We all have that one writer friend who shares pictures on Instagram of them in a café holding a full latte beside their laptop captioned, “Having a great writing day!” or “3 chapters done this morning already!”
If those posts make you roll your eyes because unlike the gleeful café writer, you’ve come up on road blocks that have either detoured, derailed, or dead-ended your writing, take heart: plenty of other aspiring memoirists go through the exact same thing—and for good reason.
How Do Writers Happen Upon Roadblocks, Detours, and Dead Ends ?
Memoir is a tricky genre; because you’re writing about yourself and your life, it challenges you emotionally as well as intellectually and artistically. Addressing your past and your relationship to it, and then having to craft it into a readable story requires stamina, fortitude, and resilience in sometimes Herculean amounts.
Being human means you may not be a gleaming bundle of awesome every time you sit down to write. In fact, you may more commonly feel like the exact opposite.
The writers who do publish their memoirs aren’t special, magical, or lucky to be so unaffected. They simply have found ways to confront their own roadblocks so they aren’t held back from writing their memoirs.
[This blog showcases famous writers’ methods for overcoming writer’s block].
And that’s the not-so-secret secret: as an aspiring memoirist, if you want to write your story, you have to learn what’s blocking your way so you can get around and through to the other side. Because (spoiler alert), the road blocks, detours, and dead ends do not go away on their own.
The 6 Things That Stop Aspiring Memoirists From Writing Their Stories
These 6 issues—ranging from psychological barriers to practical constraints—are typically responsible for stopping writers from telling their stories.
The great news is once you’re aware of what’s stopping you, you’re in a much more powerful position to overcome it so you can successfully write your story.
1. Self-Doubt and Fear of Being Judged:
Self-doubt and fear of others’ judgement as a combo package are one of the most insidious roadblocks for an aspiring memoirist.
Unlike novel and short story writers, who can tell as much truth as they want but are protected by the veil of fiction, memoirists not only have to write the truth but then have to stand behind it as the protagonist of that real story.
This intimacy is what makes memoir so powerful and attractive to readers. They feel a connection with you, the teller of the story, and develop a relationship with you.
In order to foster this connection, however, you must hazard your real details, thoughts, and feelings. The outcome is beautiful and noble, but the journey to get there can be a lot to bear.
If you pause to consider the ramifications of sharing so much, a common protection mechanism that crops up is to downplay your own contribution or ability.
- Who’d want to read about my life anyway?
- I’ll bet someone else has already written about this same thing and way better.
- I’m not that interesting
- I can’t write my way out of a whole series of paper bags.
And so on.
From there, it’s a short hop to an invasion of the “what ifs”:
- What if I write my memoir and people laugh at my ineptitude as a writer, leave bad reviews, or troll me on social media?
- What if my friends or family get upset because they remember things differently?
- What if I spend all this time and effort writing my memoir and no one reads it?
You’ve probably experienced your share of the “what ifs;” they are insidious and can scare the pen out of any writer’s hand.
Once you erect this roadblock, it’s a lot easier to talk yourself out of telling your story, thereby removing yourself from scrutiny or others’ perceived judgement.
Self-doubt and fear of judgement aren’t a mere roadblock for most writers; they’re a dead end and have stopped many an aspiring memoirist from ever completing their books.
But you can clear the path by doing one simple thing:
- Begin each writing session by reminding yourself of why you want to write your memoir and what it will give you. Take a few moments to reinforce your conviction and what prompted you to begin this journey.
Then when you begin the writing, keep your eyes, face, and thoughts trained on the work as if you’re looking through a tunnel.
Your story will be all that matters. Let yourself go inward. Treat this time as a meditation on your past and a connection to you in the present.
When the self-doubt or fear of judgment creep into your body, which they will do the moment you remove your tunnel vision, return to reminding yourself how important this work is for you and how meaningful your story will be to your readers.
The “what ifs” can kiss your grits. You’ve got work to do.
2. Time and Commitment:
Writing a memoir demands that your book be top of mind and an integrated part of your life during the writing. Having to project manage your schedule, learn and apply memoir writing craft, hold yourself accountable, and dive deep into your memories and intellectual and emotional interior is a lot to manage for an already overloaded person.
