What You need To Know | Steps To Writing Your Memoir

Jun 19, 2023 | Memoirs

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Memoir Writing: The Nine Things You Need To Know

Ever hear someone say, the failure to plan is planning to fail? There was a time when I used to hate hearing that advice (and, believe me, I ended up hearing it quite a lot). It sounded to me like the kind of helpful hint a so-called expert dispenses with when they don’t really have anything helpful to offer. Let me tell you something though… it is one-hundred percent true. Especially for writers jumping into their first full length book project. Instead of simply saying, be prepared and just leaving it at that, I’m going to let you in on a few key steps to writing your memoir.

Does that sound ambitious? Maybe so. Think of it this way though. The entire endeavor of writing a book, top to bottom, is already quite ambitious. For me to say that I have the steps you need to start writing your memoir sounds, well, a little outrageous. 

What I’m going to discuss here isn’t foolproof. There is no formula. It’s not the cure all to the “how to get started” blues. I do believe that if you follow these, and give yourself some grace, then these steps to writing your memoir will serve as a helpful, perhaps transformative, guide. 

The Steps To Writing Your Memoir

Step #1: Make A Plan

There is that word again. Plan. When it comes to a memoir, let’s talk about what a plan means.

There is a lot of debate in the writing community between plotters and pantsers. The latter of those terms, if you didn’t guess, refers to people who fly by the seat of their pants. Some writers understand that they require a step by step outline to write a book, while others are comfortable sitting down at the keyboard and seeing what happens. Which one are you?

Maybe you are someone that can write a whole book at the drop of a hat. You may be, but more than likely, especially if you’re new to the craft, you will need an idea of where you’re going to start.

Does this mean an outline? Maybe. For most writers, starting the writing process by formulating an outline is the right thing to do. If you’ve never written before, I would heavily advise you to err on the side of caution at this stage. Create a plan. Decide what’s going into your memoir by picking the parts of your life that you want to highlight, the relationships that have meaning. 

Maybe you don’t exactly know the order yet. Maybe you’re foggy on the overall structure. But having a plan for what you’re going to tackle and how should be one of the first steps to writing your memoir. 

erick mertz writing, portland oregon

Step #2: Preparation Feeds Inspiration

I think it’s natural to idealize the inspiration part of writing. The magical moment when you’re sitting at the keyboard and the lightning bolt of ideas strikes you. Moments ago, you were sitting there, unsure where you were going. Then, the next thing you know, the words are pouring off of your fingertips, forging this new and exciting direction in your manuscript. 

Sounds great, right? These are the moments when being a writer feels really good.

The reality is that these moments are both real and the product of a lot of preparation. For most writers, the lightning bolts of inspiration come when they’ve laid the groundwork.

I’ve already talked about the outline part. It’s important to know where you’re going in the actual writing. Even bigger than that though, I think it’s equally important to be in the right place at the right time to capture that little bit of magic. I’m talking about presence.

One of the key steps to writing your memoir is creating the habit. Discipline creates opportunity. I write every day from 8-11, or, on most days, noon. That habit, being in the same place almost every single day (I do take breaks) ready to write, opens me for inspiration. 

I’m there. At the desk. Ready. Come on inspiration. 

At first it may be hard, family and work schedules conspiring to take away your precious writing time, but if you’re intentional, really giving yourself the time, make a habit of writing, you’ll find that the inspiration follows naturally. Start with an hour. Maybe two. Then work from there. 

Step #3: steps to writing your memoir: Start Writing

Of course this is the next of the many steps to writing your memoir, right? Once you have an idea where you’re going in the story and have created the space in your world, you need to start writing.

I’m not being glib. It’s actually a critical step, one to take seriously.

Some of the best writing advice I was ever given was some of the simplest: write the best story you can and tell your interior editor, the one who demands perfection, to get out of the way. It’s impossible to make any headway, and improve as a writer, if you’re too critical at the outset.

Easier said than done, I know. But it is vitally important.

Write your outline. Carve out regular time to write. Then do it. Your first draft isn’t going to be anywhere near perfect. It may be good, but perfect? No. The key to writing a good finished draft is getting through the first one first and then, when the dust settles, looking at it critically.

Shut that internal critic down until you’re done. Until then, he or she is of no use to you.   

steps to writing your memoir

H2: What To Do If You Get Stuck…

I have just laid out for you what I think are the most important mindset steps to writing your first memoir. In order to accurately, and artfully, capture the moments in your life in a compelling way, you need to have a plan, be organized, and foster the habit of writing. Then do it.

What do you do if that doesn’t work? 

Don’t take me for a negative type. The more accurate way to describe this possibility is when that doesn’t work. Writing is hard. Even for professionals. 

Even if you make a plan, organize your tools and materials, and forge the time and space to write, there will be days where you’re simply not able. You’ll try to start writing and nothing comes. You’ll look at a particular point you thought made sense and realize it doesn’t.

I listed three steps to writing your memoir above, but I left out the fourth and most important…

Step #4: When You Rewrite Be Good To Yourself

That’s right. If you’re going to write a memoir, you need to be good to yourself. Understand that on the days you sit down to write, and nothing comes, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It doesn’t mean your story isn’t worthy. If your outline, what seemed perfect before, doesn’t pan out, it doesn’t mean the whole concept is flawed. If you have to carve out a doctor’s appointment from your writing time, guess what, it happens. 

I know a lot of professional writers. None of them have everything figured out. There is no way to safeguard yourself against life’s many imperfections. 

Congratulate yourself for finishing. After you’ve taken some time away from your writing project, you’re ready to review it, to start figuring out what works… and what doesn’t. 

You will need to make changes. This is a certainty. Draft one is never ready. If you have to make changes, rewriting is one of the inevitable steps to writing your memoir, be good to yourself.