Stages of Memoir-Writing

39809046 - the text what's your story appearing behind torn brown paper.

Most of us aren’t famous for anything, except perhaps among our immediate family. In our Third 30, many of us want to write and reflect on past memories and experiences, especially in January when we face the New Year with the imagery (or mirage) of a fresh start. It’s a personal therapeutic journey. Writing memoir is a lot like organizing those boxes of photos all jumbled together in the top shelf of the closet. You begin to sort out the memories, like photos, organize them, interpret them, make some sense out of them, preserve them for posterity.

Many of us turn to professionals for assistance with this process. I’ve done the same many times. I find in most of these undertakings, that the leaders of the workshop or retreat or class have assumptions about why everyone is there — assumptions about why we “should” write and what our objectives might be. Sometimes I feel like the leaders of the sessions might think that if the objective is not to publish, then you are wasting their time. People have different reasons for writing memoir, and I think it’s important for people leading writing groups to understand and accept that objectives vary, and that the objectives can change over time.

Here is my understanding of the stages we go through as we sort memories…. (and photos…) and write about our past experiences:

  1. You decide you want to write about your life, but mainly just for yourself  — an exercise in self-reflection. You begin writing a few pieces… birth, childhood, school experiences, first job, first heartbreak… you write irregularly.
  2. You find you don’t write as often as you’d like, so you join a writing group. You meet once a week or so, and find yourself writing more often. Progress is made on writing many small pieces about your life. You begin to share some of those pieces with family and friends. Some actually read the pieces and like them. You feel encouraged.
  3. Some years later, you realize you have a couple hundred pages of text (about 300 words per page). You decide to organize the small pieces into a bookYou print it out, make copies, take the copies to Kinko’s for binding, and give them to some of your family members who have requested The Book. You feel “finished” with the memoir. But you keep writing because the group is fun and you have a few more things you’d like to write about your past. And anyway, some of the dicier pieces you did not include in the book. You feel you understand yourself a bit better.
  4. You take some writing classes and workshops and decide you might want to find your theme and try to publish The Book. Time goes by. A ton of rewriting and editing happens. You work with someone to move in the direction of publishing. The Book is published. Now you are really finished with it.
  5. Oprah picks up your book. You have to do a book tour; learn how to speak in public. Your book is optioned for a movie starring someone who does not look remotely like you did when you were young. You figure the movie is going nowhere because there’s no sex, booze, or drugs. However…
  6. Something about the movie wins an Oscar so you get to attend the Oscar ceremonies! Now, you’re really done! Maybe… you should start on a novel…

Each of these stages can be an objective in writing. Perhaps, even, your objective is to have a “writing life.” Does that mean, to make a living from writing? Good luck with that idea, but some people do just that. Some people also win lotteries. Does having a “writing life” mean you have to make money? What if making money is not the objective? Perhaps just writing is the objective.

Be clear about your objectives as you begin writing, and recognize that you can change your mind over time.


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