Sometimes, in the lives of writers, even when things are going well, we become fearful. I see this in myself and also in my clients and students. No matter what’s going on, the inner critic rears its—predictable—ugly head and says things like, “I can’t do this!” and “Who do you think you are?”
When my students and clients come to me with these worries I tell them what I try to remember to tell myself when I’m struggling in this way: Just because you hear those words in your head doesn’t mean that they are true. Leave those thoughts alone. They are not personal. It’s universal doubt and we all have it. Just let those thoughts be. It’s normal to have them. But you don’t have to feed them, or engage them, or believe them. Think of limiting thoughts as clouds—bad weather—that has nothing to do with who you are or what you’re capable of. You are the unobstructed, blue sky.
Your feelings come from your thinking. You may not be aware of your fearful thoughts but your body is a wonderful barometer. Let it be okay to feel what you feel. Move toward your uncomfortable feelings, rather than trying to resist them or push them away. Put one hand over your heart and another over your belly. Breathe. Be with your physical sensations while simultaneously withdrawing your attention away from your thinking. Let the story of why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling fall away. Doing this allows you to feel your emotions and then let them go. They pass more quickly, and on their own. Don’t resist or fight them. Let them be. They will pass, as all thoughts and feelings do when we leave them alone.
Fear is good. It tells you that you are living fully, putting yourself out there and growing. I love what Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic, says about fear. When she starts a new book she knows Fear is coming along for the ride. After all, she’s heading into unknown territory. She tells Fear that he can sit in the back seat of the car for the journey. If he behaves himself he may be allowed to sit in the passenger seat, but he’s not allowed to navigate. And under no circumstances is he to go anywhere near the steering wheel!
We don’t have to let fear drive the steering wheel of our lives. I once dreamed I was entering a sharply curved freeway off ramp when the steering wheel of my car came off in my hands. Oh, shit, I thought, I’m gonna crash. But I didn’t. That’s when I realized I didn’t have to try so hard. I could let go a little—okay, a lot—with both my writing and my life. And as I started loosening my grip, things became easier, more spacious, and slowly, over time, I became freer. It’s a practice. One worth cultivating if you’re looking for freedom and peace within your own body/mind.
How do you relate to your fear? I’d love to hear from you!
Recently a client in her mid-sixties, who was feeling daunted by the work involved with writing, publishing, and promoting a book, asked, “Am I too old to write a book?”
“Absolutely not,” I told her.
I have another client, Irene Sardanis, who published her first book, Out of The Bronx, a memoir, this past spring, at the age of eighty-five. She’s having the time of her life celebrating and promoting it. Has it been challenging? Yes. Has it been hard and scary at times? Yes. Did she have moments when she didn’t think she could do it? Absolutely! But writing and publishing this book has been a highlight of her life. She has grown on multiple levels. The experience has enriched her and has provided wonderful opportunities she hadn’t previously imagined.
It’s not surprising that many women hit their stride and make some of their most meaningful contributions later in life. Many have been taking care of the needs of their families while also working outside the house, which leaves little time for reflection, or the time, space, and quiet that writing requires.
The trick when beginning any new project is to take it one step at a time. Allow yourself to be a beginner. This means opening up to not knowing. It probably means asking for help. It will require you to show up in whatever ways make sense in any given moment.
This will likely feel scary, but that’s a good sign. Fear tells you you’re living fully, putting yourself out there and growing! It’s exciting to expand—and who says we have to stop learning at a particular age! There is no cut-off number for creative productivity unless we ourselves create one. Older women have wisdom and valuable experiences to share.
Writing, publishing, and promoting a book is multi-faceted. Savvy authors know themselves, their values, and their audience. They study the business of writing as well as the art and craft. Some even discover that they enjoy it all! Worlds expand and careers may take off at any age.
It’s not about what we cannot do; it’s about what we can do. And more often than not we’re capable of much more than we think—because we are unlimited beings. Be gentle with yourself as you reach beyond your comfort zone. You’ll be amazed at how you’ll be guided—and holding your finished book in your hand will bring you unimaginable satisfaction, gratitude, and joy! And that will be just the beginning . . .
For more inspiration check out this article on women who published their first book after the age of seventy! https://www.bustle.com/p/women-writers-who-published-their-first-book-after-they-turned-70-18701995
Years ago, my writing mentor suggested I turn my blog into a book. At the time I didn’t understand why that might be a good idea. That stuff’s done; ancient history, I thought--yesterday’s news. But after my memoir was published and I’d spent several months promoting it, I wasn’t ready to begin another writing project. I needed time and space.
