Story and Why
to Write a Memoir is Like Learning to Swim
guest post by Denis Ledoux of The Memoir Network
Copyright © August 20, 2015 and shared with permission.
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
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!
to write memoir is like learning to swim.
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
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
example of Winston Churchill
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.”
Leap from swimming and painting to writing
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.
You can read other life story articles here.