Tips for Your Memoir Writing Journey

 France Trip 479

Writing a memoir is like finding yourself on a journey: you thought you knew where you were going, but eventually you are lost! We all experience several stages that lead up to your journey: As you pack your suitcase, you think about the thrilling and interesting moments you will encounter. And as you start your journey, you are still excited and moving forward with great energy. Then reality sets in. Life still presents challenges. And it is this way when we write our memoir.

A couple of years ago, I visited France and was thrilled to be in Paris again with its iconic symbols–the Eiffel Tower, the parks and museums. The charming coffee houses. Then I made my way to the southern mountains where Cezanne and Van Gogh used to paint.  I encountered the usual challenges–the suitcase was too heavy to lift up stairs, I was crushed in the Metro by sweaty people, and I got lost many dozens of times on tiny country lanes! There were highs and lows, moments of exhaustion and exhilaration. The imaginings of how the journey would be when I packed my suitcase collided with the real journey, and it changed me—for the better. My story changed, and I experienced France in a brand new way.

So it is when we write a memoir. We begin by filling our suitcase with memories of people and events that we are eager to celebrate and share. Even if our story is dark, we’re sure that we can handle it. We have been journaling for a long time, and we think we know what we want to write. Eagerly, we launch into our writing, capturing images and moments, writing and remembering. We even feel brave enough to tell people we’re writing a book!

Then the doubts creep in, “I’m not sure what I wrote is the truth. My sister says I make things up.”

“Gee, I don’t want to reveal x and y and z. It’s too personal. I can’t have people knowing all those things about me.”

Or you read a bunch of famous memoirs and realize that you can’t write all that well. Suddenly it’s really too big a job, this memoir project, even though you love it. You agonize and even try to leave it behind like an overfull suitcase until it begins to take on a life of its own as it tugs at your heart.

There’s another scenario: You’ve started to remember things, memories you thought you’d handled; you begin to reflect on the past in a new way, and start to write about it, but you feel sad, depressed, or angry. You try to put it all aside, but you can’t. The writing doesn’t work. You’re stuck in the middle of your book.

This is all good news. I know, it doesn’t sound like good news to you. You just want to get your memoir done, you want to brush away the doubts.

The good news is that you are in the middle of your memoir journey, and you’re doing fine. This is the way the journey goes! There are three major stages in writing a memoir. The first is the eager beginning, which I call “freewriting.” Then there’s the” muddy middle,” where themes, stories, and memories begin to build into a larger story–you can feel a bit out of control here just as  I did when I got lost 10 times. The muddy middle is the biggest part of the journey, and the largest section of the book. Brooke Warner and I talk about this journey model in our course Write Your Memoir in Six Months.

In the last stage you’ve found your stride, the journey has changed you, and you’re grateful for the discoveries and the epiphanies. It is not the same journey-book that you imagined. You are different. The writing becomes your teacher, your mentor. Dr. James Pennebaker, the psychologist who researched the healing power of writing, said, “Story is a way of knowledge.” When you write a memoir, you discover your story. I write about these stages in my book Journey of Memoir–The Three Stages of Memoir Writing.

It’s a journey worth taking. Pack your suitcase now.

Nine tips for your trip:

  1. Understand that writing your memoir is a longer journey than you imagined. Be patient.
  2. Take good care of yourself on the journey. Set a schedule, make a map.
  3. Allow the writing process to guide you; accept the underside of what you planned to write, the darker stories and images, the memories that squeeze in. They have something to teach you.
  4. Trust in your creative muse and the excitement you felt when you began your journey. Allow this energy to urge you forward.
  5. Invite your unconscious to help you write and remember. Put your writing under your pillow. Before sleeping, ask your unconscious mind to help you. I did this, and it worked!
  6. Know that you will write the same story repeatedly but it will shape shift, it will evolve with each version. 
  7. Accept that you will find your muddy middle, and that you’ll get stuck and lost. Keep going anyway. You’ll find your way out of the muddy middle if you just keep writing!
  8. Writing your life is like entering a labyrinth. You need to find the threads that will lead you out. It’s there somewhere, and you need to stay long enough for it to reveal itself. It’s a little like magic!
  9. Write, listen, be still, and invite. Your story wants to be found and shared with the world.

