The Psychological Journey of Memoir Writing
When we begin a journey, we’re excited. We pack our suitcase, imagining the moments to come. The thrill of our destination courses through us, spurring us on. We begin with high hopes for what we’ll encounter.
Recently, I went to France—first to Paris, then Lyon and the southern mountains where Cezanne and Van Gogh used to paint. It was of course a wonderful trip—the vision of the Eiffel Tower even better than my imagination, but there were challenges—the suitcase was too heavy to lift up stairs, the Metro was stuffed with TONS of people, and I got lost hundreds of times on tiny country lanes. There were moments of being exhausted, and others of being exhilarated. But the images I had when I packed my suitcase changed. The real journey was different, and it changed me.
So it is when we write a memoir. We begin putting in our suitcase the memories, people and events that we are eager to celebrate and remember. Even if our story is a dark one, we have a handle on it, we’ve been journaling and we know the basics of the story. We launch into our writing eagerly, capturing images and moments, freely writing, remembering and even doing research. We even feel brave enough to tell people we’re writing a book!
Then something happens. The doubts creep in, “I’m not sure what I wrote is the real truth. My sister says I made things up.” Or, “Gee, I don’t want to reveal x and y and z. It’s too personal. I don’t want people knowing all these things about me.” Or you read a bunch of other memoirs and realize that you can’t write all that well, you feel that it’s really too big a job, this memoir project. You decide to put it away for a while.
There’s another scenario: You’re starting 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 are stuck in the middle of your book, you feel conflicted. You put the project away.
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. There are three major stages in writing a memoir. The first is the eager beginning, “downloading” as Jennifer Lauck calls it. Then the muddy middle, where themes, stories, and memories begin to build up into a larger story, one that you don’t have control of. The muddy middle is the biggest part of the journey, by the way.
The later stage is where you have found your stride, the journey has changed you, and you are grateful for the riches. It is not the same journey you imagined. You are different. The muddy middle becomes your teacher, your mentor. As Dr. James Pennebaker says, “Story is a way of knowledge.”
Some tips for your trip:
1. Accept that writing your memoir is a longer journey than you imagined. Be patient.
2. Take good care of yourself on the journey. Rest, set a schedule, make a map.
3. Allow the writing process to guide you, allow in the unwanted stories, images, and memories. They have something to teach you.
4. Trust in your creative muse, the excitement you felt when you began your journey. Allow it to urge you forward.
5. Invite your unconscious to help you write and remember.
6. Know that you will write the same story over and over again, but in a new way. Know that you will find the muddy middle, that you will get stuck and lost, but keep going.
7. You will find your way out of the muddy middle if you just keep writing!
Learn more about the trip at the National Association of Memoir Writers Telesummit—FREE all day phone conference on October 21. You get the audio of the whole day if you sign up! Learn from the journey of other memoir writers.