How to Cure the “Shoulds”—Write What You Love



I’m always curious about what the antidote will be for the times when we’re unable to write, when the words and ideas have dried up, when it’s better to binge-watch “Homeland” or “Outlander” or “The Good Wife.” I recently came upon one of these “dry” spells, where I had no motivation at all to go to the computer, though the “shoulds” plagued me every day. I should work on the three chapters I still need to edit, and start chunking out four chapters for a book on creativity and silence. I’ve started another memoir, and where is that project anyway? I must be fooling myself. Me, a writer? Where? When?
There are blog posts to write, and ideas for another workshop. but…I fast forward to season 4 of Downton Abbey as I get ready for season 5, as always enjoying the costumes and accents and English customs—and tea in cute cups for every stressful occasion. I tell myself I’m resting from having been sick—it’s true I was sick, but really, it’s time to get back to work. I find books that I think will stimulate my mind so I can write again, flip through some pages, and put them back on the shelf while I make more tea. Then it’s time for another “Homeland” episode in the new season! I’m mesmerized by the characters and plot twists, even though I already know what happens. Anything to sit on the couch away from the computer. My mind is mush.

Perhaps it’s because it’s nearly Christmas, or because of the antibiotics I was taking, I tell myself. But I started to worry about and then mourn my lost writing self. Facebook posts from other writers show an intense amount of activity, non-stop writing, it seems. Some people post that they write six hours a day, every day. Sigh.

Then I took the book off the bookshelf that has always lifted me away from such moments in the past, though I didn’t think anything could do it this time: If You Want To Write by Brenda Ueland. I have quoted her in many articles and in my books, and I can tell you how uplifting her words are and how we should heed them: that we are all amazing creative creatures, that every one of us has something important to say and it’s imperative that we say it. But just as you can play that magical game where you open a book and put your finger on a sentence and notice how it fits for you right then, this book offered me something I know but forgot that I know: We need to write out of love.
Her example is Van Gogh—how he speaks in his letters to his brother of drawing a scene outside his window with a tree and a star and a luminous sky. He drew it because he loved it. She offers other quotes from his letters about painting what he loves, being with what is real and meaningful to him, sinking his presence into this love.

…”the creative impulse of Van Gogh, a great genius, was simply loving what he saw and then showing off, but out of generosity….I understand that writing is this: an impulse to share with other people a feeling or truth that I myself had. That writing is not a performance but a generosity.”

And then I get it—I have been a victim of the “shoulds,” me, who “should” know better. How many people do I support to do their writing—dozens—but finding my way back to my own writing? Difficult. Yet this fallow period seems a useful experience because I know that as long as I’m struggling with the same things that my students struggle with, I will be freshly tuned into the same challenges that are hard for them. As long as I’m writing essays to try out a new voice or form (when I’m able to write), or trying to come out of a bleak writing period like now, I’m close emotionally to all that goes on as we write, as we try to shape worlds from words. I’m inside the struggle, just like they are.

After I read the quote about writing from love, I took a long walk with the idea of writing from love tingling in my mind. I realized as I walked that the burden of “I should write today” was clogging up my creative process. Very gently I began to think about what I loved, and why I write about creativity and passion and memoir, and what it does for me to carry that torch. After my walk, on the way home in the car, another bit of synchronicity happened: on NPR Armistad Maupin was interviewing Alan Cumming about his book Not My Father’s Son–A Memoir.

I recognized him from his role in” The Good Wife”, and as the host of Masterpiece Theatre. In the interview with Maupin, he spoke about the journey that his family took as part of a program on genealogy. The producers research the family’s past and come up with surprises that are presented on the air without previous warning. His memoir goes into that experience/shock along with the story of his own personal past. His book tells the tales of his childhood, which include heart stopping details about the physical and mental abuse by his father.
He told the audience how empowering it was to take the stories and memories that have always been a secret and bring them out into the open. Most of the time we find ourselves protecting the abusers and carrying the shame ourselves for what happened, but telling our truth frees us from the trap. He acknowledged it was difficult for him and his family to be so exposed in the program about their past, and then in the memoir, but now he, his mother and brother are free from protecting the father. They have healed and moved on.

