PROBABLY THE SINGLE SENTENCE I say most in my memoir teaching and coaching practice is to “read above your head and write within your means.” These are words I live by, saying them to myself every single day. In fact, if you know me at all, you know I am all about insanely practical writing advice.
What does that mean? Well, a few things.
Reading above your head is more complicated than it sounds. Everyone who writes will tell you that the first condition for doing so is that you must read. This does not mean that you wait to write until you have read everything on earth. But it does mean that you have read in your genre – in this case, memoir – read outside your genre, and that you know that there are several reasons to read.
A Few Good Reasons to Read
The first reason to read is to be an informed person. To do so, try a newspaper. In fact, try at least two: one local and one national, if not the international press. You want to know what’s going on, not just so you know where your school taxes and federal taxes are going, but specifically in terms of being a memoir writer, so you can react to the world. That is what artists do. We react, meaning that you get to have your say, via memoir, specifically in an op-ed, when you write from one area of your expertise about something that concerns us all.
The other reasons to read include for the sheer pleasure of it, of course, the lifelong delight, the utter joy and, well, there I go, about to fall off the page, stop typing, and go pick up the book I am reading at this moment.
And then there is your education as a writer. This is where the reading over your head thing comes in. Push yourself. Read the Personal History column in The New Yorker, by far and away the best of the best examples of long-style, personal essays being published these days worldwide. Want to see what a personal essay-to-book conversion looks like, read Ariel Levy’s Thanksgiving in Mongolia, which she is currently turning into a book.
The other favorite place of mine to read over my head is at The Paris Review where, for more than sixty years, they have published interviews with the greatest writers in the world. And they are all online.
All there for you to read and learn.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what does writing within your means mean?
It means just that.
Write from one area of your expertise at a time. It’s harder than it sounds. Say you have had a grief experience. Don’t tell me you are writing a book about grief. Tell me specifically what you learned about grief in your very own circumstances – that grief is a process that moves slowly, and that if you try to rush it you never get out of its grip. Oh, now that’s interesting.
That’s what we mean when we tell writers to write what they know. It’s both an invitation and a caution. Write what you actually know; stay within your means. You know far more than you think about raising children, being married, being single, losing a dog, gaining a dog. Hit the idea with a big old hammer and tell me, the reader, what you really know and you’ll be writing within your means.
Make claims or theorize outside of your area of expertise, and you won’t. Don’t pitch me a book about “creativity.” Way too big, and way outside anyone’s means. Pitch me a book about how creativity plotted you a course out of restrictive, harsh family of origin and into the realm of self-acceptance. That’s do-able. Same with the subject of marriage. Don’t tell me that you are writing a book about marriage. Nobody understands marriage. But maybe after years at it, you have come to understand that to really work for both people, marriage must be more Quaker than corporate. That might work. Let me know how that book goes for you, by the way. I kind of like that idea.
Stay within your means. See how this works?
Do want to learn how to start a memoir, how to write memoir, or more about hiring a memoir coach? Come see me here.