How Long Does It Take to Write a Memoir?

When you sit down to write a memoir you may wonder how long it’s going to take to finish the thing. The fact it, there’s no standard time frame. I have encountered several writers who say they worked for fifteen years to get it right—to finalize a solid draft relating personal experience that is filled with universal truth and which tells a story.

Others whip something out in five or ten.

The trouble with memoir is that it’s written from personal experience, and our understanding of the things that have happened in our lives shifts over time as we grow and try to find meaning, and this meaning making shifts, too, with each new tool acquired with age—the tools of writing, self understanding, life experience, and deeper understanding of the people who have  path with us. All these new tools and awarenesses influence the story we compose, and as the months and years pass, the story wiggles into a new form.

Writers with experience have a shorter time of it. They’re not fighting against all the basics of composition that a new writer must hurdle to get a draft on the page, and they are better at revision, but everyone struggles for long months to figure out what material to include, how to make it meaningful, and how to keep the pace moving so that a stranger would want to read the tale.

Very practiced writers could knock out a good first draft in a year if they had already thought about what they wanted to say—and stuck with it—and had little else to do in their life. (A rare situation!) And then they might spend months in revision and editing.

But this would be the rare writer who understood that the passage of time does shift understanding of events and yet she must commit to a vision and hold with it until the manuscript is complete. You might call this laying out a story plan and then following through with it even though some new major understanding might have arisen along the way. (These rare writers see that they may incorporate some small part of this new major understanding, but they will not allow it to completely shift the plan for the story.)

For most writers, though, the experience of writing a memoir goes more like this: you spend years figuring out what to include. Then you spend some more years figuring out what that chosen part of your your life means, and then more months carving an arc from it—creating a story line that shows the narrator changing (in some big or small way)—and then more time lining up the events in such a way that they have momentum and make the reader keep turning the pages. And that’s just a first draft!

So, what I suggest, if you really want to write a memoir, is plan on spending a handful of years on it, and if you really want to write a memoir that sells, plan on spending two handfuls of years on it—and getting some help along the way from an editor, teacher, or educational program with whatever aspects of the compositional process that are testing you, be it the basics of punctuation or your understanding of how to develop character or build a story line that goes some where.

Think of it as the apprenticeship. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t serve one.

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