Jaime Lowe is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine and her work has appeared in New York magazine, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Maxim, Gawker, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and on ESPN.com. Here, she shares 8 rules for writing memoir.
1. Don’t write one unless you feel like you absolutely have to. It’s a painful process, kind of like pouring acid into an open wound or sticking chopsticks into your eyeballs or searching for metaphors that aren’t cliche. It’s hard emotional work. It’s hard writing work. Things you thought were sealed, emotions tucked neatly into a solved and resolved corner come frothing and festering out. Be prepared for tears and trauma and many hours thinking about ways to express those traumas in logical sentences.
2. Find a good spot to write where you can cry comfortably. For me, many days during the process were spent crying in one of two coffee shops where they now think I’m a lunatic. I have confirmed this by writing a book called MENTAL. Sometimes when I would get into the deeper and darker portions of my life — times that I couldn’t believe a stranger put me in a cab, or a stranger let me use his phone, or a stranger let my mom sleep in his room to make sure I was taking medication — I would cry just thinking that I was alive and typing and thinking about these moments in past tense, that I had survived. Then my face would get all red and bloated and I’d start hyperventilating and water would drip down my cheeks and the baristas would look away embarrassed for me. Be prepared to publicly cry. Sometimes I would just start crying on the subway apropos of nothing. It still happens actually. If you see me, look away.
3. Get yourself a couple pairs of official writing pants. It’s impossible to write a memoir if you are not comfortable. Leggings, sweat pants, karate pants — anything with an elastic waistband is preferable. My friend Amy gave me some very righteous surfer, batik-looking pants. When I put those on, it’s time to write. Sometimes I wear them for many days in a row, that’s when I risk losing my relationship. (More on that in Rule # 7.)
4. Do not get in so deep that you can’t pull yourself out. People have asked if writing about your past, especially a painful past, is cathartic. And I have to say, no. Not at all. Writing is excruciating. Sitting alone for a couple years with past, present and future traumas and the anxiety of revealing them all to criticism and friends and family, no, that’s not fun and doesn’t feel good. It feels very naked and scary and if you write a memoir, you better be ok with that. There were rabbit holes that I went down that reintroduced difficulties that I had already dealt with after decades of therapy. It took many days of watching Shark Tank and NCIS: Los Angeles to recover.
5. Be prepared for everyone to know more about you than you know about them. After my therapist read a draft of my book, he said he felt like he knew me better. I’ve been going to him for twenty years.
6. Engage in other activities besides writing about yourself. Try volunteering or altruistic pursuits, if you like that kind of thing. Or walk a dog or go running or box or make collages or start to knit or play bridge or visit old age homes (whether you know anyone there or not), basically get out of your head, it’s a terrible place to be and since that’s your full-time job, you need a break.
7. Protect your loved ones, they don’t want to hear about your memoir all the time; they lived through some of it with you. Relationships suffer during book writing. Mostly it’s because of the sweatpants but also because of the nature of the process.
8. The last rule of memoir club: don’t make it up. If you don’t remember or you don’t have artifacts, ask everyone around you. Take this opportunity to interview all the crushes you ever had. Small details trigger other memories or might lead to questions that wouldn’t normally arise. (Why didn’t you take me to prom? Did we smoke weed and THEN go to Subway or go to Subway and then smoke weed?) Details are important and getting them right is what makes writing good. This is your life but there were witnesses and they can help piece together what happened. It’s not always what you think or what you remember.