Writing about yourself is a terrifying proposition. In the form of a memoir, nonfiction can feel like taking all your clothes off in front of a crowd of strangers, then proceeding to unveil your most real and poignant emotions.
Memoir involves intimacy with readers, which you can only achieve when you’re able to put aside your fears of what people might think and focus on what you have to say that they need to hear.
This is what courage looks like where nonfiction is concerned…but it is not arrived at easily.
Last week, I told you about how getting my feet wet with nonfiction and poetry in my Master of Fine Arts program helped me, a fiction writer, to better understand my craft. But there was more to this experience than just writing a couple of essays and trying out a new genre.
The truth is, nonfiction wasn’t just an experiment for me. It turned out I was really good at it.
I was so good, in fact, that a colleague told me that maybe I should consider changing my concentration for my master’s degree from fiction to nonfiction.
To be honest, this really pissed me off. I felt like my talent was being called into question and that this person was being presumptuous about my goals. This just made me double down and say that if people were going to say I was good at nonfiction, then I was just going to write fiction even harder.
I was going to show them. (Note: I’ve said this before, but any time “I’ll show them” is your motivation for creating, you need to reevaluate what you’re trying to accomplish.)
However, 13 years later, I’m now writing way more nonfiction than I ever have been willing to create. I publish this blog, do my own marketing, and am working on a collection of flash nonfiction essays.
Probably the biggest factor is that a couple of years ago, I got into counseling. I’m not saying that counseling is the silver bullet to producing amazing nonfiction ideas, but it certain helps you get a clearer picture of your life and causes all the dust to settle in your mind**.
By bringing in professional help from outside my head, I realized that there were things that happened to me in the past that I had never properly dealt with, or that I didn’t even see as problematic.
Asking for help in these areas was difficult, but it unlocked something for me emotionally, giving me a vocabulary to write about my life that I’d never had.
And once I had acquired this new knowledge about myself, I realized I had a lot to say.
For me, flash nonfiction has provided the perfect medium for helping me express what I’ve learned about my faith, spiritual connections with art, relationships, creativity, spiritual abuse, and other themes I’ve been exploring. I have written over 40 of these short pieces in the last few months and plan to eventually put a book together.
If someone had told me back when my workshop colleague told me I should be in the nonfiction program that I would eventually be doing all this, I would have laughed. And then I would have been scared to death.
Maybe you are in a similar place. Maybe you want to write about yourself, but don’t think you’re “ready” or emotionally equipped.
Your exploration of nonfiction writing doesn’t have to look like mine. I’m not saying that two years of therapy is the magic ingredient, even though it was precisely what I needed.
But there are other tools in your belt that you can use to unlock true stories that are yours to tell.
Start with the Small Details
You don’t have to write about the “serious stuff” out of the gate. Many successful memoirs may focus on abuse, trauma, and suffering. However, there are far more books and essays that do not deal with these topics.
The best essays focus on small things—the concrete, sensory details that anchor our memories and form the bedrock of the most meaningful of our life experiences.
One exercise I enjoy when I don’t know where to start is to begin with a sensory detail—a smell, color, sound, or texture that holds particular meaning for me.
Begin with this detail, then zoom out from it. What is going on around you? Who else is there? What is the general tone of the occasion?
This can point you to a subject that emotionally engages you and gives you a desire to write.
You Don’t Have to Write 20 Pages
I’ll have more to say about flash nonfiction in a future post (stay tuned), but I can tell you that one of the most liberating things I’ve discovered about essay writing is that these don’t have to be long pieces.
200 words is an essay just as much as 20 pages. Your piece only has to be as long as you need to communicate your ideas.
All you need is a compelling idea that concretely portrays the experience to readers in a way they can relate to. The length will take care of itself.
Write About Art That Inspires You
Film, television, visual art, music, theatre, and books are great sources of inspiration. Think of a work of art that has provided inspiration, encouragement, or emotional connection and reflect on where that connection comes from.
Don’t think too hard about it. Maybe begin by talking about how experiencing the art makes you feel, then move outward into the life occurrences, relationships, and other ideas that come to mind.
Nobody Has to See It
Writers frequently put up roadblocks to creativity by focusing on publication and sharing their work as the ideal end result. But what if that isn’t the case?
What if writing something that is just for you can be the ultimate reward?
In a previous post, I talked about how to pursue writing about traumatic or extremely personal events. In the beginning, I wrote about the prayer journal I’ve kept for the past 12 years. Praying in writing helps me to connect with Jesus in a way that other forms of prayer don’t, and it’s been a powerful tool for me to express my desires, fears, and thoughts.
It’s the most important writing I will ever do, and it only has one intended Audience.
You don’t have to show anyone your nonfiction. You don’t have to publish it. Maybe someday you’ll reach a point where you want to share it. Maybe you won’t.
Either way, you’ve been able to express your personal experiences and feelings in writing, which in itself is a healing experience.
Want more tools for writing nonfiction? Check out the Ultimate Writing Project Workbook, my free resource for writers.
You’ll find writing prompts, templates, worksheets, and more for figuring out what to write and how to do it. And best of all, it’s free.
You’ll also get both the fiction and nonfiction editions of the workbook so that regardless of what kind of project you’re doing, you’ll have plenty of inspiration.
Click here to grab a copy now!
**Note: If you suffer from depression, anxiety, trauma, suicidal thoughts, addiction, or any other experience or condition, counseling is an excellent resource. It is not a mark of shame. It does not mean you’re a failure or that you’re a “basket case.”
Asking for help brings freedom and hope. It brings new levels of understanding and knowledge about what you’ve been through. It’s hard work and you have to be willing to walk through some scary and uncomfortable stuff…but you don’t have to do it alone.