pen & journalStudies about handwriting say that our handwriting reveals many things about us, reflecting attitudes that we may be unaware of. It charts our shifting moods and feelings. Have any of you noticed that your handwriting changes in different moods? Over the years I have observed variations in my writing, and have wondered about what it meant. My handwriting has curves when I’m feeling looser and more flexible, and when I need structure, the letters I form are more upright. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But here’s the question that so many memoir writers ask, and it’s a good one: should I write my memoir with a pen and paper or at the computer?

I believe that everyone needs to find their own best way to write, but I do encourage those who want to get into their emotions more fully to write by hand. I wrote my entire memoir by hand in spiral bound notebooks or on yellow lined paper—I love the practical approach so I don’t feel I’m “wasting” pretty paper and journals. I scrawled at will, I wrote experimentally, trying new things that the computer keyboard wouldn’t have allowed to emerge in the same way. When I wrote on the computer, the prose tended to be drier and with less emotion. I would return to the page to elicit subtlety and layers of feelings. I just could not access these deeper layers on the computer.

Writing a memoir is like picking your way across an ice-bound lake to the other side; it is a journey through the dark forests of soul and family, with side roads beckoning us that we didn’t know we would take. Writing a memoir is not for the faint of heart. It requires courage and a deep connection to who we are and where we came from. It requires that we listen to ourselves with infinite care, thrumming the strings of our hearts, listening to new tones. We need to find the best way to find those melodies.

When I first began writing memoir, I thought that because I knew what happened and to whom, that I was simply capturing what I already knew. But after a while, I came to understand that though I knew the story, how I wrote about it—the language, sentences, paragraphs, the flow—was all new to me. I had to give up even thinking I knew the plot because as I wrote, I discovered new directions and had to explore them. All through writing Don’t Call Me Mother, I was working on healing the wounds of the past three generations as they had been lived by the women whom I loved. As the words flowed from my pen, I came to realize they were in great pain and confusion, and they had done the best they could do.

It was through writing each scene, one by one, scrawled on the page in whatever handwriting the mood brought me that day, that I freed myself from the binds of past wounds. Seeing the beauty of my family as I had loved them written on the page along with writing freely about the pain and confusion I had felt allowed me to find the heart of myself and to find forgiveness for them.

I alternated between hand writing and computer writing, weaving the left and right side of my brain and integrating an ongoing creative process that I still use today. Try experimenting with your writing, in different forms, and writing in different locations and find out the results!

Suggestions to memoir writers:

  1. Write your story in a journal or on ordinary paper so your inner critic doesn’t have a chance to complain about wasting that pretty journal on such terrible stories.
  2. The more you write, the more your unconscious is invited to release its secrets—hidden stories, memories, and insights come out when you create the opportunity regularly.
  3. Select a place and time where you will write at least once a week, three times a week is better. The more you write, the more you will keep writing. Each story, each writing session seeds more ideas and helps you to keep thinking of your stories.
  4. If you have a timeline of your life, or a timeline of your memoir, it will be easier for you to focus in on a particular scene and put yourself in that place and time when you sit down with your notebook.
  5. Make lists of the stories you feel are the most important ones for your memoir, then write them one by one. Check them off when you are done, and go on to the next one.