Anyone who writes memoir knows it’s a genre that asks a lot. If you’re doing it right, it asks that you expose yourself completely, that you revisit—if not relive—painful memories, and that you be fully transparent, inviting readers into the most intimate corners of your life. Writers of memoir must stare down the demons of their past and deal with the voices of the inner critic that lurk there waiting to shame, berate, and belittle. And all of this is in the mix before you even raise the question of good writing. Memoir writers tackle a dual challenge when they take up the genre, which is to write good, well-crafted prose while trying to articulate the most meaningful—sometimes scary, oftentimes traumatic, previously private—events of their lives.
Memoir writing is a challenge, for sure, and it can also be a lot to hold when you’re living a busy life. Writers I’ve coached and taught have experienced physical effects from revisiting their pasts. I’ve worked with writers who’ve gotten sick, who’ve struggled with real resistance, who’ve come up against nasty inner critics whose vitriol has, at times, taken my breath away.
If you’ve encountered struggles like these on your memoir journey then you know there’s something else memoir asks of you—to be courageous. It’s no easy task to find your courage when you’re standing there naked, surrounded by critical voices that want more than anything for you to stop what you’re doing and let the past lie.
This is where the radical edge comes in. If you’ve ever taken a memoir class, you’ve undoubtedly been encouraged to write outside your comfort zone. And while this is a prerequisite to writing wholeheartedly, I suggest reframing this as writing on the radical edge. To write outside your comfort zone suggests that you enter from a place of discomfort. The radical edge, on the other hand, is an invitation to enter with courage.
The term “radical edge” comes from poet David Whyte, who suggests that we enter the radical edge by taking a “courageous step.” I don’t know that he wrote his poem, “Start Close In,” with memoirists in mind, but writers of this genre would do well to carry his words like a talisman. Here are the poem’s opening lines:
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
While your own radical edge may terrify you, it’s a frontier rich with meaning and depth. Writing in this space, while challenging, is a gift to your reader. It’s where you bring your sometimes messy human experiences and flaws, where you share the truths that may feel hard to admit. This kind of writing is also an opportunity to forgive yourself if that’s what needs to happen, and to let go of what you may be holding onto for others’ sakes.
Writing on the radical edge is a place to try to access, but it’s not the space from which to write your whole book. In fact, if you feel terror, pain, or depression, or if you start to display physical symptoms of any sort, stop right away and come back later. My colleague Linda Joy Myers of the National Association of Memoir Writers suggests that writers only write in these deep places for ten minutes at a time. Be gentle with yourself, and careful with your psyche. With this in mind, here are some ways to access your radical edge.
- Remember that you don’t have to publish anything you write. Part of allowing yourself to take that step you don’t want to take is knowing that you’re safe, and that what you’re writing is for you—until you decide that you’re ready to share.
- Make a plan for dealing with your inner critics. If you know these voices will arise, be prepared. Surround yourself with affirmations, the best antidote for inner critics’ unhelpful messages. Consider naming your critics as they arise, acknowledging them so you can send them on their way. I recently bought an inner critic doll on Etsy, and when my own inner voices come up, I look at the doll and it brings me some relief. Getting creative in your interactions with your critical voices is a sure way to lessen their grip on you.
- Set a timer. Per the advice above about limiting the time you spend pushing up against your radical edge, set a timer so that you give yourself an out. Having an alarm or a chime go off is also a way to make sure you come back to the present moment if going into the past feels scary.
Do you have practice accessing your radical edge? Help your fellow memoirists by sharing what works for you. We’d love to hear about it.
Brooke Warner is the publisher of She Writes Press and has been teaching, editing, and publishing memoir for the past 15 years. Find her memoir courses online at www.writeyourmemoirinsixmonths.com and www.magicofmemoir.com.