I took long, leisurely walks. I wrote in my journal. I sat in silence. I let myself slow down. I listened.
And then one day my blog-to-book project, which felt like it had been if not stalking then at least following me, tapped me on the shoulder. I turned. It stared into my eyes and whispered, “It’s time. Revisit those posts. Do it now.”
It was not the kind of message that feels anxious and unsettling; rather, it came as a clear directive, from a wise, loving source that seemed interested in helping me help others.
Book Writing Made Easier
Before I knew it, I was off and running. The project took over. Although I spent long hours in my office, I never felt like I was working; it felt like I was taking dictation. As I wrote, I felt like I was being given everything I needed. Even when questions arose, their answers sprang to mind before I had time to ponder them. The words were there. Thoughts flowed. New stories came pouring out. It was the easiest writing I’d ever done, and it felt like I’d been given a gift: a new manuscript. Soon, with the help of two trusted colleagues, its title was born: Where Do You Hang Your Hammock? How to Find Freedom and Peace of Mind While You Write, Publish, and Promote Your Book. This project emerged within weeks rather than years—although I’d been writing my blog for over a decade. Small steps taken steadily over time add up to a formidable journey.
Part of me wanted to dismiss and diminish my accomplishment, but then I realized that I’d be an ingrate if I allowed myself to discount something that had felt divinely inspired. So I didn’t take that bait. I remained grateful for the experience, as well as everything I’d learned along the way. I’d discovered why it had been a good idea to turn my blog into a book, and I’d also learned how to do it.
Why Turn Your Blog into a Book?
How to Turn Your Blog Into a Book
Be Open to Change
While your blog is likely filled with great content, especially if you’ve been writing it for years, it may not translate into a book right away. As you work with the material, it will take on a new shape. Be open. Listen. Trust what comes forward. If you’re lucky, you’ll be guided every step of the way and your book, which originated in your blog long ago, will gel into something greater than the sum of its parts.
If you’ve been blogging for years, you may have the substance of a book partially drafted. Culling, organizing, and expanding this material is a gift you give yourself as well as your readers. —But only if you’re called to do it. When thinking about what to write, follow your enthusiasm.
Don’t turn your blog into a book because you think you should.
Do it because the work feels relevant and alive.
Do it because you are not done with the work and the work is not yet done with you!
Post Script: Where Do You Hang Your Hammock: How to Find Freedom and Peace of Mind While You Write, Publish, and Promote Your Book is due out next year.
How many times have you read a triggering comment on your Facebook feed? By “triggering” I mean you read it and have a visceral response, such as your heart starts pounding, adrenaline kicks in, or you feel like hurling obscenities.
This doesn’t happen to me often, but it happened recently in response to this post:
“I came into my office this morning and found flowers from my husband for our anniversary, but I finished my first draft of my new book yesterday so I’m feeling doubly blessed. I had no idea I was going to finish writing the book yesterday. I’ve been writing like crazy for weeks, and then yesterday in the late afternoon I realized I was done! 245 pages. 61K words. Such a strange feeling. I’ve been consumed by the need to get this out of my body and onto the page. I’m relieved and deeply grateful. Now it’s in my editor’s hands and I can do things I’ve been putting off, like grocery shopping!”
The following morning, when I checked my Facebook feed I was delighted to see that an old high school friend had commented on my post. But my happy feelings dissipated when I read his message:
“Meant with admiration, respect and love, but you’re beginning to piss us all off with your constant abilities to create and run laps around us! Oh... and of course, congrats!!!”
Obviously he was joking. Right? Still. I felt provoked and had no idea how to respond. Who is this “all of us” I’m “pissing off” by sharing my hard-earned success? I wanted to tell him that if he was indeed pissed off—even mildly—that I am not pissing him off; he is pissing himself off with whatever he’s thinking, which has less to do with me and more to do with himself. Perhaps he’s dreamed of writing a book himself. I once read a letter that he’d proudly shared online that he’d written to his local newspaper. So perhaps I’d stirred the writer in him who’s telling himself he’s not doing enough. I don’t know.
