Stop Telling Me What I Can—and Can’t—Write About.

I had a really bad time in a creative writing class I took in college.

It was my senior year and a very small class. I desperately wanted to write, but I was having huge problems even finishing one page. Everything I wrote felt clumsy, awkward, and stupid. I was also introverted, super sensitive, and just plain weird. On top of this, the other students in the class seemed to know exactly what they were doing. They seemed to be clicking with the teacher, and handing in work that aligned perfectly with her expectations.

And the teacher did have firm expectations, that much was clear. She seemed very knowledgeable about publishing and what people wanted to read. She had a lot of opinions on what we should spend our time writing, and what would be a waste.

It was in this class, for the first time, that I heard it was pointless to write about your own life. Unless you were a celebrity, of course, which no one in my class was. The celebrity exception might as well have been the same thing as telling me I wasn’t allowed to write about myself unless I was a pink unicorn who came from the planet Jupiter. I had no hope of becoming a celebrity, and no interest in it either.

But I had never thought that would matter. I didn’t want to be a rock star, after all. I wanted to be a writer.

In this class, way back in the long-lost year of 1999, I received my first big fat scoop of unhelpful writing advice. It definitely wouldn’t be the last.

This all came back to me this week when I got an email from a reader who had just finished my new autobiographical novel, Between the Shadow and Lo. He shared a story that was so similar to mine it gave me chills. He, also, took a writing class in college in which the teacher told the class they shouldn’t write about themselves or their personal experiences because “no one wants to read that sort of thing.” After reading my book, he said, he realized that he is a person who very much DOES want to read that sort of thing, and so maybe it was time to start thinking about writing that sort of thing too.

I have heard variations of this same story from clients over the years. I have to say, it seems to come most frequently from writers who have been through some sort of institutionalized academic program in writing. Professors and mentors alike have told them not to write memoir. (Unless they’re a celebrity, of course—that damn celebrity clause will never die.)

All I can say is that this really sucks.

As a person who feels called to mentor writers as a life purpose, I cannot even tell you how deeply disappointed I am when I hear about any sort of writing teacher discouraging students from writing what their souls are urging them to write. Also, in my opinion, writing memoir can be one of the deepest spiritual experiences a person can go through. Writing memoir challenges us to examine our dark places, forgive the past, open our hearts, and practice ongoing self-care. Writing memoir helps us to realize that we are all connected, and that we each have a responsibility to the planet, and to each other. Does it seem impossible that working with a certain form of writing can do all that? I promise you it is true.

I know this because I’ve gone through it. And I’ve seen my clients go through it. Writing memoir changes  you. It initiates an energetic shift at the deepest levels. Writing memoir gives you an aerial view of your life, and shows you how every event in it was always part of a positive growth-oriented whole.

Besides all of this though, as writers in today’s online world, we know that the publishing landscape has changed forever. Maybe memoir didn’t outsell the Oprah book club titles in the 1990s and early 2000s, when most people still got their books from actual bookstores and everything to do with the book-selling process basically came down to storage space. But we live in a different world. Amazon has decimated the idea that if you’re going to sell books, you’re going to have to deal with the logistics of moving a stack of paper from this location to that one, and then back again.

That just doesn’t exist anymore.

Memorize this formula:

Ebooks + Internet = TOTAL AND COMPLETE FREEDOM FOR WRITERS

You can write and publish anything you want. All the advice about what “sort of thing” people will and will not read is now null and void. Thousands and thousands of people are writing about their lives and publishing their memoirs. Women who have gone through domestic violence and come out on the other side. Adventurers who moved to Alaska and forged their own pioneering life. Entrepreneurs who are still chasing the next big dream and want to document their progress thus far. People from all walks of life, with all different experiences, are writing about the things they have seen and experienced and felt.

And “that sort of thing” is the exact thing that so many readers are looking for.

