinary” to interest anyone other than my husband, mother, and maybe my kids (if I bribed them). I fought a sinking fear that nobody was going to want to read my funny, touching, heartwarming story. The more I wrote, though, the more convinced I became that the lives of the rich, famous, and notorious were no more meaningful than my own.
I genuinely believe that there is no such thing as an “ordinary” life. You could be a teacher, CEO, nurse, waitress, or mother and your life could be filled with mystery, intrigue, drama, romance, tragedy, surprise or hilarity. Sharing your story is a powerful witness to the important lessons you have learned in your life.
#3 - Truth matters
Truth is having the courage to leave an abusive relationship. Truth is traveling somewhere you never expected to be. Truth is changing your mind about something important. Truth is taking care of someone sick. Truth is acknowledging and learning from failure. Truth is embracing the silly, embarrassing things that happen in life and letting others laugh with you. Truth is expressing what makes you feel happy, sad, hopeful, angry, blessed or empowered.
Truth is what people crave and what readers respect.
Most people will never write a memoir. But those that do understand that every person has a story worth telling and every story has the potential to make somebody think, laugh, cry, learn, and change their life for the better.
Ann K. Howley is the author of the award-winning memoir, Confessions of a Do-Gooder Gone Bad. She writes a monthly feature for Pittsburgh Parent Magazine and her essays have also appeared in publications nationwide, including skirt! Magazine, Bicycle Times Magazine, and Pittsburgh Post Gazette. She teaches writing-related classes for CCAC’s community education program and is helping to organize The Authors’ Zone (TAZ) Writers’ Conference at CCAC in September 2018. An entertaining and thought-provoking speaker, Ann loves to convince people that their lives are worth writing about.
Confessions of A Do-Gooder Gone Bad is a humorous coming of age memoir about a well-intentioned “problem child” raised by conservative, evangelical Christian parents in Southern California during the Sixties and Seventies. As she naively stumbles through her youth and young adulthood, one misadventure after another, she also struggles to reconcile her ultra-Christian upbringing with women’s liberation, prejudice, protest and poverty during this turbulent era, eventually gaining a different perspective of faith in a world more complicated, funny, terrifying and wonderful than she expected.