Getting Started with Your Book; the Why and the How

A woman in a purple shirt holds a cat in her arms near a waterfront with palm trees and red flowers in the background, embodying the spirit of Hawaii:

Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter.
—Chinua Achebe

My book was a memoir, but most of what I write here applies to all type books.

Getting started on a huge project can be one of the hardest parts of it, because you have to overcome your personal baggage and blockage, usually built up over years. At one point about half way through, I remember calling my manuscript a monster.

One friend of mine who struggled for a long time to get her book underway said she didn’t know if anybody would be interested in reading about her life; why would they want to? But her life is fascinating, and even if it wasn’t, some people write so well, or so humorously, that after a while, you would even like to read their shopping list. Even if you don’t have a fascinating life (though I think we all kinda do) and don’t write fantastically (although you can learn to, with enough practice) writing what you need to say to the world will benefit YOU.

Why write a memoir?

I didn’t do my book for personal “therapy” at all. I did it for the greater good, in an effort to make a difference in the world, in one area I cared about a lot. If I could leave a mark on the world, that helped change things, all the s— I’d been through would have been worth it, I felt. Plus, I wanted to share the laughter and joys of my teaching career as well as the corruption and madness I found there.

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.

Anaïs Nin

Trauma and writing

But writing about the trauma I went through on the job, and in my life, and that I had seen being inflicted on others, was healing. I felt profoundly altered, on a cellular level, after writing. Massaging, re-writing ad nauseum and thinking about how best to present an incident to the world quite powerfully changes your relationship to it. It is a way of taking control of an experience, claiming it as something useful, rather than continuing to victimize you. I was quite surprised by this, and highly recommend writing now even for this aspect alone.

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”

Anne Frank

Maybe you are a perfectionist, or waiting for someone to die, waiting to get “distance” from the material, or lack confidence or time. But I strongly urge you to analyze and overcome the obstacles that are preventing you from getting started, because writing a book is truly an incredible thing to do. I don’t want you to go through life with a book inside you that some part of you wants or needs to get out there into the world.

Don’t let yourself get in your own way with the mental chatter that is not serving you well and then not get to have the experience of finishing your book. I want you to be proud of yourself when you die, not frustrated or regretful that you didn’t finish it or if you didn’t even start, so please get started.

Of course, if you don’t want to do it, on the balance of things, let yourself off the hook. But if it keeps popping up in your mind, year after year, as a longing and a strong impulse, why not at least give it a real shot? Whether it works or not, you’ll know you tried.

I’m here to say; no matter what you think now, you may find yourself ridiculously happy while doing it, and glad afterward.

And, I will probably say this in every single one of my articles in this series. It’s important; You don’t know where your writing, or book, will lead you. Nor what it will become. Give it room to breathe, on its own. Respect it as an entity separate from you, despite how intimate it is. Let it show you what it wants to be. Don’t allow your assumptions, predictions, biases to ruin a potentially amazing new adventure in your life. The fact is, you don’t really know the future.

Accountability, outlines and deadlines, oh my!

Now, how do you get started with something you have never done before, have zero experience with, and furthermore that sounds very overwhelming? Well, you could take a class that requires homework. Often, you can tell the teacher that you are making the homework the outline of your book. If they say no, screw ‘em, and do it anyway. Or maybe the homework is the first chapter or just a writing exercise.

The point is being in a structured environment where you are being told by someone else to do the work, and giving you a deadline for it. It can kickstart you, get your juices flowing, and you may very well fall in love with it.

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.

Ray Bradbury

Or you could do Nanowrimo, which is in November, (there’s also a smaller Nano in July.) It’s a national, online challenge to write 50,000 words in one month. The beauty of it is: nobody sees what you’re writing! And since 50,000 words is a lot, you generate a lot of content. This combination works elegantly because it gets you moving, but you won’t have the time (or need) to go back and edit what you’re writing. It’s great for perfectionism or those who are stuck. You fall into the habit of writing for a few hours every day, carelessly, and you see you can do it. I did that, and when November was done I just kept on going.

Another way is to join a writing group. That gives you a place to sit down and do it, dammit, and some allow you to share with others as well. You won’t find a national group with a better name than “Shut Up and Write,” but there are also writing Meetups and great writing groups in libraries. Just remember; feedback from others can be incredible, but never let it shut you down. Just as I urge you to let the book be what IT wants to be, and not try to control it too much, I also urge you to NOT listen to feedback that is too early, or too off-the-mark, about your work. Take what helps you, and politely ignore the rest.

