5 Steps to Overcoming Fears of Writing about the Deeply Personal in Your Memoir

Jane Binns discusses the difficulty some memoir writers experience about publishing deeply personal life events and emotions.
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Jane Binns discusses the difficulty some memoir writers experience about publishing deeply personal life events and emotions.

Do you have a story burning inside, begging to be written, but are afraid of what others will think? I lived through months of self-doubt and the rapid-fire succession of questions beginning with ‘What if’ in the process of writing my memoir, Broken Whole. By committing to your writing and paying close attention to when your fears feel overwhelming, you can practice ways of moving through them.

 Writing Your Legacy, by Richard Campbell & Dr. Cheryl Svensson

Writing Your Legacy, by Richard Campbell & Dr. Cheryl Svensson

Separate Writing about Fears from Writing your Story

I experienced several blocks of time when I intended to write my story but ended up feeling frozen because I was so caught up in anticipating what others would think of me. One of the first helpful things I discovered was to write out my fears in a separate document or journal. I designated a time period of fifteen to thirty minutes and if I needed more, I took it. I wrote out what was preying on my mind the most and didn’t hold back anything that felt like an obstacle. Then, I took a break, came back, and began the writing of my story. If panic returned, I wrote out more of what bothered me. There wasn’t any magic number of times that I repeated this before I felt more at ease. It didn’t matter if I’d written the same fears in a different or the same way a hundred times before. What mattered was that I honored how I was feeling by writing it out so that I could move past it and get to what I really wanted to accomplish, the writing of my story.

Occasionally, I would talk through my fears with trusted writer friends. This was a gamble, however, because sometimes I would find myself having to defend myself or filter their opinions, and these ended up being distracting rather than keeping me on the path of writing. Most of the time, I found myself not wanting much more than to be told, “Keep going.” Or, “What you feel is natural. This means your story will resonate with others.”

Don’t Hold Back

When you are drafting your story for the first time, write everything out. Write as though you are writing to a close friend, one who would never judge or shun you. Write how you felt, who was there, what you said or did, what you wished you said or did, what others said or did. Don’t sugar-coat it or analyze or rationalize why someone reacted as they did. This comes off as apologizing for their behavior. Be straight and direct in your writing of the events and your feelings. Worry about shaping and nuance later. Early on, strive for authenticity. I found that in the midst of those initial ideas were the kernels of what I wanted to carry forward.

Commitment to Writing

Writing at a certain time every day is great if you can do this. Knowing when your creative energy is highest and carving out anywhere between thirty minutes and two hours to write free of other obligations and responsibilities will go a long way toward committing to your writing. A regular timeslot did not always work for me but I began looking for opportunities to write such as when I was waiting at the mechanics for my car to be done, my son’s swimming lessons, or waiting for a flight at the airport. While I was around other people during these pockets of time, there was no obligation to engage with anyone and these peripheral scenes served as a white noise, allowing me to access a memory sometimes more easily than when I was home alone working within that two hours I had committed to. Showing up to write regularly is what matters regardless of whether it is at the same time every day or sandwiched in while you’re doing other things.

Give yourself short-term and long-term goals of when you will be done with a chapter or segment of the story. Applying a structure to the story that is emotionally charged will bolster your belief in getting it done. However, forgive yourself if you don’t reach that goal. You have not failed. There is no rule book about this process. Beating yourself up sabotages the project. If accessing the story is draining, give yourself permission to take a break. If you need someone to remind you to begin again, find and enlist this gentle and constructive friend for the task.

Support

A writer’s group can be a great support for providing a nurturing place as a counterpoint to your fears when they arise. Finding one or two people within your group who have gone through the trials and jubilation of crafting their personal stories onto the page can be reassuring. It is calming to know you are not the only person who has gone through this.

Be Kind to Yourself

Birthing your story is not easy. It was challenging to live through, but conveying it to others for them to understand and empathize with is entirely different. It requires attention not only to the craft of writing, but to your whole being. The mind, body, and emotional balance require care. Following the simple things of eating a healthy diet maintains optimal function of your brain. It is a well-known fact that sugar is highly addictive and destructive. It provides an instant high which stimulates but a crash is soon to follow. Over time, it fogs the brain. I don’t like having to recover from its yo-yo effects, so I only indulge minimally.

Regular exercise is a wonderful way to separate from the emotional and intellectual activity of writing. Swimming and walking have always helped me arrive at serenity and a clearer mindset.

Take naps and rest when you need to. Do fun things that have nothing to do with writing. Be grateful that you love words and have the ability to bring your story into the world to be shared with others. You will be an inspiration to others in untold ways.

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Jane Binns is the author of Broken Whole (She Writes Press, available now) a memoir covering a 12-year period from the end of her marriage to the death of her ex-husband. She grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She holds a BS from Eastern Michigan University, an MS in education from Syracuse University, and an MFA in prose from Naropa University. She is an English composition instructor at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, CO. Learn more at janebinnswrites.com.