• Marion Roach Smith
  • How to Write Memoir? 1. Forget Writing Prompts and Exercises 2. Stake Out Your Territory
How to Write Memoir? 1. Forget Writing Prompts and Exercises 2. Stake Out Your Territory
Written by
Marion Roach Smith
February 2012
Written by
Marion Roach Smith
February 2012

NO MORE WRITING EXERCISES. I mean it. If you are going to learn to write memoir, you need to learn to write with intent. To do so, the first step is to chuck out any writing prompts or exercises you are using, and write for real.

When you practiced with prompts, something always flowed, though all of it remains in some notebook. Much like playing tennis with a pro who hits every shot right to you, those exercises convinced you that you had this writing thing nailed. But then you found that when alone in a room trying to write, it’s mind-slammingly hard. Sound familiar?

Writing is good, honest work. And it cannot be reduced to generic writing exercises and pre-fabricated prompts. And ask yourself these questions: Have any of those ditties ever gotten you where you want to be as a writer? After reading one of those books of exercises, or subscribing to yet another web-based, prompt-list newsletter, have you actually finished that letter to your child that you long to give her, or sent that personal essay to your local public radio station? I doubt it. I suspect that those manners of nonsense have instead stolen what little time you had for writing.

Ditching the prompts to write with intent is number one of the ten point Memoir Manifesto I posted here on Monday.

What’s number two? Stake out your territory. Memoir is about territory. You have it. You just might not realize what it is. So let’s define it and walk its borders, because it’s smaller than you think.

Your territory is defined by the areas of your expertise, whether your expertise be as a sister, mother, wife, lawyer, accountant, someone who is living with a child you has an illness, someone who is in recovery, or your version of life as a gardener. These are your areas of expertise, and if you look at memoir this way, you will choose to tell smaller tales within your own territory and succeed, rather than trying to tell one big story that will not.

So, what would someone who writes, and who teaches writing, write about when writing with intent and within her territory? I asked the great Katrina Kenison, author of The Gift of an Ordinary Day, to chime in. Delighted to be asked to contribute to SheWrites, she obliged, sending this.  

The theme of my life this winter can be summed up in a word:  practice. Two-thirds of the way through a memoir, with another four chapters to go and a deadline less than two months away, I have made a commitment to writing practice. But I am a slow writer, never certain of the way forward, and so I have no choice but to practice patience.

Waiting for words to come, trusting that if I stay here long enough, the next sentence will find its way home to me, requires a certain kind of faith. Faith in mystery and faith in the process -- and so I practice faith, too.  Faith, it turns out, takes quite a lot of practice. 

Yoga practice makes my writing practice possible; in order to sit for hours, I must first get up and really move. 

Breathing practice fuels the yoga practice; without the union of breath and movement, yoga is just exercise, and I need a little more sustenance from my practice these days than a few leg lifts would provide. 

Meditation practice guides me back to my writing, for before I can write so much as a line, I must listen.  And in order to listen, I must practice stillness. 

Stillness is a challenge, possible only when I practice discipline, for stillness is so not my nature.  Discipline practice leads me back to my yoga mat day after day, and then it hustles me right back upstairs, to my spot against the bedpillows and my laptop balanced on my knees, and the words on the page, and the view out the window. 

I look at the dark curve of mountains against the winter sky, hear the whoosh of wind curling around the corner of the house, the ticking clock, the soft, steady breath of my dog asleep on the rug, and I practice gratitude, for really, what could be better than this – this life, this moment, this practice of pausing and noticing and saying “thank you”?

I used to think of my life in terms of the various  roles and responsibilities that made me me: there was motherhood, house work and editing work and writing work, marriage, exercise, spirituality, friendship.  Lots of expectations to juggle and jobs to tackle and experiences to either embrace or endure or reject.  And never, ever, enough time to fit it all in or get it all done.  Writing was always the first thing to go.  How could I sit alone in a room typing words on a screen when there were so many more “important” things I should be doing instead?  

But with only a slight shift in imagination, everything has changed.  I’ve come to see my life for what it is -- not some elaborate story I’ve told myself a thousand times, but simply this: an opportunity to practice. 

