Writing: a cool thing that anyone of any age can do with nothing more than a pen and paper, for fun and profit! Just kidding about the profit part. If you’re here for profit, you should probably do something more sensible, like open a combination whiskey bar/meditation center, or a theme park that caters exclusively to pet capuchin monkeys and their owners. Also, if you’re here for fun, you might still be out of luck. Even those who have devoted their lives to writing and love it passionately don’t necessarily think of it as “fun.”
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good, or important, or sometimes life-saving. There’s a reason why the personal essays and first-person columns are some of the most popular and most affecting pieces on Autostraddle; they can be incredibly powerful to read, but also to write. Writing about your own experiences, whether it’s through memoir or essay or slam poetry or leaving post-its about the sandwiches your mom used to make for your lunch on lampposts, can be empowering and life-changing, even without anyone else reading it.
So if you’re interested in talking a little bit about yourself (even if it’s only to yourself! That’s okay!), here are some ways to get started.
To me, the First and Most Important Thing is Journaling. I think everyone I’ve ever looked up to or has helped me in life, from teachers to therapists to my mom, has been very adamant about how good it is for you to keep a journal. This can sound very boring, because duh, you were there, why do you have to write it down. This can also sound really intimidating — I have a really brilliant poet friend who has very white teeth and perfect bone structure and has a real chapbook from a real press coming out soon and is generally an excellent but also very intimidating person, and he starts every day with an hour of Serious Journaling. When I remember this, it generally sort of makes me want to die and also commit to never writing anything again because it sounds hard. But it’s not hard! And it’s not intimidating, really.
For me, the key to reminding myself of those things and also actually writing is first to buy a non-intimidating journal. Because I am ~a writer~, many a well-meaning person has gifted me with beautiful $25 journals with like gilded angels on the front and matching silver unicorn pens (that is a real thing, not a joke). This is a wonderful gesture, but because I am also ~full of anxiety~, I can’t bear myself to sully it by ever actually writing in it, because nothing I write will be worthy of that notebook. Instead, I suggest a plain old composition notebook which you can label on the front with the date you started the notebook and the date you finish it (or if you’re feeling a little fancy, a black notebook like this). This way, if all you end up writing some days is “UGH I can’t even deal with how cute that barista is, I want to kiss EVERY PART OF HER FACE,” you don’t have to feel like you’re too lame for your journal.
Speaking of that, though, what are you going to write? If you feel a total blank, or are worrying that you need to write a lyrical essay about the cloud formations and how they remind you of your mother, you might be well served by just starting with Lynda Barry’s four-minute journaling exercise. It’s only four minutes! Really! And if you feel all jazzed afterwards and want to expand on one of the things you mentioned in those four minutes, hey, the journal is your oyster.
Over time, as you keep doing this, you’ll find that some recurring themes might emerge, and that’s cool! Those are some things you might want to explore via more specific and focused writing, or a whole essay. One way to do this is freewriting — a word which means different things to different people. When I say it, it usually means free-association writing done by hand on a piece of paper, writing down whatever comes to mind on a given topic without editing or censoring yourself as you write. It often helps to give yourself a set amount of time for a freewrite — set an egg timer to 15 minutes or more if you want. Depending on the nature of the topic, some people recommend beginning a freewrite with the words “I remember” or “I am.” If you draw a blank or feel stuck while writing, you can start a new sentence with “I remember” or “I am” and start up again.
If there’s a specific memory or event that you’re trying to write about, it’s sometimes helpful to start with a specific “scene” or moment. Maybe you want to write an essay about the time you went on that picnic and Jeff Goldblum turned out to be filming in the same park, and you shared your sandwich with him. What exactly were you doing when you first looked up and saw the cameras? Did you drop your bowl of potato salad? Were there birds singing? Starting in medias res can be a good way to get started when you don’t know how to get started, and there’s always time to go back and explain things later.
If you’d like something more structured, I’d like to recommend Lynda Barry’s 7 1/2 Minute Writing Exercise, which I sometimes use for the classes I teach of incoming freshman college students who could write their own book on How To Be Very Sullen About the Prospect of Having to Write Three Entire Double-Spaced Pages. Feel free to cut out whatever you want, because the whole thing can be something of a to-do, and maybe watch the video once first so that you know what you’re getting yourself into. Overall though, I think this is a super worthwhile and productive way to spend like 20 minutes of your life.
This is mostly as far as I, a person who mostly just makes fun of Republicans’ haircuts on the internet, can take you. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop here! Here are some of my favorite resources for writing about yourself, or anything else:
What It Is, by Lynda Barry
Maybe you have noticed by now that this entire article is essentially one big ladyboner for Lynda Barry! Barry is a super cool lady who wrote a popular alt comic for almost 30 years, and now runs workshops on “Writing the Unthinkable” which are aimed largely at non-writers. She’s super fun and loud and probably crazy, which I think is an important positive quality. Here’s a neat NYT profile of her and her workshop. What It Is is an indescribable collection of ideas and images and questions and illustrations, a combination workbook/memoir/visual masterpiece that is many things, but is above all inspiring. Also, here’s Lynda Barry talking in the intro to one of her workshops, just so you can get a sense of how cute and weird and perfect she is if you’re so inclined.
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
This book has become gospel for many a writer, and for good reason. This is sort of mostly in reference to fiction writing, but that’s not really important, I don’t think. What’s most genius about this book is how accurately it’s able to pinpoint the awful feelings of total failure at both writing and personhood that most, if not all, writers experience, and which often turn out to be bigger obstacles than any challenge that actual writing could ever pose. When you feel like even your laptop is ashamed to be seen near you and the paragraph you just wrote, Lamott is like somebody handing you a Xanax and a whiskey sour and then petting your head and telling you you have really great cheekbones.
This is not technically a writing book at all, but bear with me. The premise of this book revolves around asking yourself a series of questions about your life and what you want out of it, which may well help you towards insight and fulfillment, but may also lead you towards some really important writing about your own life! One of the questions posed on Page 4 is “Who are the ghosts that haunt you? And why? (Take into consideration that it could be the ghost of a younger you.) I don’t think it would be overstating the thing to say that like 80% of all good memoir and creative nonfiction is in answer to that question. Right now this book is only $5.40 for the Kindle edition, but also, sort of the point of the book is that you can write your answers to the question inside the book itself, so maybe don’t buy the Kindle edition like I did. Whatever. You do you.
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