Friday, 22 August 2014

Memoir Writing with T. J. Burns

T. J. Burns is a long-standing member of the Pagan Writers Community team. She is also the author of Writing Wild: Crafting the Pagan Memoir and The Ones Who Dance Alone: Full Moon Celebrations for the Solitary Witch. She is currently working on Slow the Wheel: A Crone’s Guide to Savoring the Seasons. T.J. loves supporting other writers as a writing mentor and spending time at the crossroads where creativity and spirituality meet. She lives in California with her husband, three dogs and one cat. Her favorite hobby is spoiling her grandchildren.

Visit her on her website and Facebook page.

To celebrate the release of Writing Wild with Pagan Writers Press, T. J. Burns will be running a free six-week memoir writing course from 8th September 2014. To sign up, simply register on her website. There is also a dedicated Facebook group where you can connect with other memoir writers.

More details about the course at the bottom of this post, but first a little about T. J. Burns and her reasons for writing memoirs.

Memoir is a Misfit but so am I

Memoir is a literary misfit. Part tell-all and part self-examination, it lacks the gravitas of an autobiography or the scintillating plot lines of a novel. The New Yorker compares memoir to the drunken wedding guest who makes its rounds from table to table, exposing family secrets and embarrassing all the sober relatives. 

Considering the trouble it may cause the author, the shadow-thin chance it will ever be published why should anyone bother writing a memoir?

Because they want to learn more about their family history.

Because they want to learn more about themselves.

Because they’ve gained wisdom through their experiences and want to share it with others.

Because every person’s story matters. Everyone’s.

I first became interested in memoir while earning an MFA. I admit I hadn’t read a single memoir prior to 2006 when my term advisor put Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn on my reading list. Somewhere along the line I’d formed the opinion that memoirs were self-indulgent books famous people paid someone to write for them. In fairness, some are, but most are not.

At the time he wrote Another Bullshit Night Flynn was an emerging writer, but not yet famous and his story, though compelling, wasn’t glitter-frosted or packed with exotic adventure.  His writing was well-crafted and thoughtful. His background as a poet was evident in the pages of his prose. With that one book I learned how beautiful, how real and interesting a memoir can be.

After reading Flynn, I sought out memoir authors who mixed literary styles, who played on the page, who told their story their way. Rebecca Brown, Carol Guess and, of course, Mary Karr are among my favorites. Memoir hooked me, and good. Everyone should do this, I thought. Everyone.

My time in ritual circles enlightened me to the power of the personal narrative. In circle I met incest survivors, people who grew up in active war zones, gay men and women who risked everything to live an authentic life, travelers, artists, activists and parents of special-needs children. In face-to-face situations I had ultimate respect for the idea that everyone had a story. I firmly believed if we all knew the challenges other humans faced most of the prejudice and hate in the world would fall away. Yet somehow I didn’t connect that belief with memoir until I read about Flynn’s struggle to care for his homeless, alcoholic father without getting lost in the world of addiction and depression. 

As a Witch I think it’s especially important for Pagans to write their story, even if they don’t consider themselves writers.  As a community, we are too often marginalized and stereotyped. If more of us shared our stories and the experiences that brought us to our specific spiritual path, I believe we would, as a group, gain more respect from, and build bridges with, mainstream society. 

However, the biggest reason to write a memoir isn’t to tell someone else about your life, it’s to examine it through the practice of self inquiry. Writing is a personal ritual, rich with opportunities for growth and living a more meaningful life. Writing my memoir provides me with an outlet to heal past wounds, understand my experiences and expand my gratitude. True, no major publisher is likely to publish my memoir; I’m not famous and so far my life doesn’t include any super amazing adventures. My story is one of survival, but I understand that surviving fundamentalism is not as marketable as, say, surviving an ill-fated trek through the Amazon. But that doesn’t mean my life or my memoir is less valuable than someone else’s because the value lies in the process of writing.

If I want readers, I can self-publish or find a start-up publishing company that’s hungry for manuscripts.  I can print out a few copies for friends and family or publish my memoir as a blog. Whether or not lots of people read a memoir doesn’t negate its importance. Did I already say the value lies in the process of writing and not in the product? I think I did, but I’ll say it twice because it’s true.

Memoir is a literary misfit, and as such it’s the perfect genre for we who walk a non-traditional path. Write your story because the process is cathartic, because your story is interesting, or inspiring, or  funny or because you’ve always wanted to write, and memoir is an excellent place to hone your craft. Write your story because your story matters.


The Course

T.J. is currently offering a free six-week memoir ecourse to PWC members. The Your Story Matters ecourse discusses:

Understanding Memoir
Selecting a Theme
Personal Inquiry
Creating a Spine for your Story
Fact Checking

The course starts on 8th September 2014. To participate, simply REGISTER FOR THE COURSE on her website. There is also a dedicated Facebook group where you can connect with other memoir writers.

Writing Wild: Crafting the Pagan Memoir was created especially for new writers and non-writers who identify with an earth-based spiritual path. T.J. combines writing assignments and prompts with suggestions for personal ritual, guided meditations and other exercises to help budding memoirists connect with their written story on a deeper level.  There are many books available on the craft of memoir writing, but Writing Wild is unique; it’s practical, approachable and magical. Do you have to be a Pagan to write a Pagan memoir? No, but it can’t hurt.

: Tell me where the road has taken you and what you ran to or from. Tell me what you’ve learned. Share your wisdom because you have some, and the world sorely needs it. Give birth to your spiritual memoir because it may be the seed from which someone else’s healing is born. Write with wild abandon, secured in the center of your own sacred circle.

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