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“Life doesn’t arrange itself conveniently into chapters”

Sharing your story on the pages of a book will seem like a good idea until you actually try to do it. Then you’ll discover, as Abigail Thomas eloquently states, that “life doesn’t arrange itself conveniently into chapters.” Our memories latch on to certain events, serving up snippets of them at random.

Writing a nonfiction book requires excavation, digging up the past and pushing the memory to move in ways contrary to its nature. Once we’ve shaken the bushes, we are left with the tedious task of figuring out what is worth putting on the page. I love Abigail’s take on this topic:

“...there’s a lot of life that’s interesting to live but not so interesting to write about, let alone read. And frankly, I’m bored by chronology. I don’t even believe in chronology. Time is too weird. It contracts, then it shoots forward (or back), it dawdles, stops still, and then suddenly we’re twenty years down the road. Whole decades evaporate. For me, connecting the dots is not as absorbing as the dots themselves. I’m more interested in why certain memories stand out. Why these and not others?”

Memory is fickle and rather unreliable. Plans, outlines, and order do not confine memory the way we’d like them to when writing. Instead, it delivers the dots along the journey. When those memories pop up, I urge you to capture them. One of my favorite Chinese proverbs is that the faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory. I think you’ll enjoy how Abigail describes her writing experience:

“...these bits and pieces kept flying out of me, and I kept writing them down. I didn’t know if what I was doing would amount to anything, but I never cross-examine the muse. It pisses her off. I left out long boring patches of life I could barely recall. I left out jobs, shrink appointments, lousy boyfriends. I left out a scene that contained two naked people and a scimitar. But I still found plenty to write. I mixed up past and present. There was no chronological sense to it, no order. It was popcorn.”

So don’t worry about your popcorn, just capture it. We’ll sort out the flow later in the writing process. For now, use the tools that coax your memory into action. Pull out an old box of photos and souvenirs. By the way, souvenir is the French word for memory. It is amazing how powerful a certain sound, taste, touch, scent, or sight can be to evoke memory. Return to the scene if possible. Driving through a childhood neighborhood or past the building where you worked years ago will cause memories and emotions to flood your mind.

And yes, your thought leadership book needs your memories, your business or subject expert book needs your memories, and your self-help book needs your memories. Plus, it’s part of what makes book writing so damn fun. Enjoy your popcorn.


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