- If you like to write when the iron is hot or the mood strikes, unless you’re being struck by hot moody irons on a continuous basis, your book is not going to get written.
- If you try to squeeze in your writing time amid appointments, childcare, work obligations, and all else, you’re going to burn yourself out purely in the scheduling before you get started.
The venerable William Zinsser cautions against this approach in his excellent book, On Writing Well. [What luck that the 30th edition of Zinsser’s book is available for free and in full HERE.]
If the writing is not made a priority with its own time slot in the schedule, before you know it, thwuup, that day’s writing will be sucked down the drain and gone forever.
(One of the chief reasons our Write Your Memoir in 4 Months program came into being was too many aspiring memoirists were having trouble finding the time and wherewithal to get to the writing on their own. Letting us take care of the scheduling, learning and step-by-step planning of the story so the writer is freed up to focus on the writing is for many a huge relief!)
If you want to write, you must make a commitment to yourself. Fashion up a contract or a manifesto like artist and writer Lenka Clayton did for her “Artist Residency in Motherhood.”
Decide that for the period of X months you will invest the 30 minutes to 1 hour per day to do this work. Emphasizing the word “investment” helps as it puts energy into the awareness that the time spent will pay off exponentially later on.
(Pro tip: it will pay off each day that you write as well).
A “set-it-and-forget-it” writing schedule is the most freeing thing you can do. Make an appointment with yourself in your calendar, and treat it like you’re off to see the dentist. Be punctual. Show up having flossed. Wear a clean shirt. Do this, and your writing will know to show up too.
3. Emotional Challenges and Trauma:
One of the reasons writing memoir is so challenging it is requires you to hazard your emotional interior and revisit past events of your life. Some of these memories may be joyful and fun to remember and recount; others may be painful or traumatic, making them hard to confront.
Even if you are aware you’re returning to your past life with the purpose of finding clarity, meaning, and healing, and you’re aware that the work you’re doing is important and necessary, your unconscious mind may toss out every reason in the world for you to avoid writing.
The good news in this roadblock is your kitchen sink will be sparkling and that back closet shelf will never be so tidy again.
The bad news is the more you hold yourself back from the writing, the more the roadblock detours you straight to a dead end, and your memoir doesn’t get written.
- Spend some time before you begin writing building up your courage by reading aphorisms and quotes from other memoirists you admire.
- Note your own “quotes” in a journal before beginning or any time you want to stop.
These few minutes of emotional preparatory work will set you up for a stronger emotional center and more successful writing overall.
4. Perfectionism and High Expectations:
It’s an interesting situation unique to writers that we often hold our first thoughts to the same high standard to which we would hold a published book.
It’s a funny phenomenon; you wouldn’t go to your child’s gymnastics meet and snark about the six year olds with the expectation that they’d be Olympic level (How embarrassing; little Chelsea totally didn’t stick that landing!), but we absolutely do this with our first drafts.
The irony is this: you want your first draft to be a mess, a true dog’s breakfast. It should be full of fragments, misspellings, and dangling ideas because if you’ve done your job, you’ve gotten into an unchecked flow, and that’s where the energy is.
Yet most people, upon seeing this train wreck of words, freak out that it’s not the crisp clean writing we know we’re capable of.
This “friction intersection” of what we want to see pouring out of us against what has actually poured out of us is where we lose many an excellent aspiring memoirist.
The disappointment and ensuing bleak pit in your core from all the dark judgy feelings roiling around can simply be too much to bear.
Holding our early drafts to a high expectation (or any expectation) is a recipe for not only a roadblock, and not even a dead end, but a big fat sinkhole. It’s a trap many people fall into, one that stifles creativity and blocks the flow of ideas to the point of the writer commonly abandoning their project altogether.
You must back up from your perfectionist ideas and look at your writing as a process. Consider writing a staircase; each step you take takes you one step higher on your way to the top.
You must also allow yourself the grace and the patience to let each step of the process happen in its own right time.
