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.

Memoir: Journey of Truth, Craft, and Commitment


Memoir writing is really hot news day today on the internet, which makes me very happy! Writing well is a journey, and we need our mentors, guides, and wise wizards to guide us.  Every day there is something new to learn, and wisdom bits from writers that spur us on our way.

Today in “Pubmission,” a blog on the writing life and publishing innovations, Dinty Moore, one of our guests at the National Association of Memoir Writers free all day conference, talks about the journey to become a writer and how publishing on the internet has changed the writer’s focus. He is the editor-in-chief of the online magazine Brevity– a “journal of concise literary nonfiction”—which accepts works of up to 750 words.

Dinty guides students at the University of Ohio through the process of learning how to write, how to find their voice and learn to craft their work. He tells the interviewer at Pubmission Megan Lobsinger, one of his former students, that he urges his students to spend 90% of their time perfecting their writing and 10% on publishing concerns. Rightly so—the craft of writing is its own long term project, a lifelong learning that weaves tapestries of art, memory, creativity, and even frustration with the craft itself. It’s a process, a journey.

Dinty says, “I try to urge my writers to obsess about the craft of writing: how does the engine of narrative work? Writing is an art form, and thus some part of it remains a glorious mystery, but at the same time, there is much to be learned from trial and error, and much to be learned from careful consideration of the choices other writers have made.”

Having read two of Dinty Moore’s books—Between Panic and Desire, and The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, I want to tell everyone that we are in for a treat at the NAMW tele-conference. I look forward to speaking directly with Dinty on the subject of art, craft, memoir, and truth.

Please join me for a great day learning about how to write truth, whether it’s in memoir or fiction. When you sign up for the free Telesummit, you will receive an audio of the whole day’s presentations, which include Robin Hemley, Jennifer Lauck and a panel of young memoirists. Tell your friends!

 Sing up here to receive the day long conference and free audios!