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Learning to Write a Memoir is Like Learning to Swim

A guest post by Denis Ledoux of The Memoir Network
Copyright © August 20, 2015 and shared with permission.

We often see people who are not comfortable swimming flail about in the water, their heads reaching up high, desperately, to catch a breath of air. This awkward gesture soon tires them. Try as they might there is not enough air for them as they constrict their ribs, twist their heads, contort their jaws. Soon enough, considering that they had set out to enjoy the water, these people quit and return to the shore. Swimming is over for the day.

As I was swimming in Ceasar Pond recently, not far from my home, I remembered learning to swim. A woman who was my coach told me that, if I positioned my arms correctly – and she showed me what “correct” was, I would find a pocket of ample air. I could breathe into this pocket without stressing my rib cage, my lungs, my mouth and I could get as much air as I needed. Of course, her telling me was not enough for me to find that pocket where I could have as much air as my lungs good hold, as much air as I could breathe were I in the middle of a field. 

After her instruction, when I entered the water and positioned my arms as I thought she had told me, I was still not able to find that pocket of air. For a while, I went up and down the pool struggling to find the air that she had told me would be there. Occasionally, I would stop and she would say to me, “Stretch your left arm more. Turn your head slightly more towards your shoulder. Be sure your right hand is at your knees about ready to come out as your left hand goes into the water.”

Very easy to say but hard to do. Left arm, right arm, head. It seemed too much, but I continued to practice because I wanted to be a good swimmer. 

Then came the moment when, all of a sudden, I found myself breathing as much air as I could possibly want, as much air as I could breathe in the middle of an open field.

As I was swimming recently at Ceasar Pond, I remembered these swimming instructions and felt gratitude for my coach. What I struggled to learn then has been second nature for me now for over four decades. I became an excellent swimmer and continue to enjoy swimming in lakes and ponds here in Maine. Swimming has been such a pleasure!

Learning to write memoir is like learning to swim.

It is possible for a writing coach to instruct a person on proper techniques of writing, on better styling, on effective characterization and on using action to move the reader along the narrative arc. If the coach were to give a written test to that person, it is entirely possible that the apprentice writer would get an A+. But something happens between the knowledge of what one ought to do and the practice of it.

The writer sits at her computer and begins to compose. Her story does not come out as she thought it would when she was envisioning it in her head. There’s something missing!

“What’s missing? Why isn’t this working?” she asks herself.

Like the swimmer who is gulping in water and growing increasingly tired, our writer is growing frustrated and she is sure she will never learn to write memoir well. She might even think, “I’m such a terrible writer.”

A coach—whether a swimming coach or a writing coach—is able to impart valuable feedback to a learner. Perhaps your writing teacher will tell you to write in shorter sentences or to write more spontaneously or perhaps what you need is fewer adjectives or a reconceptualization of your story.

Often the writer may not need new information. What the writer needs is practice and feedback on that practice. As with a swimmer, the writer arrives at a point when he knows that he is doing something right. All of a sudden, like the swimmer with air, he finds that pocket of inspiration and learned technique where everything he needs to keep going is there available to him.

It is possible, of course, both for the swimmer and for the writer to learn craft or skill without working with a coach. But it can take much longer.

The example of Winston Churchill

I once read that Winston Churchill, who was an talented amateur painter, spent two years learning perspective on his own. Later, Churchill discovered that perspective in a painting could be taught in a studio class in the matter of a few weeks.

“But aren’t you glad you learned it on your own?” someone said to him.

“No,” responded Churchill (and I’m paraphrasing here), “learning perspective was not the most interesting thing that I might have done as an artist in those years. I would much rather have pursued my subjects without having to spend so much time on technique.”

The Leap from swimming and painting to writing

Think about how you can spend the next year working on your writing technique alone, never knowing if it is measuring up or not knowing how to stop gulping all that water, not knowing where there might be shortcuts. Alternately, you can spend the next seven months with a group of thoughtful writers and a master writer who is also skilled at teaching. You can learn quickly the techniques to write memoir that will enable you to move on to telling your story, to delivering your message.

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