JOM high res

The Three Stages of Memoir Writing

Through teaching memoir writing over two decades, and from writing my own books, I have found that there are several stages that writers go through as they write their memoir. I have broken these down into three stages, and each of them has their own challenges and skillsets. Each stage has subsets, side roads, and tangled skeins that you can easily get lost in if you don’t have a roadmap. We’ll examine psychological barriers, sources of inspiration, forks in the road, and what to look out for—all with an eye on getting you to “The End.”

The three stages are:

1. Kick-Starting. This is the beginning stage, the first stage where you are beginning to learn what your story is trying to become. You discover the significant moments that create the spine of your memoir. You clarify your themes and freewrite your memories. You learn about sorting through themes and topics, character development, and how to sketch an outline for the rest of your book. In this stage you get acquainted with what a memoir requires of you and what it will give back.

2. The Muddy Middle. In this stage you start to question why you are writing a memoir. Self-doubt and the inner critic start whispering in your ear, and yet you’re also learning a lot—about yourself, the past, and the kind of structure and story line your memoir needs. Doubts that have to do with the memory, family, and truth come up at this time. You learn how to affirm yourself and your writing. You learn to find the structure that your memoir needs during this stage, and how to write your way to the end of a first draft. This stage is long, exciting, tiring, and exhilarating. It’s a ride that gets you to “The End.”

3. Birthing Your Book. This is the later phase of writing your memoir, the home stretch. By now, you know your story, and you have solved many of the problems of plot, memory, and you’ve made your way through various bouts of self-doubt. Your story has helped to teach you the focus of your work and you have learned many writing skills by this stage. You have a clear sense of what you are writing about. You are past the Muddy Middle. You can see “The End” looming. You are celebrating, and you are beginning to think about editing, building a platform, and you’re continuing to read memoirs that feed your learning curve. You learn to become your own editor in the revision process, which is a part of this stage, and you’re in the process of deciding how you want to have your book published.