Author: Lisa Dale Norton

Memoir, Biography, Narrative Nonfiction—What Are They?

Here we are in February, the time of year when we throw ourselves back into writing and asking fundamental questions: What is a memoir? How is it different from biography, and how are both related to that thing called narrative nonfiction? Memoir is a story […]

Is Memoir Always About Someone’s Deep and Unconscious Pain?

Is Memoir Always About Someone’s Deep and Unconscious Pain?

The answer is: No. No. And no. But some people do come to the process of writing to sort out life experience, and most people are less likely to do that when things are soaring than when they have hit a bump. Hence, the common […]

How to Avoid Mid-Story Memoir Sag

How to Avoid Mid-Story Memoir Sag

All sorts of tales can lead to mid-story sag . . .


You are in good company if you’re battling mid-story sag. Nearly all memoir writers hit a point where they ask: What is this thing about? Where did I think I was going with this story? The rush of insight and excitement that drove their early writing has dissipated, and even they have lost interest in their memoir.


How do you know if you have mid-story sag? The symptoms are as recognizable as a cold: The momentum’s gone out of your story; it seems to have no energy or direction. You’d rather sleep than write.
While it may not feel great to be mired with other writers in mid-story sag, it should be heartening, because it shows you are on a well-trodden path. Many writers have been here before you, and many have found their way out.




First, it’s about understanding what your story is about. Last month I wrote about the need for your memoir to have a story question. If you are in the malaise of mid-story sag, chances are you haven’t pinned that down.


Your story question—what you are most essentially trying to understand with your memoir—doesn’t often come with the first draft, or even sometimes with the second, unless you’ve been lucky enough to be guided by a wise teacher, editor, or writing coach who understands the complexities of how a narrative nonfiction story is built.


But regardless of where you are in your growth as a writer, or where you are in the process of composing your memoir, if you keep working with your material, you will determine what’s driving you to write your story, and once you know that, you’ll be able to do the following: 1. formulate your story question; 2. determine which memories are essential to exploring that question; 3. determine which memories need to be dumped. It’s this final step of structural winnowing that will present the key for keeping momentum moving in your pages.


We fall into mid-story sag because we don’t know where we are going in the story, and we don’t know where we are going in the story because we don’t know what we are trying to say. And we don’t know what we are trying to say because he haven’t taken the time to figure out what is most compelling about the material at hand.


So, let’s think about it: What are you trying to do in your memoir? Are you coming to terms with your childhood? Maybe your story question is something like: What makes a child resilient?


Or maybe your story question is about your health: How did I become ill? many memoirists ask. But a story question could be more complex, like: What is illness, and how does it find us?

Maybe you are trying to understand the implosion of a career. Rather than: Where did I go wrong? perhaps the story question is: What forces drive us to choose the careers we do, and why?

Are you trying to get to the bottom of a love affair gone wrong?Instead of: What happened? maybe your question is: What beliefs cause us to behave the way we do in love?


Whatever your story question, it is the back and forth of success and failure in your quest to find understanding that will keep your story moving and help you avoid mid-story memoir slump.
Why Your Memoir Needs a Story Question

Why Your Memoir Needs a Story Question

In today’s marketplace, a memoir that attracts the attention of an agent pursues some story question. Without a story question, your memoir runs the risk of falling into family history, which may be deeply important to you, but not so interesting to anyone else. A […]

Three tips for staying motivated to finish your memoir

Three tips for staying motivated to finish your memoir

September is America’s traditional back-to-school month, and with it come renewed desires to finish that memoir you’ve been working on. Writers always ask: How can I stay motivated to finish my memoir? Here are three tips: First, you must have a heart-to-heart with yourself about […]

The Latest on Memoir Publishing

The Latest on Memoir Publishing

October 2017—Memoir continues as a hot seller for the main body of book buyers in America: women. For the first six months of 2017, BookScan reported sales growth in the category Biography/Autobiography/Memoir—up 8% over sales figures for the same period in 2016. This is good news for writers; interest in personal narratives remains strong.

However, as a simple search of “memoir” on Amazon will show, the field also remains flooded—nearly 150,000 titles as of this writing. Consequently, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish yourself and your story. The five big publishers in America continue to lean toward celebrity status for memoir. Some of the biggest deals to date came just this year. Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, and James B. Comey are just three.

Most memoir writers must then focus their attention on smaller publishing houses, or embrace self-publishing, both of which are excellent options. But no matter what route you choose to publication, you still must find ways to make your story stand out.

Here’s one idea about how to do that: Consider linking your experience to current events—for example, scientific or environmental issues. If you can tell the story of both the larger issue, and your experience, then your memoir becomes about more than just you, and it will draw a larger audience.

