Inside Out or Outside In? The Challenge of Memoir Writing


19165858_sA memoir is a subjective story, written from the point of view of you, the narrator and main character of the story, the protagonist. This means that you are translating your experiences—the moments in your life that are significant and make up the spine of your story. This translating is part of the challenging work of writing a memoir; it means that we do our best to present the inner world—our thoughts and feelings as well as our actions—to the audience, the reader, the outer world.

Stand in the shoes of the reader for a moment. The reader is outside your world, and it’s only your words, the descriptions and scenes that bring the reader inside your experience. We need to write our memoir from the inside out, and then stand outside ourselves to get a perspective on what the reader sees. This can make a memoir writer feel a little crazy—this juggling of inner and outer swivels our heads as we try on these different points of view.

In the early drafts, it’s best to write from a deeply subjective place, a place of memory and buried feelings, and it’s important to allow this kind of process to take place. This is part of being a translator as you bring upward the memories and experiences that took place long ago, bringing them into the light of the present. In the now, we view these moments differently than we did then. When we are young, quite often we don’t have words for our experiences yet. When we write now, we have the benefit of perspective and time. Still, it’s our responsibility to honor the person we were in the past, to try to portray that time and the challenges of our lives with the most accuracy we can muster.

Allow yourself several drafts and some time to sort through your memories. Make a list of the important moments that will be part of your story, and freewrite them—set a timer and write as fast as you can for about 20 minutes. This way you don’t spend time hemming and hawing about what to write. Freewriting speeds you past the inner critic. It’s likely that you will spill out the truth of your situation in the story, that you will write without censoring—the idea of the exercise. You are capturing your inner world, how you felt and thought in a rough draft. No, it’s not going to be how you will eventually present your story, but it will likely be authentic, it will be the inside story of your life.

Later, much later when you have done 10 to 20 of these exercises, you can begin to be more objective about your story. By writing it, you’ll be claiming your story, getting acquainted with it, and learning what it is about. You will end up working your way toward more objectivity, as you begin to observe yourself as a character. You start to be able to stand outside the story. Throughout the drafts of over 300-400 pages, you’ll be doing a weaving of this inside-out perspective. I believe that being able to take both perspectives allows us the freedom to write what’s in our hearts while at the same time we learn to view our story as a witness. Learning to become a narrator and a witness draws upon different parts of our brains, and is a healing act. I wish you the best in writing your memoir this month!


Words and Wisdom of Silence—How to Claim Your Truths in Memoir

Words and Wisdom of Silence—How to Claim Your Truths in Memoir
Words and Wisdom of Silence—How to Claim Your Truths in Memoir

Words and Wisdom of Silence—How to Claim Your Truths in Memoir

Jeannette Winterson, author of the novel Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit, and a memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal talks about the merging of “truth” and fiction early in her memoir: “To avoid the narrow mesh of Mrs. Winterson’s story, I had to be able to tell my own. Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story. I wrote my way out.”

According to Jeannette, Oranges is the story she could write at the time–“a story I could live with. The other one was too painful. I could not survive it.”

When I work with memoir writers, they too worry about how much of their story they can/should tell, what to leave in and what to leave out. What about the story that is too painful to write. What about the story that will get the relatives and friends up in arms, angry or hurt. Of course, what we choose to leave out alters the literal “truth,” and what we include shapes the “truth” that we claim as our own, so we have to allow several drafts and several layers of the writing to emerge step by step. It’s no simple thing to gather words together into sentences that have meaning and power and share them with the world. Finding our truths is a process. It requires us to encounter ourselves on paper. We may need space and silence and shake hands with confusion as we allow the words to come.

What kind of person can sit around and muse, allow the silence. Dream about writing. We’ve all heard all the clichés about memoirists being “narcissistic and navel gazing.” You do  have to be a contemplative person to self-examine and be willing to look within and listen to what bubbles up.  I think memoir writers shouldn’t shy away from the “navel gazing” label. We need to grab it and claim it. We need to redefine it as being on a search for meaning. We can be proud of being willing to investigate the nature of being a human person—that is the path we are all on—a journey through life.

From Jeannette again: “When we write, we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.”

