Today’s post is a guest post from Chynna Laird, author of the memoir, White Elephants.
For those of us who have written memoirs, we know it can be an excruciating process. Especially if your book delves into subject matter that society often considers ‘taboo’.
Such issues are considered ‘taboo’ because they make people uncomfortable or unwilling to talk about, deal with or even acknowledge them. Such subjects don’t fit nicely into what’s considered normal so people refuse to see them. And that’s exactly why we should be putting our stories out there.
Only through education will people learn to find ways to eliminate these problems. But the mindset many people possess often creates a barrier in us getting our stories to the people who need them the most. I’ve often said it isn’t what you’re writing about but more the way you write it. And that’s what I’d like to talk to you about today.
Writing a memoir is very similar to writing any New York bestselling novel. You need a good plot, engaging characters, strong dialogue and a powerful storytelling voice. The difference, of course, is that a memoir is real life while fiction gives the author the freedom to hide within his characters. But you can talk ‘taboo’ while still telling a fantastic story. But you have to make sure these additional elements are included.
First, you need to ensure that you are emotionally ready to tell your story. If you’ve gone through something extremely traumatic and survived, you should tell your story. It could help others. But you need to make sure that you have gone through whatever healing practices you need to first. Because if you aren’t in that emotionally healthy place, it will be too raw and your story won’t serve the purpose it’s supposed to.
Next, you need to ensure that your story comes from the right place. There are so many memoirs out there written from anger or other negative platforms. Such books spark nothing but the same negativity and that isn’t what most of us who write memoirs want. We want to inspire and aspire others to keep moving forward to a healthier, happier place. If you write from a negative place, you aren’t helping others to do that. Be sure you are telling your story from that healthy place and don’t put it out there until you can.
I also strongly suggest making sure that you have a strong support system around you while you tell the story and get it out there. These people will keep you grounded, help you stay positive and remind you why you’re doing what you’re doing. That support is essential.
Learn the art of saying a lot with less. That simply means you don’t need to go into explicit details about certain things. How you set up your scene and the emotional charge you put into it are enough. An example would be when I talked about being raped when I was twelve. We all know the mechanics of what happens so there’s no need to describe. But what I share before and after, including how I and my mom handled it, screams volumes. Learning to say a lot with less can make your story a bit more palatable for your reader.
Opt for dialogue over narrative wherever possible. Anyone can describe situations or experiences. But dialogue is so powerful. It can show more about the people and situations you’re trying to talk about. Plus it makes them, and what you’ve gone through, more real.
You should also know what is important to include and what can be left out. You don’t need to bring up every tiny detail. Only the experiences most meaningful to the story you’re trying to tell. Trust me, there were so many other things I could have added in White Elephants but I chose to leave some things out. What I included was most pertinent to the messages I was trying to create.
If you leave something or someone out of the book, leave it out of discussion outside the book too. Many memoir writers choose to change names or locations to protect those in their story. In my case, I didn’t use last names of my friends I included. And although I did include certain family members in my story, I in no way talked about their feelings or thoughts. White Elephants was a story about my relationship with my mom and I kept that focus. The general rule is if respected others enough to leave them (or their part of your story) out of the book, then you must keep them out of interviews, blog posts or other places you’ll be promoting/discussing the book.
The final piece of advice I can give writers who want to talk ‘taboo’ is to stay strong. I know this suggestion may seem a bit simplistic but it’s so important. A friend of mine uses the analogy for his life’s journey being similar to that of a shark. They need to keep moving forward in order to stay alive because when they are still, they drown. Keep moving forward no matter what currents you come across. You are still here for a reason and your story will matter to someone.