To Continue or Not? Writing the Memoir, That Is.
November 17, 2022 § 62 Comments
By Nancy L. Agneberg
I worked on my memoir for years. Years.
Revising. Restructuring. Changing the focus. Responding to feedback from my writing group (“Go deeper, deeper, deeper”), and incorporating what I learned in classes and from books about writing creative nonfiction.
I was pleased with the current version of my book—and with myself—and decided it was time once again to share the manuscript with a writer whom I had hired to read earlier versions. I wanted her opinion and thoughts about next steps. Obviously, I knew more revisions would follow, but I thought, I really did, that she would say, “Good job, Nancy. You are so close to the query and book proposal stage.”
Instead, she said, “I hope I don’t make you cry.”
I didn’t cry, at least in her presence, but I admit that when I returned to the sanctity of my car, I had a good cry, one I repeated later at my desk.
Wisely, I gave myself space before reading the three pages of comments, as well as those on the manuscript itself. I allowed myself to be stunned. Later I shared the comments with my writing group. They were stunned, too.
Then I entered a time of discernment.
Discernment is a process of deep listening. An intentional process during which insight, that ah-ha moment, has room to make itself known.
First, I posed some possible scenarios:
- Revise the memoir based on the reader’s suggestions.
- Self-publish after revising.
- Self-publish without major revisions.
- Create essays based on specific chapters and submit to appropriate venues.
- End all involvement with the memoir.
Based on the scenarios, I asked myself a series of questions:
- Do I agree with my reader’s evaluations? (Some yes, some no.)
- Am I willing to do the amount of work suggested? (Not sure.)
- If, as was suggested, this would be a hard book to sell to a publisher, what about self-publishing? (No. I don’t want to spend limited funds that way.)
- Do I regret all the time I’ve spent on the book? (No, I don’t think so, for I’ve learned so much along the way.)
- Was writing the memoir my purpose? My identity? (No, writing the memoir was part of my purpose and part of my identity.)
- Will I feel like a failure if I don’t continue with this project? (No, and as my husband pointed out, “You did write a book. It just hasn’t been published.”)
In some ways, this is the perfect time to be working on a book. My children are grown, and my grandchildren are in their teens, one in college. My husband is retired and content with his own projects. Both of us are healthy. Nothing prevents me from continuing with this project.
And yet, when friends ask how my book is progressing, and I attempt to explain my dilemma, more than one person says, “But Nancy, you have worked so hard.”
True, but did I want to continue working so hard? Is that what this is all about?
The questions swirl around me like fall leaves caught in brisk breezes. Perhaps I need to be the tree and let go. Clearly, it is time to take a break, to pause, to exhale and clear the space.
These mornings, I sit quietly in my meditation space, breathing gently in and out. I close my eyes lightly, not tightly, finding my own rhythm. I now understand the real question. How do I want to spend my time and energy as a woman in her 70s? In what ways am I called to be a presence in the world? After all, this chapter of my life has fewer pages, and I want to fill them wisely.
Pat Schneider writes in How The Light Gets In, Writing as a Spiritual Practice, “If you write privately, you change your own inner world, and that changes the outer world.”
I believe that.
I write to understand and uncover the patterns in my life, the shape of my life. I write to discover how I am to live and move in the world. Writing is a spiritual practice, a pilgrimage leading me towards the person I was created to be.
I will continue to write, but not my memoir.
Nancy L. Agneberg is a spiritual director in St Paul, MN, whose essays have appeared in Bella Grace; Brevity, Presence, An International Journal of Spiritual Direction and Companionship; BookWomen; and elsewhere. She facilitates a weekly writing group, In Your Own Words: Contemplative Writing as Spiritual Practice, and blogs at Living on Life’s Labyrinth.
“How do I want to spend my time and energy as a woman in her 70s? In what ways am I called to be a presence in the world? After all, this chapter of my life has fewer pages, and I want to fill them wisely.” — This really resonates with me. I, too, have spent years working on a memoir, in my case without realistic hope of having it published. Like you, I want to spend my remaining time on earth wisely, and that likely means using my writing as a means of self-discovery, to see how I fit in the world. Thank you for this essay.
I’m so glad this essay resonates with you, and I applaud you for using your writing as a means of self-discovery.