If you’ve always wanted to write your memoir but you’ve been held back by doubting if anyone would want to read it, now is the time to start. Now is the time to put yourself and your story first. I can tell you from firsthand experience, you will be shocked at the amount of readers who will contact you and tell you how much your story resonates with them.

It’s true. We really are all connected.

Lauren Sapala is the author of Between the Shadow and Lo, an autobiographical novel based on her experiences as an alcoholic. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers. She currently lives in San Francisco.

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7 Comments

  • Reply Lynne 5 October, 2017 at 11:23 am

    Great post Lauren! I can identify too (though a different life path). I would rather read a memoir/essay piece of writing from a real person rather than one with a glamorous author. What an arrogant and disempowering piece of advice from that college teacher!

  • Reply Warren Ward 5 October, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Hi Lauren

    Thanks for this inspiring message. I recently got tested and I am an INFJ! No wonder I love your posts.

  • Reply Randa Eldon Greene 5 October, 2017 at 10:32 pm

    I’ve had quite the opposite experience, with professors, guest authors, and especially academic poets telling me to write about my life. My life isn’t all that interesting, so I write fiction alone. And I only recently posted a personal post about myself on my blog (https://authorgreene.com/2017/09/07/personal-update/). I’m not convinced that the advice not to write memoir is totally without merit, as I think it depends on who you are and how you write.
    I read a whole book titled something like Best American Essays 2013, and all but one were just painfully awful. Most had the word “I”as the first word of the first sentence. Those that didn’t had it later in the first sentence or, at best, brought in the ego “I” into the second sentence. It was all crap, and not just because of the myopic viewpoints encapsulated within those first sentences.
    Than again, occasionally, I’ll run into something that is memoir and it’s amazing. There’s one piece I like to read over and over. But it’s the exception, not the rule. And I don’t think it’s that this author’s life is more interesting (the essay is on a time the author made herself bleed internally from stress) but that the writing, wit, and intelligence was actually worth reading.
    So, in the end, I suppose, it isn’t the topic, rather how it is written that matters. Yet why is it I read a lot of memoir and autobiography and rarely walk away impressed? Is it the demands of the style, or is it a lack of intelligence and deeper ideas which fiction can more artfully explore? I don’t have the answers to this. But I keep trying memoir, hoping for those a diamond in the rough. Though the rough seems rather vast in comparison to precious stones at this point.
    Or perhaps I expect too much from my non-fiction, and as a reader, I really don’t care about your life, but rather how you write about it. I hope that’s not the case. But I fear it may be true.

  • Reply Jeri 6 October, 2017 at 12:44 pm

    I fell in love with personal essay writing as a graduate and undergraduate writing student at Boise State. One of the best classes I took was on the history of the personal essay from Bruce Ballenger. The course started with reading Montaigne and ended with reading David Sedaris. It was wonderful, and taught me so much about creative nonfiction. I tried to write fiction for years, even though I studied in a program with a strong nonfiction program in addition to a good fiction program. Writers sense the warnings about memoir on multiple fronts, not just higher-education. For once though, I am writing what I truly love, and that subject is me. It only took just under two decades to get there.

  • Reply George McNeese 6 October, 2017 at 2:33 pm

    Great post, Lauren. Until recently, I only wrote Contemporary Fiction because it was what I knew. And people who knew me knew that, too. I didn’t try to write anything beyond that genre because I didn’t know what people would say. But now I don’t worry about them. I have to write for me. That’s really the only person that matters.

  • Reply Kevin 6 October, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    I wrote a surreal piece in which the main character deals with a series of circumstances patterned after troubling events from my past. I never pursued publishing it. Once complete, it was as if a huge weight was lifted from me. The act of writing it was therapy in itself.

    Great blog and awesome insights, Lauren.

  • Reply Elias 11 October, 2017 at 1:48 pm

    I try, TRY, not to give writing programs the stink eye but SO many folks I know who’ve been down that road end up jaded and disjointed–or working for publishing houses on other people’s books. Thanks for sharing your recovery.

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