A couple weeks ago I had an experience that prompted raw personal writing. It came out strong and visceral and angry and true. It scared me a little in its potency. It stared me in the face with its hard truths. It was 2500 words of intense, gritty, substantive stuff that poured out of me like molten lava.
As a writer, this felt powerful and fierce and really good. I wanted to pat myself on the back. It was one of the best “pieces” I’d ever written. And I wrote it in a single session with almost no self-editing. As a memoir teacher and mentor, I saw it for what it was: a journal entry. I also saw the power of dumping, and exactly how and why writers can come to be blinded by the notion that these early emotional drafts are anywhere near ready to be published.
When we dump, we are releasing. The urge is strong, which is why I use this word (and that image). We have to get it out. There is no not writing it. It can help us to process an event or experience. Sometimes writers write through their experiences. Sometimes they write years later, causing them to drop right back into an emotional hole that’s twenty or thirty or forty years old. Sometimes writers need support to do these dump drafts. I know I have helped more than a few writers get their story out and onto the page—and it’s a lot like midwifing.
The hard work of becoming a discerning writer is to learn to be objective enough about your writing to know when you have a dump draft and when you have something that’s on its way to becoming publishable. A first draft of a manuscript, in my opinion, should never be published. Especially if the process of writing it brings up these visceral, powerful, intense emotions that accompany any writing to do with pain, grief, suffering, shame, and/or self-exposure. Ummmm . . . does a memoir exist that doesn’t have any of these elements?
But too often, writers are attached to their dumping. And I get it. I’m pretty attached to these 2500 words I wrote. But here’s an objective observation. There is not a single scene. It’s all telling. There is no framework. There is no takeaway. If, as an aspiring author, you do not know whether you have any of these things, you have some work to do to learn to become a good memoirist. That dump draft is INVALUABLE. Please do not discount it or get bogged down by trying to learn to write perfectly right out the gate. It’s simply to say that this writing of a memoir is a process. If you can start with a dump draft, you’re golden. Then you have the hard work of polishing. And maybe you polish once or twice or three times before you publish or shop your book to agents and editors.
No one ever said that writing a memoir should be fast or easy or a given. The best writers I know talk about it as blood-letting, self-torture, and total gut-wrench. And yet it’s also among the things in their lives that make them the most proud, most whole, and most themselves. What a mindfuck, right?
So what’s the point I’m trying to convey? That it’s a good thing to start to assess where you’re at with your manuscript and what you’re writing. That it’s okay to dump and feel the power of what you’re writing, but don’t let that make you rush to shop your book. Workshop your project. Get readers. Get an assessment. Put out into the world a book that will make you proud five years from now, even if it takes you an extra year or two to make your publishing dreams a reality. It’s important to be self-reflective. It’s critical to who you are as a memoirist. The capacity to critique whether or not you are ready for prime time is part of becoming a mature writer, and this journey of memoir, as Linda Joy Myers calls it (also a subject she’s written a whole book about), is not a quick jaunt, but rather a meandering, interesting, life-giving, and deepening quest that will teach you more about yourself and break you open in a way not too many other experiences have the capacity to do.
I salute all of you aspiring memoirists and welcome you to our craft call on April 23 at 4pm PST | 7pm EST. To sign up just return to the homepage and sign up in the box where prompted. Craft is the beginning of learning the difference between a dump draft and a polished, ready-to-be-published draft. So please come!