Writing Your Bipolar Memoir: A Few Pointers

John McManamy Health Guide
  • This is a short piece on memoir-writing. The curse of our illness seems to confer the blessing of turning us into amazingly good writers, and I have certainly seen an abundance of evidence of that in your posts and comments here on HealthCentral.


    I know a lot of you have thought about writing your memoirs. Following are some pointers, which I urge you to interpret as words of encouragement.


    Getting started ...


    Commit yourself to a routine and stick to it. Just start anywhere. Don’t feel you have to force things. On days when nothing happens, congratulate yourself for making the effort.

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:


    Right attitude ...


    You are not doing it for money and recognition. Repeat: You are not doing it for money and recognition. You are writing because you are compelled to tell your story. Full stop. 


    Start small ...


    Telling the story of your life is way too much pressure. Focus, instead, on a specific incident in your life and tell a story, a short one, say about 800 words. Then find another incident and write another story. Then another. 


    Over the course of several stories, some themes will begin to emerge, and you will start to find your voice. Then you can look at the bigger picture.


    You are not writing about your bipolar ...


    Clinical case studies belong in medical journals, not memoirs. The bigger story is how you faced life’s challenges - big and small - and the wisdom you gained. Your illness may set your story in motion. It may even be the villain of the piece. But it is not the story, itself.


    A word about feelings ...


    Every page is going to seethe with feelings of terror, anxiety, depression, anger, joy, exuberance, you name it. The trick is in showing rather than telling.


    Here is an example of telling:


    There was going to be an encore. I didn’t know the piece. I was as nervous as hell, terrified, even.


    And here is the showing (from a piece that I later included in my memoir, "Raccoons Respect My Piss But Watch Out for Skunks"):


    My God! I could only think. There’s going to be an encore! And here I was with the Rosetta Stone clipped to my music stand.


    See the difference?


    About ego ...


    When I write, I have to keep two contradictory thoughts in my head at once, namely: 1) I have a fascinating story to tell; 2) No one gives a crap about me.


    In short, other people will connect to your story only after you have made the effort to connect to them. It’s not about just you. It’s about you AND your readers.


    Establishing the connection ...


    The circumstances in your story may be unique and interesting, but they are meaningless to others if you fail to connect them to universal themes. Thus:


    “Alone against the world,” not “My life on Depakote.”


    “Gritting my teeth through the pain,” not “Here is what happened to me one cloudy morning three years ago.” 


    No victimhood ...


    Readers have an enormous capacity to empathize with the struggles of others. But, fairly or unfairly, they have no room for victims. Just to make this a true no-win, readers are also suspicious of victors. 


    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    Chances are, if you are ready to write your story, you have reached a state of acceptance, a sense of accommodation with your circumstances. This has probably brought about a healing of sorts, albeit a conditional one. Readers tend to resonate to this.


    Your story, then, will be about how you reached this state of acceptance and found conditional healing. The bulk of your narrative may be a trail of tears. But you need to conclude on that healing note. 


    No need for fancy shmancy ...


    Less is more. Your eloquence comes from your witness - honest and direct. If your story is compelling, your insights original, then your words shouldn’t have to do the heavy lifting.  


    Be careful ...


    Writing about your life is bound to bring up a lot of emotions and buried memories. As a general rule, if you feel compelled to write you are probably ready to deal with your personal stuff. You are also likely to find the process cathartic and healing.


    But do be mindful of what you are getting into. Be sure to pace yourself. Take fresh air breaks. Watch your sleep. You know the drill.


    Getting feedback ...


    Posting your pieces as part of a blog is a good way of testing the waters and honing your skills. So is attending a writer’s group. Don’t be afraid of negative feedback - this will save you from making the same mistakes over and over. 


    Finally ...


    You are telling your story because - of all the things you can be doing at this very moment - this is the only thing you want to do, here in the present, right now. There is no other reason. None.


    Enjoy ...  

Published On: September 09, 2014