[…] An essay I wrote is featured on the Brevity’ Nonfiction Blog site today. I hope you will read it. Here’s the link: https://brevity.wordpress.com/2022/11/17/to-continue-or-not-writing-the-memoir-that-is/ […]
I really enjoyed the gracefully articulated introspection in this article, and I especially love your decisiveness at the end.
You describe the ebb and flow of emotion that comes from writing and perfecting one’s pieces s eloquently.
Good for you for making peace with deciding not to keep writing and finding light in what yu’d managed to create so far.
Thank you for sharing; I needed this today!
How honored I am to know that my words are what you needed today. Thank you for telling me that.
Your husband made a wise point, “You did write a book. It just hasn’t been published.” Knowing why we write makes the process more focused and satisfying, but it can take time to figure it out. I’m glad you have, and I’m grateful for this essay. (And I also hope you won’t abandon your memoir entirely; I’m sure there are gems within it — at the sentence or story-germ level — that could find life in a different form. #repurpose)
I am a big proponent of repurposing and almost daily find a way to use something I included in the memoir. Like trees adding rings, we keep adding what we know in the way we live our lives.
I needed this piece, Nancy. Thank you for pouring your literary guts onto the page— the love hate tug-o-war with memoir is part of the spiritual hike.
Thanks for the term “spiritual hike.” Sometimes it is a spiritual stroll, but often it is an up and down and around the next bend, and “are we there yet?”
Bless you for this.
I once completed a novel and hired an editor for detailed feedback. She wanted fewer characters, a simpler story. I realized she was, herself, writing YA, and wanted me to write a completely different book. I even tried to follow her advice, but that was not the book I envisioned, which reflected on the interconnections of lived experiences in several generations of women, and how they faced the same challenges and repeated the same errors over and over, but also sometimes moved beyond those mistakes. Ultimately, I set the book aside, realizing that I did not have the skill to write it. I wrote something else.
I have no doubt that writing the first book paved the way for writing something else. Bravo to you!
Wonderful article!! I wish I could read your memoir. I find that whenever I read someone’s authentic story, it stays with me always and I grow from the experience. Perhaps another option is to publish parts of it on a blog?
I occasionally use bits and pieces on the blog, but just don’t identify it as being part of the memoir. I know I will continue to recycle and repurpose, and I hope deepen.
You’ve articulated my reticence about turning my blog into a memoir, as some people have suggested. I keep toying with it, trying out different scenarios and approaches, but keep ending up with, but why? I’ll keep playing, but maybe that will just be for me, to see if I can. Thank you!
One of the things I love about writing a blog is that it gives me a chance to try out ideas and topics and to begin what may turn out to be a deeper reflection. It sounds as if you are doing that, too. Good.
Thanks for this beautiful piece. You’ve articulated some of my own questions/concerns about writing as an 81-year-old woman. I’m learning that I write to figure out who I was/am/will be. I’ve published some essays, but publishing has always been secondary to my primary goal.
You sound very wise. Thank you.
Nancy, Your blog is very well-written. While you may decide to not continue writing your memoir right now, you have indeed made a good decision to keep writing.
I will and thanks for your encouragement.
Thank you Nancy for your beautiful writing and soulful reflections. Further to some of the other comments above, I often reflect on how we are living in an age of disrupting the old patriarchal paradigm of publishing. So many writers, including journalists, are turning to services like Substack where it’s possible to share our writing on our own terms. We get to build a list of readers who want to hear what we have to say, and those who may be interested can subscribe for free or paid – I love how the author Charles Eisenstein’s Substack subscription page says that Paid subscription content is exactly the same as free, and the reason to opt for paid is to give him encouragement and support. I have a sense that this may be the model our world is moving towards during these times of immense change and evolution of consciousness. And I’m so grateful for the Brevity Blog where so many writers (and interesting to me, mostly women – I write a lot about how this is the era of the Rising of the Divine Feminine) can share the truth of our own experience of the writer’s life. And yes, it’s also the truth of my own experience that writing is a spiritual practice; and Amen for Discernment; and brava for your insight, “I now understand the real question. How do I want to spend my time and energy as a woman in her 70s?” ✨🌟💖🙏🕊
So much of what you said resonates with me and I am so grateful for all the ways we can be in conversations with one another. In the process of discernment about the memoir, I realize what I am discerning is so much bigger. The writing, the learning, the growing, the deepening keeps continuing.
