Is writing the truth like taking off your clothes in front of everyone? How raw, exposed, and vulnerable are you in your writing?
According to Susan Shapiro, author of this NY Times article, Make Me Worry You’re Not O.K. memoir writers need to reveal more. She has her students write a “humiliation essay” where the masks are torn away to reveal layers of experience and imperfections that make a story interesting.
Memoir writing does demand that we explore, reveal—if only to ourselves at first—who we are and what makes us tick. Shapiro says, “The author Phillip Lopate complains that the problem with confessional writing is that people don’t confess enough. And I agree.”
Having offered many workshops where writers strip down and reveal themselves, I observe how they explore beneath the superficial story of who they are, digging deeper into their motivations, fears, and needs to reveal the confusion that reigns underneath the personas that we wear for the world.
You need trust for this kind of writing. You need to stand behind who you are or were and invite your true voice to appear on the page. Each vignette, chapter, or meaningful moment contains a takeaway, a lesson in how you’ve lived and what you’ve learned. It’s in the silent and small moments that we turn off the noise and come to terms with who we are in full. It takes a strong person to be vulnerable, willing to confess and tell the truth. And when we do, we offer hope to others who are trying to be authentic and real too.
Each of us decides how much to expose our private self. Ask yourself: does the piece show a side of yourself that no one else knows? Are you writing about events you’ve never told anyone about before, exposing secrets? Are you afraid of being judged by who you were or who you are now? Do these questions make you move away from the computer?
Remember, in a first draft no one will see the writing but you. It’s where you can try out “peeling the onion” of the layers of who you are and putting these insights into words. Allow yourself to freewrite, and also set a goal of setting a theme and word limits to challenge yourself not to just write “this happened and that happened.” Writing invites our whispers of knowledge on the page, and exposes us to parts of ourselves we don’t even know.
In this New Year, take a risk to reveal your inner life in stories that illuminate you, and allow others to learn from you. That is what memoir is—sharing through literature our common humanity.
As one of the editors for the Times They Were A’Changing—Women Remember the 60s and 70s anthology and contest, I want to say that I’m very moved by many of the stories that have been shared. The writers have dug deep into their histories, writing stories that bring us readers back forty years into an era that no longer exists. We see those two decades through a very personal lens and through a translation of those times. The stories offer us new insights through vulnerability and honesty about how life was lived then. This kind of writing helps us to remember, and honor, our younger selves, and brings a fuller understanding to what we did then.
Please consider “exposing” yourself, confessing and revealing the times you remember when you send in your 2500 word story. Go to our website and submission page to find out the rules and address for submission.