Writing Truth in Memoir: It Takes the Time It Takes
Recently one of my mentoring clients, who is also a yoga instructor, was thinking out loud about the length of time it is taking her to write her memoir, which she began years ago and has recently returned to.
“Well,” she said during one of our coaching calls, “there’s a yogi expression that goes, ‘It takes the time it takes.’”
It takes the time it takes.
This expression brings to mind a Brevity craft essay titled “Excavating a Moment’s Truth” written by Kerry Cohen that I use in my course “Craft Your Truth/Claim Your Voice”—a course that focuses on voice as craft and as identity in women’s memoir writing.
In “Excavating a Moment’s Truth,” Cohen writes that her memoir Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity took five months to write but that prior to those five months she “spent almost ten years figuring out what the book was really about.”
Writing memoir is at its heart an act of self-discovery. This process of discovering what your story is really about—the deeper truth that wants to be told—is, I believe, the part of the memoir-writing process that “takes the time it takes.”
In other words, the writing leads you deeper into your own truth and asks you to open your eyes to it.
As it happens, my yoga-instructor client is also immersed in the process of figuring out what her memoir is really about, i.e., discovering the deeper story that wants to be told. This is another way of saying that she’s allowing herself to discover through her writing the emotional truth of her experience, which resides at the level of theme, or universal truth.
Not only does allowing your memoir to take the time it takes ultimately deliver the universal truth of your story to the page, it also deepens your relationship to yourself as you come to see and to accept your younger self for who you once were as you navigated your life’s circumstances during a particular period of time.
This was certainly the case for Cohen, who goes on to explain in “Excavating a Moment’s Truth” that she spent much of those first ten years rewriting a single scene but never quite getting to the bottom of it, never quite realizing the whole truth.
The scene takes place when she is twelve years old and she and two girlfriends go into Manhattan one night. After they miss the last bus home, they get a ride with two men they meet at a gas station. Twelve-year-old Kerry is in the backseat next to one of the men who puts his hand up her skirt.
Cohen says of her experience writing this scene:
For a long time, I thought of myself in this scene as the victim because that man molested me. This was certainly a part of the truth, but it wasn’t the whole truth. I rewrote the scene and the moment when he molested me at least fifteen times. And then, one day, I was able to write a truth about that moment that I had been too ashamed, too frightened, to admit before.
It takes the time it takes.
And I would argue that not a single one of those fifteen attempts was wasted time.
Because each attempt led her to the next attempt, which led her to the next until she arrived at a new and deeper awareness of the whole truth of her experience.
We don’t simply pick up our pen one day and arrive at truth the next. Writing memoir is a process of discovery. We write our way toward the truth that is integral to the theme of our memoir.
Within the scene—her younger self in the back seat with the man who is about to molest her—Cohen unearths a deeper emotional truth that delivers to the page the multi-dimensional complexity of who she was at that point in her twelve-year-old life:
I want to scream, to push his hand away, but I’m too afraid. Too afraid if I don’t give in, he won’t let me go at all. But there’s something else, too, something growing inside me, something I don’t really want to admit: There’s another part that’s not afraid at all. I almost like it. I know what’s happening isn’t right. But his touch is an inevitable result of the evening. It is my greatest hope—to be wanted. And here, with this repulsive older man, I am getting that. He holds his hand there like he owns me, but really, silently, I’m the one who owns him.
And it is this discovery—Cohen the writer now unearthing a deeper, emotional need of her younger self—that enables Cohen finally to complete her memoir. She goes on to say that “this theme in my life, this terrible, shameful theme—that I would take attention from men any way I could because it made me feel in control and loved—is the theme that would drive my memoir forward.”
Indeed, it takes the time it takes for us to fully realize the themes of our life stories. This is an integral part of the work: writing drafts—the same scene fifteen times if necessary—to finally arrive at seeing clearly the narrator’s emotional truth.
The time it takes then becomes a gift that delivers to the page the deeper truth of who we are and how we have come to understand our own experience. Which is also the time it takes to provide our readers with a wholly human experience.
Yes, nod the yogis: It takes the time it takes.
How long have you been working on your memoir? What discoveries have you made along the way that have made it worth the time it takes? Let us know in the comments below.
Read Kerry Cohen’s Brevity craft article here.