Let’s start by confronting one of the biggest stumbling blocks for many people…
You haven’t got faith in your story and your reasons for telling it
Your story does not have to appeal to lots of people to be worth telling. Even if you just want to tell a story for a few friends or family members, you should. Many people write their memoir or autobiography just so the grandchildren they haven’t met yet can read it and learn about the lives they led.
Your story doesn’t have to be overly dramatic or full of incident. A memoir or autobiography that opens up on your life and your experiences can be very meaningful to family and friends. It can reveal more about the relationships that have shaped you, and help your family and friends understand you better.
Most of all, writing your memoir or autobiography will do you good. It can even help you make sense of things. It’s easier to see the positive impact of what might have felt like mistakes or missteps when you see your whole life in context.
Still not convinced? I’ve written more about this sort of imposter syndrome that stops so many people from telling their story here: Should I write my life story?!
You don’t enjoy writing. You’ve never enjoyed writing. And you’re not very good at it!
If you don’t enjoy writing, and you don’t think you’re very good at it, ask yourself why…
Could it be because you’re stuck in some formal idea of writing that you learned at school? If you think your book can’t be informal or colloquial, or funny, I’m not surprised you don’t enjoy writing it.
Allow yourself to write with more freedom. Worry about tidying it up later.
Remember, if you’re writing a book for your family and friends, they don’t want ‘perfect’! They just want to hear your story.
I’ve worked with lots of people with great stories to tell. Lots of them really feared committing those stories to the page because they thought they’d make a mess of them. If you feel like that, just try saying those stories out loud and writing them down, word for word. (As I am going to keep saying, you can go back and tidy it all up later.)
You’re intimidated by the sheer amount you have to write!
I know that feeling! But having written a lot of autobiographies for people, I also know that bit-by-bit, even the biggest books get written.
To tackle this problem, you can go one of two ways, depending on the kind of person you are.
Relax your timescale for finishing the book. If it all feels too pressurised, just work session-by-session, without feeling like you’re working towards a defined end point.
If you’re motivated by deadlines, then give yourself a target date for finishing your book. Make sure it’s a realistic target, to take account of all the other things you have to do in your life, but stick to it as far as you can.
You can’t find time to write
Of all the things you have to do in life, writing your book is almost certainly going to get pushed down the list when you’re short on time. And if you’re always short on time, or juggling too many demands, your book is never going to get written.
The only way around it is to schedule specific writing time in your diary and then hold onto that time like your life depends on it! If it means combining writing with a visit to your favourite tea room, coffee shop, or pub, that might work.
In response, you may say that writing at defined times doesn’t work for you, that you need to wait and write when the muse visits. In that case the next item in our list is for you…
You sit down to write, but nothing happens!
Have you made a plan? If not, ‘Do not pass Go. Do not collect £200.’
Writing a book without a plan is a bit like shopping without a shopping list. You’re probably not going to get everything you need, and you might just end up with a few bits and pieces that really aren’t going to help you!
If you haven’t written a plan and you’ve already started writing, I suggest you down tools, take a step back, and write a thorough plan before you write another word.
Your plan will help you get the structure of your book right. But even more usefully, it ensures you won’t waste any writing time because you’ve got misplaced in your timeline, forgotten what you were going to write about, or lost important details.
Use any format you want. Just make sure you list all the key events, people and places you want to write about. Put all the events in a timeline, and make it as detailed as possible. Ideally, your timeline should include every single event your book is going to cover, in the order it happened. (Or in the order you’re going to raise it in your book if you choose a non-chronological structure.) With this to guide you, you’ll never need to worry about knowing what you’re going to write about next.
One more tip: have a smaller plan of attack for each writing session so that when you sit down to write, you know exactly where your story is heading. Ideally, you should work this out a day or two in advance of writing, so that your brain is already working on the story. Or you can set aside a few minutes at the end of every writing session to jot down some notes for next time; that way, you’ll be able to launch straight into productive writing, every time.
You keep losing focus
It’s easy to feel as if your writing is aimless, or lacking in purpose. Assuming you’re working to a plan – see reason 5 above – then there’s probably another reason for this:
I suggest that you haven’t got a clear enough sense of who you’re writing for.
Whatever you’re writing, the single most important thing you can do to retain your focus and your sense of writing purpose is to remember who you’re writing for.
As we’re specifically talking about writing your life story in this piece, you’ll need to think about who is going to be reading your memoir or autobiography. I’ve found that life story writers are always more energised, and their writing is more focused when they have a very specific person or group of readers in mind. It really is so much easier to write a book for your partner / your children / your friends etc.
You may have a slightly different audience in mind if you’re writing a work memoir, or survival story. In those instances, you might not know precisely who’ll be reading your book, but you can still imagine an exemplar person, and write with them in mind.
You’re embarrassed or unsure of the story you’re telling
It can feel weirdly dislocating to put our story down in print and imagine anyone else reading it. The idea of opening up our private world of thoughts and experiences – even to our nearest and dearest – can take some getting used to.
You can filter out some of the things you don’t want to talk about when you’re writing your plan. But if you find that something doesn’t quite feel right as you’re committing it to paper, don’t waste time worrying whether or not it works, or whether it’s appropriate for your book. Write it down anyway. Then see how it feels in the context of your story when you read your whole manuscript back. It’s easier to edit (or entirely remove) a section than it is to write it in retrospectively.
As we said above, keep your prospective reader/s in mind; that may well help you to decide if the material you’re unsure about is going to find a receptive audience in those readers.
Above all, this is your decision to make. Whoever you’re writing your book for, you still need to feel like you’re telling your story on your terms. So, if you’re not comfortable writing about something, or it niggles at you when you read it back, take it out.
Your writing is a big mess!
Behind every good writer is an even better editor!
If you don’t find the idea of editing your hard work all that appealing, I suggest you get an editor to help you. Find out more about the editing process.
An edit won’t just make your book leaner and more direct, it will resolve any mistakes and inconsistencies, improve its readability, and make sure it is narratively and thematically sound.
You’re nervous about releasing your story to the world
Even though you’re reading this because you want to tell your story, it doesn’t mean you’re going to feel absolutely confident about sharing it with people.
Some memoir writers and autobiography writers baulk at the idea that when their book is out there, it’s out there. Things that are said in your book can’t be erased.
Do think very carefully about your book’s content before you commit to printing or publishing. When you’re sure that your version of events is as truthful to you as it can be, and that you haven’t inadvertently upset or maligned anyone, you may find it easier to commit to print and publish.
Use that edit we talked about to make any final cuts. You might also want to think about printing a disclaimer along the lines of how you haven’t set out to hurt anybody in the telling of your story, and that the events are as true a reflection of your perception and experience as possible. All these little things can help to take away the doubts that stop some writers from sharing their story.
But don’t forget, just because you’ve written a book, it doesn’t mean you have to share it with anyone. That may feel like a waste of effort, but I’ve worked with a few people who, having done the hard work of writing their life story, decide not to print it or publish it.
Strange as it may sound, they still feel as if they have gained so much from the experience of writing that they’re happy to sit on their book. Some people even decide to get some books printed up, only to be released to their chosen readers after their death.
Feeling any more ready to write your life story?
After all of this, I hope that you might feel a little easier about writing your story. And if there are any techniques that you’ve found that have helped you in your writing journey, I’d love to hear them.
Equally, if you’re looking for a little help on your writing journey, book yourself on a free half hour writing mentoring consultation.