“You should write a book.”
I’d repeatedly heard people say it, but I always thought it was so cliché.
At a Toastmasters class in college, a well-dressed sorority girl told the class she planned to write a book. And even though I felt like a brown shoe to her black tuxedo, under my breath, I said, Pssh, that’s so lame.
My problem was that I always dreamt of becoming a noncreative nonfiction writer: a lawyer. Since age ten, I aspired to be a lawyer and was thrilled to learn that creativity is not rewarded in the law. Legal writing is based upon precedent (which is glorified copying), bland, and repeatedly redundant (pun intended). And being a lawyer has a way of working you to the bone while frazzling out your insides, leaving your last bit of brainpower for survival, not art.
Put less dramatically: I couldn’t conceive of writing a book. Surely not a work of fiction and I wasn’t interested in writing nonfiction, because I didn’t believe I was that interesting. In my limited space outside of the law, writing a book seemed like nothing more than that college girl’s frivolous dream or something to be done by famous people. And John Grisham.
And then it happened to me. Life was totally disrupted by autoimmune encephalitis, a rare and nearly-fatal brain illness.
Find our interview with Jackie Stebbins on the Nonfiction Authors Podcast.
After months of living a tortured existence inside of myself, I woke up to learn that I had lost my career as a trial lawyer and my life and livelihood as I knew it. And what lay ahead seemed daunting. I had to mend a broken brain and a broken heart.
As I grappled to understand the disease that had attacked me, I felt hopeless. But I soon learned that a woman had written a memoir about our shared condition, called “Brain on Fire.” And it was a NYT #1 bestseller.
So I began writing.
It started by me saying, “She wrote a book and I will too.” But it was so much more than that. I became convinced that chronicling my story was the only way to move forward. Without being able to articulate it, I inherently knew that taking control of my story meant that I alone would shape the arc and create the ending.
Writing became my lifeline.
Memoir felt like the only way to simultaneously recover from my near-death experience, heal through my grief and trauma, and try desperately to reclaim my life. And while I believed that sharing my experience would help others, I needed it to help me.
My writing journey started as healing, but over time, it also became an education.
I learned that the benefits to penning your story are grounded in reason and science. Sharing your narrative helps you find meaning and purpose in your experience and brings order into what feels complex and chaotic. And humans are motivated to write and hear stories, because that’s how we understand the world around us and grow.
Writing a memoir isn’t cliché, it’s important. And it’s therapeutic after your life takes a dramatic turn. But don’t let the idea feel daunting. Rather, embrace these five tips and know that you can turn your misery into good company.
1. Decide that your story matters and it’s worth telling.
Every story in the world has already been told. Except for yours. As you begin your healing project, you must commit to the power of your unique story. And as you give it shape and direction, aim to answer one question: Why this story, now?
2. Start a diligent and daily writing practice (even for poor writing).
When I was a young lawyer, I worked for a man who had penned a beautiful novel. Other lawyers frequently asked him about his writing practice and how to find the time. His advice was simple and true: “If you want to write, write.” The best way to start writing–is to start writing!
I doubt, and you probably do too, that you’ll be the next Elizabeth Gilbert or Mary Karr on your first draft. But you won’t know until you start writing.
3. As you’re writing, look for (plenty of free) ways to hone your skills.
When my novelist and satirist friend gets the ubiquitous question–How do I write a book?–he answers with another question, “What are you reading?” If you desire to pen a memoir, read memoirs. Your local library is full of them. You can even find books on how to write memoir.
And in today’s digital age, there are a million and one free ways to immerse yourself in the craft.
Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Instagram hold entire worlds of writing coaches, authors, and literary agents. Follow them, read their content and watch their videos, check out their links, review their blogs, listen to their podcasts, and subscribe to their newsletters. Scour social media for online and in-person writing clubs. One of the best writing classes I ever took was not only online and free, but led by a widely published romance author who’s a member of my local writing group.
4. Keep writing, even when it’s hard.
As Hemingway said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Along the way, you will feel an incredible pull of the universe to smash your laptop or burn your manuscript. Know that feeling is perfectly normal. Take breaks for fresh eyes, but keep writing.
It took me years to learn George Saunders’s secret to writing: “Revise, revise, revise.”
Write and revise until your fingers bleed, and someday … you’ll find that you not only have something you’re proud of, you’ll have a manuscript to send to an agent or publisher, or to self-publish.
5. Close the book on a time in your life and feel a sense of healing and peace.
The work, struggle, and trauma of reliving your disastrous event will be real. But when you close your (actual and figurative) book, you’ll be a different and (hopefully) happier person than the one who started.
If you’ve ever contemplated a memoir but dismissed it as cliché or a waste of time, you’re wrong. Just like I was.
Please start writing. The world needs your unique story.
About Jackie Stebbins
In May 2018, Jackie M. Stebbins was a thirty-four-year-old trial lawyer when her life was upended by autoimmune encephalitis. After her near-death experience and miraculous recovery, she retired from the law to follow a new dream of writing and motivational speaking. She is the author of Unwillable: A Journey to Reclaim My Brain (Wisdom Editions, May 2022) and the JM Stebbins blog, and hosts the Brain Fever podcast. Jackie lives in Bismarck, North Dakota, with her husband, Sean, and their three children. In her spare time, she enjoys camping, reading, current events, trying to be funny, and aqua jogging. www.unwillable.com, jmstebbins.com/blog, https://linktr.ee/jmstebbins. Listen to our Nonfiction Authors Podcast interview with Jackie here.
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