Guest blogger Ami Spencer: Write so readers can relate

Part of my goal on this blog is to foster conversation between writers, create a community of mutual support. Your thoughts, ideas and advice matter to me — and today we’re getting all three from Ami Spencer, a freelance writer who blogs at Write Out Loud.

Ami, I turn it over to you.

When Alexis approached me about writing a guest post for her blog, I jumped at the chance. I love what she’s doing here, and almost every post has helped me in some way. You see, I’m a memoir writer, too.

I write other things, and I certainly write about topics other than myself, but writing stories about my life and the lessons I’ve learned is what really gets my creative energy flowing. “Write what you know,” the collective wisdom tells us. But writing what we know, writing about our deepest, most vulnerable selves, is not easy by any stretch of the imagination.

Like many writers, a good deal of my writing comes to life as I process my own surroundings and experiences. Frankly, writing is cheaper than therapy. Much of my biographical writing starts as an emotional outpouring. It’s painful and messy, like a journal entry written in the heat of an internal struggle. These initial drafts are for my eyes only and many of them don’t make it beyond this purging. What a reader sees is brutally edited and reshaped accounting of the moment—a dumbing-down, if you will, of the emotion to allow the real story to peak through.

Because these pieces are linked so intimately with my emotions—sometimes emotions I don’t particularly want to experience again—I’m prone to procrastination. Most of the time, I’d rather write a how-to article or scrub the bathroom tile than dig deep into a painful experience. The problem with this is that I have a strong need to produce work that is deep and meaningful and that how-to article or a sparkling bathroom just won’t cut it. Eventually, the creative side of me wins and an essay or chapter is born.

“But why would anyone want to read about your life?” you might wonder. A lot of people question why anyone would want to write a memoir unless they were famous (or infamous). And sometimes I wonder this myself. I am, after all, just a normal, every-day woman living a relatively uneventful life.

This is why, when my personal essay, Flying with a Ghost, was published in an anthology recently, I was unsure how people would react to it. The piece was a humorous and touching look at life after weight loss and I hoped they would laugh in all the right places, be moved by my story, relate to my experience. But what if they thought I was egotistical? Presumptuous? Self-centered?

Reading that story in front of a relatively large group for the very first time, I shook with both excitement and anxiety. Would they understand the feelings and ideas I was trying to express?

I paused, waiting for the laughs. And there they were. I looked up to see nods of agreement, smiles of encouragement. They were getting it. After the reading, both women and men approached me thanking me for my candor and willingness to share my life with them. It turns out people do want to read about my life. They want to read about any life that they can relate to, even at the most basic of levels. Just as novels allow us to stretch ourselves, to see things from someone else’s point of view, memoirs allow us to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

I believe this is why memoirs have become so popular lately. We can live vicariously through travelers like Alexis, learn what it’s like to be raised in another culture, peak into the thoughts of a drug addict or alcoholic. When a person’s story is told honestly and openly, we can learn a great deal not only about that person, but about ourselves.