Life writing – scary or liberating?

Recently I’ve been teaching a workshop on life writing, so I thought I would share the main points here – both for participants and anyone else who is interested. When we talk about life writing, it can encompass autobiographical, biographical, oral history and memoir, but it means you are drawing on real life. This might be memories, diaries, photographs, interviews – but the key to life writing is, I think, its emotional depth.

This is what makes it scary. Especially if you are writing about your own experiences. Some of the key issues people talk about include:
* Being afraid of what people might say or think if they read what you write, especially family

* Being afraid of offending someone

* Fear of confronting on paper things that you might have kept inside you for years

* Fear of revealing secrets that others might want kept

* Knowing that your material is deeply emotional and being afraid that you might not do it justice

Often these fears can stop you writing anything at all, let alone writing and then letting someone read it. But the same rule applies here as it does for fiction – if you don’t put it on the page, you have nothing to work with. It will stay locked inside you forever.

Free writing can be an amazing tool to help you get the words out. Natalie Goldberg has several books on free writing, of which I think Wild Mind is the best. She has rules to follow, and the most useful are:

* Write for at least 20 minutes

* Don’t stop, don’t think, don’t edit

* You are free to write the worst junk in the world

* Go for the jugular – don’t hold back

When free writing about your life, starting with I remember… and using it over and over will help you draw out a multitude of memories, in more detail than you might expect. I once did Goldberg’s exercise on writing about a room in the house I grew up in. I ended up writing seven pages! And what came out were dozens of details about things I thought I had forgotten, which totally brought that room alive for me again.

Try free writing every day for a week, and see what happens for you.

And stay tuned for some techniques to use in your shaping and redrafting of your life writing.

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