If you don’t know what you are doing when you sit down to write about your family, you will be overwhelmed. And rightly so. It’s complicated. You think you are writing about other people, but you’re not. They are you and you are them in ways you know and don’t know. You sit down to write and stare at a blank page like Nicholas Cage playing Charlie Kaufman in the film Adaptation.
Or you find yourself cleaning out a closet or researching on ancestry.com (telling yourself, “I can’t start writing until I’ve done the research” — not true, BTW). And you are frustrated that you just can’t seem to get on top of this writing project.
Step 1-Focus on What Supports You
That’s because the first leg of your writing journey requires you to put some time and energy in a place you didn’t expect: learning about and noticing how you work. Because you are going to feel overwhelmed and veer off-track plenty of times for a variety of reasons. It’s natural and normal and I’m not going to tell you otherwise.
Spending time teaching other people to be successful in their Storykeeping — what you might call memoir writing, storytelling, autobiography, or reflective personal story — has taught me that the place to begin, always, is focusing on what supports your work.
Because once you’ve developed a personal system of support, not only will you get started, but you’ll continue. You’ll get back on track fairly easily when you veer off-course by telling yourself “just stick to your system” because you know your system works.
What do I mean by “your system”? It’s pretty basic and simple: practices that support your writing. That’s it. But most people don’t acknowledge that this is important so they don’t invest the energy to find out what’s supportive and what’s not. Notice that I said “your” system — these practices are wholly your own. They don’t have to work for anyone else but you, and it’s actually kinda fun (and at times funny) to discover them for yourself.
Step 2 – Experiment and Tweak
So how do you discover these practices? I’ll share what works for me, what works for others, and the writing tips I’ve developed. You’ll try, you’ll tweak. You’ll futz around. You’ll notice what works and what doesn’t work for you. And while trying something only to find that it doesn’t work for you may feel like a waste of time, it’s actually just as valuable as finding out what does.
The key is don’t give up until you’ve written something, anything. That’s when you know you’ve discovered a practice that works. Then continue trying and tweaking. Ditch practices that don’t work, use the ones that do and eventually a personal system will arise. For some this happens right away and for others it takes some time. Once you start to see that you have a system of practices that work, all you have to do is stick with your system.
Step 3 – Stick to Your System
This reminds me of a valuable lesson I learned from Stephen Covey — an eminent author, educator, speaker, businessman, and father — who wrote one of the top business books of all-time, The Seven Healthy Habits of Highly Effective People (which has a great adaptation for families — a foundational read, BTW, for anyone seeking to create a strong family). To illustrate one of his points, Covey says that commercial pilots are off-course 90% of the time due to wind, rain, turbulence, air traffic and other forces beyond their control. And yet, the plane arrives at its destination.
Out of overwhelm, uncertainty, wrong turns, the need to percolate, or the many other forces in life, you’ll be off-course with your writing plenty of times. When you have a personal system of support you don’t have to worry about any of that because you know that at the right time, you’ll just stick to your system, return to your writing, and your story will emerge.
As Covey says, the short road is long and the long road is short. There are a variety of posts here that will help you discover your system. Start by learning how you get words on the page — some clay on the wheel —- within a few minutes using Focused Freeform Jotting or FFJ.