But his issues aren’t my responsibility. Mine are. Feeling curious about my own agitation, which I knew was about myself and not him, I explored my feelings in my journal and realized that his comment smacked of the shaming (and all-too-familiar) who-do-you-think-you-are question. It’s a warning to stop shining your light, and says: It’s not okay to be who you are. Don’t brag. Keep your good news to yourself or others might get jealous.
Shining your light and living your dreams takes courage and grit. People who do not live this way, those who avoid taking personal and professional risks, who do not dare to leave their comfort zones, or examine limiting beliefs, may harbor resentment toward those who do. I can’t say that this was what was going on with my high school friend, but this was how it felt to me.
Meanwhile, I still didn’t know how to respond to his comment. I didn’t want to give it my thumbs up. I hadn’t liked it. I considered ignoring his message, but that didn’t feel right either. I like to respond to people who make the effort to comment on my feed, plus, underneath those two toxic lines I felt genuine warmth and good wishes. I wanted to say something honest, real, and encouraging because it felt like his comment had come from a place of insecurity. People don’t say things like that—even in jest—when they’re feeling great about themselves.
Finally, I posted this:
Thanks, Henry (not his real name). I appreciate your good wishes. It may look like I possess a “constant ability to create,” but this book, although it came together quickly, has been ten years in the making and reflects decades of hard work, discipline (from “disciple,” meaning “student”), sacrifice, insecurity, failure, persistence, courage, and faith.
His response: “O.K. I can breathe and relax now.” He included two emojis: one laughing and the other blowing a kiss, which warmed my heart and made me smile. I “liked” that comment.
I had a moment of wondering, What if my book hadn’t been a culmination of years of hard work? What if it had been born on the wings of inspiration? But that’s not my point. My message is this: we all possess a “constant ability to create.” We create all the time. But we also get in our own way. It takes commitment, dedication, and much more to produce a finished manuscript. Refuse to don the mantle of shame when, after years of effort and endurance, someone suggests you shouldn’t share—or even revel in—your hard-earned success.
I felt nervous writing this piece and was reluctant to share it with my editor. But her response was, “I like it. It’s an important topic.” And later, when I sent it to Christelle Lujan, the content marketing manager at Shewrites.com, who usually doesn’t comment on my posts, she had this to say: “This was a great piece, Bella! Loved how you handled that and love your thoughtful response. I have another writer friend who just suffered a similar “love you, but” scenario on social media and it seems to be the new “camouflage trolling.” Like her, I'm glad you didn't let it stifle you. It’s there for the people it can inspire, not for the people who see it as a threat! (I know this was unsolicited, but felt the need to lend my support of you too!) Thanks Bella.”
I wanted to share this because it’s inspiring to me the way women in the Shewrites.com and She Writes Press communities support one another. I’m grateful to be part of this caring, dynamic, and encouraging sisterhood of writers!
I’m proud to share that my publisher, She Writes Press, was recently selected by the Next Generation Indie Book Awards as the 2019 Indie Publisher of the Year. This is a huge honor and I’m proud to be a She Writes Press author.
If your search for a traditional publisher isn’t panning out the way you’d hoped, you might want to consider independent publishing.
Some authors today don’t even shop their manuscripts to traditional publishers. This was my choice for my award-winning memoir, Raw: My Journey from Anxiety to Joy. I discuss my reasons in my January 22, 2017, post, “She Writes Press, Yes!”
Many authors today choose independent publishing for a variety of reasons: to maintain ownership of their work, to earn higher royalties, to have greater creative control over their projects, to be part of a community of writers, to engage in a collaborative process, or to expedite their publishing process.
At the end of the day, what’s important is producing a professionally published book. Most readers don’t know or care how a book is published, unless they stumble over unedited text, typos, amateurish design work, and other common pitfalls of self-publishing.
One viable option is to go with a hybrid press, such as She Writes Press.
Hybrid publishing is a model in which authors pay up-front costs in exchange for a significantly higher percentage of royalties. It’s called partnership publishing because the publisher brings their professional experience to the table, while the author retains “authority” and ownership over his or her work.
Hybrid presses are different from hybrid authors. A hybrid author may have one or more books published traditionally, and others published independently, either self-published or with a hybrid press.
Not all hybrid presses are created equal. Some companies claiming to be hybrid publishers are, in fact, just printers, offering zero editorial guidance, quality control, or distribution.
