How much time and energy are you willing to give to lifewriting? The more honest and insightful you are in answering this question, the more pleasure you will derive from your writing and the greater the satisfaction you will find in preserving your stories.
The scope of your writing ambition is likely to change over the next months (often in favor of more rather than less time and energy). If you can formulate a realistic writing goal for yourself (underpromise and overdeliver!), doing so may well save you frustration and disappointment later.
1) Determine a definite range of experiences you want to write about.
- my experiences in Army bootcamp.
- my children’s birth stories.
- funny stuff that happened when I was a kid.
If this type of list reflects your thinking, then you have a clear set of parameters in mind to work within. It may be possible for you to write your limited number of stories in a few short months.
When people get “hooked” on lifewriting, they often find they expand the scope of their lifewriting ambitions.
2) Decide if you want to write about something more comprehensive.
- my life and its sociological, historical, cultural context.
- my family’s life and its historical context.
- my community’s history (social, economic, psychological).
If this interests you, you should plan to continue working for many months or even years. You will need a long time to research your material and write about it extensively.
3) Pacing the project is important. If you overreach (attempt a too extensive project), you may be exhausted by your ambition. Instead of being a joy and a challenge, the work may feel full of demands and responsibilities. You’ll grow to resent or dread the writing, and you may even feel like a failure. You’ll be very susceptible to giving up.
On the other hand, if you under-reach (set too easy a goal for yourself), you may find the job not challenging enough to continue. If you don’t go deep enough into the why of your history, if you avoid the difficult issues and events, if you record just facts and not feelings, you’ll find lifewriting unsatisfying. The demands of your life–work, relationships, responsibilities–will rightly seem more worthy of your attention, and you’ll soon abandon your writing project.
The best choice is to approach lifewriting as you might approach gardening: make your project the right size for your energy, neither too large to accomplish nor too small to satisfy, keep it where it can give you regular, daily pleasure (collect your stories in an accessible three-ring binder), fill it with the “flowers” you find most beautiful and the “vegetables” you most love to eat (your self-exploring, self-expressing stories). Your project will be nurtured on a regular basis. You’ll be rewarded with the many benefits of lifewriting and will eagerly maintain your commitment to turn your memories into memoirs.
4) Regularly assess your work to maximize success. From the start and continually throughout your writing project, ask yourself if the scope of your ambition and the shape your work is now taking are appropriate for you. I have seen many writers wander away from their goals and lose their enthusiasm as their projects either grow out of bounds or remain superficial. Be willing to do what it takes for the project to continue to be the right size for you.
Good luck writing your memoir!