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I Started Writing My Memoir In College, But I Almost Never Did

Brittany Means is a writer and editor living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A graduate of Iowa’s MFA Nonfiction Writing Program, Means has received several awards for her work, including the Magdalena Award, the Geneva Fellowship, the Grace Paley Fellowship, and the Herodotus Award. Her memoir, Hell If We Don’t Change Our Ways, will be released on Oct. 3, 2023.

I’m the kind of person who gets a sheet of stickers and then never uses them because I’m waiting for the perfect place to give them a forever home. But the thing about perfection is that it’s always at least a few steps in front of you. You pursue it, and the more you learn, the further ahead it moves to adjust to your new perspective. That binder you considered for your Lisa Frank sticker is falling apart now. The mirror in the bathroom is nice, but the humidity would curl your Valentine’s Day sticker off within a few days. There’s always some reason to keep the sheet tucked away in your arts and crafts folder, and then eventually, you forget you even have any stickers.

That’s how I treated writing when I first started college at Ball State University in 2011. I had all these stories in my head, but I didn’t write them because I was waiting for the right workshop or magazine submission or reading event. I thought I had one shot to say it the perfect way. There was an archive building inside me of every experience that wanted out, but instead of disappearing among collage materials and construction paper, the stories piled up in my mind and tormented me. It was too much to hold in without writing or talking about.

brittany means reading in college
Photo Courtesy of Brittany Means

My creative nonfiction writing professor, Jill Christman, was the one who finally broke me out of that thought trap. She told our class that we could write about a subject now and then write about the same subject in five years, and it would be a completely different essay. That the subject matter itself isn’t as important as the lens through which the reader gets to experience it. In an instant, I was freed from the notion that I had to “save” my stories for a better time. 

In that class, I wrote about my brother’s kidnapping for the first time. I wrote about my mother leaving me behind. I wrote about my obsession with death. I wrote essays and poetry and a screenplay and a terrible novel, much of which would become the seeds of my memoir.

Writing didn’t take the pain of my experiences away like magic, but it did help me process and take control of the way I thought about and felt them. It helped me become comfortable calling myself a writer, and thinking of a future where I could eventually write my memoir—or multiple books, even. A published book was my dream. I knew I wanted to write one, but I wasn’t ready yet.

I wanted to develop the skill set and discipline to tell my story as well as I could, so I set my heart on a graduate writing program in the Fall of 2017. A place where I could become a stronger writer, able to tell my story the way I wanted to tell it. Now, rather than pursuing perfection, I was pursuing my best.

brittany means hell if we don\'t change our ways
Photo Courtesy of Brittany Means

In the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, I was exposed to new perspectives and writing styles and literature. Through workshops and seminars, I learned about ways of reading, writing, and thinking that helped me grow into the kind of writer I wanted to be. Finally, I wrote the first draft of my memoir and knew that I had a loving community of fellow writers to give me thoughtful, compassionate feedback.

It’s been nearly a decade since I wrote all those early essays and poems in college. I’ve read back through them since, and I’m so thankful that I got them down on paper. I get to have these perfect snapshots of the person I was. I can see how far I’ve come and how much my perspective has changed. Now I’m putting my sticker down for everyone to see, and when I come back—perhaps in another decade—to find it curling and crooked and faded, I hope I’ll still appreciate the person I am now.

Brittany Means is a writer and editor living in Albuquerque, NM. A graduate of Iowa's MFA Nonfiction Writing Program, Means has worked with Inara Verzemnieks and Kiese Laymon. She has received several awards for her work, including the Magdalena Award, the Geneva Fellowship, the Grace Paley Fellowship, and the Herodotus Award.