In February 2018, the Independent Book Publisher’s Association (IBPA)published a list of nine criteria defining what it means to be a professional hybrid publisher. The criteria requires that hybrid publishers behave just like traditional publishers except when it comes to business model. IBPA says, “although hybrid publishing companies are author-subsidized, they are different from other author-subsidized models in that hybrid publishers adhere to professional publishing standards. Regardless of who pays for editorial, design, and production fees, it is always the publisher that bears responsibility for producing, distributing, and ultimately selling professional-quality books.” Here is IBPA’s Hybrid Publisher Criteria:
• Define a mission and vision for its publishing program.
• Vet submissions.
• Publish under its own imprint(s) and ISBNs.
• Publish to industry standards
• Ensure editorial, design, and production quality.
• Pursue and manage a range of publishing rights.
• Provide distribution services.
• Demonstrate respectable sales.
• Pay authors a higher-than-standard royalty.
If you’re considering a hybrid publisher, look at their body of work. If possible, hold their books in your hands. How do they feel? Do their books look and feel like you’d want yours to look and feel? Speak to authors who have published on that press. Ask questions about their experience. Did they receive everything their publisher promised? Was it a satisfying partnership? What did their publisher bring to the collaboration? Did they provide distribution? Many don’t. If that’s the case, did the author have a plan in place for how to sell books? It’s good to think about this even if you have a traditional publishing deal, because these days, unless you’re a big-name author, the brunt of the sales work will fall on your shoulders.
Whichever publishing path you choose, you will learn a lot along the way. It helps to understand, especially if you’re a first-time author, that you’ll be on a huge learning curve, and although you may feel pressure to go fast, it can help to slow down. Most agents will tell you their best advice is “don’t rush.” Your work needs to be polished to stand out. The same is true for publishing. Put your best foot forward no matter how you publish.
Another indie path to publication is to self-publish. Since you don’t know what you don’t know, learn as much as you can about what it takes to create a book. There’s more to it than meets the eye. Start with the writing. Hire a great editor. I can’t tell you how many self-published books I pick up that are written by earnest, hardworking people with compelling stories to tell, or important information to impart, but their books are filled with verbal clutter, redundancies, narrative inconsistencies, spelling errors, and typos. I’ll slog through a chapter or two if I know the author, and then give up. It’s too much work. So hire a developmental editor to help you with your story, a copyeditor to correct grammar, and a proofreader to catch small errors or typos. After you’ve done that you can give your manuscript to fellow author or English teacher friends to comb through one last time to catch any lingering typos. Many sets of eyes are needed for this.
Book design is also essential. Don’t believe that old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover. You can, and readers do. Book and cover design is an art. And your cover is what gets your book into readers’ hands. It’ll be worth your while to hire a designer for the cover and interior of your book. Together you can make decisions about paper, fonts, spacing, gutters, artwork and photos, and more.
You’ll also write descriptive copy and cover copy, solicit blurbs, obtain permissions, apply for an ISBN number, and a lot more.
Self-publishing can be costly. Many authors today are launching crowd-funding campaigns to support their writing projects. Artists in other fields have been producing independent work for decades. Your project is worth investing in. Give your publishing process the same care and attention you gave your writing. Your manuscript will benefit and so will you—not to mention your readers.
Indie authors: what say you? What have you gotten out of independent publishing?
What author, at one time or another, hasn’t imagined the following scenario, or some version of it: You finish writing your manuscript and send it off to a handful of literary agents. You’re offered representation. Your agent loves your book and can’t wait to sell it. He or she has great connections and promptly sells your book to a New York publishing house. You sign a contract, receive a generous advance, and make minor tweaks under the tutelage of your brilliant editor who totally gets you and your work. You adore the cover the publisher comes up with, which perfectly captures your book’s essence. You start writing your next book while your publisher’s robust and energetic publicity team plans your book tour and places your excerpts and articles in glossy magazines. Your publisher’s PR team arranges interviews for you on national media. All you have to do is show up. Your book is received with praise. You are a successful author. You have arrived. All is well. Now you can relax, sit back, collect royalty checks, and keep writing in silent, solitary bliss while your book becomes an international bestseller.
If any part of this scenario has happened for you, bravo and congratulations! That’s amazing. I’d love to hear your story. But I don’t know anyone who’s experienced this fantasy. Instead, I’ve heard way too many nightmares. And I’ve experienced my share of disappointment and rejection.
