If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. If you have a book in you—if you hear the call to write—it’s because Life is asking for your story.
Unfortunately, my many years of working with authors has taught me this lesson: You’re gonna hit some bumps on the road when you’re writing a book about your life.
There is literally no more important subject matter.
There is nothing that will feel more vulnerable, worthwhile or terrifying.
It’s about your life, after all. And your life story? It’s precious.
I’ll say that again: Your experience is utterly precious.
It’s as if your story is a jewel you’ve been entrusted to carry on a long overland journey. You’ll need to keep one eye on the story, and the other on the dangers that lurk around the next turn.
So allow me to present to you three of the most common road bumps you might encounter while writing a book about your life.
The Problem: You may start to feel afraid.
When it gets down to it, fear is at the heart of every road bump on this list. The obstacles that follow are each just fear with a different, really good point sitting on top of it.
And no shame, my friend: writing a book about your life is truly an act of bravery. Somewhere in the ancient history of the human race, it was legit problematic to be seen and noticed.
Maybe it goes back to the days of dinosaurs (“keep quiet and it’ll pass on by!”) or maybe you believe in past lives and some part of you remembers being burned at the stake for telling the truth (“sh*t, I should have kept my mouth shut about the eye of the newt business…”).
However you conceive of it, you’re not crazy and you’re not alone. But, you do have to slay this vampire—or spend the rest of your life trying.
The Antidote: Let some sunlight in.
Like every good vampire of the psychological variety, fear of self-disclosure isn’t all that fond of sunlight.
What you need is simply to pull back the shades and let some light into the room. An easy way to do this—especially for those of the writerly persuasion—is to journal a bit about all the feelings.
Take an inventory of the really terrible and awful things that might happen if you put your life story into the world.
Use the sentence starter “I have fear that…” Finish that sentence, writing until that particular fear is out of your head and onto the page. Then start again, “I have fear that…”
Keep writing until you can’t find another fear.
And don’t worry if your fears veer away from the book. Fear, as it turns out, is a nefarious situation. One bad idea leads to—and lends power to—another.
So don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself writing down the fear that your college-aged daughter will get eaten by a shark on her spring break trip to Cozumel. Fear is fear, and it’s all welcome.
If you do this practice until the fear is done, you can expect a big out-breath and a feeling that everything is going to be just fine.
Right then is a really good time to pick up your pen and start writing about your life.
The Problem: You may realize you don’t remember things perfectly.
Perfection is a fool’s errand. And if you’re anything like me, you’re a top-quality fool.
I’m obsessed with being perfect, and literally feel terror at the thought of failing or making a mistake. (Luckily, through the power of meditation, I’ve become aware of this tendency and can even relax it now and then.)
When it comes to writing a book about your life, it may seem truly important to remember every single thing exactly as it happened.
But the fact is, our brains are not perfect. They’re pretty darn great (go human evolution! woo!) but your gray matter is not computer-perfect.
- There will be things you forget.
- There will be things you’ll remember one way, and others will remember differently.
- There will be situations you conflate and timelines that don’t match up.
Until we all get memory chips implanted into our heads—a situation which will be happening sooner or later—there are gonna be mistakes. And guess what? You have to write your memoir anyway.
The Antidote: Include a disclaimer.
You’re writing the book from a limited perspective—through your own lens—and each of us sees the world a little bit differently.
In other words, it is highly likely that your friends and loved ones will remember at least some of your story differently. This is just the way it goes.
As long as you’re not outright making up a bunch of hoo-haw (cough James Frey cough) you can relax.
But if you want to CYA (cover your arse), you can include a disclaimer on the copyright page:
Author’s Note: In writing this memoir, I have recreated events, locales and conversations from my own memory. In order to maintain their anonymity, I have in certain circumstances changed the names and identifying characteristics of individuals or places. I may have also changed certain nonessential details, compressed timelines and left things out in service of the reading experience.
The Problem: You may worry that your family won’t like it.
The ultimate fear for anyone writing a book about their own life is that they will get slapped with a defamation or libel lawsuit. Often, this fear concerns a member of their own family.
Our life stories are not neat and tidy. Being a human is a traumatizing experience; just how traumatizing depends on a lot of factors.
Including how well our parents and guardians took care of us. (Or didn’t.)
Many of my clients are writing stories of survival. Their hope is to help others who lived through similarly difficult childhood experiences. Since kids are, per The Holy Law of the Universe, supposed to be loved, cared for and protected by their parents, oftentimes said parents can come out looking pretty crapola.
As my friend and mentor Reid Tracy often says, the person you’re most afraid will read your book will not only read it, but they’ll often be the first person to read it. Call it Murphy’s Law of Memoir.
Many authors allow this fear to paralyze them in the writing process. They literally can’t put their memories down on the page out of fear their mother or stepmother or grandmother is going to read it and be very…very…angry.
At this point, I shall trot out what is perhaps my favorite writing quote of all time:
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories.
If people wanted you to write warmly about them,
they should have behaved better.”
And. I understand that you may want some more substantive reassurance to combat your FOLA (Fear of Legal Action). And that, my writer friend, you shall receive.
The Antidote: Get a legal vetting.
This is just a fancy way of saying, “Have a lawyer read your book.”
Not just any lawyer, though. Be sure you’re hiring a publishing lawyer with actual experience in the book industry in your country of residence. (Google “publishing lawyers near me” for resources.)
Getting a legal read is surprisingly cost-effective; most lawyers will give you a major discount on their hourly rate if all they’re doing is reading your book.
The upside? Such a well-trained human will be able to spot a lawsuit a mile away—and offer you some small fixes to protect yourself.
Believe it or not, publishing lawyers almost never say, “You can’t say that.” What they say instead is, “You can’t say that in quite that way.” Legal troubles usually only arrive when you make a judgment call about a person or event—rather than simply recalling the facts.
A client was writing about her mother, whose alcohol-fueled violence terrorized her for years. The lawyer she hired to vet her manuscript (vet = a more expensive word for “review”) told her to remove the word “alcoholic.” Instead, he had her describe her mom’s drinking habits.
“She drank most days starting at 10 am.”
“She would berate me from the moment I walked in the door until she passed out.”
“Her own father drank himself to death.”
Keep your recollections fact-based, and legal action will not be on the menu.
* * *
My main point, if you haven’t noticed already, is that it is safe to be writing a book about your life. It is safe, it is important, it’s your right, and it’s your mission.
And like any good mission, it’s going to have its share of roadblocks. If there’s one thing I know of that can help smooth out the way, it’s having a friend by your side.
And it just so happens, this is exactly what we do at KN Literary. Help transformational authors make their book dreams real. If you want someone to talk to, we’re right here waiting. Schedule a call now!