So between Brenda Ueland’s wisdom and Alan Cumming’s confessions, I returned to myself and my writing, and the reasons that I do what I do—out of the love of helping others heal and my belief that the truth does indeed set us free. In the middle of our struggles with voice and permission and truth, sometimes we need to lay low, to muse and to dream, and not give ourselves too hard a time about it. We need to look for the clues that can pull us out again into the light. We need to circle back to doing what we must do—because we love it and it gives our lives meaning.

In writing this, I came back to myself.

Writing Your Holiday Memories

Two young women writing Christmas cards
Happy Holidays!
“Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
that’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen


‘Tis the season! I’d like to welcome all the new and renewed members! We’re so happy that you are part of the “memoir revolution,” as my colleague Jerry Waxler calls this amazing and heartful surge of interest in, and publication of, memoirs. Wherever you are on your memoir journey there are always so many layers yet to learn, develop, and polish in creating a book that can be proudly published. We had a terrific Cyber-sale and I look forward to connecting with all of you, current and new members, at our member teleseminars and at our Roundtable discussions in the upcoming year. I hope you have a joyous holiday season! It was quite a year at NAMW, with the New York Times article and so many amazing and talented speakers and presenters. We are looking forward to a great line up for the New Year.



Musings about the Holidays


It’s a time of the year when the stories of our lives, written and unwritten, show up in Technicolor in our lives as we gather with loved ones and family. Sometimes we want to take those stories and put bows and ribbons on them, and sometimes we want to simply put them in a box and hide them in the back of a closet. But they are there, waiting for us—the stories of our lives, the dark one and the happier ones—we are all part of this amazing human journey.


Many of you are writing or starting a memoir, and in all the years that I have known and worked with memoir writers, the main thing I have learned is that writing a memoir is always, always, no matter what your story is, an act of courage. It is brave to grab your memories by their wispy floating tendrils and wrestle them down into a book, a story you actually lived, stories that have meaning and depth and purpose. You have a life lesson that others can learn from and you have something special too—a stick to-itive-ness that means you can not only transform your lived story into something that heals you and offers you a new perspective on old viewpoints, but you have the power to help others too. We are not alone in our joy and pain, we are on this journey through life with others. What we need is to feel the connection, and know there are others out there shining light on the true and real stories that we are passionate about writing. That is what I hope to offer here at the National Association of Memoir Writers—some cheerleading through the programs we present with presenters that offer craft and inspiration.


I hope you all join us this season and in the coming year for our teleseminars, Roundtables, workshops and classes. Have a wonderful holiday season, and take notes at your family gatherings this holiday season. They might come in handy as research for your memoir!



Writing Your Holiday Memories Two young women writing Christmas cards


The holidays can be emotional times. Everyone is supposed to be happy but in many families the unwritten and unresolved stories surface. Most families have rituals that carry meaning and create a safe and “happy” way to move the family through the dramas that may erupt. Holidays are gathering points for our memories, our hopes and dreams. Reflect upon these moments, and notice if there is a deeper meaning in them now.

  1. Describe your childhood home during the holidays—how was it decorated? What did your neighborhood and town or city look during the holidays?
  2. During the holidays did you connect with extended family or were the holidays quiet?
  3. What is one of your favorite photographs from a holiday? Describe it and write about why it is your favorite.
  4. Write about your favorite holiday food, recipe, or story that you associate with holiday food rituals—cookie baking, special cakes, or any ritual food that has meaning to you. Use sensual details—color, sound, smell, and taste.
  5. What was your most wished for holiday present? Did you receive it or not? How did the gift you got or didn’t get affect your feelings about the holidays?
  6. Write about Christmas holidays through the decades and how they changed.
  7. What rituals do you bring from past holidays into your celebrations now? If you created new ones, write about why you chose these new rituals.

Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons

Any Road Will Take You There Cover - NEW

Any Road Will Take You There Cover - NEW

Here at NAMW, we are pleased to present a blog post for the WOW blog tour about David Berner’s book Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons. This  is a heartwarming and heartbreaking story told with humor and grace, revealing the generational struggles and triumphs of being a dad, and the beautiful but imperfect ties that connect all of us. Recipient of a Book of the Year Award from the Chicago Writers Association, Any Road Will Take You There is honest, unflinching, and tender. In the tradition of the Great American Memoir, a middle-age father takes the reader on a five-thousand-mile road trip — the one he always wished he’d taken as a young man. Recently divorced and uncertain of the future, he rereads the iconic road story — Jack Kerouac’s On the Road — and along with his two sons and his best friend, heads for the highway to rekindle his spirit.

However, a family secret turns the cross-country journey into an unexpected examination of his role as a father, and compels him to look to the past and the fathers who came before him to find contentment and clarity, and celebrate the struggles and triumphs of being a dad.


There’s a particular response I give whenever I get a certain question at a reading or at a workshop about writing creative nonfiction or personal essays.

“So how did your family feel about what you wrote about them?”

My standard answer: “Depends on who you ask.”

It’s meant to be a joke, and I’m aware it’s not terribly funny, but it is absolutely true. If you write good things about people, they rarely have an issue. In fact, they generally love that you’ve written about them, and many times feel privileged to be in your story. But if you touch on a subject close to them that reveals something unpleasant, or turns the rock over on a sensitive matter, you must be prepared for the consequences. I’ll give you an example. My first memoir, Accidental Lessons, includes several scenes with my ex-wife. First, I must tell you, the two of us are good friends. It is far from the stereotypical friction laden relationship of former spouses. Despite this, my publisher insisted on signed releases from everyone mentioned in the book. When I presented the release to my former wife, this is what she said: I’ll agree with one condition. When it’s made into a movie, Susan Sarandon plays me. So, I got that going for me. And just for the record, no movie deal yet and nothing in writing from Susan.

In general, I believed everything I wrote about my ex-wife in Accidental Lessons was quite flattering. It wasn’t that I necessarily set out to write all great things about her, it’s just that what was needed for the narrative, her part of it, did not need to be about the times of our lives that were entangled in disagreement. So, when she read the manuscript, she had little problem with any of it. Was it true? Yes. I needed to reveal only what was needed. But what do you do when someone you write about is absolutely appalled by what you plan to publish or is outright angry about your words? Maybe their version of the same incident is much different in their eyes, and this creates serious tension, risking the relationship with that individual. How do you handle this?

I believe there are at least three things to consider.

First, you must be 100% true to the story. You must write what is real, authentic to you without compromise. There is no other way to create a meaningful personal story. I truly believe the reader will know when you are not being honest. Preserve integrity. Write from the heart, the gut.

Second, if it’s possible, let all those who are main subjects in the story read your manuscript. Prepare them for what you have written; let them know it may not be easy to read and that you are writing about difficult matters. Then, allow them to tell you exactly what they think, to point out errors, minor or major, and permit them to suggest changes. And if possible, ask them to write down their version of the scene or incident in question. Our truths are completely our own. They are no one else’s, and you must be true to your story. But permitting input from others can help you understand their truth, and some version of their story might actually be very good material to add to a redraft. It could, and many times will make your story better. This also applies to those who have died. Allow others who remember the deceased to offer their impressions and memories. This can inform your narrative in a positive way. However, in the end, it is always your story and you alone should decide whether or not to include their suggestions, thoughts, or versions. In the end, no matter what, the story you have written is yours. Keep it yours.

Third, be ready to take the heat. You are not going to please everyone. Some will remember differently; others will want to you remove certain aspects of the story, take out the dirty laundry, and there will be those who simply do not like your “tone.” It may lead to disagreements that will last for a very long time. You, and only you, can decide whether you can live with that possibility. Is your story worth it? Is your particular truth faithfully adding to the narrative? Remember, as a writer what you choose to reveal is as important as what you decide not to reveal.

