Journey of Memoir–The Three Stages of Memoir Writing


This guidebook through the complex layers of writing a publishable memoir gives you all you need to begin a memoir and find your way through the labyrinth of memories and writing challenges that come with crafting a true story about your life. This is a good companion book to Linda’s other book on memoir writing, The Power of Memoir.

Myers three stages of memoir writing are:

Kick Starting Your Memoir

The Muddy Middle

Birthing Your Book


Journey of Memoir delivers skill sets and problem solving, with hundreds of exercises and thought provoking questions that a serious memoir writer needs to consider in today’s market. You will find information on how to write a great scene; the difference between freewriting and outlining and why you need both; timeline and turning point exercises to help you track your story; advice for how to conquer the inner critic, deal with legal and ethical issues, and whether to change names, compress time, or do composite characters.  Finally, the workbook offers a social media marketing outline, as well as what you need to be thinking about early on when it comes to getting published. There are ample pages provided for sketching your ideas, building your plot, and troubleshooting your family critics. This unique workbook gives you the tools you need to begin, develop, and complete your memoir.

Linda Joy Myers is founder and president of the National Association of Memoir Writers and past president of the Women’s National Book Association, San Francisco. A national memoir speaker and coach, she’s the author of The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story and the prizewinning memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother. She co-teaches the program “Write your Memoir in Six Months” with Brooke Warner, and offers teleseminars and workshops monthly. Read more about teleseminars and writing skills for memoir writers at










Truth, Lie, Essential Truth—How to Figure out the Ethics of Your Memoir



When we talk about “essential Truth” what do we mean as memoirists? How much room do we have to create scenes, dialogue, and “characters” from the flotsam of memories? What are the “rules” of memoir anyway?

Memoirists are always on the firing line it seems, in danger of being accused of making things up or “fictionalizing,” and there is a whole history that many of you have heard about that make memoirists leery of even writing their memoir.  There’s the whole James Frey and Oprah controversy, and several cases of false memoirs that hit the public hard.

Everyone needs to understand that when people write a “false memoir” they know they are faking the story. They aren’t “accidently” writing something that another family member might disagree with. The fake memoir people set out to write something that will gain notoriety and buzz, and will sell books. It’s too bad, but only a few people seem to take this route. Yet as you know if you are a memoirist, their actions appear to tarnish the reputation of all memoirists.

While the media seems to enjoy targeting memoirists of playing fast and loose with the truth, the people I meet with and coach are the opposite—they are so worried about being “correct” with their memories that they find it hard to write at all.

Memoir is a genre that uses the tools of fiction—writing scenes and creating dialogue to craft a story that brings people into the world of the memoirist, and the memoirist must find the elements of that story in their memory banks, and/or do research to share the truth of their experience—which brings up the question: how valid is my memoir as my own experience? Will I be sued or accused of lying when others don’t agree with my story?

I’m looking forward to a discussion this Friday with Betsy Graziani Fasbinder during our NAMW Member Teleseminar about truth telling, fictionalizing, and essential truth for memoirists. And we are going to delve into the question: when is it best to write your life story as fiction—to stand behind what I call the “fictional wall.”

We are going to talk about these topics, and more. Be sure to tune in!

  • Avoiding the big memoir no-no: Using fictional writing techniques as differentiated from “fictionalizing.”
  • Is there a difference between “fact” and “truth” in memoir? When does using fictional elements go too far? When is alteration appropriate and ethical?
  • Do you want—or need—to stand behind the “fictional wall” with your memoir story?  (Really, it’s okay if you do.)  
  • Becoming the best kind of thief: Robbing your real life experiences to inform or inspire your fiction.
  • Avoiding the Oprah Confessional as well as law suits:  Learning from the errors of others.
  • What am I writing here?  Examining your goals for writing your story as memoir or fiction. 


Your Memoir Journey—The Craft of writing a Memoir



Most people writing a memoir are learning to write while also excavating the terrain of memories and learning about elements of the past can be painful.

If you have started your memoir, or are about to start, you know that writing a book is a journey with several stages. As you go through the stages, you build one upon the other to get to your goal. As you write, the journey will change you. It’s important to understand what a memoir is, and isn’t.

A memoir is a story with structure, a theme, and a reason for a reader to be engaged. Memoir writers are challenged by the many layers that compose a memoir: from finding memories and confronting truths—the psychological aspects of memoir writing—to craft and skill questions: what is a scene, how do I structure my memoir, can I just copy my journal and have a memoir?

If you keep a few things in mind, you can begin your memoir journey—something you’ve always wanted to do. The idea is to keep your writing to the basics, keep it simple, and give yourself permission to write. Then celebrate your courage!


What a Memoir Is:

  • A memoir draws upon the skills and tools of fiction in presenting a story—with scenes, dialogue, sensual details, creating a world for the reader.
  • A memoir is not a journal. In a journal, your personal writing is without a structure and written to be kept private. A memoir is written for an audience.
  • A memoir has an overarching message that a reader is left with, the reason for the book.
  • A memoir is a focused topic or theme.
  • A memoir has significant messages and takeaways for the reader—it’s not just about you and what happens to you.


Tips for memoirists, from my book Journey of Memoir—The Three Stages of Memoir Writing

  • A memoir is your story—no one else’s. Write from the “I” point of view about your experiences, feelings, and perspectives.
  • You’re writing to discover, not only to report. You will be discovering memories, truths, and events that you don’t always understand.
  • A memoir is about memory and how you understand events and inner truths. Your memories are unique to you. Even if you write about an event where there are twelve witnesses, chances are that each person saw, heard, and interpreted different things about that event.
  • You will write your memoir like a novel with scenes and plot using the tools of good fiction.
  • You will learn about how story works, and how to bring a template of structure and story to the long complexity that is your life. Your memoir will focus on a slice of that life. A memoir is more than a journal—it’s a story to be read by others.
  • As your memoir delivers d takeaways that are of value to others, you are creating a universal story.


How to Begin:

  1. List the ten most significant events in your life.
  2. Chart your significant moments or events on your timeline to see when they occurred and get a visual picture of how events clustered together or were spread out in time.
  3. Write each significant moment as a story.
  4. Write using scenes—a specific moment in time, interleafed with reflection and your inner experience.
  5. Write quickly, write in twenty minute bursts without editing or censoring.
  6. Use Anne Lamott’s “shitty first draft” permission to write without editing—you can edit later. Don’t crush your creative sparks!
  7. Honor your point of view and your truths as you write.
  8. Write another vignette the next day.
  9. Do this exercise for ten days and then see what you have!
  10. Be Brave—Write Your Story!


You can find more exercises, the timeline template, and a three part course on memoir writing in my new workbook  Journey of Memoir–the Three Stages of Memoir Writing.


JOM high res

Learn from Wild: Theme and Structure in Your Memoir



One of my students was complaining the other day about plotting, creating structure, outlining, and all that left brain stuff.  “I miss my freewriting!” she said.

We love the feeling when we are in flow. It’s like a drug, and it’s also the feeling of being exactly in the center of our creative energy, which is one reason we love to write. But if we only freewrite, we end up with bunches of pages that have nowhere to live. We get lost in the middle of our story and don’t know how to get out. It’s important to balance the freewriting with the effort to find structure for our story if we want to have our book done within the next decade.

Because a memoir is a full-length work, it takes a long time to write, and it’s a challenge to keep track of all that goes on in this longer form. We have to think and plan out how best to write the story that wants to come out, while keeping our passionate connection to the story at the same time. It’s important to keep your themes in mind, and the messages you want your reader to get from the whole book, and from each chapter.

Chapters are composed of scenes linked by reflection and the narrator’s guiding voice. The reason we write a memoir is because we have learned something through living the story we want to tell, and because of that, it can be hard to find objectivity in the writing. Our memories float around in our heads like a dream. When we write, we capture a thread of the dream but again, how do we make sense of these threads?  How do they weave together to create a cohesive story?

Clearly, memoirists need to be able to switch hats and have both the skill to structure and the permission to let go and write. You need to give yourself permission to freewrite, muse, sketch your memories, and take notes. Your writing journal is the perfect place for that. Everything you write doesn’t need to be for your book. You have to unhook from “production” enough to get refreshed, revitalized, and inspired to keep going through your freewrites.

Theme, Message, and Scenes

The smallest structural element in writing your book is a scene, and the largest is your themes as shown across the arc of your narrative through the whole book. Knowing your themes and the messages you want your reader to glean from your chapters helps you locate the scenes that will illustrate these points. Woven throughout is the narrator’s reflection as you translate your inner world for the reader.

The purpose of your scenes is to bring the reader into your world—to feel it, walk in it, hear, feel, smell, and taste that world. The reader experiences your world through scene. Each scene will have a purpose and a message for being in the book—and it will be true. However, the scenes will be there not just because “it happened,” but because it furthers the purpose of the theme. It’s important to understand that though a scene occurs in a specific place and time, not all scenes have dialogue or contain more than one person. You can write a lovely scene using prose only, and sometimes that is the best way, rather than using dialogue that forces an explanation or exposition.

The theme may be stated in the subtitle of your book: Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild, has a descriptive subtitle: “From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.”

When we open the book, we expect to read a story about feeling lost, being found, we expect an inner journey, we imagine that we will be with a woman on a trail and join her on her hike. The book’s themes showcase the ways she was lost: her mother’s death, the break-up with her husband, the loss of self through drugs, the grieving process for her mother, husband, and childhood, no relationship with her father, and being literally lost on the trail.

She gradually found herself, and there are scenes where she finds her way, learns how to solve problems on the trail, meets people who help her. The act of choosing to be brave, to face herself, and silence, and possible danger are the through thread of the book. The structure of the book includes scenes in the present, flashbacks, memories, dreams, and reflection, and everything supports the themes of being lost and found.

Cheryl wrote her book based on journals she kept at the time, but she also had to do some skillful weaving of writing skills and techniques. Writing your memoir will mean that you will draw from fragments of memories, and you may need to do research so you can include accurate details. It’s also important to pay attention to the emotional arc of writing your story—keeping your spirits up.

You can combine the joy of writing with learning your structural techniques by selecting a scene and freewriting it, getting it out of you and onto the page. You don’t have to write your scenes in a particular order, but as you assemble your vignettes, you will see your story starting to come together. The more you write, the more you will get your reward!

And read, read, read memoirs to learn how other writers solve these problems.


Wild book cover





The National Association of Memoir Writers is co-sponsoring a workshop with Cheryl Strayed June 1, 2013 in Petaluma, CA. Click the link to sign up for the great opportunity to work with Cheryl.

Learn from the New York Times bestseller about how to write a successful memoir!




 Workshop Schedule (subject to change):
8:30 Continental Breakfast
9:15 Welcome and opening remarks.
9:45 Introduction
10:00 Talk & First Writing Session
11:00 Sharing Q&A
12:30 Lunch
2:00 Craft Talk & Second Writing Session
3:30 Sharing and discussion
4:00 Reading 4:30 Q&A
5:00 Book Signing & Close


Character, Setting and Weather in your Memoir | Creating a World in Your Story


As writers, we all know that writing a memoir, a long full length story, pushes us to think on several levels at once—it’s like rubbing your stomach while patting your head, doing a tap dance and a few yoga moves all at once while singing an aria! Whew. And we need to weave images with a felt sense of the moments in time we’re creating, building a world for our readers to inhabit using the techniques of story writing.

One sticking point for memoir writing is characterization—our characters are real people, so we can’t just make things up. We have to use the real locations and settings—we can’t make that up either- they have to be accurate and true. To create a moving story that grabs the reader, we need to create scenes based on real events and real people saying real things—not easy.

There’s a lot to juggle.

Tips for characterization:

  • As you prepare to write a portrait of someone who will be a main character in your memoir, remember to use sensual details, including color, scent, sound, and feel. Use metaphors: He looked like Cary Grant. She moved like Marilyn Monroe—or more modern choices, depending on your audience.
  • Body language How would you describe the person’s body movements? Quick, slow, jerky, bulky, sensuous, lilting, blocky? Did a shoulder rise or a frown appear under stress? Did her face wrinkle up in laughter or confusion?
  • The feel, color, and look of emotion. How did the person’s face and posture change when sad, angry, joyful, hopeful, disappointed?
  • Who are the main characters in your story? Briefly list and describe them in order of importance.
  • Who are the minor characters—people who are significant enough to appear, but who aren’t in the spotlight. Remember, they need to have some significant role in your story to appear in your memoir. If you decide later these characters aren’t needed, you can edit them out. 

 Think about this when writing about characters: what might your life have been like without this person in it? (Consider the premise in the classic film It’s A Wonderful Life).

 Using an old photograph, write a portrait of a grandmother, grandfather, or family member you’ve never met. Try to imagine him or her living and breathing, walking and talking. Write about the story about the setting, before and after the photo was taken, and questions you want to ask them about their lives.


1.      Where is your story located, what part of the world? Even if it’s a small town where you were born, or where your grandmother lived, specific details and colorful descriptions are the secret to writing a memorable memoir.

For example: “We lived on the edge of town in a white clapboard house with a windmill in the back. All day chickens pecked the ground and clucked, and the wind blew the lace curtains in the dining room against the screens. It was hot in the kitchen because the wood cook stove had to be fired up even in summer, and sweat had to be mopped from our brow with an embroidered handkerchief.”

 2.      What is the weather during the different seasons? Be specific. Don’t just say, “Rain.” What kind of rain—horizontal rain, torrential rain, a mild mist, a cold rain, warm rain. Or was it sleet?

