AuthorsGetLit is a series on This is Lit that will focus on tips for authors, self-published or otherwise, from both bloggers and other authors.
Read the previous posts from this series here:
Today, we have Pragya Bhagat, author and poet, writing about her own experience with penning down her stories. Do read on if you are an author trying to write an autobiographical story and want to know how someone else did it.
Telling Our Stories
The Challenges of Memoir Writing
I want to start with a confession. Writing is a craft, and with each essay, story, and book that I write, I’m learning my craft. In reading my opinions, you will not know everything there is to know about writing a memoir. You will simply know my understanding of it. I urge you to build your own understanding by writing madly, reading even more madly, and repeating the process again and again. That’s what I did.
The most powerful stories I read were those that people wrote about themselves. In Black Boy, Richard Wright wrote about growing up in Jim Crow America. In The Lost, Daniel Mendelsohn searched for six relatives that disappeared during the Holocaust. The memoirs I loved didn’t have to be tragic, they didn’t even have to be inspiring. Most of Bill Bryson’s work made me laugh until I cried. The beauty of Wright and Mendelsohn and Bryson was that they allowed me to go where they went, to feel what they felt. By the end of each book, I believed these authors were my best friends, that in knowing their experiences and memories, I knew them.
Telling your own story, writing about your own experiences, requires honesty, patience, and a whole lot of courage. Through a memoir, you are baring yourself to the world, and in a world that judges and scorns and ridicules, that is no easy task. At the age of seven, I began documenting my experiences in a journal. Nearly three decades later, journalling is as habitual for me as drinking water. Without it, I feel restless, unsatisfied, un-quenched. But jotting down private thoughts and publishing private thoughts are two drastically different journeys. In doing the latter, I didn’t feel brave. Instead, I felt anxious, confused, and unprepared.
Compiling my memoir led to certain challenges. I felt strongly about my experiences, but would my readers feel just as strongly? In journalling, I wrote for myself, but through this memoir, I wrote to be read, to be someone else’s Wright and Mendelsohn and Bryson. Writing then became not so much about what I created but how I created it.
I reflected on the relevance of my story, the development of characters in the narrative, the rising and falling arc of the plot. Steven Pressfield’s blog was especially helpful in dissecting my initial drafts. But this dissection and redrafting, it wasn’t fun.
Editing was a chore. It was repetitive, unexciting work. Writing – collecting stories, creating the narrative – was more enjoyable than rewriting and then rewriting the rewritten. However, if I wanted to call myself a serious writer, I had to treat writing like a job. Like any job, there were teeth-clenching, hair-pulling bits. A memoir, I gradually learned, couldn’t just be a personal story. It had to be a story told extremely well. In other words, it had to be a story edited extremely well.
Another challenge I faced was addressing the reactions of people I wrote about. What if they didn’t like how I portrayed them? Did their approval matter? Sure, I could write about myself, but to what extent was I allowed to write about others?
I emailed an initial draft to those prominently featured in the memoir. Some recipients of this draft worried that I’d revealed too much. Others feared my book would create conflict. A few believed they had been portrayed inaccurately. I discussed their fears with them, but my goal wasn’t to gain their approval; it was to involve them in the storytelling process. It was important for these people to feel heard – because they mattered to me – but they weren’t the ones telling the story. So I stuck to what this memoir was – my version of the truth. Maybe there will be conflict, and maybe people won’t like what I have to say, but that’s fine. That choice is on me.
I want to end with another confession. Autobiographical narratives are, for me, a selfish exercise. I write about people and places I want to remember, about emotions and relationships I want to unravel. In other words, the memoir becomes my therapist. It ensures I have a voice, that what I say and think and do and feel matters. Writing a memoir helped me find my voice. In telling your own stories, I hope you find yours.
About the Author
Pragya Bhagat is a spoken word poet and writer. Her poetry collection, More Than a Memory, has been called “a melodious autobiography.” Her second book, Yarn-An Interwoven Memoir (Bombaykala 2018), is centered around the women in Pragya’s life. Yarn comes out on March 8, International Women’s Day. You can follow her work at facebook.com/PragyaWrites and pragyabhagat.wordpress.com.
Thanks so much for telling us your story, Pragya!
Are you currently working on a memoir? Did Pragya’s experience give you any suggestions? Let me know in the comments!