And suddenly, there is plenty of room and all the time in the world for me to do the only thing I need to do --   keep practicing. 

You can read more Katrina Kenison at http://www.katrinakenison.com

Tomorrow: The Memoir Manifesto, points 3 and 4.

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  • Marion Roach Smith

    Hi, Barbara.

    Many thanks. Lovely to meet you here. Yes, seeing what is truly important is a grace, as well as a great place to write from.

  • Barbara Amaya

    such true words about that shift in imagination, sometimes when that happens we see what is truly important

  • Marion Roach Smith

    Hi, Pamela. Lovely to meet you here.

    Be hospitable, Pamela -- to your talent, your time, and your product. Treat it like a relative you like. Ha!

    Seriously. Be good to it and take it seriously. 

    Let me know how it goes.

  • Pamela Olson

    Love this post -- thank you. It's something I needed to read right now. I finished a memoir called Fast Times in Palestine last year, after three and a half years of work. But since then I've stagnated, spending all my time in the million ways of marketing the existing book (which, OK, is necessary, but not often fun, and not writing), putting out fires (which can be endless if you let them), and generally not using my time as efficiently as I can -- which means my forms of stillness and practice -- which are some of the best parts of life -- too often get thrown out the window. Only when I schedule something and pay for it -- like my weekly ballet class -- do I take it seriously. And that ain't right.

    Enough of that. Time to practice practicing. :)

  • Marion Roach Smith

    Hi, Jessica. Thank you for reading my irreverent little book. I'm delighted it helped. You are most welcome. Please come see me at www.marionroach.com for all-memoir all the time.

    Hi, Diane. Yes, I am. I am invested in the success of everyone I teach. I love the "no nonsense" label. I might get a button that says that. Thanks.

  • Diane McElwain

    Wow, thanks for your comments.  You are straightforward and no nonsense.

  • Jessica Rachel

    I read The Memoir Project! It captured one of my issues so perfectly: perpetually seeking out prompts and writing advice but never really accomplishing anything. After reading the book, I felt more challenged to PUT DOWN THE MEMOIR BOOKS. And write. Thank you so very much for sharing your wisdom! My memoir is newly (self-)published, but now I (hopefully) carry your lessons with me as I write blog posts and the like. Thank you!

  • Marion Roach Smith

    Hi Jeannette and Amy.

    Many thanks for your comments. The comparison of prompts to vacuuming made me spit my tea right onto the computer screen, laughing so hard. Nice. I think you'll do fine as a writer, Jeannette. Just write like that. 

    Yes, Amy, do not let your work be the first to go. I always tell my students to be hospitable to their work. Think about it. Try some hospitality.

    If you're interested, I have a new book out on writing memoir. It's called The Memoir Project, A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text on Writing & Life. Please consider having a look.

    And write on.

  • Jeannette LeSure

    While I agree that we can get carried away and even use prompts and exercises as effective avoidance techniques to tell ourselves, well, we ARE writing something, I found two books and a couple of classes to be enormously helpful in getting me going on my own. Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way and The Right to Write both have helped me in the past, and both occasionally help me now. I think that TAW gave me a framework, as a wife and mother, to carve out space for myself and to begin to simply get back to writing each day. My morning pages from back then were the food for my earliest memoir-writing attempts. And TRW I use to this day when I feel suddenly stuck. I open the book randomly and perform an exercise. It always works for me--but that's me. And each of my two day seminar classes had some fantastic prompts from which I found a jungle of material to develop memoir pieces. Those classes and prompts helped me find my own voice, and they simply triggered  some rich memories.

    That said, I will be circular here and admit that sometimes I've used prompts, just as I have used vacuuming, suddenly cleaning all the windows in the house and the decision to, oh, call a friend out of the blue after ten years, as excuses.

    I'm looking forward to reading every one of your manifestos, though!  And I have no doubt at ALL that I'm going to find help here as I slog away. I'm taking an eight week class in memoir-writing to help me simply keep working and to get help working out the focus and other issues. Having you, too, as I go along--a wonderful opportunity.