Updated: Jan 12
There are a few phrases that have quite literally changed my life. This is one of them.
I try to do something that scares me a little each and every day. But some days I get to do something that utterly terrifies me.
Like that day back in November 1998, when I turned in my completed Fulbright application after weeks of fighting with an ancient, coin-operated typewriter in the library in an attempt to get a single, pristine copy for submission. Or May Day of 1999, when I opened the envelope marked "William J. Fulbright Foundation."
And then of course there was the day I actually stepped off of an airplane in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire to begin what I believed would be a ten month academic study of politically-engaged Francophone theatre in West Africa, but which turned out to be a life-changing adventure that stretched well into the following year and beyond.
Yesterday was one of those days. Two decades after the fact, I decided it was time to take my own advice and tell the story I wasn't telling. It was time to stare straight down the barrel of all my insecurities and finally publish my memoir, Melting Ivory.
Why did it take me so long to publish? For the same reasons anyone hesitates to publish their memoirs: we fall into a series of traps.
The Ego Trap
We as humans have a bad habit of making everything all about us.
"Will this story make me look good?" we wonder. "Will people like it and think well of me when they read it? Will they be impressed with my clever turns of phrase and oh-so-poignant descriptions? Will they be rooting for me as a character, or will they want to reach into the pages of the book and smack me across the face?"
When what we should be wondering is:
"Who will this story help?"
Our stories are not for us, after all. We've already lived them. Our stories are for those still suffering the pain we've come through, to offer them the hope, wisdom, inspiration, and motivation they will need for the journey ahead. And for those who have come through similar pain, so they know they are not alone.
Tell your story like someone else's life depends on it. Because it very well might.
The Comparison Trap
Despite the valiant efforts of internet trolls, we truly are our own worst critics.
We compare our efforts to those of our favorite authors and artists and feel we simply don't measure up. Even though we know our story is not their story, and that if we don't tell our tales from our unique perspective, no one else will. Still, we judge our output harshly.
As Blair Hopkins put it in her episode of That's Aloud, everything we produce feels like "trite garbage" compared to the masterpieces we've consumed.
Just remember that those authors you're comparing yourself to inevitably struggled with the same insecurities you're fighting through, too, and that questioning your own talent is actually a sign that you are more talented than you think you are.
And while there may be a million memoirs out there, yours is completely unique, and you are uniquely qualified to share it.
The Tinkering Trap
They say writing is re-writing, and this is especially true--and especially difficult--when it comes to writing memoirs.
When writing about events that actually occurred, it's hard to know what will be relevant to a wider audience. Everything seems important because it all happened to us.
Life is not a clean, linear narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, let alone a tidy moral that ties it all up in a bow. Life is a messy morass of tangential events that we lace together into narratives after the fact.
I wrote the bulk of what would eventually become my book during or very soon after the events described, as a journal. So the real work of "writing" Melting Ivory was actually:
Discerning the central lesson of that collection of experiences
Editing out everything that didn't help convey that lesson
Tying what remained together as a coherent narrative
I'm not gonna lie: that was a long and arduous process, and required several pairs of outside eyes to help me identify what was and was not relevant.
One of the most important thing those outside eyes and voices helped me with was to let me know when it was done. Without their reassurance that it was ready for prime-time, I would surely still be tinkering with it now.
As the teacher in Six Degrees of Separation put it: "I don't have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them."
Sometimes we need someone to step in and say, "It's done now."
Which brings me to our next trap:
The Not-Asking-For-Help Trap
I'll be honest. I rarely read the acknowledgments. And that's partly because they're usually so frickin' long.
Nobody publishes a book alone. We all need help, support, and an objective editor. Or five.
I didn't even bother to write an acknowledgements section because, honestly, just about everyone would need to be mentioned in there. It took a village both to write this book, and to edit it.
When you decide to take the leap and delve into your memoirs, I hope you'll reach out for help. Obviously I'd love to be the memoir midwife you choose to help you bring that story to the world. But I'd much rather you work with someone else than to work with no one at all.
The I-Don't-Know-How-To-Publish-It Trap
Publishing a book these days is terrifyingly simple. Gone of the days of begging publishers to read your manuscript. If you want to publish a book, you can hop onto Amazon self-publishing and become a published author in a matter of minutes.
If you can write a book, you can publish it. Period.
If you're considering using this precious, unprecedented breathing space provided by the coronavirus to start, continue, or finish sharing your truth with the world, DO IT.
If you're stuck, reach out. That's literally what I'm here for!