Ironically, for many authors, and especially for aspiring authors, waking up from unrealistic publishing dreams, and then confidently laying them down, may be the best strategy for becoming a successful published author. It’s fine to hope for great things, and it’s fabulous to dream, but if you cling to your fantasies—which is more common than you might think—you may miss out on real-life opportunities.
The outcome of your efforts is not in your hands, but here’s what is: showing up; doing what you love and loving what you do; allowing yourself to be guided by your own wisdom; having humility—and a willingness to learn and grow every step of the way. Even if you are offered what seems like a perfect deal, publishing, regardless what path you take, is about what you make of your experience.
If you’re thinking about publishing a book, I recommend that you familiarize yourself with the current state of publishing. The best book I’ve read on this subject is Brooke Warner’s Green-Light Your Book: How Writers Can Succeed in the New Era of Publishing. Brooke breaks down complex ideas. Her book is both comprehensive and comprehensible. Even so, I suggest reading it more than once. I buy them in bulk and give them to my students and clients.
Like I said, it’s okay to dream. I encourage it. You need to dream to have a vision to stretch into. I dream all the time. But if your dream doesn’t show up the way you expected—if it doesn’t look the way you imagined—consider alternative options that keep you moving in the direction of your dream or goal. The last thing you want to do is hang your freedom and peace of mind on the vagaries of the publishing industry!
On a recent episode of her podcast, “Write-minded,” Brooke compared landing a traditional publishing deal to attending an Ivy League college. It’s competitive. Students who walk those hallowed halls aren’t guaranteed success, joy, or anything else—even among the small percentage of the population that gets in. In today’s publishing landscape, “admission” criteria often has less to do with your intelligence, creativity, or even the value of your project, and more to do with your author platform. Author platform is the size of your audience. Who you know still matters, but who knows you matters more. Traditional publishers need to sign authors who can sell books. But Brooke’s point is that there are plenty of stellar schools out there beyond the Ivy Leagues, and being denied entry wouldn’t cause you to give up on your education. You’d go somewhere else. You’d keep learning and growing.
The same is true in publishing. Don’t toss the baby out with the bathwater. Publishing is not an all-or-nothing proposition. There are more opportunities to publish now than ever before. The key is to do what works for you. If something isn’t working on your path to publication, step off the trail. Find another.
Rumi, the great Persian poet, reminds us, “Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there’s a field. I’ll meet you there.” Release whatever blame or shame may be bubbling beneath your social media façade.
There’s no “right” way to publish a book any more than there’s a “right” way to live a life—except to do it your way.
*My forthcoming book, Where Do You Hang Your Hammock? How to Find Freedom and Peace of Mind While You Write, Publish, and Promote Your Book, is divided into five parts: Dream, Nourish, Write, Publish, and Promote. This post is an excerpt from the “Publish” section.
I just returned home from Chicago where my memoir, Raw: My Journey from Anxiety to Joy, won silver in the Body, Mind & Spirit category of the Benjamin Franklin Awards, sponsored by the Independent Book Publishers Association. It was a wonderful event, especially since I got to hang out with fellow She Writes Press authors and meet new people. It was also fun to visit a city I’d never been to before, and to feel celebrated by my family, friends, and communities. Thank you if you’re among those who congratulated me and wished me well, or if you were a librarian, bookseller, or industry professional who voted for Raw.
I’d never won an award for my writing before. I’ve experienced much more rejection as a writer than accolades. My writing career didn’t unfold in the way I dreamed it would. Eighteen years ago, unable to find a publisher for another memoir I’d spent years writing, and devastated by the shock and fear of 9-11, I didn’t think anything I had to say mattered. My professional expectations crashed and I told myself I was a failure—not only with my writing, but also in my life. The one exception and the thing that kept me going was being a mom.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had lived decades searching for a “get-out-of-jail-free” card, unconsciously jockeying to achieve things in the hopes that my accomplishments would somehow prove I was okay.
But as soon as I attained one goal, it was never good enough, so I’d set my sights on another. I became like a performing monkey jumping through hoops, trying to please or impress “people,” which boiled down to trying to please and impress my insatiable inner critic. I was imprisoned by my own innocent, but misguided, thinking.
It took me a long time to understand that there never was a bar I needed to reach. No one was judging me as strongly as I was judging myself. And here’s the kicker: the judgments were illusions—ideas I enlivened and empowered with my belief.
