Stop Telling Me What I Can — and Can’t — Write About.
I had a really bad time in a creative writing class I took in college.
It was my senior year and a very small class. I desperately wanted to write, but I was having huge problems even finishing one page. Everything I wrote felt clumsy, awkward, and stupid. I was also introverted, super sensitive, and just plain weird. On top of this, the other students in the class seemed to know exactly what they were doing. They seemed to be clicking with the teacher, and handing in work that aligned perfectly with her expectations.
And the teacher did have firm expectations, that much was clear. She seemed very knowledgeable about publishing and what people wanted to read. She had a lot of opinions on what we should spend our time writing, and what would be a waste.
It was in this class, for the first time, that I heard it was pointless to write about your own life. Unless you were a celebrity, of course, which no one in my class was. The celebrity exception might as well have been the same thing as telling me I wasn’t allowed to write about myself unless I was a pink unicorn who came from the planet Jupiter. I had no hope of becoming a celebrity, and no interest in it either.
But I had never thought that would matter. I didn’t want to be a rock star, after all. I wanted to be a writer.
In this class, way back in the long-lost year of 1999, I received my first big fat scoop of unhelpful writing advice. It definitely wouldn’t be the last.
This all came back to me this week when I got an email from a reader who had just finished my new autobiographical novel, Between the Shadow and Lo. He shared a story that was so similar to mine it gave me chills. He, also, took a writing class in college in which the teacher told the class they shouldn’t write about themselves or their personal experiences because “no one wants to read that sort of thing.” After reading my book, he said, he realized that he is a person who very much DOES want to read that sort of thing, and so maybe it was time to start thinking about writing that sort of thing too.
I have heard variations of this same story from clients over the years. I have to say, it seems to come most frequently from writers who have been through some sort of institutionalized academic program in writing. Professors and mentors alike have told them not to write memoir. (Unless they’re a celebrity, of course — that damn celebrity clause will never die.)
All I can say is that this really sucks.
As a person who feels called to mentor writers as a life purpose, I cannot even tell you how deeply disappointed I am when I hear about any sort of writing teacher discouraging students from writing what their souls are urging them to write. Also, in my opinion, writing memoir can be one of the deepest spiritual experiences a person can go through. Writing memoir challenges us to examine our dark places, forgive the past, open our hearts, and practice ongoing self-care. Writing memoir helps us to realize that we are all connected, and that we each have a responsibility to the planet, and to each other. Does it seem impossible that working with a certain form of writing can do all that? I promise you it is true.
I know this because I’ve gone through it. And I’ve seen my clients go through it. Writing memoir changes you. It initiates an energetic shift at the deepest levels. Writing memoir gives you an aerial view of your life, and shows you how every event in it was always part of a positive growth-oriented whole.
Besides all of this though, as writers in today’s online world, we know that the publishing landscape has changed forever. Maybe memoir didn’t outsell the Oprah book club titles in the 1990s and early 2000s, when most people still got their books from actual bookstores and everything to do with the book-selling process basically came down to storage space. But we live in a different world. Amazon has decimated the idea that if you’re going to sell books, you’re going to have to deal with the logistics of moving a stack of paper from this location to that one, and then back again.
That just doesn’t exist anymore.
Memorize this formula:
Ebooks + Internet = TOTAL AND COMPLETE FREEDOM FOR WRITERS
You can write and publish anything you want. All the advice about what “sort of thing” people will and will not read is now null and void. Thousands and thousands of people are writing about their lives and publishing their memoirs. Women who have gone through domestic violence and come out on the other side. Adventurers who moved to Alaska and forged their own pioneering life. Entrepreneurs who are still chasing the next big dream and want to document their progress thus far. People from all walks of life, with all different experiences, are writing about the things they have seen and experienced and felt.
And “that sort of thing” is the exact thing that so many readers are looking for.
If you’ve always wanted to write your memoir but you’ve been held back by doubting if anyone would want to read it, now is the time to start. Now is the time to put yourself and your story first. I can tell you from firsthand experience, you will be shocked at the amount of readers who will contact you and tell you how much your story resonates with them.
It’s true. We really are all connected.
Lauren Sapala is the author of Between the Shadow and Lo, an autobiographical novel based on her experiences as an alcoholic. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers. She currently lives in San Francisco.