To learn more about memoir writing, subscribe to this blog. Join me on the Write Your Memoir in Six Months site where you can download ten free memoir writing lessons. Sign up for our free newsletter at the National Association of Memoir Writers.

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  1. Linda Joy, it’s like you were looking inside of me when you wrote this! I am stuck in the muddy middle of my journey. I had started writing about how a particular devotional entry had affected me so profoundly at a particular point when I discovered I was pregnant with our third child, unplanned; and when I reread the passage, it had little affect on me today. It was so hard to imagine what state of mind I was in for it to have impacted me so profoundly at the time of its initial reading that it brought tears to my eyes, and brought agonizing grief to my heart that we were having another child at that time. The journey of looking to the past and trying to understand those feelings when we’ve already been emotionally healed is a difficult one. And unfortunately, I did not begin to journal until much later…about 14 months after tragedy struck…about 18 months after reading that devotional entry for the very first time.

    I will have to repack my suitcase and revisit that moment again to make sense of it…but I realize now I can’t just get stuck and not move on. I can come back to it again later. I’ve got to move through it, past it, for now.

    Another thing I am frustrated with is TIME. I work an exhausting full-time job, come home and work on my certification portfolio for genealogy so I can eventually go back for a dual Masters degree in Library Science and Archival Management. Finding the right combination to get it all done has been a challenge.

    Thank you for your continual encouragement and positive outlook! You breathe hope into me on a regular basis!

  2. My Memoir has been banging around inside my head for 20 years. I’ve written several short pieces about various incidents I want to include in the book. Now it’s time to write the book. Starting my journey in January’s course, writing some preliminary notes and outlines now. Getting excited. Will blog the memoir writing journey at
    And away we go!!

  3. Author

    Thank you for your comments! Renee, I know you have been working so hard to get your book done over the years, and I feel you are primed to get that draft to “The End” soon. So glad to have you in the Write Your Memoir in Six Months class! People really do get the first draft done in this program. See you there soon!

    Linda Joy

  4. Author

    Debra, It’s always great to hear that a post has triggered a good response in someone, though I’m sorry you are stuck in the muddy middle. I’m posting this journey idea again here on my updated blog because the theme of journey in memoir is so important to all who are writing it. Sometimes we can leave the journal behind, and use the “now narrator” to remember and summarize, esp. a good idea if the bad memories are too raw and real. Yes, a good technique is to leave the tough stuff alone until later, and write forward. Sometimes we need to write around the hard place and return to it with a refreshed perspective. Best of luck!
    Linda Joy

  5. Thanks, Linda! Great tips. I needed this encouragement today.

    Now if only I could do what I supposedly want to do, write!

  6. Author

    Hi Marianne, I should add this tip: write for 5 minutes on one small detail in a scene. Stay tuned for more tips in the next post!
    Best of luck,
    Linda joy

  7. Linda Joy Myers, this is amazing! This morning, November 16, 2013, I wrote a new title in my blog’s sidebar: Will A 1961-65 Park College Diary become a book?

    I wrote, “Literary agents look at the number of subscribers and the number of comments a blog has when considering it for book publication. And yes, I would like to see A 1961-65 Park College Diary become a book.” I then invited my readers to write comments or ask questions following my diary entries, subscribe to the blog, and email diary entries to friends.

    Then I read your November 15 post, Tips for Your Memoir Writing Journey and found your statement, “We even feel brave enough to tell people we’re writing a book.”

    Later in your post you wrote, “Write, listen, be still and invite. Your story wants to be found and shared…”

    Yesterday I found email addresses in a college directory of students I knew when we were at Park and invited them to subscribe to my blog and write comments or ask questions following my diary entries which can be found at

    Thank you once again, Linda, as you continue to encourage memoir writers in our journeys toward discovery.

  8. Author

    Dear Barbara,
    I just love synchronicity, don’t you?? You are setting out your intentions and doing great with your research, blog, invitations, and visualizing. I hope you are writing too, even sketches, turning points, or single scenes. Everything we do feeds to journey to a completed book. Best of luck and keep me posted about how it’s going.
    Linda Joy

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