In my most recent memoir, Any Road Will Take You There, I again had to have releases signed by as many people as I could, including my own two adult children, my good friend Brad, and again my ex-wife. For the most part, my former wife was satisfied with the manuscript. However, there was one scene where she believed I had not told the entire story. Not that I had lied, but that I had highlighted my involvement in a particular matter of parental disciplining and had almost entirely left her out of the story. She was right. But Any Road Will Take You There was about my relationship with my sons, about fatherhood, and in the scene in question what she had done or how she had responded did not necessarily further my story. She still believed I had taken far too much credit for how that parental moment played out and that I had given little credit to her. She had every right to question this. I would not deny her the chance to state her opinion. Still, I believed I had told the story truthfully. We just had a disagreement about the version I had chosen to tell.

What we are essentially writing about when we write memoir, creative nonfiction, or personal essays are memories. And they are our memories, the writer’s memories. But always remember, you are writing about other people’s memories, too. I recently attended a reading by author Chuck Klosterman speaking about one of his nonfiction works, a very personal story. He said he would never write another book like that again because one of the women he wrote about, although she believed he had portrayed her and their shared experiences quite truthfully, felt he had overshadowed her memories. Just the act of writing about what had happened between the two of them and then publishing it, trumped her personal recollections and essentially made her memories less important.

That’s a lot of power. So, be honest, but remember what you write about might be your story, but you don’t necessary own every piece of it.


Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons  is available as an e-book and paperback at Amazon

David Berner Head ShotAbout the AuthorDavid W. Berner-the award winning author of ACCIDENTAL LESSONS and ANY ROAD WILL TAKE YOU THERE-was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he began his work as a broadcast journalist and writer. He moved to Chicago to work as a radio reporter and news anchor for CBS Radio and later pursue a career as a writer and educator. His book ACCIDENTAL LESSONS is about his year teaching in one of the Chicago area’s most troubled school districts. The book won the Golden Dragonfly Grand Prize for Literature and has been called a “beautiful, elegantly written book” by award-winning author Thomas E. Kennedy, and “a terrific memoir” by Rick Kogan (Chicago Tribune and WGN Radio). ANY ROAD WILL TAKE YOU THERE is the author’s story of a 5000-mile road trip with his sons and the revelations of fatherhood. The memoir has been called “heartwarming and heartbreaking” and “a five-star wonderful read.”

Publisher: Dream of Things (September 23, 2014)
ISBN-13: 978-0988439092

Twitter hashtag: # AnyRoadBook


Twitter:  @davidwberner




Memoir Tribes Clubs and Communities–All Part of the Memoir Revolution


jerry_9-12-14We are happy to introduce NAMW’s own Jerry Waxler on his WOW blog tour!

Memoir Revolution is Jerry Waxler’s beautifully written story as he integrates it with his deep and abiding knowledge and passion for story. In the 1960s, Jerry Waxler, along with millions of his peers, attempted to find truth by rebelling against everything. After a lifetime of learning about himself and the world, he now finds himself in the middle of another social revolution. In the twenty-first century, increasing numbers of us are searching for truth by finding our stories. In Memoir Revolution, Waxler shows how memoirs link us to the ancient, pervasive system of thought called The Story. By translating our lives into this form, we reveal the meaning and purpose that eludes us when we view ourselves through the lens of memory. And when we share these stories, we create mutual understanding, as well. By exploring the cultural roots of this literary trend, based on an extensive list of memoirs and other book, Waxler makes the Memoir Revolution seem like an inevitable answer to questions about our psychological, social and spiritual well-being.


When I first imagined writing my memoir, I assumed I would be doing it alone, so to learn how to start, I took a workshop. Sitting in a circle with fellow writers, I listened to the instructions and then jotted down an anecdote about falling in love with my first girlfriend. I couldn’t remember ever telling anyone about the incident. As I shared my writing with these strangers later in the workshop, I saw my secret reflected in their kind eyes. By exposing my memories, I had created a room full of comforting friends.

