The idea that you can get stuck in the “Muddy Middle” of writing your memoir came up in teaching Write Your Memoir in Six Months with Brooke Warner. We were talking about the place where suddenly there’s a lag in energy, where the forward motion of the writing slows to a stop. As soon as I said it, we both laughed with recognition. All writers experience some kind of breakdown/slowdown as part of the writing process, but it’s a challenge to figure out what is happening and how to move forward again. Naming the problem is the beginning of figuring out how to solve it. And it often involves that pesky inner critic.
How do you know you’re in the “Muddy Middle” of your memoir?
You start off with a bang, you’re excited and can’t wait to get to your writing, but suddenly something happens. Your energy level shifts when you have gotten into the story but there is so much more to write—and this might happen as early as chapter 2. Your writing doesn’t feel fun anymore and you’re slogging through each paragraph instead of feeling excited and ready to move forward in your story. Your writing feels like a burden instead of a joy. You start to hear voices of doubt, you worry about how revealing yourself the way you have to in a memoir will affect your life. You stop writing, and worrying takes up a lot more time, as does house cleaning and gardening.
It’s important to maintain a positive mind-set when we write our memoir, which means we have to manage the voices of doubt that start to plague us. Mostly we need to not believe them. As you may have discovered, there’s a powerful psychological element to writing a memoir. We’re exposing ourselves, sharing personal details that have been held as private until we put them on the page. Or try to. To write a memoir, we have to pull open the curtains that reveal subjects and information about ourselves and our family and friends that may never have been talked about before. We are faced with whether we should reveal these previously held secrets, we worry about how much we dare tell the private stories. While we think about all this, we re-arrange the spices and clean out the closet.
Like explorers, we venture into dangerous emotional territory when we write memoir. Beyond this place, there be dragons used to be written on maps to show the edges of the known world. This signifies a boundary of risk and danger. For writers, this is where we encounter protective scouts at these edges who come in the form of your inner critic voices.
Writing a memoir means that your inner critic(s) will inevitably show up. Some of you may have a “mild” inner critic, but others—and I’m one of them—have a deadly shaming inner critic. My critic comes from being criticized a lot when I was younger, and I’ve had to do a lot of work to get it to speak more softly and/or show up less often as I developed my voice as a writer. I had to learn how to separate that voice from the “reality” of what I wanted to write, my truth. My story. To help me not just run away from these scary voices, I’d write down what they said, argue with them, and reclaim my intentions to keep writing no matter how uncomfortable I felt. Each time I practiced writing past my nasty inner critic, I made more room for my own voice.
The inner critic makes you wonder if what you’re writing is important or if anyone will care about your story. The inner critics tells you all the reasons you shouldn’t be wasting your time. Whatever voice hinders your writing is your inner critic. Sometimes it’s nice and teases you to not stress yourself, to sit down and have a glass of wine. “You don’t need to write today,” it says. That may be tempting, but if you are not writing, your seductive inner critic is getting in the way. Many people don’t realize their “nice” inner critic is keeping them from writing—they’re on the lookout for the nasty one.
An aspect of the inner critic voices are what I call the “outer critics.” Those are the very real voices of family, friends—people who may indeed be afraid of what you are writing or critical that you are writing a memoir. These voices whisper, “How dare you write that. Your grandmother will roll over in her grave if you she knew you were sharing things like that. You’re shaming our family.” Or “this was my life too. I don’t want you to write about me.” I am not going to get into the legal and ethical decisions you may have to make before you publish, but in the early stages the voices that try to stop you are your critic. You don’t need to deal with family or being published until you write your book. We suggest that you use the first draft to get everything out, and decide what to share and publish later.
These are the kinds of things that I hear people say who are worrying in the Muddy Middle.
1. I’m afraid of hurting someone I love by writing my truth.
2. I know my xxx—fill in the blanks: ex-husband, friends, siblings, mother—will not agree with what I’m writing.
3. Some of my memories are traumatic—I know my family would be shocked.
Sometimes memoirists are tempted to leave out all the difficult parts, yet they know that the traumas and challenges are part of the core of their story.
Follow this tip: the more you want to leave something out, the more likely it’s something important. You need to write the stories you want to hide—they are calling to you to bring the light of day into the darker places. Writing the truth is a very powerful antidote to shame, to staying small, to hiding.
Here are some “anti-getting-stuck-in-the-muddy-middle tips:
• Write your first draft all the way. Put everything in. If the inner critic voices start, write them down, argue with them, and write what you are tempted to leave out.
• Tell yourself it’s your first draft, that you are practicing having a voice, that you will decide later what to publish. No one’s first draft is their final draft—EVER.
• Give yourself permission to say it all. With permission comes freedom, and the doors of your creativity will open once again.
• It’s important to offer yourself support during these tough writing challenges, and also to reach out to other memoirists. To create a memoir community, or join one. I have started the National Association of Memoir Writers as a way to offer something to memoirists they may not get in “real life.”
