In our long memoir course there’s an image I share around the halfway point to help students recognize tendencies they might have in their writing practice around control. I ask them to consider the idea that either they or their memoir is driving their memoir. In writing, we can want to be in control, which can lead to always needing to be the one to drive; we can also resist being in control, wanting to turn everything over to the creative process, which may work for a while, but eventually leads to a place of feeling out of control. Neither, in its extreme, is a particularly good place to be. So, do you know who’s driving your memoir?
If you’re driving your memoir, you may feel like you’re running a tight ship, like you have it all figured out. You’re following your outline and a schedule and making your deadlines. But then you might also feel like there’s not much creative juice flowing. You may be staying the course so much that you’re not allowing space for memories to arise, for spontaneity to erupt, even for a new scene or chapter to emerge that you didn’t anticipate. You might find yourself drained of energy here, not because of how hard you’re working, but because of the total lack of inspiration and creativity you feel.
On the flip side, if your memoir is driving, you are probably noticing a form of meandering happening as you shuffle from scene to scene in your memoir. You’re probably not working with an outline. You’re leaving absolute space for your memoir to dictate where it wants to go, with varying degrees of inspiration and frustration. Most writers who are letting the memoir drive reach a point of overwhelm because they’ve relinquished control to indulge the creative process. But the problem is that eventually you’re going to need a structure if you want to complete the book within your lifetime. Which means you are going to have to get in the driver’s seat at some point, whether you like it or not.
If you recognize yourself in one scenario over the other, you’d do well to cultivate the thing you’re not doing. Practice letting the memoir drive if you’ve been too long at the wheel, or suck it up and take over for a while if you’ve been dozing off in the passenger seat. (In practice this might mean that if you’ve been driving, you stop to write a scene that’s not in your outline, or that you look at old photos or listen to music from the era you’re writing about. You do something that is not necessarily writing-related, but is memoir-related. If you’ve been letting the memoir drive, you might attempt to organize what you have, by taking an inventory, or to create an outline or an order out of what exists, as a first step.) Writing a memoir is an exercise in balance, and it’s ultimately a balance of the left and right brain. Your left brain wants to control at every turn, wants things organized, to know where you’re going next, and especially to call the shots. Your right brain wants to explore every labyrinth, get lost in your memories, and even resists structure because it’s “uncreative.”
If you’re in a balanced place, good for you. Maybe you can help others here by sharing what’s worked for you, or, if you’re actively aware of your tendency to need to drive or to want to let the memoir drive, what has this been like for you? Do you think you can have structure and allow for creativity? Do you do well holding things that feel like opposite energies? Please share!