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!
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.
See you on Facebook and I’m @memoirguru on Twitter!
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
- 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: http://writeyourbookinsixmonths.com/1-month-intros
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!