A few nights ago, I woke up to the sound of a wolf howling into the bowl of the sky. We all know the sound, I’d heard versions of it my whole life, but I’d never actually heard one in the flesh like that, and so close. When I told a friend about it the next day, he wondered if it might have been a coyote, but I know the yipping and high cry of coyotes. This was lower, longer. It seemed to conjure the universe, scoop me from the earth and hurl me into the stars.
“Yeah, coyotes don’t really do that,” he said. “Must’ve been a wolf.”
There are a few reasons wolves howl—to declare territory, find fellow pack members, maintain relationships—but my preferred explanation is the one I found on the National Geographic website: “Wouldn’t you, if you could?”
And I would. I do. In fact, I think that may be why I write.
I’ve just finished teaching a 12-week course on memoir writing, guiding people through the craft and art of elevating personal stories into something others would want to read. There’s a lot to it, of course, as innumerable questions and obstacles appear when we try to spin the dross of our lives into something more glittering. But one of the most difficult daily challenges involves finding a convincing answer to the following question: why bother?
Even as I sat down to write this post, I had to stand up, open the window and shoo those words out.
They’re still sounding from behind the glass, but in a muffled way, at least.
For me, at the moment, the answer is simple: because that’s the deal. As ‘writer in residence’ at Open Book this month, my job is to assemble words into rows and then staple those sentences here. But in lieu of that expectation, how do we face that question, triumph over our own perceptions of futility, overcome resistance and bother to write?
I wish it were a matter of following some instructions: 1. Place all resistance and raw material into a large bucket; 2. Fill with great literary techniques and sufficient reading (to the MAX line); 3. Add chutzpah; 4. Secure the memoir blade attachment and place over bucket; 5. Let steep, stirring regularly; 6. Blend revelations and insights, as available; 7. Strain; 8. Strain again; 9. Pour into mold; 10. Publish.
The procrastinator in me just cruised all over the internet looking for such a machine and, sorry to break it to you, it’s still in early trials. What I can offer you in the meantime is this:
You don’t have to bother. Writing a memoir (or a novel) isn’t a mandatory human experience and you can stop anytime, particularly if it’s making you miserable. I’ve watched people put such imagined pressure on themselves—I have to do this but I can’t do this I hate this but I want to do this—that all the joy of writing gets squashed beneath it. So please remember that that is always an option: the not bothering.
But if you’ve decided to bother and the voices of futility still perch on the edge of your desk and taunt you, here are a couple of things to remember:
- You’re allowed to write badly. In fact, your first draft, your first splat of ideas and awkward sentences, is meant to be that: words gone splat. If all writers judged the potential of their work by their first attempts, we would all be whimpering heaps of hollowed-out people under our desks. Instead, aim to write a really bad first draft and congratulate yourself when you do so. Because that’s when the fun part, the real writing, truly begins: the revising, rewriting, tweaking, reshaping and improving. Before I review something I’ve just flung onto the page, I always preface the exercise by saying, this is about to get so much better! (Note: I came to this only after years of whimpering under my desk.) So, celebrate the fact that you wrote something and it is about to get better.
- When you are writing, try to think only about that: writing. Don’t spend your energy comparing your story to someone else’s or wondering who will publish it or if Oprah will like it or if anyone else will like it but you. In fact, go as far away from all of that as you can, because that is not where the value of your story lies and you will never find its highest expression there. The value of your story is in its precious and sacred uniqueness, its value in your own heart. Yes, your story involves others, but it is entirely yours, and you are the only one capable of telling it. Write your story for yourself first. You can deal with everything else once you have successfully sculpted words-gone-splat into something magnificent.
- There is a reason you chose to do this, an impulse you followed, a desire, something in you that longs to be born. That is the command of the soul. We are our very best as human beings when we surrender to that. And writing is as much about effort as surrender.
If none of that helps, then please close your eyes for a moment and think of those howling wolves.
Our stories are the songs that echo through us. They are declarations of territory, anthems of connection, ways of tipping our throats open and saying, here is my voice.
The sky awaits you.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Alison Wearing is the bestselling author of Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter, an Indigo Top 50 pick shortlisted for the Edna Staebler Prize and longlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize, Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey, and Moments of Glad Grace. Her online program, Memoir Writing, ink., guides people through the process of transforming personal stories into memoir.