When Should You Write Your Memoir?
I just finished reading Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a memoir by Cheryl Strayed. This is an incredible book, a bestseller since its release in March, about the author’s 1,100 (that’s eleven hundred) mile solo hike through California and Oregon. She undertook the hike as a way of coping with devastating loss and her own reckless behavior that had left her life in tatters, and it turned out to be a transformative experience.
The memoir is beautifully written, seamlessly weaving Cheryl’s hiking experiences with the events of her past that had led her to the Pacific Crest Trail. She is unflinchingly honest about her pain and her failures; her writing avoids sentimentality, and it never feels like it’s asking for sympathy—things that are often difficult for memoir writers to accomplish.
Cheryl took her hike in the summer of 1995, and her book just released in 2012. When asked in an interview why she had waited so long to write the book, Cheryl said:
“For a number of reasons. It took me years of apprenticing myself to the craft before I could write a book…. I don’t write about something unless I feel a stirring inside of me to do so and it wasn’t until 2008 that I felt that in relation to my experience on the PCT. I think the years between my hike and writing about it made for a better book. I gained perspective that I wouldn’t have had if I’d written about it immediately.”
I love two things about what she said:
1) “Years of apprenticing myself to the craft.”
2) “I gained perspective.”
I believe these two elements are what made this such an excellent memoir. Think about this when considering whether it’s the right time for your memoir.
→ In order to tell your story effectively so that it has the maximum impact, you’ll probably need to spend years apprenticing yourself to the craft; that is, actively studying, learning and improving as a writer.
→ And in order for your story to resonate with deeper truth, you should have enough distance from it that you’ve gained perspective. When you’re still too close to it, you won’t be able to write it well.
Have you ever thought about writing a memoir of a specific episode in your life? Where are you in terms of apprenticing to the craft and gaining distance/perspective?
If you’re interested in the book Wild, here’s a video from the author: