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!


Weaving Family History into Your Memoir


I’m lying in a feather bed in an upstairs bedroom with my great-grandmother, Blanche. Lights from the highway sweep across the angled ceiling above the bed as she begins to whisper the stories of her life, her teeth in a jar by the bed. I’m eight and she’s eighty and it’s the first time I’ve met her. She’s my grandmother’s mother–I live with Gram since my parents have not been able to take care of me. My mother left when I was four, and today, I find out there is a huge family I’m related to–Gram’s brothers and sisters in Iowa, friendly folk who smile and pat me on the back, surrounding me with a web of family.

Born  three years before Custer’s Last Stand, Blanche begins to tell me the stories of her life in the mid-19th century. She was the first of six children, doing the back-breaking work of farm women–raising gardens and children, canning and baking, serving the farm hands, washing clothes in a pot in the yard.

“I delivered the babies too, and I’ll never fergit”–she says it like that–“the first time I heard a voice over a telephone. I cried. And the radio–the first time…” her voice dims while she stirs her memories. I prod her to go on, trying to understand who she is, and where we came from. “You’re Gram’s mama? Did you know my Mama?”

“Lands sake, girl. I’m Lulu’s Mama, all right. I knew your Mama–Jo’tine we called her–when  she was a little girl, sweet thing she was.” I think about my beautiful mother I miss so much, her dark eyes and pretty face, but sometimes she doesn’t seem to see me. “Lulu’s Papa, Louis was his name–we got married on a snowy New Year’s Day, 1894, and two months later he died of pneumonia.”

I could see it–the snowy day, the squeak of saddle leather on the horses, the crunch of hooves, Blanche’s face smooth and young, as I try to imagine the woman I know as my grandmother being a little baby. There is so much to know.

“It was all so long ago. We worked hard, we women was midwives to each other, and there was all the cannin’ and the bakin.’ Sweatin’ at the cook stove. Things was different then. Land sakes.”

In the silence I realize she’s the mother of the mother of the mother, and knows everything. I have to find out what she knows–why did my mother leave me and why did my grandmother leave my mother? I want to understand the birthing of babies and the canning in the summer and how you light a fire in the wood cook stove.

Blanche seared into me a curiosity about the past. Knowing the past held some kind of magic, in the past was answers that could explain and even change the present. Over the years, I pursued my family story, searching in libraries and dusty courthouses for documents that proved the stories to be true–or not. I spent seven years, an hour each year, trying to track my mother’s childhood through old newspaper snippets where the family name was mentioned. I wanted to get to know her story, so I could understand my own.

Our history is alive in us, it is part of us–our blood, our cells, and the silent, secret history that has shaped the family and each person in it. When we unlock these stories, we release knowledge and wisdom, the gifts and transformation that wait for us to discover them.


PS Blanche is holding the car tire in the photo, and my mother is the little girl in the center.

I’m going to speak with Dan Curtis of the Association of Personal Historians Friday, June 15 at 11 AM. Join me there for a rich conversation!

Blog Tour: Dawn Novotny and her book Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe


I’m so jazzed that I’m over at the National Association of Memoir Writers today to host my friend, former student and brave writer Dawn Novotny to celebrate her book Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe. I was with her during the birth pangs of her stories, which at the time she had no intention of putting into a book–but now, she’s an author.

This is what can happen when you’re just writing to heal, and writing to learn how to write–you might find yourself an author!

Dawn has said many times, “I just wanted to learn about verb tenses. I didn’t really know what I was getting into!” Dawn’s journey from new writer to brave writer to author will inspire you, as it did me and the other members of our workshop. For three years, Dawn worked hard to get out some very painful stories, one by one, and then learned how to edit and develop the stories. I’m pleased for her that she was so determined to not only heal, but then to put a book together. As you will learn in her book, she goes from being “nobody” to being the wife of Joey DiMaggio, plunged into the world of the rich and famous where she finds out about other aspects of Marilyn Monroe than what was published in the press. From there her life takes downward spirals and upward transcendence as she develops into a whole person, and eventually a gifted therapist. Dawn draws parallels between Marilyn, who was also a lost, abused, and discarded child and herself, and many other girls who were abused and confused by parental dysfunction, sexual abuse, and the demands on a girl/woman by society in the 1950s.

Join us over at the National Association of Memoir Writers to visit Dawn’s blog post today. Leave a comment and join the conversation!

