Writing Your Life

At workshops and retreats, in emails and phone calls, and over cups of tea, many women have told me they are interested in writing the story of their life. But they also admit they’re terrified.

And no wonder. Within the scope of modern history, women have not long been afforded the opportunity to tell their own story.

For many years, women weren’t allowed to write, and if they did, they often published under a male pseudonym. Later, when women began to claim their space as authors, there was tremendous pressure to write about particular topics, with others being completely out of bounds.

Virginia Woolf wrote about having to go against societal norms in order to be the writer she wanted to become. These norms dictated that a woman be meek, self-sacrificing, and pure, always putting others first. If she cooked a chicken for supper, the woman should eat only the leg. If there was a draft in the room, the woman should sit in it. Everyone else’s comfort was of the utmost importance, and hers, not at all.

Woolf called this ideal woman “the angel in the house.” When she sat to write, this angel would monitor the topics she wrote about. Anger, especially, was off the table and the angel would whisper “don’t write such unladylike things!” in her ear.

Woolf knew that in order to be fully creative and to flourish as a writer, she needed to kill off that angel. 

In her own words, it wasn’t as easy as all that:

“Whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her…Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had despatched her. Though I flatter myself that I killed her in the end, the struggle was severe.”

Although 90 years has passed since Woolf wrote these words, this struggle is not over for women today. There are still so many cultural messages about how women are supposed to look, sound, and behave. And when we sit down to write, many of us hear a voice that says:

“Who do you think you are?”


“Your truth doesn’t matter.”


“You can’t write about that.”

I’ve got a course starting this Monday, October 21 that’s just for women. If you feel the pull to tell your own story, but you’ve been stymied by uncertainty or fear, I would love to accompany you.

Exploring Memoir is a 6-week course that offers practical advice about the craft of writing, the support of a group of other women engaged in the same process, plus private feedback and guidance from me.

Your truth does matter. And we need to give ourselves permission to write our own story in our own way.

Let’s practise together.

Author: Renée Hartleib