Rules, reminders, and a playlist: some things you might need to write a memoir

When I was 12 my mother told me that I should write the history of the revolution she believed would happen in her lifetime.

At sixteen I was sitting in a safe house in Brooklyn listening to her leader tell me the revolution was only two and a half years away, and it felt like a scene from a book — my book — more real than real life. And part of me knew: I’m writing this down someday.

I escaped at 19, ran down a street, afraid I’d be caught and beaten like some of the other women in the group. That part didn’t feel like a book, that part where my body flooded with fear. I didn’t feel like a character on a page then. I felt like meat.

So my first piece of advice about how to write about your life is find a way to balance those moments. The moment when you thought you had it all figured out, when you could see the story you were in. And those other moments when you were so shit-scared that you didn’t have any words at all.

 I listened to a lot of music as I was writing Red Star Tattoo. My soundtrack was a ritualized way of travelling through painful places.

Have a playlist and a mantra too. A reminder of what you are trying to do. Something you can whisper to yourself when you need to.

A bird doesn’t sing because she has the answers. She sings because she has a song. (Joan Walsh Anglund)

That was my mantra. I put it over my desk and on my application to a writing program. I’ve reminded myself over and over: Just be the bird. Just focus on the singing. 

But I think what you really need is a deal. The deal is how you’re going to negotiate with all the voices in your head (and maybe some not in your head) telling that this is a Bad Idea. The deal is a contract between you and those voices. It’s your rights and obligations to your story and everyone in it. It’s how you short-circuit the endless loop of doubt because if you’re following the rules of engagement then it’s not up for debate.

I had five rules.

My first rule was be honest. I had a right to be truthful about anything that happened to me. My experiences belonged to me and I did not need to justify what I did with them. But I also had a responsibility to be honest.  I was responsible not just to tell the truth but the most painful truth. The discovered truth. And the only way to do that was to be as honest as I knew how at every step of the way. Honest about my perspective, my intentions, and my limitations.

My second rule was be tender as possible. Tender like the delicate hands of a scientist in dissection. Tender like the cautious steps of a naturalist, trying to observe something wild and hidden. Tender like a friend who, despite everything, still loves you.

The third rule was to be tough. I think everyone needs to have this in their deal because sharing your life is hard and sharing your creative work is hard. Probably you already are tough because most memoirs are about people who have survived something awful. But now you have to be a different kind of tough, not just a survivor but a thriver. Brave. It helps to think of this as its own kind of work. Like writing or editing, it will get easier with practice. Some days it felt like all I was learning to do was be brave.

The fourth rule was to embrace all learning.

The fifth rule was beware of magical thinking. Fear is like an addiction. It will always find a way to justify itself. There was the time the computer crashed and that seemed like a sign. There was the night I narrowly missed seeing the northern lights and it felt like the universe was telling me that my book would never be published. It took me almost a month to start working again. And when I started back I’d decided that I needed a new rule because I couldn’t let fear trick me into wasting one more day after I’d already wasted so much time.

So a playlist, a mantra and a deal.

That’s where I’d start.

Beyond that I would say a good writing community, luck, love, and a good dog are also very helpful.

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