The upcoming Magic of Memoir conference in Berkeley October 17-18 is another opportunity to join a community of people who are struggling with their Muddy Middle, Beginnings, Writing the Truth, and all the things that memoir writers go through.
Stand strong with your memories and your stories. Defeat the inner critic, and write all the way to the end!
I’m happy to announce that I’m speaking for Nina Amir’s Nonfiction Writers University March 17, 3 PM PST. I’m focusing on one of the most challenging parts of writing a memoir: the Muddy Middle!
The Muddy Middle—this is where you wrestle with truth, the inner critic, family and how to bring a focus and universal message to your story. Here is where your healing and transformational journey deepens and you find yourself exploring the larger territory of your story and your life.
During this teleseminar, you will learn about these issues:
• You find out that you’re writing a healing memoir after all.
• You’re starting to see new perspectives on the past and how you want to tell the story.
• Truth—you have been wrestling with it alone, and now you’re doing it for a memoir? Yikes.
• Family—what will they say; will they cast you into the darkness?
• The inner critic—what if it’s right?
• The now narrator—you were feeling brave and wanted to share your knowledge about life…but now?
• You make surprising discoveries—that are not so comfortable.
In May, I present the final section of these talks about “The Three Stages of Memoir Writing.” This series is based on my book Journey of Memoir–The Three Stages of Memoir Writing. We’ll be talking about the final stages of writing a memoir: Birthing Your Book—this stage includes developing your platform, and the revision and editing process that leads to you having a book that’s ready to be published and shared with the world. This stage is usually longer than we wish!
Sign up for this FREE event by clicking this link: http://writenonfictionnow.com/landing/nfwu-teleseminars
Writing a memoir is not an act of war, but it can seem that way to our family. When our “truths” are other people’s “lies” that they need to believe, the larger than life stories that are skewed or downright wrong—according to those who look askance at any story that does not agree with their own version. Family members are like slices of a pie, seeing the center through a different lens. It’s a war when families fight over what “really” happened, and this can go on and on, for generations.
Memoirists wrestle with those inner voices, the inner critic, or are they the family voices who are whispering, or yelling, these things:
• You’re writing a memoir! For heaven’s sake, why must you air the dirty family laundry?
• Why are you doing this to us?
• I thought you loved me!
• Your grandmother is going to roll over in her grave if you write that.
• Don’t you dare write any of that while we’re alive!
• You’re a liar!
• Who gave you the right to tell my story?
• We’re gonna sue you if you publish that!
• Secrets are kept for a reason. Don’t you rock the boat.
We can’t stand behind the fictional wall and say, “I made it all up. I know it seems like Aunt Rose and grandma, but really, it’s all fiction.” No, we can’t do that. We have to stand there raw and real, and claim we’re writing the truth to the best of our ability, your honor, as the court wearing its black robes begins to judge us at 9 AM while we are sitting down to write. And it stays there all day as the clocks tick and the dogs demand to be walked and the sun passes across the sky. Our ideas dissolve and we are consumed in guilt and doubt.
There’s the “inner critic” the voices that just come and perch on our shoulder, but most of us have real people in our lives who get fidgety when they find out we’re writing about “their” family, even though they are also “our” family. And we might be writing about them. People get very antsy and nosy and worried when they have a writer in the family, especially a memoir writer, so for goodness sake if you hope to write your story, keep the fact that you’re writing a memoir to yourself! Unless your family lives next door, they won’t find out you wrote your first draft or your fifth one until you tell them. Keep your mouth shut and write write write.
In the meantime, write all those stories about your brother, your parents, your best friend, your first boyfriend, the kid who clocked you who later became a stockbroker. Write about the guy who took advantage of your innocence and use his real name. Write your anger and all the times you wanted to hit someone back but didn’t dare because they were grown-ups and it would only make things worse.
Find your voice, write it all out. Don’t hold back. Break out of your silence. Tell it like it was and if it was ugly, tell it true. It will hurt for a while, but then it will feel better. It has already been hurting you for too long, but first you get all that stuff out and then you shape it to make sense–that is if you want to write your truth all the way without fussing. Most of us think we need to be too polite, as if we are at a fancy tea, to write sweetly and not shock anyone, but that’s not what this is about. You have to shock to break out of the tiny closet where only what is approved of can be written. You have to write the ugly stuff, the blood, sweat and tears, and the beauty will then come more naturally, not wrapped in lace, but in authenticity. It will be real beauty, not something we have to fake to be “nice.”
In other words, Write Your Truth. Protect yourself from gawkers and naysayers. And find your tribe. Memoir writers do something brave every day—they claim their truth.
Upcoming Teleconference to help your memoir writing life--Breaking Silence–Healing Shame and Writing Truth in Memoir
Sponsored by the National Association of Memoir Writers
Presenters: Amy Ferris, co-editor of Dancing at the Shame Prom, Amy Friedman, author Desperado’s Wife, Sue William Silverman, Love Sick, Linda Joy Myers, Don’t Call Me Mother, Brooke Warner, How to Sell Your Memoir
Early bird low price for the Breaking Silence Teleconference–and two bonus eBooks when you sign up!