This is lovely, Nancy, and obviously speaks to the soul of the memoirist. I have asked myself repeatedly why I feel the need to publish my memoir. I appreciate your thought process and the spiritual nature of your inquiry. I, too, look inward to uncover patterns in my life, and as sbarnett says above, “to figure out who I was/am/will be.” We are mysteries unto ourselves, and our stories matter to us, if not the world, but I like what others say here. Mine your memoir for more blog posts and essays; publish smaller pieces in literary journals. That, too, can be satisfying.
I agree–there are so many ways to share stories and reflections and to find satisfaction. Brevity is one of those ways.
Nancy, I am a woman in my 70s, writing a memoir, living in St Anthony village. Is there a way I can DM you?
My email is on my blog. Feel free to contact me.
I remember about 5 minutes of the economics 101 I took in Queens College, but there was the thing about sunk costs. That continuing to spend resources because of the resources you’ve already spent does not necessarily make sense. So I guess you spent a ton of time on your memoir and it made sense at the time. But I think you’re very wise in thinking: does it make sense for me, right now, to continue? Good for you. I hope you find enrichment in the things you choose to do with your time now.
Thanks for the economic analogy. Makes sense. I live richly everyday!
Sunk Costs. Great way to think about this issue…
Thank you for this. I feel much the same. I’m working on my second attempt at a better book but terrified of memoir.
I’m looking at essays and short stories instead to compliment my poetry collections. Stuck.
But not for long. People keep asking when my next collection is coming out. That’s hope provoking. I really need to learn how to manage a blog.
Best wishes. At our age decisions must be made with clarity and timliness… and guts.
Be gentle with yourself. Do what your heart, your inner voice, your essence whispers.
I hear triumph in your truth, Nancy. Thank you and enjoy!
Thank you for your affirmation. I love everyday!
Nancy, after all those years of work, are you sure your memoir has nothing to offer readers? Even your family? Self-publishing – or as we now call it, indie publishing – can be far less expensive than before. Once you have a book, it’s there forever, sitting on a shelf, whereas papers in a file vanish. After fruitless if short searches for agents and publishers, I published my two memoirs with hybrid publishers; one was a finalist for a nonfiction prize, and both have received nothing but appreciative reviews from readers. Almost no one can write a bestselling memoir, especially these days, but we’re not in this for money or fame; we want to tell a story only we can tell. There are other solutions besides slog it out with gritted teeth or give up. Indie publishing is a solution!
Thanks for the reminder and the encouragement. I will keep listening to my heart’s whispers–and who knows what direction that may lead.
Good advice to yourself–keep writing. I only write for myself, never would occur to me to publish anything. And memoir? Why are there so many memoirs any more?
Writing is one of my joys–and I think it is yours too.
Thank you for this, Nancy, speaking exactly to my current self-query. I’ve been wondering about the publishing world on the other side of the current paradigm–as Camilla Sanderson mentioned–hoping some clarity emerges from the (slowly?) evolving opportunities/modes. Your essay promises peace in this process. Thank you for that.
I needed to remind myself to slow down, to be patient with the discernment process. With that came clarity and with clarity came peace.
Beautiful, Nancy. Thank you.
You have probably read “The Artist’s Way” and I know several who have read and used it more than once. One among many things I like about it is the connection between creativity and spirituality, an obvious link for folks like you, me and legions of colleagues.
Loved your post, thanks.
Thank you so much. Yes, I have read a number of Julia Cameron’s books and just ordered her most recent Seeking Wisdom, but there are so many others who make use writing as a spiritual practice.
This post so resonates with me, thank you for being candid.
I spent several years researching, then writing my memoir, only to have it rejected by publishers. I tried cannabilising bits of it for short story submissions, but that didn’t fire either. About a year ago, I decided that holding on to the ‘dream’ was stopping me from doing other things. I put the memoir to bed. It may be temporary, it may be permanent. As your husband said to you, an editor said to me: you have done more than most, you’ve written a book. What else she said about my work wasn’t pretty, but it gave me focus, perspective and direction. Nothing is ever lost in the process of writing something.
