LEARNING HOW TO WRITE AND PUBLISH A BOOK includes understanding both what to do and, of course, what not to do. And while I have given many lists to you on the topic of what to do, I frequently forget to discuss the “do not” side of things. So when memoirist Virginia Simpson proposed a list of the proven tips to ensure you never write a book, I was all over it. Why? Virginia Simpson is the author of the award-winning and beautiful memoir, The Space Between, a perfect read for all of us right now. But read this list first. It is written for you. Yes, I do mean you.
Ten Proven Tips to Ensure You Never Write (or Publish) Your Memoir
by Virginia Simpson
Many of us say we want to be a writer and publish our memoir. But do we really? If everyone who wanted to be a writer actually wrote, all those want-to-be-writers would be authors or at least know they had completed the book they always professed wanting to write. One thing is for sure, if you don’t write, you will never become a published author.
I remember the decades when I told anyone who would listen that I wanted to be a writer. Wanted is the operative word. I was like the brain surgeon Marion Roach Smith wrote about in her seminal book, The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing Life. “When someone tells me that he is going to become a writer when he gets around to it, I reply, ‘And what do you do?’ And sometimes he says, ‘Oh, I’m a brain surgeon,’ and that’s my favorite reply. Then I can say, ‘When I retire, I’m going to become a brain surgeon.’”
During those years of not writing a book, I learned a lot about how to be a successful writer-want-a-be, or should I say, writer-not-really-want-a-be.
So, assuming you’re not ready to write, let me assure you that you are not alone and there is no reason to berate yourself. Instead be proud to know you have accomplished the one thing you’ve been doing anyway: not writing, completing, or publishing your memoir. I want to help you succeed. Try my time-proven successful tips so that you no longer feel you have failed.
- Don’t start.
It’s easy. That’s right. Don’t pick up a pen and paper or sit at your computer. Not starting is the easiest to accomplish of all my tips. Takes no effort at all. In fact, the point here is to make no effort. If you don’t start, for sure you’ll never write a book.
- Find every excuse you can think of to keep you away from writing.
Your electronic devices are excellent excuse providers. Make sure all those pop ups on your computer, tablet, and phone are working so that you never miss a tweet, Facebook post, instant message, news bulletins from every paper on the planet, email, Instagram, or phone call.
You must have daily household chores. Everyone has laundry or grocery shopping to tend to. And what about your real job, your partner, or your kids?
Your home is also an excellent resource. Is your apartment or house too small and you don’t have a space of your own where you can write uninterrupted? Ray Bradbury, Pulitzer prize winning author of such best-selling books as Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes wrote in his bedroom and living room in his small house with family members “talking all the time.” Please don’t let this inspire you.
Remember: Procrastination is your friend.
- Wait for the muse.
Waiting for the writing muse, or inspiration to appear before you write is a great strategy. She will never come because the truth is, the muse needs to know you are serious – you must show up and write. Only then will the muse, filled with ideas and inspiration, appear. You can’t be like the little kids who argue “You go first.” “No, you go first.” You have to start. But please don’t do that. You must remember Tip 1 if you are ever to accomplish your goal of not writing a memoir.
- Wait for Ideal Circumstances.
Tell yourself you must wait for the right computer, right desk, right time, right mood, or right idea before you can write. Perhaps you need your planets to be in alignment or Mercury out of retrograde. Feel free to add your own ideas to this list. Whatever it takes to keep you believing things must be a certain way before you can write. Pay no attention to the words of E.B. White, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” If White had waited, he never would have written Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, or The Elements of Style.
Since your goal is not to write, please pay no attention to White’s words. Wait for perfection.
- Keep believing you have more time.
This is a strategy I mastered. I personally used this tactic and watched three or four decades of my life disappear without doing more than writing starts of stories and a multitude of pages full of my thoughts and feelings. Had a serious car accident in 1994 proven fatal, I would have succeeded in never writing or publishing my book.
Feel free to take your chances that illness or an accident won’t intervene before you achieve your goal. Maybe you’ll get lucky, but that’s not something you can count on. Time is a gift and none of us knows how much we get or have left. But since your objective is to not write your book, remember to not carpe diem.
