Of all the nonfiction book formats, memoir seems the one that stalls writers in the middle the most often. That’s not a good thing when you are trying to write a memoir in 30 days. So I asked my colleague Linda Joy Myers, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers and author of The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story, to offer advice on how to keep your memoir motor running smoothly and in high gear all month long. NA
Writing a memoir is a challenge, of both heart and craft. Most memoirists start off excited and write a lot to get their memoir on the page. Then they run into problems that can silence them, slow them down, or make them give up the project. All these things can be dealt with if you know what you might expect as you get deeper into your book.
Writing a memoir is a journey, with sign posts, way stations, and side roads along the way. The side roads may take you in a direction you’d rather avoid, though sometimes they lead you to unexpected and useful experiences and places. If you want to write your memoir quickly, it’s important to know what detours to look out for and what tools and tricks you can use to keep your writing on track.
Writing a memoir is a creative effort as well as a project that you want to complete. Even if we feel shy or as if we’re revealing “too much” in a memoir, we want to be witnessed and seen; we want to share our story. After all, a memoir is not a journal; it’s a story, or a series of stories that have a point, a message, and a lesson for others. To get the writing done, it helps to have goals, and they come in different forms.
Let’s look at how much writing you could get done in one month—30 days. I’m co-teaching a course with Brooke Warner, Write Your Memoir in Six Months, and we divided up the word count over a six month period, coming up with 333 words per day, not even two pages, to reach 60,000 words in six months. That’s not much writing per day, so let’s look at how you can reach a larger word count over 30 days.
For instance, 1,000 words a day—about 4 pages—will give you 30,000 words by the end of the month. That’s ½ of 60,000-word book. That could be your challenge this month at Write Nonfiction in November! If that’s not possible, set a goal that’s realistic, yet pushes you a bit. If you write 500 words a day, in 30 days you’ll have 15,000 words—a very respectable amount of work. 500 words=2 double spaced pages. Write down your writing goals for each day and put it on your wall.
Inspiration and Motivation
Staying inspired over the long term of writing a book, or even completing a shorter essay or story, is like refilling a well. We need to fill and refill our creative well so we can draw from it as we go, even when we don’t feel like writing, even when the going gets tough. Make a list of things, books, people, and quotations that inspire and motivate you, and hang it on your wall. Use the list when you feel your well is running dry.
Make a list of why you want to write your memoir: for your family as a legacy, healing the past, creating again on the page a time and place that had deep meaning to you, the enjoyment of remembering and savoring the times of your life that you value, tracking your growth and development, capturing the lives and character styles of people whom you loved and admired, and sharing them with the world. Make a list of the reasons you’re writing your stories, your memoir, or personal essays. Put it on your wall.
Being highly motivated to write can help you sit down and freewrite your memories, the places you lived, the people who were important to you, moments of insight and change. Some people write a whole book without having a structure or plan, and often this can be healing and helpful on an emotional level. But if the emotion isn’t “up” for them, or if motivation falls away, not much writing gets done and the project falls by the wayside.
Outlining your chapters—what’s going in each one, the topic of the chapter—the reason it’s there—and the takeaway or message it delivers your reader is a way to shortcut your frustration with the process. You need to redefine “outline,” so it’s not your junior high English teacher poking at you to do one of those boring outlines. Think of it as a list, a guide, and a way to keep track of your thoughts and ideas. Write down a list of the 20 main points, memories, or significant moments in your memoir as a way to get started organizing your memoir.
Inner and Outer Critics
The inner critic tells us our writing sucks, that we’re stupid, or that our work is boring. The outer critics are the voices of society and family, shame and doubt. They say things like, “Your grandmother will roll over in her grave if you say that,” “Don’t air the family’s dirty laundry,” or “If you publish those secrets, we’ll disown you.”
The best way to dismiss these critics is to face them directly. Write down what your critics say, and answer back each accusation with an affirmation: “This is my story, and I’m going to write the first draft, and then I’ll decide what to publish.” “I’m writing my truth, and I’m sticking to it no matter what.” “I write well enough to get down my first draft. Then I can hire an editor to sharpen my writing.” Put these critics on paper and list your affirmations and put it beside you on your desk. Add to the inner critic statements as you notice them coming up when you write.
I borrow this term from Brooke Warner because I think it’s perfect. These are all the things you do that eat up your time, and often you’re tempted to do them because of a “nice” inner critic. “Oh, you work so hard, just sit down with the family and watch a movie.” Or, “Writing won’t bring you any income, and you’ve already worked 40 hours this week. It doesn’t really matter if you write tonight. Pour a glass of wine and relax.” List your time bandits—how you fritter away your writing time, the things you do that can be changed. Keep track of these on your calendar, and change your habits.
Getting to “The End”
The best way to write a memoir is to combine planning with freewriting and working to keep out the distracting influences such as the inner critics and time bandits. Structuring your time and working out the messages and themes in your memoir are the best ways to find success!
About the Author
Linda Joy Myers, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, and co-president of the Women’s National Book Association, San Francisco, is the author of The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story, the prize-winning memoir Don’t Call Me Mother: Breaking the Chain of Mother-Daughter Abandonment, and a new workbook The Journey of Memoir: The Three Stages of Memoir Writing. She co-teaches the program Write your Memoir in Six Months with Brooke Warner. She coaches writers, and offers teleseminars and workshops nationally. Linda has won prizes for fiction, memoir and poetry: First Prize, Jessamyn West Fiction Contest; Finalist, San Francisco Writing Contest for Secret Music, a novel about the Kindertransport; First Prize, poetry, East of Eden Contest, and for memoir writing First Prize Carol Landauer Life Writing Contest. She gives workshops nationally, through NAMW, Story Circle, and the Therapeutic Writing Institute, and helps people capture their stories through coaching, editing, and online workshops. www.namw.org. Blog: http://memoriesandmemoirs.com
Note: This post is part of the 2012 Write Nonfiction in November (WNFIN) challenge, which takes place during National Nonfiction Writing Month (NaNonFiWriMo). You can find out more at www.writenonfictioninnovember.com. To participate in the challenge, simply “sign in” by commenting and leaving a description of the nonfiction project you'll be completing during November. Come back and report in if on the status updates page, and comment on the various blog posts or on the WNFIN Facebook page.