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:
- Understand that writing your memoir is a longer journey than you imagined. Be patient.
- Take good care of yourself on the journey. Set a schedule, make a map.
- 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.
- Trust in your creative muse and the excitement you felt when you began your journey. Allow this energy to urge you forward.
- 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!
- Know that you will write the same story repeatedly but it will shape shift, it will evolve with each version.
- 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!
- 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!
- 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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By the time you read these words, the “I” that wrote them will have forgotten
what it was, though the it lingers on, haunting the paper, unheard until you
happen across it and your energy field activates it. –Margaret Atwood
We write into the unknown, we launch ourselves onto tiny rafts of words so lacy and insubstantial that we wonder how it’s possible–how these black dots on paper hold the most important moments of our lives. Can words truly free us from some of the prisons we have been locked into? I have seen this happen countless times in my memoir writing workshops—the writer is surprised at how powerful her words are to unlock, to open, and to heal.
If you have been writing or journaling, you know that words can lead you out of darkness and help you to find the light. People in workshops talk about this all the time, but even though our identity and our tools for self-expression are words, at times we are at a loss to express how words can help us feel better. It seems like magic sometimes. We write into that unknown, especially when we are journaling, not knowing where we will end up. Story writing is a little different, though it too is open ended and magical.
Story as a Way of Knowledge
A story, in contrast to journaling, invites us to put events into a time frame and make choices. A story has a structure—a beginning, middle and an end that you choose and construct out of your fragments of dream and memory. Creative people—poets, painters, musicians, and writers enter into a kind of reflective dream, written about beautifully by John Gardner in The Art of Fiction. A story writer selects words that convey feeling, action, and reflection, bringing the lived moment alive to the reader. Writing creates a new experience with what had been chaotic. I like to say that story writing, including memoir, personal stories, and even fictional writing, is a “Way of Knowledge.”
Through story, you can learn about the self, about the narrator, the characters, the actions taken and the theme and outcome of the story. This creates a new world on the page and in the heart of the writer. What was perceived as “reality” before writing the story is changed by the act of writing.
Dr. James Pennebaker, who did the major research on writing as healing, points out that once we write a story, we no longer remember what “really” happened—we remember the story of what happened. The story inhabits us, and we are different as a result. Our imagination and the art of the story have created a new reality.
Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.
There are some openings in my online tele-workshops at the National Association of Memoir Writers for the spring session. Tuesday session begins March 27, 3 PM PDT. Monday begins April 2 at 1 PM PDT.
- Think about one of your favorite family stories–would you like to develop it further?
- What time frame have you covered in your early vignettes? Place them on the timeline to get a visual image of the quilt of your memoir.
- Character sketches: Choose some of the people you have written about in your memoir, and create a more complete scene with them. Learning about scene writing is an ongoing challenge–but rewarding. Scenes are how you bring your world to life.
- Do you struggle with writing your truths, the right to write your stories? Support and community can help you move forward with more confidence.
- Learn about quilting your vignettes into a larger work.
- Does your inner critic bother you? Learn new techniques to help silence the inner critic.
- Write about the landscapes and places that are part of your soul.
- Editing: We teach you gently how to become your own editor.
- Revision—means “seeing again.” Writing means revision, an important skill as you grow as a writer.
- Organization: we will discuss how to organize and keep track of your vignettes.
… Linda Joy is an inspirational mentor who truly makes a difference and convinces you to believe in yourself and your story…..She always provides compassionate and meaningful support and expert guidance and direction.
Re-membering through memoir writing patched together important pieces of myself long ago forgotten or abandoned. After several rounds of classes under Linda Joy Myers’ priceless guidance, all of me is finally snuggled well into my body, mind, and spirit. Prior to Linda Joy’s memoir classes, I never would have called myself a writer, Now, I can say with pride and certainty that I am indeed, a writer.
—-Author Dawn Novotny
Writing stories heals body and soul, and is a powerful way to change our perspective about the past. Not only that, it’s a creative way to learn about yourself. Dr. James Pennebaker and Joshua Smith published the first research on writing as a way to heal and recover from past injuries in the Journal of the American Medicine Association in 1999. Pennebaker states that writing stories is even more healing than journaling, and helps to heal asthma, arthritis, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Dr. Pennebaker’s site has a lot of articles about writing, healing, and the benefits of using certain language as a means for healing. Though we all have sensed that writing allows self expression and opens up awareness about our life, the research is a powerful testament to the power of words and story to create change.
For most of us, it’s easy and fun to write good memories, but most people have negative memories that linger and need release–the death of a loved one, depression, illness, or anxieties because of family dysfunction or various kinds of abuse. Society seems to try to get us to forget the past, but traumatic memories do not go away by will power alone, or even years of therapy. The ways we try to escape–through alcohol or addictions, for instance–only makes us more alienated from ourselves. Traumatic images and reactions disappear underground for a time, only to reappear when triggered by an event in current time–often called flashbacks. But these incidents can be healed through writing–and rewriting. Sometimes the same event needs to be written about many times in order to be released.
Traumatic memories are stored in the brain in a different way than regular memories, but research continues to show that writing allows a new kind of processing to occur.
When you integrate the memories into your regular memory, you can move into a present and future renewed and with more energy–the pain of the past is put into perspective–perhaps not forgotten, but no longer seeming like an immediate and current injury.
Writing a story is different from journaling. When we journal, we spill out whatever we are feeling in a random way, and it doesn’t matter how we write it. Writing a story requires that we choose its shape and focus. This structuring and choice about scenes, dialogue, and characters opens up a creative space where writing can work its magic, where something new is created. Where we encounter the unknown. Pennebaker says, “Story is a way of knowledge.” We learn about ourselves throught writing story.
And there’s another exciting aspect to story writing in memoir: you are both the narrator and a “character” in the story. The narrator choosing what to write as an objective observer helps us to witness our younger self, and reveals a new perspective on the past. We weave a new place in the “now.”
In my book The Power of Memoir, I present an 8 step pathway to write a memoir–from researching your past to character studies, using turning points and the timeline to sort through your memories, and techniques of story structure. The research by Pennebaker and others is presented–and it’s quite exciting stuff. Writing really does help to heal physically–several writers I know with arthritis have improved functioning after writing for a few months, telling their truths, freeing themselves from the past.
The upcoming webinar at Writer’s Digest I’ll be offering a whole course in memoir writing in 90 minutes–which includes a recording, the live webinar, Q&A, and free critique. It will include techniques for writing freely and quickly, taming the inner critic, creating the arc of the narrative, writing powerful scenes, and much more.
Tips for writing a memoir:
- Make a list of the ten most important turning points in your life. Then choose a story from each one and write a new story each week.
- Write a list of the critic voices –either your inner critic or the voices of family or friends.
- Put the worry-critic list aside and begin writing using the turning point list.
- Capture your stories in vignette form without worrying about chronological order.
- Use photos to spark your memories. Think about what happened before and after each picture and describe the photo in detail.
- Create a sacred-space around you while you are writing. Don’t share your stories with anyone for a while. Protect them as if they were tiny plants in your garden.
- Write in the “I” voice in present tense for maximum intensity and immediacy.
- If you write in the past tense, you can easily move back and forth through time–using reflection as a way to create perspective.
- Think about your themes–asking “what is this about? What important message to I want to share with others?”
- List 5 things a reader will take away when they read your memoir.
- Create a writing schedule –writing 500 words–two pages–per day gives you a whole book in six months.
- Meditate on a mountain pool in France–see the above photograph. Linger in the reflections and start writing!