How to Look After Yourself When Writing Memoir


Stacey Ng is currently writing a memoir about growing up in a Chinese takeaway family in Birmingham. She is an alumna of the London Writers Award 2018. She was awarded the Arts Council Project Grant in October 2020.

“Writing memoir is like going into a dark hole that you can’t get out of,” said Mary Karr. It certainly can feel that way as you delve deeper into the treasure trove of the past and memories come flooding.  It can feel like an intense endless exploration into your world. So how do you move forward?

At the very start of embarking of the task of writing my memoir, the biggest challenge was dealing with the sheer amount of information. I wrote down countless memories of times spent with my family, places, foods and people that went beyond the original intended shape of the book. To an extent, this is part of my own creative process; I like to vomit and splurge on the page, then edit heavily, and review to view the bigger picture.

There came an acceptance of what was realistically possible in one book. I was initially looking to trace the footsteps of my grandmother who came from rural Hong Kong to Northern Ireland in the 1970s, yet looking at ancestry websites and local archives, there was nothing to be found. I think this is a specific challenge that one faces being from a minority background. However, I found academic literature on specific groups that had left at a similar time and have drawn on themes from that to embellish my writing. With little information though I decided to refocus the lens on my parents who are still alive.

When I started to open the Pandora’s box of the past, of everything before me, my family and grandparent’s past in rural Hong Kong – I discovered things I did not know including a dark family secret. It is awfully clichéd, yet true, that allowing yourself the time and space to process, explore, and play with your work is immensely important. It applies to all types of writing but particularly memoir, which involves touching on sensitive issues that may be triggering and upsetting. There may be a joy and pleasure when writing on these moments of your life, but I want to flag here that if you do find yourself in extreme discomfort when writing, it is a good idea to reach out to a professional practitioner. “It is easy to mistake writing for therapy, but it cannot be therapy. Therapy is therapy,” said Lemn Sissay, the author of My Name is Why at Society of Author’s Afternoon Tea event last year.

At the end of the day, your artist baby comes first, and although there will be some sort of tension between your creative play and dealing with the commercial pressures to polish ‘the book’ you must put yourself first.

If I could go back in time, I would say to my former self: take as much time as possible to play with your work before engaging with an agent. Jumping in too soon before you are ready may interrupt your exploration.

Finally, when I first started writing, I found little support around wellbeing for artists. Most of the writing advice is still heavily focused on writing rituals, practice, and craft, which makes sense of course. But I would therefore suggest finding a way to connect to your centre to sustain your memoir and general writing practice. Working long hours in my day-job, as well as my writing, I overlooked my health and experienced bodily pain. I have come to learn the hard way that although writing is a huge part of my life, it is mental work, and our bodies need nourishing and care too. There are three things I suggest implementing in your everyday life:

  • Body movement –Taking the time to work on your body, whether it be dancing, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, walking, and hiking, helps your body to release tension, become more flexible and agile, and allow you to tap into the rhythm of your body. Writing works on the mind, so even if you have done a whole lot of writing, there comes a point when you need to switch off, so moving with your body can let you move away from a state when your mind is dominant.

  • Meditation – If you are new to meditation, I would highly recommend you try it, it is a wonderful practice to broaden and calm the mind. Working with your mind can develop awareness, build compassion, and help build a level of autonomy in your everyday life. Whether or not you are a writer, I think meditation can enrich your life in ways unimaginable at first. Writing involves a deep level of concentration, but you can end up carrying that work in your head, and meditation can help to loosen your mind outside of your writing practice.

  • Finding pleasure – It’s an obvious one but if you are not finding some sort of joy and pleasure in your everyday life, then it will be challenging to keep going. The author of the The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron, suggests going on an artist date, a time when you can nourish your artist child by doing an activity that you simply love. Making a habit out of this whether it be weekly, fortnightly or monthly helps soften things.

I hope this has been useful, inspiring and insightful! Please share this post, and reach out to me on my Twitter handle: @staceyngwriter

Published 8 February 2021