When they read their pieces aloud, we reversed roles. In written form, their embarrassing, painful, private events became interesting. Then it was my turn to give support. Our shared goals and mutual trust showed me that memoir writing was going to be a social activity. I’ve been eager to associate with fellow writers ever since. I attended several monthly writing meetings each month, and a couple of annual conferences. As soon as I realized their importance in my life, I volunteered to help run them. By volunteering to help these organizations, I increased my connections even more. Although the majority of members were fiction writers, we few nonfiction writers stuck together in small critique groups.

As the Internet grew, I began to venture into long distance relationships. My first foray was the Absolute Write forum, teeming with writers in all genres, including a small subset of memoir writers. To find writers specializing in memoirs, I had to work harder. My breakthrough came when I began to blog about the subject. At first, I thought blogging might be lonely. Who would ever read my posts? I soon discovered that by searching for and visiting memoir blogs, I could bond with other writers who were attempting to follow the same path.

My blog network led me to Linda Joy Myers, who runs the National Association of Memoir Writers, a hub of memoir writing energy. Thanks to the critical mass of a national membership organization, Linda Joy attracts aspiring writers and experts into a virtual community. I became a member, enjoying the connections and the many resources the group made available.

Gradually my online acquaintances have blossomed into tribes — loosely bound collections of writers who see that banding together is more fun and more supportive than doing it alone. And while I miss some of the pleasures of face to face groups, I have grown increasingly comfortable “hanging out” with people I’ve never seen in person. Because writers communicate through written words anyway, long-distance relationships with fellow writers provide a training ground where we can develop the same skills we need for reaching readers.

I have reaped an unexpected bonus from all this distant mutual support. Even though this clan of boosters is spread all over the country and a sprinkling around the globe, their friendship has fostered a new, invigorating way to improve my writing. Now, when I write, I visualize these friendly strangers. This visualization has done more for my enthusiasm than many years of attempting to wrestle with the inner critic. Instead of shushing my inner critic, I have fun imagining my extended tribes of curious energetic fellow writers who want to read what I say.

Taking advantage of all these opportunities comes with a price. I have to pour energy out in order to receive energy in return, but over the years, my participation has created a vigorous, energizing social experience that has helped me grow as a writer and a person.

The tribes are dynamic, with people coming and going. Since my first blog post in 2007, I have accrued wisdom, just as I have watched other long-term members grow in their understanding of memoirs. In this era of the Memoir Revolution, with increasing numbers of us learning the power of finding our own narrative, these tenacious elders perform an important service for the virtual community. By sticking around, studying, and growing, the older ones have the responsibility and pleasure of leadership, passing our understanding along to others who have joined the journey more recently.

When I first heard the word “memoir” the task seemed to emphasize an introspective search for interior facts and truths. However, once I became engaged in the actual process of writing a memoir, I discovered that introspection was only half of the journey. The Memoir Revolution can best be understood and enjoyed by recognizing its two sides. In addition to offering a better understanding of one’s self, turning memories into a story offers a valuable tool for mutual understanding and support.

Memoir Revolution is Jerry Waxler’s beautifully written story as he integrates it with his deep and abiding knowledge and passion for story. In the 1960s, Jerry Waxler, along with millions of his peers, attempted to find truth by rebelling against everything. After a lifetime of learning about himself and the world, he now finds himself in the middle of another social revolution. In the twenty-first century, increasing numbers of us are searching for truth by finding our stories. In Memoir Revolution, Waxler shows how memoirs link us to the ancient, pervasive system of thought called The Story. By translating our lives into this form, we reveal the meaning and purpose that eludes us when we view ourselves through the lens of memory. And when we share these stories, we create mutual understanding, as well. By exploring the cultural roots of this literary trend, based on an extensive list of memoirs and other book, Waxler makes the Memoir Revolution seem like an inevitable answer to questions about our psychological, social and spiritual well-being.

Paperback: 190Pages
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Neuralcoach Press; 1 edition (April 9, 2013)
ISBN-10: 0977189538
Twitter hashtag: #MRevolutionWaxler

Memoir Revolution is available as an e-book and paperback at Amazon.

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Myers makes a compelling case for the power of words as a form of healing and growth.
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professor of psychology, The University of Texas at Austin and author, Opening Up and Writing To Heal