Francine Brevetti, a longtime journalist, writes clients’ biographies and conducts workshops teaching people how to write their own.She calls herbusiness Legend Crafter, www.legendcrafter.com. A San Francisco native, she worked as a reporter for newspapers and magazines around the world and is the author of “The Fabulous Fior — over 100 Years in an Italian Kitchen,” the history of America’s oldest Italian restaurant (http://www.fabulousfior.com/book/, available on Amazon.com).
Twenty years ago LeeAnn started documenting her very painful life. Her mother beat her every day of her childhood and into adulthood. The woman berated and demeaned LeeAnn without letup. Still LeeAnn kept her journal.
She organized binders of her recollections and other documents about her life chronologically. She crossfiled by topic. But she could never bring herself to write a manuscript about her life story. She got stuck.
Last year she was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer. She came to one of my six-week workshops on how to write one’s life story. Her diagnosis compelled her to get it down at last. LeeAnn was driven to complete it while she could, for fear that she would never have the chance again.
For most of us, fear keeps us from writing our autobiographies. It freezes us.
So now it’s resolution time. With the turn of every new year we generally reassess what we want to accomplish. Many of my clients feel compelled to get their personal histories down on paper. Maybe they do so as a legacy for their children, one of the greatest gifts anyone can give. Others do so to honor their parents, heal their souls, affirm how they see the world and, in the process, simply get a better perspective of their lives.
But some people, like LeAnn, reach an impasse, either never starting or never finishing. Let’s look at some of the obstacles that stop people from writing their autobiographies. They are paper tigers. If you’ve run into this problem, here’s some advice about how to confront whatever is stopping you.
Margot, in her first session in my workshop wrote a gripping account of her birth during the bombing in the Netherlands in World War II. But she could not persist. Every session after that she made excuses about why she couldn’t write in the intervening week. From comments she let slip during the class, I sensed that she couldn’t face recalling the rest of her life. You have to be ready, of course.
Like Margot, some of us shrink from reliving those horrible times, the times we failed, the times someone left us. But this is exactly our chance to take a step back and see it all from a higher point of view.
For instance, Alfie Adona, now a young mother, lived through a tragic childhood. Her father was poisoned and lived the rest of his 10 years as an invalid. Two years later her mother was the victim of a debilitating traffic accident. Alfie and her sister had to take charge of the family while they were in their early teens. From lack of adult guidance, they lost their house and car.
Their family’s tragedy was covered amply in the local news. This did not mortify Alfie; in fact, it emboldened her to tell her own story. You can see it at www.theSeludostory.com.
If anything is preventing you from writing a memoir, I suggest you join a memoir writing class for guidance and support. Besides the instructor’s guidance,you can find a buddy with whom to share the experience of recollecting and recording.
Another reason people get stuck is for fear of offending the living. In one of our sessions, Theresa asked me how she could write about her mother, who was still living, without offending her. Despite her love for her parent, she felt that recording her mother’s character traits and certain incidents would cause her mother pain and perhaps alienate them from each other.
I told her that if she intended to disseminate this account while her mother was still alive, she should remove or temper the material she thought would offend her.
Another issue is the so-called writers block. To me, it stems from a kind of perfectionism, an inner voice that is self-critical. Some merely mechanical difficulties may make you feel insecure, too: how to structure of your document, uncertainty about grammar, insufficient research and so on.
My advice: if you can talk, you can write. Simply to start writing, even if you’re unsure of your theme or your direction. Keep going for at least 20 minutes with pure stream of consciousness. No judging, no editing. Anything that crops up in your brain is fair game.
From such chaos a theme or structure will eventually emerge. You will read it back and be amazed. Trust me.
My wish for you in 2012: get down the first draft of your life story.
Oh, and by the way, LeeAnn is fine now.