Risky Business

Think about your silences. What are you leaving out that you could explore and expand?  Are you willing to take some risks with your writing? Writing a memoir invites you to spill out things you never thought you would write or say or share. Don’t censor. Don’t say, “I can’t write this because person x and y will read it.” No one else is reading your first draft. No one will read your 10th draft either. You are simply writing and you’ll be writing a long time before it’s time to share your story with family. Along the way, carefully choose with whom you share your writing. Find a safe and understanding memoir group who is on the same path as you are, and be sure they are supportive, not only of what is written, but of your deeply emotional process of writing. That means they can offer feedback, but no character assassination. Make boundaries about what you want to know from your group.

It is a natural thing for memoir to inspire self-knowledge. Write to investigate what you think and feel, who you were and are becoming. If you hold back, you don’t get to make new discoveries—which are useful for us, but are also important for readers who will eventually feel the energy of your discovery. If you are discovering new things as you write, readers will become curious and investigative too—about themselves and their own lives. Readers will take in what you have learned and try it on for size. Writing and books change lives—for the better. It’s a way to be in community—writing and sharing stories that illuminate our path.

Give your memoir and yourself time to grow and develop, which does not mean ignoring it or procrastinating. A lot of thinking, dreaming, doodling, and research go into writing your story.  Sit down with your material regularly—daily if possible. If you wait too long between writing sessions, you lose the thread of your thoughts and insights. Read what you have written, take notes, and keep a journal by your bed. Be awake and alert to the richness of the silences you carry. Feel into the story that is whispering and trying to emerge.

Writing a memoir is like being an investigative reporter—you and your life and insights and feelings are the subjects. You’re investigating what you couldn’t find words for before, areas where there was a “keep out” sign.

Jeanette again: “I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.”

Part of that self-forgiveness is allowing yourself to think on paper, to write and to listen to yourself. It’s like opening a door that has been barred. You open it with curiosity and bravely step through.



Featured NAMW Member – John Evans


We’re pleased to feature John Evans this month!

1evanscwsJohn F.Evans, MAT, MA, Ed.D is a writing clinician and integrative health coach who works with groups, individuals, and health care professionals, teaching them how to use writing for better physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  Evans has authored five books and has taught writing for over thirty years. He is founder and executive director of Wellness & Writing Connections, LLC.  With James Pennebaker, Evans co-authored Expressive Writing: Words that Heal (2014). His book, Wellness & Writing Connections: Writing for Better Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Health (2010), is a collection of essays from the Wellness & Writing Connections Conference Series.  At Duke Integrative Medicine, Evans has taught Caring for Caregivers, Legacy Writing, Transform Your Health: Write to Heal, Leading Patients in Writing for Health, and Writing as a Tool for Integrative Health Coaches.
Wellness & Writing Connections coverEvans, J.F., Wellness & Writing Connections:  Writing for Better Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Health (2010) 
An ideal text for individuals, writing-to-heal classes, or healthcare professionals who are interested in how writing is connected to wellness, this work is a guide to recent research in the field providing  writing activities and models for readers to develop their own.  In addition to an overview of the research and theory of writing to heal, this book offers examples from practitioners of how to use writing to heal strategies with individuals, groups, and institutions.
Expressive Writing - coverPennebaker, J.W. and J.F. Evans, Expressive Writing: Words that Heal (2014) provides research results, in layman’s terms, which demonstrate how and when expressive writing can improve health. It explains why writing can often be more helpful than talking when dealing with trauma, and it prepares the reader for their writing experience. The book looks at the most serious issues and helps the reader process them. From the instructions: ”Write about what keeps you awake at night. The emotional upheaval bothering you the most and keeping you awake at night is a good place to start writing.”
Includes:A basic four-day, 20-minute daily writing session program; A six-week writing program using a different technique each week; Additional techniques for expressive writing; Instructions on how to analyze what was written.

Writing Past No: Kicking Shame to the Curb

Writing Past No
Writing Past No

Writing Past No

The stories I share in my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother are about a pattern of mothers leaving their daughters—mothers abandoning their children. In my family, the mothers continued to be connected with their children through visits, and sometimes by re-uniting with their mother later in life. But the scars stayed a lifetime. For a long time, I didn’t feel that I could tell anyone that my mother had left me when I was four, and her mother left her when she was about six—no one ever had the story of this event, or were too ashamed to talk about it. I felt it was a shameful story. Perhaps I wasn’t good enough for my parents.

