Is Writing Memoir Worth It?

Today’s blog comes from Garden Hill writer Heidi Croot. Heidi Croot is currently working on a memoir. Her corporate writing has appeared in numerous trade publications, and her creative work in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Writescape, Brevity, Linea magazine, the WCDR anthology,  Renaissance, and elsewhere.

The post originally appeared on “The Top Drawer,” a weekly blog published by Writescape.ca of Trent River, also here in Northumberland, providing editing and coaching services as well as facilitating workshops and writing retreats.

Heidi Croot

You’ve just shipped your memoir to a professional editor. The release feels like death and rebirth all at once. While you wait, breathless, for feedback, someone asks, How did writing your memoir affect you emotionally? And a follow-up question: Was it a worthwhile journey?

Wait a minute, you think. The second question implies that the answer to the first might sound something like, “It emotionally crushed me.” Because that’s what many people believe, right? That doing a deep dive into a painful past means wallowing in grief?

Here’s how I answered those questions when they were put to me during a radio interview with Northumberland 89.7FM’s Word on the Hills, mere days after my manuscript dropped anchor in my editor’s inbox.

A worthwhile journey?

Last question first: Was writing your memoir a worthwhile journey? A thousand times yes. And, why?  Because of how it affected me emotionally.

Writing my memoir, Hope is a Tyrant, bordered on magic. It was a process of discovery. A woodland trail of surprises. A delivery into the ready arms of acceptance and healing. 

I’ve written my way into seeing people differently, important people, like my mother, for example, whose legs were paralyzed by polio when she was eight. Writing helped me understand that the biggest lie in our family was she had taken her disability in stride. She had not. How could she? Polio was far too big. She wore the mask her father, medical staff and a harsh world handed to her.

I’ve written my way into understanding mysterious undercurrents in my family, such as what was behind my mother’s obsession with her charismatic father—her mainstay and intellectual companion during years of loneliness at home and in hospital. I realized through writing that fantasizing about him made her feel special, and therefore worth the burden she had been forced to place on her family, and this helped her banish shame.

To my chagrin, I’ve also written my way into learning a few things about myself. Naïve, brimming with blind, stubborn hope, lacking boundaries, I failed many times to see different paths I could have taken to dial down family drama.

“My” story became “a” story

But the best part about writing memoir is how it eventually stopped being “my” story and became “a” story. In Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator Bird, a clairvoyant suggests that painful memories should be looked upon as part of a narrative, like chapters. Reframing painful events as scenes allowed me to exchange subjectivity for objectivity. Prick the bubble of my self-importance. Reduce the event to realistic, if not amusing, proportions. “Stories,” says the clairvoyant, “are part of the accumulation you think will tell you something.”

Acceptance and equilibrium

What memoir told me is that some relationships cannot be fixed. It told me how to accept this. How to be forgiving, empathetic, and less judgmental. How to find my equilibrium.

Turning in my manuscript to my editor has unmoored me, with maybe a little grief mixed in. For years, working on the memoir had kept my imperfect self linked to my imperfect parents, and perhaps to hope, which—if I’m right about hope being a tyrant—makes no sense, but that’s another thing I learned: I can live with paradox and imperfect endings.

And that will be true even if the imperfect ending to my memoir-experiment means a stern call to action from my editor: the inevitable, yet welcome, shuffle, delete, clarify, go deeper. Familiar pages in need of edits will beckon like old friends, eager to shepherd me through new portals to unexplored places, where still more epiphanies wait.

It will be worth it

All of which takes us back to the beginning: Seize every opportunity to write your life stories. The experience will affect you emotionally. It will be worth it.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Pat Skene says:

    Hi Gwynn: great post! I am also in the final stages of my memoir and I can relate to every word you’ve written. Good luck with your book.

  2. felicity936 says:

    Great post Heidi!

  3. ronaldmackay says:

    A brief and beautifully-expressed explanation of benefits that accrue to the writer for tackling memories and moulding them into the appropriate words and phrases to create a story that satisfies. Well told, Heidi!

  4. Pat Skene says:

    Sorry, should have said thanks Heidi.

  5. Diane Taylor says:

    Heidi, that’s great advice to anyone considering writing a memoir: “Seize every opportunity to write your life stories … it will be worth it.”

  6. Diane Taylor says:

    Heidi, that’s great advice for anyone considering writing a memoir: “Seize every opportunity to write your life stories … it will be worth it.”

  7. Gabriella O’Rourke says:

    If this beautifully written blog post is anything to go by I’m certain your memoir will be a wonderful read!! I love the insight and understanding you shared. Can’t wait to read the rest of it!!

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