I still remember the day, in grad school, when one of my spiritual psychology teachers said, “There’s no such thing as failure, only opportunities for growth.” What if that’s true? I wondered, amazed. Caroline Myss, New York Times bestselling author and medical intuitive, asks, “What thoughts will you invest your belief dollars in?”
I knew it was in my best interest to “invest” wisely, so I stepped back, observed my thinking, and saw that just because I had a thought didn’t make it true. This was my get-out-of-jail-free card!
I realized that I could choose to adopt a learning orientation toward life, and from that point forward started to consider my time here on “Earth School” as a chance to simply live, love, and learn. Where in the past I’d had to dig deep to validate myself, and my work—often in the face of menacing doubts and despair—“Earth School” me understood I was fine the way I was. We all are. I realized that in grasping or clinging to things and people I thought would save, liberate, approve of, or validate me, I was ignoring and inadvertently pushing away my inherent goodness.
Joy is our natural state. I didn’t have to conquer life to make it good! Life started out good and remained good underneath my cacophony of crazy thinking. When my frenetic mind finally settled, I realized that I could slow down, breathe, and relax.
“This is really big!” someone wrote on my Facebook feed about the award.
What’s “big” is not that I won an award for my memoir, but that I wrote the book at all. I had to allow it to write me! I showed up and wrote even when no one else noticed or cared—because I had to do it for myself. The writing sustained me for a long, long time and was its own reward.
I had excellent help along the way. Books don’t get written in a vacuum. I’m grateful beyond words to the coaches, guides, friends and family who cheered me on.
Looking back over my trip to Chicago, I catch myself replaying and basking in positive memories. But immersion and identification with any thinking—positive or negative—pulls me out of what’s here now. The past is gone. It’s time to return to work and life in this moment, which is where life’s great gifts reside.
If you’d like support accessing your own transformation and writing gifts, check out my spring classes, which begin next week. I have one spot open in my Thursday night on-site circle and two spots available in the Wednesday online circle. My classes may bring you closer to making your writing dreams come true!
Writing a memoir is a huge undertaking. You’re dealing with tons of content by virtue of having lived a life. Here are some suggestions for getting—and staying—organized.
Forget writing on scraps of paper. Get yourself a journal. You may use your computer to write if that feels better for you, but I prefer the hand-heart connection writing with paper and pen offers—at least in the beginning. Writing on paper also makes it easier to ignore typos, spelling, and grammar and to focus on right-brain creative flow. Later you can transfer your work to the computer, editing as you go.
Date your journal entries each time you sit down to write. When you complete a journal, label the spine and put it on a shelf. As you fill more journals, organize them chronologically. I have journals organized this way dating back to 1979. When I’m working on a project I consult them. It’s amazing how much we forget. But if you’re keeping a journal it’ll be filled with recollections big and small, as well as details long gone from your mind.
For work done on the computer, give your pieces titles and organize them into folders. If you work across genres you may want to have a creative writing folder and within that folder other folders that house poetry, fiction, essays, ideas, etc. If you’re working on a particular project, such as a memoir, you’ll create a unique folder for it, which will contain outlines, ideas, and chapters—each in their own documents.
Your diaries, journals, letters, and other work you’ve written are great source materials, which will remind you of stories and events, but will not be part of your memoir, per se. They will inform what you write, but not be your writing. You can cull that material for ideas and even use them to help you make lists of stories you want to tell.
Explore possible themes for your memoir based on the subjects that emerge in your journal writing. What topics or subject matter do you write and care about? What concepts or threads run through your writing? Is there a specific story you want to tell? Can you distill its essence and state it in a sentence? For example, my memoir is about my determination to heal anxiety even before I knew what it was. Take a look at these questions early on in your process and keep asking them. Memoirs are different from autobiographies, which chronicle a person’s life. Memoirs are organized around a particular theme of a person’s life. Everything in your memoir should point in the direction of your theme. The theme is your content’s reason for being.
Think about how you can divide your material into sections. My memoir, Raw, has three sections: Body, Mind, and Spirit. My latest project, WHERE DO YOU HANG YOUR HAMMOCK? How To Find Freedom and Peace of Mind While You Write, Publish, and Promote Your Book, has five sections: Dream, Nourish, Write, Publish, Promote.
