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  • Writing a Memoir was Harder than I Thought it Would Be by Jennifer B. Monahan
Writing a Memoir was Harder than I Thought it Would Be by Jennifer B. Monahan

Writing a Memoir was Harder than I Thought it Would Be

By Jennifer B. Monahan

Writing a memoir should be easy, right? After all, you already know the storyline, you know who the characters in the story are, and you know how it is going to end.  You may have to make some decisions about which parts of the story you keep in or leave out, and you might decide to modify a few aspects of the different characters to protect their privacy, but all in all, you should be able to just open up your laptop, start writing and have something written fairly quickly.

Except it isn’t that easy.

I’ve written two memoirs to date.  The first one, This Trip Will Change Your Life: A Shaman’s Story of Spirit Evolution, was published in November 2016 by She Writes Press and won six literary awards.  My second, Where To? How I Shed My Baggage and Learned to Live Free, came out this past April and has won one award to date.  Each of my books tells a story that needed to be told. I know that each will help others on their journey, which is the reason I wrote them in the first place. However, each was difficult in its own way.

I wrote my first memoir in about seven weeks.  The only reason why I was able to write it that quickly was because I had been in a bad accident and was stuck alone in my apartment on my couch for several months.  I couldn’t work, didn’t have a TV, and, except for when the painkillers knocked me out, had absolutely nothing to distract me from writing.  (I don’t recommend this writing approach to anyone!)

The book describes my journey to learning about and being trained in shamanism by a Mayan shaman.  I used a diary format and described my training, my shamanic journeys, my doubts and fears, and how exhilarated I would feel when I’d do some shamanic work for someone.  All of this “woo woo” stuff was in complete contradiction to my life as an executive at one of the top consulting firms in the world…which brings me to my first challenge: I was terrified of people reading the book and thinking less of me, ridiculing me, or worse, rejecting me. This fear was so big that it took a lot of encouragement from friends for me to even consider publishing the book.

I hadn’t told anyone at my work about my shamanic side.  In my mind at that time, I didn’t think the two could exist.  I thought that my credibility as a consultant would be severely undermined by the disclosure of my shamanic practice.  Who would want to work with a consultant that “sees things” and “talks to rocks”?  I so deeply believed this that I kept quiet about the book (and my shamanic practice) with my work colleagues and didn’t tell anyone about it until I decided to resign a couple months before publication. The day before pub day, I flew to Guatemala so I could be far away from any negative backlash that might come my way.

I discovered that it took a lot of courage – and a lot of deep breaths and a sense of humor – to tell and publish your story.
I wrote my second book in about three months, mostly from a hammock in a little thatch-roofed hut in the Guatemalan jungle. (This is a much better approach to writing!) I had had enough people reach out to me after reading my first book saying that they wanted to learn more that I felt motivated to write a second one.

On the surface, my second book reads like a great travel memoir.  I wrote about the time I spent in Guatemala, Japan, Cambodia and Thailand after giving up my San Francisco apartment and deciding to spend a year or so traveling around the world. But the sub-story was much deeper: I wrote about one of the greatest losses in my life that was brought up as a result of my travel and spending time with the locals.

I had thought that I had worked through this loss, and to some extent I had.  But the situations I experienced on my physical journey highlighted the work that I still had to do to release the loss. This brought up the second and third challenges I faced: To be an effective memoir writer I needed to bring readers along with me mentally and emotionally.  They needed to feel as if they were walking in my shoes, experiencing my journey with me.  And to do that, I had to completely open up – something that also scared me.

Did I mention that this was one of the greatest losses I had experienced in my life?

Experiencing the life lesson was difficult enough, but then to write about it – and what had happened in the past – required me to not only relive the loss but also write about it in such a way that readers would connect with me and feel my pain.  I couldn’t merely say, “I am sad.”  I had to go into the details, which meant that I had to sit in my pain and my loss and figure out how to articulate something that many people have not experienced.  That took more courage than I had anticipated, and there were days where I was incapable of writing at all because my grief was so deep. My goal was to tell my story in such a manner that I brought the reader along but did not paint myself as a victim.  I knew I had succeeded when one of my readers wrote me and said that they had cried with me during part of my book.

Writing a memoir takes a lot of courage.  If you’re thinking of writing a memoir, here are some suggestions to help you through the process:

Start first by figuring out why you are writing your memoir.  Are you looking to help others? Record something for family prosperity? Use writing as a therapeutic release? Whatever it is, keep that in mind as you write.  It can be very easy to start to stress about what you’re doing, but if you keep the “why” in mind, it can help relieve that stress and keep you motivated with your writing.

Surround yourself with a few carefully selected friends and family members that you know will beam love and acceptance to you throughout the writing and publishing process.  They will be your cheerleaders when you’re facing writers’ block, reliving an old experience or questioning what you have gotten yourself into.

Pick one person – two at most – to be your sounding board and support system.  This needs to be a person that you trust explicitly and know will give you honest feedback. He or she will be the person with whom you share your fears, gives you their shoulder to cry on, and reminds you of your “why.” He will read your drafts and let you know whether or not you hit the mark in a gentle loving manner that honors any pain you may be experiencing as a result of writing.

Be gentle with yourself.  If you are writing about hurts, know that wherever you are on your healing journey the writing process will stir up some emotions that you will need to process and release. Give yourself the time to do this.  Take deep breaths. Go for a walk.  Look for the gifts that came from your experience.  Do whatever you need to do so that the writing process helps you continue to move forward in your life.

I wish you all the best in your writing!

About the Author

Jennifer B. Monahan is a business strategy consultant, shaman and coach who helps people all over the world live courageous lives. Her first book, This Trip Will Change Your Life: A Shaman’s Story of Spirit Evolution (She Writes Press, 2016), has won six literary awards, including two first-place Body, Mind, Spirit Book Awards and a 2017 National Indie Excellence Award. Her second book, Where To? How I Shed My Baggage and Learned to Live Free, was published in April 2019, and describes her personal journey through Guatemala, Japan, Cambodia and Thailand as she faces down some of the greatest losses in her life.

She is a regular contributor to Medium.com, Sivana East, and has had articles published on MindBodyGreen.com and Inc.com. Her podcast, Living A Courageously Authentic Life, can be found on BlogTalkRadio.com, and focuses on a variety of topics to help others be true to themselves.

She holds a BA in Mass Communications from the University of Bridgeport (CT), an MBA in Marketing from the University of Connecticut, a Masters in Natural Health from Clayton College, and completed an accredited coaching program through Coach U. Her shamanic training began with a Mayan shaman in Mexico and then expanded to include shamans in Guatemala and her own personal guides.

She currently splits her time between the United States and Guatemala when not traveling and is in the process of writing her third book, a handbook for people looking to define, create and live their courageously authentic life. You can find her online at www.SpiritEvolution.co.


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  • Hyba Revising

    Some really great tips in your article! I am planning on writing a memoir-type book (not really for publishing, just for family) and I will definitely be keeping some of these things in mind when I finally get around to it! Thank you for sharing this!