We inherit shame, we drink it in with all the events of our lives, and children know at a very young age there are subjects that are forbidden to be spoken aloud. I, as do many children from families where there has been shame, or bad behavior, or transgressions against a social fabric that others take for granted, was silenced by these expectations. Later in my life, writing my truths in a journal was not something I felt allowed to do though I was grown up and had children of my own.

Through the years, long before I felt I had a right to write about my own life, what made the difference was that I have always loved literature and books of all kinds, poetry, history, memoirs, and novels. I’d go to bookstores and hear the authors talk about their writing blocks, and how they were not free to write until…something would happen that helped to unlock their voice. The came to feel more of an inner permission to write, or they simply couldn’t remain quiet any longer. Whatever it was, and there was always more than one roadblock to their finished book, they worked through it. They became stubborn as they wrestled with inner permission, they felt compelled to keep writing and exploring their story, and finally they completed a book. As I listened to these authors, it dawned on me they too had struggled too with permission to write and express their vision. They wrestled with their inner critic voices—and they kept at it. As I dared try to write more opening. I learned from writing classes that the difference between someone who is published and someone who is not is perseverance. Persistence. Stubbornness. Stick-to-it-iveness. Call it whatever you want, but it’s the quality of moving forward with the writing even in the depths of despair about it. I learned to write anyway, no matter what. It took a long time to peel away the voices that told me to give up, to keep my story to myself. My inner critic said no one would want to hear about crazy mothers, depression, or abuse, but I found new companions on my journey to heal, I found whole communities doing exactly what I was doing. And my story grew to more than the darkness in it—my story had hope, forgiveness, and layers of insight that led to more emotional freedom for me.

We all have secrets, and memoirists are more exposed than most. We don’t want to be attacked by family and friends alike with comments like, “Couldn’t you just keep all that to yourself,” or “no one ever talked about that before.” Or “Look how you made us look—no one will talk to us anymore.”

It’s dangerous to tell truths that no one else has shared before. That’s how secrets become toxic: they grow in the dark. I do want to affirm that there are two stages for dealing with the secrets in our lives. First, write out the whole story as a way to simply see it on the page. Getting the morass of stuff out of our heads and into the light of day on the page is a great way to see more objectively the stories we have been holding too close.

Writing has been proven to be a good way to heal, to find a new perspective. For nearly two decades, the research by Dr. James Pennebaker on the healing power of writing has been on the web and in books, including my Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story. Another excellent book on how writing can heal is Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing. She includes the stories of well-known writers and their paths to having a voice and healing the past. A consummate researcher of the backstories of writers, you’ll feel in good company as you struggle with freeing your own writing voice and claim your story.

Next, as you approach the second draft of your story, you may start thinking about publication. After all, you’ve spent time getting these stories on the page, you have invested a great deal of time and love on your project. Think about how your story can help others; how your courage and conviction to get your story written can offer a leg up to another person who has struggled like you. Also, ask yourself: how can the theme of my story connect with others? We do not live in a bubble. If you have suffered, you can count on the fact that others have suffered too in both similar and different ways than you. How you can you help each other? If your book stays in the drawer, you remain cut off and isolated from the larger community of potential support and camaraderie. Of course, only you can decide if you want your story to become public, so in this second stage of revision, you’ll have a chance to weigh the pros and cons to that decision.

  • List the themes of your story—common themes include recovery, abuse, travel, alcoholism, loss, abandonment
  • Write the 10 reasons you think your story can help others.
  • List 10 ways that you think your story will be hurtful to others, and how they might react.
  • Make a list of those people who will support you in writing your book and cheer you on.
  • Find times to write that allow you to explore your feelings deeply. Put them on the calendar.
  • Look at photographs to help you remember details.
  • Keep a list of when you wrote this week, for how long, and how you felt about your writing session.
  • Keeping a writing journal allows you to process your feelings about significant and emotional scenes; be sure to note if you feel less shame; how you have more of a voice.
  • Make a list of the dark stories; a list of the happier stories Alternate writing the dark and the light—don’t get stuck in the painful stories.
  • Celebrate your creativity. Join a support group or a writing group; take classes. Reach out! Here at NAMW, you don’t have to be alone on your journey.


Myers makes a compelling case for the power of words as a form of healing and growth.

professor of psychology, The University of Texas at Austin and author, Opening Up and Writing To Heal

...the NAMW memoir classes with Linda Joy Myers are wonderful