This conference will address the issues that memoirists deal with constantly–how to find your voice and break the silences that plague our deep writing! Join us for 6 hours of amazing presentations by women who have walked the walk. Free Audio of the whole day when you sign up.
Sign up here for early bird low rate!
40 years of journals–a sample
As you can see in the photo, I have years of journals to draw from as I write my new memoir about transformation in the 60s and 70s! When I wrote Don’t Call Me Mother, I didn’t use journals, as most of what I had to write about happened long before I started journaling. However, there were a few entries about my mother’s death that were helpful–sometimes we don’t want to remember everything! But for most of writing that memoir, I wanted to draw upon memory as my method and context.
Writing now from my more recent past, a time when I underwent major changes and development is different–and I’m finding the journals illuminating–even surprising. So that’s what I was thinking when I was thirty years old! I knew a lot, and I knew nothing. I see that my choice of journals were workaday lined notebooks where I could write messy and fast. What is your favorite style of journal?
Do you like that delicious feeling of holding a brand new journal and a new pen to go with it as you sit down to write? As you hold it, perhaps you imagine what you are going to write and feel the invitation of the paper and the pen. Some people are journaling online now too, which has a certain appeal to, a safe place complete with locked password. But for many of us, there is something seductive and wonderful about cracking up that new journal. Whatever your method, in your journal you’re inviting the words lead you to new places within yourself as you explore your thoughts, feelings, and your life story.
Most of the writers I work with come to memoir writing from having journaled for many years. I remember how some women in my workshops talk about the boxes of journals they’ve hidden in their closets. One woman says, “What will I do if my children find them. Should I shred them now?”
Another one answers, “I want to save my journals so I can draw upon them as I write my memoir.”
Yes, therein lies the dilemma that both journalers and memoir writers have in common: “How do I feel about other people reading my private thoughts and feelings?”
But there is an important difference—we write our journal in an atmosphere of privacy, not for other people to read. In a journal, we write freely, exploring our psyches, digging deep to try to understand ourselves more, seeking peace, transformation, resolution. Sometimes we need to rant, we need to make lists of what we love or hate, we need to write letters that we don’t send, we need to express anger, fear, joy, sorrow, ecstasy, hope. We write to find out what we think, inviting the flow of words to emerge from us in whatever way they wish.
To write a memoir, we need to invite that same kind of free writing at times, to get the juices flowing, but a memoir is written ultimately to be shared with readers. We need to shape our stories, thoughts, and narration so readers can see, hear and feel the world we create on the page. We draw upon fictional tools of description, scenes, character development and sensual details to bring the reader close to our experiences. As memoir writers, we need to learn these tools for creating that world and keep the reader in it. John Gardner calls it “the fictive dream” in his book The Art of Fiction—and the same idea applies to memoir, which reads like a novel—only everything is true!
I advise all my students of memoir writing to dig back into journal writing to keep the flow going, to explore their memories without being self-conscious of the structure and style. In the early stages, your memoir is being assembled, dreamed, quilted together and you need to allow that process to unfold.
This week at the National Association of Memoir Writers member teleseminar, we’re so pleased to speak with a journaling expert Dr. Jackie Swensen. She is going to talk about self-discovery through memoir writing, and bring her considerable skills as a therapist and avid journaler to all of us. Please join us!
In the meantime, keep your journal handy. Or go out and buy a new one! Enjoy filling those empty pages. Now, back to my research in my inky, messy but oh so informative journals!
April 11-13, 2014
Wyndham Hotel, Austin, Texas
I love writing conferences! I’m so excited to return to Austin this year for the 6th time to join in on the Story Circle Memoir Conference.
Stories from the Heart VII brings women from around the country to celebrate our stories and our lives. Through writing, reading, listening, and sharing, you discover how personal narrative is a healing art, how you can gather your memories, how to tell your stories. You can explore difficult or hidden issues and discover different modes and media—art, dance, and drama as a way to tell stories. Register here!
Pre-Conference Workshop, Friday, April 11
The Three Stages of Memoir Writing
Memoir writers need a roadmap to begin, develop, publish their memoir.
We will identify the three stages: Kickstart Your memoir, The Muddy Middle, and Birthing your Book. We will discuss and use the tools you need to get to the end of a first draft.
In Kickstart, we will do timeline and turning point exercises, and learn how to write scenes, the building blocks of story. In the Muddy Middle we will discuss, truth, writing as healing, the inner and outer critic and do exercises. In Birthing Your Memoir, we will talk about editing, revising, and publishing.
The arc of writing, developing, and publishing a memoir will be addressed with practical solutions that really work. We will talk about craft skills you need, and the psychology of writing a full length work. Group discussion and writing exercises to be shared will offer emotional support. You will come away knowing that other writers run into the same challenges, and there solutions.
You will leave with the ability to define the stages where you’re writing, locate the stuck places, and work your way through them. You will leave with two new vignettes, and a timeline that you can keep building.
Register for the Pre-Conference workshop here.