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

Thomas Mann

Perfectionism VS Courage

For those who are perfectionists, I will quote what an early editor of mine said to me once: “Well, there are many different ways to write it, but if you don’t choose something, it won’t ever get done and out in the world.” In other words, done is better than perfect. I love that, especially in the early days.

In order to get started, I took a random little writing class taught by Jeff Brown, that I found online. It was called SoulShaping, and the homework assignment inspired me to write a sort of letter to myself about how I would indeed write a book. It helped!

But don’t wait for inspiration. That often comes from the actual writing itself; get started. Push through the harder moments to see what’s next.

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.

Robert Frost

For those waiting until you have time, okay; life is hard and busy and I too did not feel I could write my book while teaching full time and raising a family. But if you CAN find a little time, it might be (or feel like) the BEST thing you do, and the only one you’re doing just for YOU.

For those waiting for someone to die before writing about them, what if YOU die before writing it? Or lose your memory? I say, just write it and decide what to do with it all later. Writing well takes a LOT of practice so it doesn’t hurt to get started now.

Memoir or autobiography?

If it’s a memoir, you’re not writing your whole life story, but rather one aspect of it, for example maybe addiction, a relationship you had, or your experience being a teenager. Just as the outline is helpful, for a memoir, it’s good to write a timeline of what you want to include in the book or what you might include.

Now, you could do this on index cards; that way you can rearrange them on a big table in front of you to see where you want to put them in the book. Or you can type the timeline out on the computer: #1, #2, #3, etc. Then, looking at it, you can eliminate ones that are similar or redundant. Or you can just write them all and choose the best, later.

I write to discover what I know - Flannery O Connor Quote on a background with a vintage typewriter.

Editing: a joy or a pain?

When you’re actually writing, let it flow. Don’t try to control it too much. Don’t be hyper-critical of yourself or worried about what people will think. Start with an idea of what incident or topic you’re going to address in this one segment, and let yourself find out what happened.

Don’t censor anything, just let it come. You can edit later. If 80% of what you write is not good but 20% is excellent that’s fine. Maybe it will be 70/30 or 50/50. Just let yourself write and write and write and don’t show anybody too early on in the game.

Structure is important but it’s also important to remember you are the boss and you can change things within as you go further and further into the book.

Writers live twice. —Natalie Goldberg

I’d add, the first time you “live” things, they are somewhat beyond your control. The second time, you are the one at the helm!

Where are you in regards to your work and what is blocking you?

Many years ago I read a Dear Abby column in the SF Chronicle. A woman wrote to Abby for advice, saying she had always wanted to become a doctor, but now she felt it was too late. She was too old already. “It would take me six years,” she said, “and by that time I’ll be 48!” “And how old will you be if you DON’T do it?” Abby asked.

Ask the same of yourself. How old will you be if you don’t try to write this book, to wrestle this monster, to share your story and be heard.

What if you DO it, and it’s amazing?

Where are you in regards to your work and what is blocking you?

Learn more about Rachel Zemach and her book, The Butterfly Cage here.

10 + 14 =

Rachel Zemach - Light skinned woman with brown hair in a purple shirt with flowers on it.

An important book written from the heart about the educational challenges of deaf children

“I had the privilege of interviewing the author on my podcast, “The Art of Medicine with Dr. Andrew Wilner.” I would highly encourage anyone who knows a deaf child or who works in the public education system, especially special education, to read this enlightening, thoughtful and well researched book. It is likely you will view those who are hard of hearing and deaf very differently. It certainly opened my eyes to how much better we can do in our education of deaf children.”

– Andrew Wilner, MD


Black cover of The butterfly cage. Title and Author name are in yellow.  There is a painted butterfly on the front drawn by Nancy Rourke. It is colored in shades of blue, yellow and red.

The Butterfly Cage

‘In “The Butterfly Cage,” Rachel Zemach fills that gap, and then some! Writing from the perspective of both a Deaf student, and long-time Deaf teacher of the Deaf, Rachel enabled me to finally gain some real insight into the severe impediments to learning that we educators create for our Deaf students…’
Woman in a library holding the Butterfly Cage book by Rachel Zemach.

Let's Stay In Touch

Sign up for Rachel's newsletters, upcoming speaking events and information for Deaf education.
Share This