Consider this posting about memoir and science writing published on NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog that looks at three memoirs published in 2017, which combine science related issues—”fat, cancer and gender,” as the author Barbara J. King says—and a parallel personal story.

Or, check out these recently published titles that are as much about the environment and the natural world, as they are about the writer—Fire in the Heart: A Memoir of Friendship, Loss, and Wildfire; or Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone.

What a careful look at your life experience can reveal, about the conundrum of publishing, is that there is more than one way to skin a cat, or . . . publish your memoir!

Can you find links to larger cultural issues for your memoir? Let me hear about them.

Why You Need to Understand Publisher Macmillan’s Stand Against Trump

Why You Need to Understand Publisher Macmillan’s Stand Against Trump

No matter what form of writing you practice, whether you are a memoirist, novelist, poet, essayist or journalist—or you are just beginning your dream of writing and publishing—you need to know and care about publisher Macmillan’s recent stand against Trump. What happened: If you have […]

December 12

December 12

If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity, and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write. – Somerset Maugham

The Memoir Lesson of 2017

The Memoir Lesson of 2017

The memoir writing lesson of 2017 leaps out at us from Annie Proulx’s acceptance speech given last week (mid-November) at the National Book Awards ceremony. Proulx (Brokeback Mountain, The Shipping News, and Barkskins, among other books) was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

While Proulx’s words were obviously aimed at a larger message about America and about American life, I encourage writers of memoir to hear the craft imperative embedded in her words: readers of stories today, perhaps more than ever, want an ending that brings satisfaction, or completion, shall we say, a place to rest and take solace, find peace, a spark of happiness, or at least bittersweet understanding.

No matter how at odds that may be with the raging truth of the world you are creating on the page, memoirists who crave readership need to grasp the zeitgeist thrumming through the land, and in this “Kafkaesque time, as Proulx named it, readers need one true thing: an ending that gives hope.

You can read Proulx’s words below. (Note: The final lines are Proulx quoting from the poem “Consolation” by poet Wisława Szymborska.)

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“Although this award is for lifetime achievement, I didn’t start writing until I was 58, so if you’ve been thinking about it and putting it off, well…     I thank the National Book Award Foundation, the committees, and the judges for this medal. I was surprised when I learned of it and I’m grateful and honored to receive it and to be here tonight, and I thank my editor Nan Graham, for it is her medal too.

We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. This is a Kafkaesque time. The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts and sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war. We observe social media’s manipulation of a credulous population, a population dividing into bitter tribal cultures. We are living through a massive shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy, now cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data. Everything is situational, seesawing between gut-response “likes” or vicious confrontations. For some this is a heady time of brilliant technological innovation that is bringing us into an exciting new world. For others it is the opening of a savagely difficult book without a happy ending.

To me the most distressing circumstance of the new order is the accelerating destruction of the natural world and the dreadful belief that only the human species has the inalienable right to life and God-given permission to take anything it wants from nature, whether mountaintops, wetlands or oil. The ferocious business of stripping the earth of its flora and fauna, of drowning the land in pesticides again may have brought us to a place where no technology can save us. I personally have found an amelioration in becoming involved in citizen science projects. This is something everyone can do. Every state has marvelous projects of all kinds, from working with fish, with plants, with landscapes, with shore erosions, with water situations.

Yet somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing. We still hope for a happy ending. We still believe that we can save ourselves and our damaged earth—an indescribably difficult task as we discover that the web of life is far more mysteriously complex than we thought and subtly entangled with factors that we cannot even recognize. But we keep on trying, because there’s nothing else to do.

The happy ending still beckons, and it is in hope of grasping it that we go on. The poet Wisława Szymborska caught the writer’s dilemma of choosing between hard realities and the longing for the happy ending. She called it “consolation.”

They say he read novels to relax,
but only certain kinds:
nothing that ended unhappily.
If he happened on something like that,
enraged, he flung the book into the fire.

True or not,
I’m ready to believe it.

Scanning in his mind so many times and places,
he’s had enough with dying species,
the triumphs of the strong over the weak,
the endless struggle to survive,
all doomed sooner or later.
He’d earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction,
with its micro-scales.

Hence the indispensable
silver lining,
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways,
good names restored, greed daunted,
old maids married off to worthy parsons,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,
seducers scurried to the altar,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
ride humbled, wounds healed over,
prodigal sons summoned home,
cups of sorrow tossed into the ocean,
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly in the last.

Thank you.”

Taken by Lisa Dale Norton at Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy, fall 2016.


For Success, Link Your Memoir to Current Events

For Success, Link Your Memoir to Current Events

Memoir continues as a hot seller for the main body of book buyers in America: women. For the first six months of 2017, BookScan reported sales growth in the category Biography/Autobiography/Memoir—up 8% over sales figures for the same period in 2016. This is good news […]