Next, consider how many chapters you’ll have in each section. This will depend on how long each chapter will be. Do some math. Your memoir shouldn’t exceed 80,000 words.
This creates a container into which you can pour your stories. Each book project is different so think about structure, but hold it loosely. You may want to take a look at books you love and review the tables of contents to see how many chapters those books have.
Now it’s time to generate an outline, which is a living document and will change and grow as you and your story does.
After the outline you’ll write chapter-by-chapter summaries, which provide a look at each chapter so that you (and hopefully your coach or editor) can see the progression of the story. It’s important to get feedback during this process because it’s hard for writers to have perspective on their own work.
Hire a coach if you can. It will save you hundreds of hours, confusion, and aggravation. Plus, the right kind of support is as transformational as direction. I’m a super organized person and still I benefit tremendously working with a coach/editor.
I hope this helps. Good luck with your project!
As a young dance student at Juilliard my favorite class was choreography. It was similar to a college writing composition class because it provided the nuts and bolts of creating, and in my case the creation was a dance. I studied ABA form, spatial patterns, musical timing, bodily shapes, and more. Now, decades later, as a writing teacher and coach, I still have great appreciation for the tools of craft. You can’t write a novel or memoir, or create a meaningful dance, without it.
But tools will only take you so far, because the act of creating is also an art. My favorite part about storytelling, whether with the body or on the page, is improvisation: throwing myself into unfamiliar territory, making stuff up, and discovering something new. Having studied the “rules,” I can, in the heat of composition, ignore them and experience something larger. What was once a formless inkling or curiosity is birthed through me into the world of form! In order for this to happen, I have to be willing to enter the unknown. If I’m doing it “right,” fear will be present. I expect it, even welcome it, but I don’t let it stop me. I know nothing, I tell myself, which opens me to receive and learn.
Sometimes my fear is mighty and strong and I have to sink into it slowly, like dipping my toe in the ocean and wading in gradually as I acclimate to the temperature. Other times I’m able to plunge in. Either way, it helps to be gentle and loving with myself as I enter deep, dark water.
A popular technique in comedy improvisation is to say the word “yes” when a new element is introduced into a scene or skit. “Yes!” the comic says, followed by the word “and.” This means, Yes, I accept the situation that’s been given to me, and, Here’s what I’m going to do next. Here’s how I’m going to respond and carry the energy forward. They do not say, “Yes, but,” which is a subtle “no.” Improvisation and life are all about the “yes.”
For years I’ve told my students that saying “yes” to their urge to write is like bathing—it has to be done on a regular basis. But what if we are that yes? What if yes resides at our core and is the permission we seek in our writing and in our lives? What if the reason we are transformed by our creative work is because we have pressed the pause button on our logical thinking minds, which are puny compared to our divine intelligence, in order to activate and engage with our creative essence? This is an artistic and also a healing act that goes way beyond craft.
I write for hours and lose track of time. Same with dance, meditation, hiking. But I sense that I can lose myself like this in my life more often than I do. Like the other day when I sat on my canopied porch swing staring and listening to the pouring rain. I was fully present, awake, and alive!
In her online course, “Life as Spiritual Theater,” Three Principlesteacher Dr. Linda Pettit opened my eyes to the fact that life itself is an improvisation. Sometimes we’re observing it, other times we’re deep in it, but just like facing a blank page, canvas, or empty space, in life we don’t know what will happen next. It’s best if we can roll with the punches, be fluid. Great if we can duck underneath giant waves of negative thinking, let them roll over us rather than fighting the tides.
We live in the feeling of our thinking. This is a liberating understanding. Thoughts and feelings come and go. They are not permanent, unlike our creative essence, which never dies.
The creative process unfolds every day in our lives; it is our lives. We are always improvising. It’s helpful when I’m able to release conditioned patterns of judgment about my experience and refuse to feed fearful thinking. When I flow from fear into love everything opens up. I’m free! What a relief. I lay down doubts and petty grievances and make space to say yes to dancing and writing, but more important than that—I live! Descartes had it wrong. I create, therefore I am!
Improvisation is creation and it’s available to us all, even when we forget and are distracted by rules or get hijacked by doubts. Keep coming back to presence. Simple awareness. Essence. This is the source of inspiration and improvisation. Every time I remember this, I set myself free. Go ahead and study your craft, and keep exploring the unknown and bringing forward your inner “Yes! And . . .” and watch what gets created through you.