Dawn D Novotny, author of Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing Up In the Shadow Of Marilyn Monroe, is a clinician, teacher, author, spiritual director and national workshop leader. She writes a weekly blog @ and her website is



Journaling Your Way to a Memoir


My first diary was a 6×6 inch leather bound book with a lock and key. I only wrote brief code-like entries. The rules in my house were that I could have no privacy, so I played it safe and didn’t record my truths, but sentences and phrases that reminded me of my memories. Years later, diary and journal writers like Virginia Woolf, Anais Nin, and May Sarton showed me that writing personal stories could invite the reader into musings and intimacies that helped me learn about my own life and showed me new ways to live.

Do you keep a journal? What do you write in it? Is it a place to download your memories, or try out writing ideas? Do you draw, doodle, or vent? Is it a legacy keeper or a way to gather ideas for your memoir?

 I got over my shyness with journals, and I, like many people, have dusty boxes filled with journals. For years, I didn’t look at them, but sometimes I do, which is a mixed blessing when I see the same themes over and over again! But I also see that the basic bones of my memoir appear again and again in my journals. The first drafts of every chapter in my memoir were born in my journals. The pages are torn and stained, a testimony to my efforts to write my memoir over the years.

Writing in a journal means that we can freely write, we have invited our writing to flow without thinking of the critics whispering in our ears because we’re not “really writing.” We are journaling, spending time in the private creative space of our minds, weaving imagination and memory.

I’m looking forward to my monthly teleseminar at the National Association of Memoir Writers on May 18th with journaling expert  and writer Amber Lea Starfire. Her book Week by Week—A Year’s Worth of Journaling Prompts and Meditations is a wonderful collection of ideas, themes, and writing prompts that will chase away any writer’s block—and inspire a new relationship with your journal. The book will inspire you to investigate memories that you may have forgotten, and lead you to new ways to make the connections in your heart and mind to write more–and better.

We are going to talk about the many ways you can use your journal to enhance your memoir writing—and help you get to “The End” sooner! We all know what a journey it is to write a memoir.

Where are you on your memoir journey?

What books have inspired you the most as you continue to write?

Tell us about your journaling history–do you have boxes and stack of journals?

Three Memoir Writing Tips to get your Book in Your Hands — and a Teleseminar with Marion Roach Smith


If you have been writing your memoir for a while, you know that it takes time, patience, and a workable process to get you to “The End.” And even that is just the beginning—of another round of rewrites, edits, and proofs until you hold your book in your hands.

I’m intrigued by what Marion Roach Smith says about all this in her book The Memoir Project, and I’m so pleased that she’s our guest at the April 27 Member Teleseminar at the National Association of Memoir Writers.

1. Marion has a unique approach: don’t do writing exercises—just write! I have mused about why this approach might be helpful, and at first I was surprised at the idea. We all write “for practice,” don’t we? We have our writing practice, our morning pages, and our journal. We steadfastly write the exercises in some of the writing books we love. But Marion makes a good point—many writers take SO long to get a piece or a book or even a blog post completed. Are they using that “magic juice” of creativity that we all have—measured out in spoons sometimes and other lucky times it’s a flood—while the project doesn’t get done?

I can understand what she’s saying: when I focus on a particular piece to complete, my writing process is different than if I’m musing, or doing less focused writing. We will talk about all this and more during the member teleseminar. The lesson here is: write your project, and focus.

2.  I work with many people who run into tangles— the emotional kind rather than craft—when writing a memoir. All manner of “visitors” show up—from the inner critic, with its demeaning comments, to the outer critic clamoring with the (imagined) voices of family, to conflicts about truth and memory. The solution: keep a writing journal that will help you work through these tangles. My friend and colleague Amber Starfire is going to speak to us at our May 18 Teleseminar at NAMW about Journaling your Memoir—a technique that also focuses you to get your memoir done. Amber has many tips and prompts on her website Writing Through Life. Be sure to join us for both of these terrific teleseminars!

3. Share your work with other writers, take classes and workshops, and read, read, read to develop your craft. Every book can teach you more about writing. Read Sharon Lippincott’s post on the NAMW website on this topic A Great Writing Class for Free. Check out some of the recommend books on the National Association of Memoir Writers website.

Do writing exercises seem to help you, or do they feel like just practicing writing your book instead of ACTUALLY writing it?

When do you write in your journal–and is it ever about your book project, or just downloading your feelings about something. There are no rules for journal writing, so we often can feel more creative and free there.

What is your deadline for having your manuscript done? For having your book in your hands?

 Learn more about the Memoir Teleseminar here.


Marion Roach Smith Author of The Memoir Project