Notice your own bodily reactions to the images you capture on the page. Though your reactions are tempered by your own memories, if you are writing IN the scene, if you are gathering the details that make the scene come alive, you will feel it! And so will your reader.


My colleague Matilda Butler, co-founder of Women’s Memoirs and author of a new book Writing Alchemy has analyzed and broken down character types, and will discuss it at our National Association of Memoir Writers member teleseminar November 16.

Stop Procrastinating! Write Your Memoir on a Schedule



How do you get your writing done—or do you? Are you a procrastinator—do you let Time Bandits get in your way? The solution is simple and it’s one you use for the rest of your life: you have to schedule your writing dates. You make dates for everything else, right? Do you know if you’re more creative in the morning or at night? Be sure to plan your writing time around the best times of your day and week.

How do you feel about scheduling your writing? Perhaps you prefer to wait for the muse to knock on your door. Do you ever despair getting your book done? These questions are part of a writer’s dilemma. This is why books don’t get finished, and frustration sets in.

I used to be one of those “write when you feel like it” people. I believed in inspiration, I believed in the need for an extra adrenaline push to get started. But I didn’t write very often. I made this okay by telling myself I wasn’t a professional writer, and I had a lot of other things to do. I noticed that I did a lot of thinking instead of writing. I tried to work out the scenes in my memoir and the challenges I was having by having it whir around in my brain. However, I didn’t write enough, and the lack of progress made me wonder if I should be doing a memoir at all.

Then I listened to authors speaking in bookstores—back when there were several in town. I learned a lot from listening to these authors—all of them talked about engaging with their ideas, characters, and solving problems through writing. One author, I forget who, said, “Writing leads to more writing.”

Hmmm—I decided to check this out, and soon enough I found it was true. Once I sat down and re-read what I’d written the day before—which is what a lot of writers have done, from Steinbeck to Virginia Woolf, and as I began to read, the ideas started flowing. Soon I’d be writing, tinkering, editing—engaging with my material. It was so easy once I opened the document and began to read. And I discovered that the more I wrote, the more I was able to write. It became much easier to write for a longer period of time. It’s sort of like exercise—once you set the time aside, you build up your stamina and you WANT to keep writing.

Tips to Get Started

There are several ways to deal with getting yourself to write. One of the best is to set a time, and show up. You show up on time at work, right? If you make a coffee date with someone, you arrive on time. We learn to show up for others, and we have to do it for ourselves. We need to become our Writer’s Best Friend.

  1. Make realistic commitments to yourself about the time you set. If you are definitively NOT a morning person, 5:30 AM may not work for you. But you might need to stay up an hour or two later at night. Try both systems and see what works best. Set a system that helps you keep your writing time regular.
  2. Since you keep coffee dates with no trouble, set a date with your writer self at a coffee shop or café. These days, everyone is sitting around with computers or iPads, typing away. Set a date at a coffee shop especially if you are one of these people who CLEANS when you are at home. Get away from the sponge and mop, and get thee to the café. Bring your notebooks and your computer, get some tea or coffee, and tune into your writing.
  3. Set times with a writer buddy to get your scene done. You both agree on a time you’re going to write and then you keep the date, and check in later with each other. How much did you write, how did it go, when is our next date are good check in questions.
  4. Figure out how many words you want to get written and the time frame you are giving yourself. To get 60,000 words in 6 months you have to write 10,000 words a month: 10,000 divided by 4 weeks is 2500 words a week. 2500 divided by 7 days is 347 words a day. That is 1.5 pages, double spaced. You can do that!
  5. Know that creating a schedule and asking yourself to show up is developing yourself as a “real” writer, and helps you to feel good about what you are doing. It also creates a positive habit, and once you have a good habit developed, it’s much easier to keep going with little extra effort.
  6. Dream your book–do you see the cover in your mind? Where will it sit in the bookstores? Sleep with your manuscript under your pillow to invite your subconscious mind to help you while you sleep. But also…
  7. Make your writing dates, and keep them! Watch yourself get your book done in six months!

How do you feel about a strict writing schedule? Are you willing to experiment for a week to see if you can write more?

Are you stuck in your memoir? Join me and Brooke Warner for a FREE call about solving your stuckness Monday October 1, 4 PM PDT.

In this call we’ll identify the signs that you might be in the Muddy Middle and ideas for what to do about it!

Are any of these familiar? •Stuckness •Energy dips •Procrastination •Doubting memories

Join us at 4pm PST | 5pm MST | 6pm CST | 7pm EST.

CALL-IN INFO: (530) 881-1300 CODE: 879104

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