- Worry about what other people think.
Instead of imagining your story, focus on the imaginary reader who will hate what you’ve written. Scare yourself by contemplating all the agents and publishers who will reject your work. Visualize the bad reviews should you make it to publication.
If you write your memoir, you’re bound to offend someone you know. Keeping these people in the forefront of your thoughts will assure your ability to write is comparable to attempting to speak with a thick wad of cloth stuffed in your mouth held there by a wide strip of silver duct tape.
If you want to write, forget everyone else. It is your story and you can’t worry about anyone else. After you’ve finished, if you feel you’ve said too much, or it reads like a “gotcha” tale,” you can always edit.
However, because your goal is to not write, please, keep everyone else’s opinions uppermost in your mind as you attempt to tell your truth.
- Believe your first draft must be perfect and beautifully written.
According to Anne Lamott in her best-selling book, Bird by Bird: Some Instruction on Writing and Life, “writing is often about making mistakes and feeling lost…. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” Lamott advises, “Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance,” because “perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” According to Lamott, all good writers write shitty first drafts.
Remember to ignore the idea that everyone writes shitty first drafts. Realizing you can expect a lousy first draft may be what you need to know in order to give yourself permission to join the authors who write shitty first drafts and have published fabulous books.
- Trust Your Inner Critic.
I would bet your inner critic has been with you for as long as you can remember and is more than willing to gather a lethal strength as you strain to write your memoir.
Two sure-fire ways to assure that your inner critic will stay with you, grow stronger, and continue to sabotage you is to (1) believe every nasty thing she says, and (2) get mad at her. When you judge the critic, the critic gains strength. The critic is a judge and “judging the judger” adds kindle to the fire. If you want your inner critic to succeed in keeping you from your goal of writing, please read no further.
If you want to write, here’s a secret I learned: you must make your inner critic your friend. Your inner critic is brilliant, creative, and discerning. When you ask for her help, you turn her into an ally who enables you to determine when your work is going well and when it needs changes.
Understanding how to work with your inner critic is crucial because she is toxic when you are creating your first draft and helpful when you’re editing.
But I digress. You don’t want to write your book, so please, forget what I just said, and instead, believe your inner critic and allow her to keep you from writing or finishing your book.
- Don’t take writing classes, hire a coach, or join a writing or critique group.
Never join a writing group or work with a coach. Why would you want to waste your time honing your craft and learning the elements that go into creating a good memoir? Being part of a group will result in your producing actual pages, which would surely sabotage your efforts to avoid writing and completing your book. We know you don’t want that, so please, do yourself a favor, save yourself the time and money.
- Don’t read books: memoirs, novels, or anything on the craft of writing.
Why would you want to take away from your invaluable not writing time in order to read someone else’s work? If you have spare time, wouldn’t it be better spent watching TV or texting friends? Although the ability to identify a well-written book doesn’t necessarily make you a good writer, reading will help you to understand why you liked a certain book or what made it popular.
If you insist on reading, let me offer a few (out of the numerous) books I could recommend for your consideration:
Paul Auster, Winter Journal
Gail Caldwell, Let’s Take the Long Way Home
James McBride, The Color of Water
Alice Sebold, Lucky
Dani Shapiro, Slow Motion: A True Story
Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle
Pat Conroy, Prince of Tides
Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird
John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath
Donna Tartt, The Secret History
Lisa Cron, Story Genius
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir on Craft
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
Sue Williams Silverman, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir
Marion Roach Smith, The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life
Now that you have all (or most) of the tools you need, you may now go through life and never write your book. Simply tell friends and anyone you meet that you’re “writing a book.” They will be impressed and you will have saved yourself from the hard and often agonizing work of writing your story.
I could say, “Now go forth and don’t write,” but by offering you these oppositional tips, I hope you understand and appreciate the creative ways you have stopped yourself from achieving your goal. After all, you wouldn’t be on this page if you didn’t want to learn about writing and finishing your memoir.