Know this: the best ideas come from the messiest first drafts. Once you begin refining the material, over time and with subsequent drafts, your ideal of your writing will merge with the writing itself. When they finally meet at the apex, your book will be ready for publication.
5. Ramifications of Writing About Others
One thing every aspiring memoirist must do is come to terms with the ramifications of writing about the people in your life.
The fear of hurting people or getting sued is a common roadblock, one that stops innumerable aspiring memoirists from writing their stories.
But here’s the thing: you have every right to tell your story, and you can take precautions to protect those who factor into it to keep both them and you safe.
There are a few specific things you can do to protect your friends and family and you from emotional or legal harm:
- Treat your on-page friends and family fairly and with empathy. To do this, use a warm and generous tone when seeking to explore what may have motivated them to act or behave certain ways. This goes a long way toward creating them as “round” characters.
- Show rather than tell, particularly if you’re not able to paint them with generosity (for example, if someone did something bad toward you or someone else)
- Change names and identifying characteristics. While your story must be true, it is also widely accepted and encouraged that you reroute physical attributes to protect the real identities of those who appear in your book.
- Where possible, show your friends and family the drafts in advance. This allows them to see how they’ve been portrayed before the book is made public and gives them the chance to live with the idea of being in your book as well as give you notes or feedback that you may use to change the work.
Also you must be honest with yourself; if you are angry or hurt and can’t write about others without laying blame or painting them in a negative light, you may wish to fictionalize your story so you’re free to tell the truth and not lose relationships or get sued.
6. Lack of Structure and Guidance:
Yet another reason memoir is such a challenging form is it is almost two genres in one: you’re telling your real-life story but the story must include a 3-act structure to convey a compelling narrative, characters, setting, engaging prose, and a dynamic persona such as you would find in a novel.
On occasions when writers leap into the writing without planning out some key elements first, either with a formal outline or simply with some working notes, they may have enough energy to sustain them for a while, but at some point, the scenes and memories need to purposefully and calculatedly attach to the larger “spine”: the locus or purpose of the story.
(Around Chapter 3 is when we find many writers come to us for coaching or enroll in our 4-month mentored memoir program because that’s when they begin to feel they’re “Up Sh*ts Creek Without a Paddle,” so to speak).
Without the requisite paddle, it’s easy to not know where you’re going, get overwhelmed, falter, and get stuck at a dead end.
(That's OK- We've Got You There):
If you spend a bit of time on the front end of the project mapping out the project’s overall purpose, flow, and narrative points, you will have the greatest success.
An outline, whether a formal intricate one or a working elastic one, helps you determine the what, why, and how of the story and can prevent innumerable road blocks from getting in your way.
Additionally helpful is bringing someone on to help you brainstorm or move through the steps of the process (of which, as you may have noticed, there are many!).
A writing coach, editor, or mentor is an excellent way to get support through the process and stay the course with accountability. Not only are these literary professionals great at providing insights, guidance, editorial feedback, and general consult on your project and the genre to ensure your memoir is clear, compelling, and dynamic, they’re also fantastic for helping normalize the twists and turns, avoiding roadblocks, and keeping you on a clear path.
Most professional writers know well the benefit of working with a peer or professional coach.
The support of a coach, editor, mentor, or even a writer friend is often the difference between a writer who lets the roadblocks pile on to the point of stopping their writing altogether, and a writer whose book eventually makes it onto bookstore shelves and into readers’ hands.
Ultimately, writing a memoir is a profound and thrilling undertaking, but one that demands a tremendous amount of courage, time, and emotional resilience.
The 6 roadblocks, detours, and dead ends you can encounter can and do pop up, but once you know how they’re erected, you’re in the best position to knock them down.
Then you will feel strong and convicted to know the full power of the job ahead: you’re writing a meaningful story that will create connections, inspire others, and leave a lasting legacy.
Let us help- reach out any time.
If you are finding writing on your own challenging or you simply know partnering with a coach or mentor will make the writing more pleasurable, rewarding, and productive (and it will!), please reach out any time.
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