Three Stages of Memoir Writing

Let’s face it, writing a memoir takes us on a journey, and during that journey we write from  several levels at once. Many people writing their memoir are learning to write and at the same time are excavating the terrain of memory. This may involve encountering a past that’s still painful or unresolved. Even those who set out to write the humorous stories find out that there are usually other, darker stories underneath some rocks.

When you write a memoir, the journey will change you. There is no way that we can encounter art, the imagination, and our inner psyches without being changed by the experience. And just like any journey, it shifts our perspective on life and on ourselves. You will not be the same person who began the journey.

As poet T. S. Eliot wrote in his wonderful poem “Four Quartets”

You are not the same people who left that station

Or who will arrive at any terminus.

The first Stage: Getting Started and Being In the Flow

When you begin your journey, you’re excited about telling the tales, recounting your memories, and figuring out what happened when. You’re eager to get those scenes on the page, pleased to recall the details of your grandmother’s garden, the vacation that went awry, the time you saw the constellations from on top of a mountain. During this stage, you are “downloading” your memories, getting them out as fast as you can. Those first utterances of your stories will be messy; they will be emotionally raw.

You have to give yourself permission for that messy first draft, which Anne Lamott famously calls the “shitty first draft.” New truths are revealed, we get to know our story and ourselves more, and we begin to see the plot emerge.

The Second Stage: The Muddy Middle

It’s inevitable on your memoir journey that you’ll wind through a labyrinth all the way to the heart of family, to the complex circumstances of your life, to your buried memories and secrets.

You may be tempted to turn away from what you’re encountering, wondering if you should have begun at all. This is a sign that you’re in the muddy middle of your memoir.

In the muddy middle you will discover

  • Body memories, new memories
  • The Shadow, Secrets, Guilt and Shame
  • Inner critic, doubt, and fear  
  • Time bandits
  • Procrastination
  • Your voice, the right to tell your story
  • The True Self that becomes the through emotional line in the story
  • Your creativity
  • Healing and new perspectives

Wow, that’s a treasure trove in there, but you have to keep going to get the rewards!

Stage Three: Top of the Mountain

Now that you’ve made your way through the muddy middle, you can stand back and see the big picture. You can see where you’re going. You have been climbing, meandering, and getting lost on switchbacks, but finally you have reached the mountain top where—voila!—you can see in all directions. You’ve muddled through the middle and gathered many dozens of stories, some positive, some humorous, and even some darker stories, and you’ve learned to respect and listen to your voice.

  • You know many of the stories you want to tell, and you have written at least a first draft.
  • You understand through experience what it means to flip through the memory banks, to confront your truths and memories. You understand the process of writing a memoir more than you did when you set out.
  • The layers of your life and memories are clearer, and you probably have a glimpse of the later stages of the memoir.
  • You have been learning how to write—the ways that language works, how sentences and paragraphs build into chapters.
  • You have been building your strengths and insights that will help you come to the end of the memoir.
  • Issues like plot, scene, and structure are no longer abstract. You have working tools that will help you to complete the project.
  • You have encountered memories you had forgotten, and have found out more about yourself through writing your memoir.


If you are inspired to get back to writing your memoir—think back to school! Fall courses on kick starting your  memoir and getting through the Muddy Middle are offered in partnership with Brooke Warner. Each call is one hour long, and includes lessons, handouts, discussion, and questions. Sign up at this link:

 Course 1. Starting Your Memoir Journey Now Wednesdays, 4 PM PST/7 PM EST (September 5, 12, 19, 26)

Course 2. You’re in the Muddy Middle—Now What? Mondays, 4 PM PST/7 PM EST (October 15, 22, 29, & November 5)

Cost: $99.00 for regular registration and $89.00 for NAMW members

6 Month Memoir Intensive

If you want support, how-to lessons, a community of other memoir writers, and accountability, join the 6 month coaching course Write Your Memoir In Six Months. Brooke Warner and I have room for a few more people to this complete plan to get your memoir written in six months. We begin in January, 2013. Only $100 secures your place in the course!

Remember, it takes courage to write a memoir, but even more it takes structure, committment, and community. Stay tuned for more about the resources that help you get your memoir written and published!