I know it’s an arduous trek, but as a published author (The Space Between: A Memoir of Mother-Daughter Love at the End of Life), I can tell you that it is more than worth the effort. To be a writer, you must write, and to become a decent writer, you must be willing to work hard. Good writing demands practice.
I encourage you to keep learning and to keep writing, and, as Winston Churchill so famously said, “Never, never, never, never, never give up.”
The Space Between: An excerpt
Practice Round ~ Day Five
All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.
No man does. That’s his.
Inside the hospital, it’s cool, the air laced with acrid smells of medical chemicals and cleaning fluids. Someone always seems to be mopping a floor. Food carts squeak as they are pushed down
the halls, and people on their way to rooms make noise, but I focus all my attention on the soft sound of my mother’s breath as she sleeps. The change in Mom’s arms since yesterday is a shock. The mottled bruises have spread and congealed into the appearance of midnight-blue or eggplant-purple opera gloves that span the length of her arms.
Outside it’s a warm July afternoon and life goes on. People stroll the blocks of Westwood Village, innocent of the dramas and traumas that go on inside this hospital. Those lucky people
walk the streets of my youth and happy memories. I’ve loved Westwood Village my whole life. When we were young, Mom and I would wander these same streets, look into windows, sometimes go inside and buy something, and always stop for lunch. In my twenties and early thirties, I’d come to Westwood to attend classes at UCLA, visit my therapist, go to The Bruin or Village to catch a movie, shop at Bullocks, or meet friends at Café Moustache, where I’d always eat a spinach crepe and chocolate soufflé.
But today there are no strolls, shopping, lunches, movies, classes, or therapy. Today I’m inside this hospital, a place where nothing seems to happen while the most profound aspects of life occur at every moment.
I’ve been at Mom’s side since 10:00 this morning, both of us in loud silence not talking about the procedure scheduled for 4:00 p.m.
When it’s time, two young men—one with curly, dark brown hair and a beard, the other a clean-shaven, shaggy-haired blond—wrap a white sheet around Mom and lift her out of the
bed with as little effort as it would take to elevate a feather. Their movements are slow and meticulous. With gentle care they place Mom on the slender, stiff gurney. I study their every move from my vantage point on the opposite side of the bed as though my attention will assure they won’t drop her. Mom seems teeny, small as a child.
This is a seismic shift in our relationship. Me, the adult; her, the child.
Virginia A. Simpson, Ph.D. FT, is a Bereavement Care Specialist with more than 30 years of experience working with the dying and grieving. She holds a Fellowship in Thanatology from the Association for Death Education & Counseling (ADEC), and is the Executive Counseling Director for hundreds of funeral homes throughout the United States and Canada. Simpson’s articles have appeared in publications throughout the world.
In 2016, Dr. Simpson’s first book, The Space Between: A Memoir of Mother-Daughter Love at the End of Life was published. It has won First Place for best memoir from the Sarton Story Circle, Readers View Awards (also Best book from West Pacific), and Independent Press Award, and was a Finalist in the 11th Annual National Indie Excellence Book Awards, 5th Annual Beverly Hills Book Awards, and 2017 International Book Awards.
“The Space Between is a beautifully written story that reads like a novel….As a mental health specialist, I know that this book is an important conversation-starter for families who are brave enough to use it as the tool it can be for them. A MUST for book clubs! ~C. Jaser-Goulard, R.N., Ph.D.
To learn more about Dr. Simpson and The Space Between, go to:
HOW TO WIN A COPY OF THE BOOK
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each weekly installment takes on one short topic addressing how to write memoir.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
Love the author featured above? Did you learn something in the how-to? Then you’ve got to read the book. And you can. I am giving away a copy, and all you have to do to win is leave a comment below about something you learned from the writing lesson or the excerpt. I’ll draw winners at random (using the tool at random dot org) after entries close at midnight Monday, August 14, 2017. Unfortunately, only readers within the US domestic postal service can receive books.
AND THE WINNER IS…
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons.
The winner of the book is Laurie. Congratulations, Laurie! I’ll be in touch to send your book.