Thursday, September 12, 2013

Writing your memoir “one sentence, one paragraph, and one vignette at a time”

If you’re writing a memoir, you know the process can be mysterious and intimidating. My advice? Tell yourself you’re only writing a rough draftfor your eyes only—and then keep writing.

“Write with the door closed,” suggests Stephen King. “Your stuff starts out being just for you.…” (On Writing)

“The first draft is the child’s draft,” writes Anne Lamott, “where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and you can fix it up later.…” (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life) 

“Small steps are better than no steps,” says Victoria Costello.

“Writing memoir might be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do.… Feeling overwhelmed comes with the territory.… When you feel that sinking feeling, remember that a memoir is simply a string of personal vignettes. Take small steps and focus on finishing one sentence, one paragraph, and one vignette at a time. Worry about threading the story together later. (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Memoir; emphasis mine) 

Yes, eventually you will fix up your rough draft: you will revise, reorganize, and rewrite. Every writer does. It’s not punishment.  It’s polishing and shining and clarifying for the sake of your readers.

For now, don’t worry about polishing. Just take the small steps, “one sentence, one paragraph, and one vignette at a time.”

Related posts:


  1. That is GREAT ADVICE: to write a rough draft for your eyes only. I'm trying to blog twice a week now and find it challenging, but just slopping a rough draft out on the page really helps. It's so much easier to go back and polish later.

  2. Hi, Besty, I agree, it's easier to at least get started, even if the piece is awkward and in need of help, eventually. We live in an era when it's so easy to make changes on our manuscripts, thanks to computers. I remember the days when we used typewriters and carbon paper, and if we made one minor change, we had to type the entire page all over again! I'm enjoying your new blog. Nice work!


  3. What wonderful advice! I've been mulling writing some type of memoir or a collection of short memoir type essays, something that could bring hope and encouragement and laughter to others facing tough times. But every time I sit down to outline ideas I get overwhelmed by trying to organize and plan--just as you described. I just love the ideas you've presented. The part of your post about taking one step at a time, one paragraph, one sentence, reminded me of that old movie "What About Bob?" where the main character follows his therapist's advice and goes around repeating to himself "Baby Steps, Baby Steps!" I'm going to print a copy of this post, put it on my desk and start writing next week. I don't know where I'll end up, but at least I can have the satisfaction of saying I tried it finally! :-) THANK YOU.

  4. Cathy, yes! Start writing! You'll be pleasantly surprised that if you write even a few sentences about a couple of special stories that come to mind, you will have started your memoir. "Baby Steps, baby steps," yes. I hope the additional links I gave at the bottom of the post might encourage you, too. Keep at it. Someone (probably a number of someones) need to read your story. I want to read it too. :)


  5. I believe in letting myself feel free to be messy. Just put it all out there...for my eyes only! :) Terrific post, thanks.

    1. Hi, Loren, thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. I see you and I are kindred spirits--we both believe stories are important. Are you on Facebook? I'd enjoy being a Follower. I hope other readers here will also check out your website.