I so agree. Nothing is lost and so much is gained.
I just was in a similar place. I’m going forward (at least for now).
I respect your decision, and I wonder if working with a professional developmental editor would have served you better. Others who know your writing in the comments section seem to value the quality of your writing.
I’m writing a memoir; historical memoir. I’ve immersed myself in numerous seminars, training, etc.. For you or others here I would offer two books. This year I found Martha Alderson. She is the author of the book, The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. And, Writing Deep Scenes: Plotting Your Story through Action, Emotion, & Theme by Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld.
The above 2 books have been a saving grace for me.
I agree with you though that there is a value in writing whether or not one gets published.
Best regards, Audrey
How wonderful that you found two such valuable resources. For right now I am content with my decision, especially since that decision does not mean the end of writing in my life.
I’m facing these questions in my 50s. I have kids, a full time job, and only a few hours in my week. I have a memoir in progress, and a novel. I’m not excited to work on either anymore (mostly revising). Do I jump at the shiny new thing, or just plow through? I wonder.
Be gentle with yourself and let the next steps unfold.
Thank you so much for this! At 68, I’m wrestling with the same thoughts about my memoir over here in Mpls. I’ve made a commitment to myself to finish revising the current draft. Then I’ll see. I’m writing because I enjoy the process of learning and discovery. I’d like my story to have a wider audience, but I don’t really expect it to. The publishing world is really harsh so I’ve tried not to make that a goal. I’m not sure what I’ll decide at the end of this draft, but I’m glad you’ve made peace with the decision.
I’m so glad you made the commitment to finish revising your current draft. I felt the same way. I am learning that what I wrote and what I learned because I did that work makes a difference in the teaching and group facilitation I do–and even in my everyday interactions. And, of course, in my blog. Our audience is bigger than we realize.
Your questions are excellent. Thanks so much for sharing this!
My pleasure. Thanks for reading.
I love these lines:”I write to understand and uncover the patterns in my life, the shape of my life. I write to discover how I am to live and move in the world.” Yes, and this is the same reason I sit in meditation. Thank you for this thoughtful blog. 🙏
Sitting in meditation is definitely part of discernment –and the writing practice. One seems to flow in and out and around the other.
I appreciate your self enquiry, your courage to seek feedback from others, and the quiet support of your husband. Sometimes we rely too much on external ‘approval’ (i.e. the publisher), when actually, the journey has been a creative adventure for us, and perhaps that is enough? Do you regret the writing you’ve done? Of course not. Are you interested in other things now? Maybe, and that’s OK. It’s called personal growth, plus having a family and friends to interact with. Maybe blogging your various chapters will bring you enough satisfaction at being ‘seen’, and you get to press the ‘Publish’ button, no one else! Thank you for sharing, G 🙂
You said beautifully what I feel and the way I am trying to live my elder years. Thank you.
Yes, me too. You’re welcome 🙏🏼
I read all the comments to see if anyone mentioned the editor who said, “I hope I don’t make you cry.” For me, red flashing lights went off. You were shocked, your writers group, as was I.
Now, I’m no editor, but it seems quite the thing to say to someone who has trusted them with their hard work and dream. Perhaps I’m missing something, editors like people, have their personal tastes and maybe it’s not you, but them.
You agreed with some of what they said, that shows an open mind and a willingness to grow and learn, etc. But, dang it. I can’t get over that.
At the same time, like other readers, what you said resonates, and holds much wisdom and strength. Virtual hug from Thailand ❤
First, thanks for my hug from Thailand. As a young college student I spent a semester in Bangkok–decades ago–and it was so influential in the way about I think and the way I move in the world. Second, I am grateful for your empathy and concern. The person who has read my manuscript three times is someone I value and from whom I have learned a great deal and I hold no animosity towards her at all. Her comment helped me move forward, even though I didn’t think that was the direction I wanted to go. And sometimes tears are clarifying.
I wondered if there was a more familiar element to the comment from your editor. In any case, I had to say it! And yes, time abroad can be life-changing and I love hearing about our connection, helps bring the world closer, doesn’t it? Many blessings, xo
It can be peaceful to put a piece aside. Sometimes it has served its purpose and if there is more, it will return to you.
Such sound advice, and I know you are right. Thank you.
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