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.