When I was a film student in the eighties, my then-boyfriend and now-husband, Jim, and I borrowed a professional ¾-inch video camera from school and spent a long, magical afternoon taping an interview with his beloved grandmother. When we finished we had two-and-a-half hours of raw footage that required editing, but we didn’t have the equipment. One day we’ll get around to this, we thought.
A few years later, after we’d married and after his grandmother had died, we wanted to keep her legacy alive by sharing the footage we took of her with the family. We agreed it would make a great holiday gift for Jim’s siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We had it transferred to VHS, but when we viewed it, we were painfully reminded that it was raw footage. It needed to be cut. But again, we had no editing equipment, nor funds to rent it.
Years later we reached out to John Crane, a talented filmmaker friend who’d created a beautiful video of his own grandmother, and asked if we could hire him to edit ours. He was busy at the time and couldn’t take on our project, but encouraged us to do it ourselves. “You have a problem with the sound,” he said. “Hear that background hiss?” He told us it could be adjusted if we uploaded the footage to our computer. But Jim had to teach himself iMovie, and despite our best intentions, more years passed by.
The subject of the grandmother video often surfaced right after Thanksgiving, which was our busiest time of year. Taking on a project like that at year’s end seemed impossible. It was this past December when Jim mentioned the grandmother video again. I once again cringed and thought, Yeah, right. We’ll whip it out in all our spare time. Impossible.
But then, a few days later, early one Saturday morning, on the eighth of December, I found myself listening to Michael Neill’s new podcast, Creating the Impossible. I’d read and enjoyed his book with the same title. For his podcast Michael interviewed speaker and author Anita Moorjani. Their discussion was lively and inspiring. When I finished listening, a small voice inside said, What if making that video is not impossible? What if you just think it is? What if it doesn’t have to be perfect? What if you can just crank it out? What if there really is enough time and you only think there isn’t?
Jim’s birthday is the week before Christmas. I knew there was no greater gift I could give him than completing this project.
When he woke up, I announced, “We have a busy weekend.”
“Why?” he asked. “What are we doing?”
“We’re going to crank out the grandmother video.”
He was thrilled. He’d been teaching himself iMovie and had the technical, hands-on editing skills I lacked, but what I hadn’t realized until we tackled this project together was that I had big-picture writing and editing skills that he needed. Although he knew how to use the software, he wasn’t sure how to approach the project. I knew we had to organize the material by first logging the footage and then organizing stories by theme.
We worked 10-hour days for four days and ended up with a half-hour tribute we both liked. And it was fun. It turned out we needed each other’s skills to complete the project. But first I needed to believe this project was possible. It wasn’t until I questioned my thinking, until I believed it could be done, that we accomplished this long-held goal.
Writing is like this. It takes time, sometimes years, as well as the acquisition of skills. Sometimes collaboration is necessary. Writers do well in communities, with support from teachers, coaches, and colleagues. And success is definitely swifter when you leave your limiting thinking alone. When, as Caroline Myss says, you don’t invest your “belief dollars” in limiting or self-defeating thoughts.
I leaned this while keeping my eye on the finish line of my memoir. This time last year I was four months away from publication. I still can’t believe it’s behind me. For years it loomed ahead—it was my future—and now that book launch is my past.
It’s nice to get to the other side of creative dreams and goals, whether personal or professional. And our success is directly related to what we believe about our own thinking.
I’ve started outlining my next book about how to Find Freedom and Peace of Mind While You Write, Publish, and Promote Your Book. The other day I detected a tiny but insidious thought: Who do you think you are writing a book like this? There are many more experienced and worthy writers who could do it. Why you? As a younger, less experienced writer I may have taken that thought at face value. I might have believed it. It may have temporarily stopped me. But I quickly responded: That may be true, but it’s something I want to do. It’ll be fun. I may not be perfect, but who is? The fact is I’m learning and growing all the time and I have tons to say on this topic. Why not me?
Thoughts arise in the mind all the time. I’ve discovered that I can amplify them with my emotions (energy in motion) and belief or tune them out and let them pass. It’s my choice which thoughts to believe.
People create the impossible every day, but to do so, you must believe that you can—despite the naysaying voices within and without.
What “impossible” venture are you ready to create? If it’s a writing project, or if you just want to start writing again, or for the first time, check out my upcoming online writing classes, which begin this month. I’d love to help you create the “impossible.”