5 Tips to Boost Your Memoir Writing Progress

memoir mindset memoirs productivity Apr 04, 2024
Boost memoir writing progress

Everyone who embarks on a journey to write their memoir inevitably hits a wall. You have a dream of telling a slice of your life story, but you meet resistance—a too-full calendar, kids who need your full-time attention, a day job that saps your energy and leaves you too tired to write your tale. We've all been there.

Here are five ways to proactively meet these obstacles so that you can keep working toward your dream of writing your life story: 

1. Know Your “Why”

If you’re like most people who have dreamed about writing their life story, you’ve imagined scenes flowing out of your head onto the page. Glorious, jaw-dropping, heart-stopping scenes that will captivate readers and catapult you to the top of the bestseller list the week your memoir releases.

Yes, you have a compelling, important story to tell, and you need to write it. But before you start pecking away at your keyboard without a plan, take some time to first write out why you want—no, need—to tell your story.

Maya Angelou famously said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” (from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings).

The passion and vision that propels you to start your memoir will NOT carry you across the finish line. You will need to refer back to your “why” many times to remind yourself why you set your alarm for 5 a.m. (so you can write before the kids wake up or before you have to get ready to go to your day-job).

If you’re stumped for how to write your “why,” here are a few tricks to try:

  • Create a list of all the reasons that come to mind for why you want to write your life story. Capture all of the reasons—no one else will see your list. There’s no judgment and no shame, even if you worry that some of your reasons are self-serving or ego-driven. (There's nothing wrong with wanting to see your name in print.)
  • After you’ve brainstormed a full list of reasons, sift through it and highlight the ones that capture the urgency and drive behind why you don’t want to pass from this life without having written your story.
  • Once you’ve honed your “why,” have fun with it. Write it as a manifesto—a declaration of your purpose and your passion. This is your stake in the ground, the land you’re claiming as your own.
  • Create your “why” into a work of art that you can keep in front of you.

Okay, now you’re ready to get writing. And when you hit those speedbumps and roadblocks along the way, your “why” will give you focus and fresh wind to get moving again.

2. Pay Yourself First

My Consumer Ed teacher in high school had a mantra: Always pay yourself first. She taught us how to open a savings account, and for every dollar we made, she advised us to put the first portion into our savings account to ensure that we’d build up a kitty of cash for the things that were most important to us. College. New clothes. A car. 

I think of my writing time in the same way. When I schedule and show up for my writing time, I’m investing in myself and in reaching my writing goal. 

Pick a regular time—15-30 minutes a day—and schedule it on your calendar, and then keep the date. You’ll be amazed at the dividends you earn by paying yourself first with daily writing time.

3. Write Before Your Brain Is Awake

I do almost all of my personal writing in the morning. It’s a habit I started years ago after reading Julia Cameron’s classic book for cultivating creativity, The Artist’s Way.

Cameron promotes the idea of “Morning Pages.” She suggests literally rolling out of bed and making your first activity to write. (Full disclosure, coffee is my first activity, then I write.)

The premise of Morning Pages is that before your conscious, editing mind turns on and becomes aware of itself, you simply let thoughts pour out onto the page.

For Morning Pages, I start typing or scrawling pen on paper. I don’t worry about constructing coherent sentences or fleshing out specific ideas. I literally just start writing.

Often—most of the time—I write pure drivel. My entries are so boring, I’d be embarrassed if anyone ever read them. I document what I did the day before in dry-as-toast chronological order. On some level, it feels like a brain dump—a morning movement that clears out the mental waste from the day before.

Surprisingly—and herein lies the magic of Morning Pages—I will transition from my “first I did this, and then I did that, and then he said this, and I said that,” to a more curious thought process: I wonder why he said that? Did he mean x, or y? I’m not sure how I feel about that. I wish he had said x. I miss feeling adored. I miss feeling seen. This reminds me of the time my dad forgot my birthday.

Do you see how one concrete thought leads to a deeper curiosity, which triggers a memory that leads to a piece of memoir writing? It’s the magic of Morning Pages—writing before your brain wakes up.

Grabbing those first 15-30 minutes in the morning are like panning for gold in a river teeming with riches. By writing when my thoughts are fluid, I can maximize the time I’ve set aside.

4. Find Your Optimum Time of Day

Several years ago, I trained for my first marathon. I wasn’t a runner when I signed up for my first race, so I spent months following a training plan to get me up to speed.

I hated that plan. I hated the daily runs. I would curse under my breath at the start of every training run. But then something mysterious happened. Like an internal alarm, my body started to signal to me each day when it was time to run. It’s like the daily regimen built an internal clock that my body started to count on.

To this day, even though I’m no longer running marathons, my body remembers that it should be running. It sends strong signals that it wants to get moving. It was the daily habit of exercise that developed this in me, not my love of running.

Cultivating a regular time for daily writing will create the same effect in your mind and body. For me, morning is the time my mind and body are ready to write. It’s the only time of day that I can count on quiet. I like to write before anyone else is moving around in the house.

If morning’s not your prime time, what time of day is? For some, it’s mid-day when their brain is fully activated. For others, it’s late at night after the family’s tucked in bed and you finally have a moment of solitude.

Whatever your preference for time of day, the key is making a date with yourself and keeping it at that appointed time. Over time, your mind and body will come to expect and anticipate your writing time, the same way it does when you stay faithful to a workout routine.

5. Schedule a Writing Retreat

I love the idea of going away to a cabin in the mountains or a cottage on a lake or a beach house by the ocean to write. But let’s be real—how many of us actually get to do this? In all the years I’ve been writing, I have only sequestered myself in a cabin to write by myself once. Granted, it was glorious. But during the years when I was raising four sons and holding down a job, it wasn’t feasible time-wise or financially to steal away for a weekend.

A few years ago, I created a workaround. I scheduled a weekend for a stay-at-home writing retreat. I took some time beforehand to create an agenda, just like you’d receive if you went to a guided writing retreat. I built in timed segments for head-down writing, with breaks for walks and meals and snacks to help pace me to stay focused and productive during the intense work periods.

By the end of the weekend, I evaluated my progress, determined what my next steps needed to be, and scheduled my weekly writing time to keep up the momentum. 

Breaking away mentally from my at-home routine so I could focus on my book project helped me make serious progress on my writing without breaking the bank or burning through precious vacation time.

These are some of the tricks I've used to increase my writing productivity. How about you? What habits have you cultivated to boost your progress? 



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