What to Do When You’re Afraid to Write a Memoir

I’ve always thought that writing memoir, in some ways, is easier than writing fiction because the plot is already in place. We know the major players. We know what they did or didn’t do. We know the narrative arc of a certain slice of experience. We don’t have to make anything up.

But, of course, memoir-writing comes with its own set of obstacles, particularly when we write about our families. We may find ourselves unable to write because we’re afraid of what others are going to think about us for telling family stories. Sometimes those “others” are our family members, and we may be fearful that what we will write will lead to angry words, hurt feelings, or possibly even a lasting estrangement.

At other times, we may have difficulty because we’re afraid of what looking into our own dark corners might do to ourselves. Trust me, writing a memoir will change you. You won’t be quite the same person that you were before the writing. That can be a scary proposition; it can be wonderful as well.

We also paralyze ourselves by not trusting our memories, by not knowing how to be selective when the memories finally do start to come, by finding our writing to be either flat or overwrought. Who are these people we’re trying to turn into characters on the page, and how do we fairly represent them? In countless ways, writing about ourselves and our family members (define “family” however you will) can be a very daunting task.

Here are some things you can do when the writing won’t come:


  1. Look at old family photographs. Don’t think about what you might do with them. Just look and take note of the emotional responses that rise up in you. Also take note of the things you’ve forgotten. I particularly like to look at the backgrounds of old photos. Often, the smallest details are the most provocative when it comes to stimulating our memories.


  1. Talk to someone. You might strike up a “remember when” conversation with a family member or a friend. Having a perspective other than your own can be illuminating. It can add texture to your own story. I was particularly taken with the story one of my childhood friends told about riding home from basketball games with my mother and father. He gave me a portrait of my parents when I wasn’t in their company.


  1. Look for artifacts. Land deeds, receipts, newspaper articles, books family members owned, prizes won in school, union cards, diplomas, baby books. The list goes on and on. We leave paper trails behind us. They can take us more fully into the lives we’re trying to represent.


  1. Imagine. What questions do you have about your family history? For example, I always wondered why my father rented a post office box when we moved into our little Illinois town. I had to write a personal narrative in order to try to imagine his motivations. Another good strategy is to let other people speak through you. How, for example, would you imagine your mother writing about what it was like to have you as her child? What would your father say about what it was to have his job, or to give in to the temptations of drink, or to pick up his family and move them far away from home? You can give voice and imagination to anything that has aroused your curiosity.


  1. Go somewhere. Those family homes, the schools you or your parents attended, the churches you went to, the family graves you visited, the cafes or train stations where people met and fell in love, the hospitals where people died, the bars where people danced. Go to them. If they no longer exist, stand in the places where they once were and imagine what it was like. Feel the weather around you, notice the quality of light at certain times of the day, listen for the sounds, take in the scents. Maybe you’ll even be able to find photos. Go to the local library and the local historical society. Visit family members, even those you may not have talked to in years. You might be surprised by what photos they have and the stories they might tell you.


The most important thing is to free yourself from your writing desk so you can immerse yourself in the stories you want to tell. Little by little, you’ll start to remember not only the details but the emotions, the conflicts, the complexities. As you soak up those details, you’ll reach a point where you’ll begin to write. At that point, close your door, both literally and figuratively. This is very private work. Don’t let anyone into your space, your head, your heart. Tell your story with as much specific detail and as simply as you can. Tell us your story without hesitation or fear.

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