1. We must build a shelter with our truth.
Other writers working on memoirs often ask me, “But why would anyone care about my story?” When I was struggling to write Unremarried Widow, I asked a memoirist friend the same thing. She said, “We must build a structure with our truth so that other people can shelter there.” We often forget that by offering up our stories we help others understand their own. In this way, memoir is not self-indulgent but a road map for the human experience.
Column by Artis Henderson, an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work
has appeared in The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Florida Weekly, and the
online literary journal Common Ties. She has an undergraduate degree from the
University of Pennsylvania and a graduate degree from Columbia University’s School
of Journalism. She is the author of the 2014 memoir, UNREMARRIED WIDOW
(Simon & Schuster), which Booklist, in a starred review called “A beautiful debut
from an exciting new voice.” Find Artis on Twitter.
2. When you’re stuck, seek life experiences.
In journalism they say that if you have holes in your story, you need more reporting. In memoir, because we pull from our own lives, a hole in the story means we need to get out and do something. For the longest time, I had no idea how Unremarried would end. I would lay awake in bed at night trying to figure out the last few chapters. Finally, I spent three weeks at a writing residency in Florida where I went on a few adventures—swimming with manatees, boating through the back bay, visiting a town of psychics. Some of that material made its way into the last chapter of the book. If I just sat in my room worrying, I never would have known how to tie up the story.
3. The only way to solve structural problems is by writing.
I wasted a frustrating amount of time trying to puzzle out the structure of Unremarried Widow. I printed pages. I wrote on notecards. I made a story map on the wall. I spent so much time worrying about the structure that I stopped writing. Eventually I realized that what I needed was more: more scenes, more reflection, more words on the page. Only when I had a lot of written material did I develop a sense for how the overall story should look.
4. Join a writing group.
I battled through the first half of Unremarried alone. But for the second half I found a writing group—and it changed everything. There were four of us, all women, and we met once a month. I didn’t know any of them before the group, although now I count them as close friends. We submitted up to twenty pages before each meeting, and we spent half an hour on every submission when we met. The other writers offered edits, asked questions, and pointed me in narrative directions I never imagined. I wish I had found them sooner!
5. There is no perfect writing spot.
I could have saved myself a truckload of angst if someone had told me this early on. I used to think a magical writing spot existed that every good author knew about but refused to share. If I could just find the quintessential coffee shop, the optimum library seat, the right cafe—then I was sure the writing would flow effortlessly and I would produce amazing work on the first draft. As it turns out, this ideal place doesn’t exist. Writing always felt like work; I never produced anything great on the first draft. But even if I didn’t find the perfect coffee shop or spot in the library, I kept writing—and in the end that’s all that really matters.
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