Beginning a Memoir: 5 Questions for Jessica Wilbanks

“It’s incredibly helpful to give yourself permission as a writer to simply generate material–and then, at the right moment, when you’ve done the necessary work to get the story on paper, switch over to a more architectural mode and focus primarily on structure.” -Jessica Wilbanks

Jessica Wilbanks is the author of When I Spoke in Tongues, a memoir about faith and its loss. She has received a Pushcart Prize as well as creative nonfiction awards from Ninth Letter, Sycamore Review, Redivider, and Ruminate magazine. Her essays have received Notable Mentions in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading, and she was selected as a finalist for the PEN annual Literary Award in Journalism. Jessica received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Houston, where she served as nonfiction editor for Gulf Coast.

On Saturday, April 2nd, Jessica Wilbanks is teaching a class for the WLT called “Memoir 101: Everything You Need to Know to (Finally) Start Your Memoir.” In this class you’ll learn effective strategies to begin a memoir, discover which memories to use as source material, and how to create a coherent narrative.

Here’s some advice Jessica had to give to fellow writers:

Jessica Wilbanks headshot

Scribe: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you write? How did you come to writing?

Jessica Wilbanks: I’ve always identified as a writer, but it wasn’t until I took a community writing workshop in Taos, New Mexico in my mid-twenties that I started taking my creative work seriously. I started writing primarily essays (here’s one) and published a memoir a few years ago called When I Spoke in Tongues. I’m now making my way through the first draft of a novel.

Scribe: In your own work, how do you approach overcoming the challenges that come with writing, be it writer’s block or craft or business-related challenges?

JW: A long time ago I decided to deal with the business-related challenges of writing by not tying my financial livelihood to my writing. I’ve always had another source of income, and I spend the vast majority of my time working on projects other than my creative work. This approach has pros and cons. On one hand you lack the structural components that help you to continually prioritize writing, and you are always hungry for time, but on the other hand you are freed up from the financial pressure that comes from relying on writing to pay the bills and you’re free to work on whatever projects you like. I probably wouldn’t have taken the risk of moving from nonfiction to fiction if I was trying to make a living from my writing. 

Like so many people lately, I’ve struggled to simply make space for my writing in the midst of a difficult time. I’m also always trying to figure out a better balance between efficiency and creativity. There’s a sweet spot between maintaining a curious, playful approach to your creative work and holding yourself accountable for steady progress, and I’m usually too far on one side or the other.

Scribe: Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?

JW: When I’m deeply immersed in the writing process itself, I often have these fleeting moments where the writing itself ends up surprising me. In nonfiction, maybe it’s summoning up some forgotten detail that helps bring the scene to life, or in fiction, watching as a character or scene goes somewhere unexpected. I seldom have those moments when I’m thinking about the project or planning it–instead, it happens when I’m caught up in the process of writing. Those moments are wonderful when they happen, but some days I experience them and some days I don’t. I try to stay with the process anyway.

Scribe: What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?

JW: The piece I come back to most often is the importance of incorporating clear, precise images and specific details, especially in memoir. When we think back to moments from our own lives, they contain all of that energy within them. We remember them in color, on a particular day, in a particular space. In the process of bringing those memories to the page, it’s very easy to move too fast and not take the time to immerse our readers into a given scene.

Scribe: What is one thing that people will take away from this class?

JW: The main thing that I try to focus on in this class is the importance of doing one thing at a time during the first draft of a memoir. When writers try to generate new work at the same time they are trying to figure out the structure of a piece, and are simultaneously judging themselves for not writing beautiful sentences, they are almost guaranteed to fail. In my own experience, it’s incredibly helpful to give yourself permission as a writer to simply generate material–and then, at the right moment, when you’ve done the necessary work to get the story on paper, switch over to a more architectural mode and focus primarily on structure. Much later you can pay attention to filling in plot holes, improving descriptions, polishing language, and deepening characterization.

Thanks, Jessica!

Click here to learn more about Jessica Wilbanks’ upcoming class.

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