June 29, 2022

Your Memoir Needs Good Boundaries

iStock_000011096907_SmallJust like a child, your memoir needs you to set boundaries. We’ve worked with countless memoirists over the years who are struggling either toward the beginning of their memoir because they’ve reached a certain place and they’re not sure where to go next, or because they’ve written so much content that seems disconnected and they can’t figure out how to turn it into something cohesive (the classic not being able to see the forest through the trees kind of experience).

In our courses, we often talk about giving your memoir boundaries. One metaphor I like to use is to consider that you and your memoir are both driving your memoir. This is how it should be. Sometimes you’re driving and sometimes your memoir is driving. This leaves room for the creative process because you never know when you’re going to be inspired, when you need to follow an unexpected thread. In these moment when the memoir is driving you may do well to follow it to its end, to see what possible exciting memory is wanting to unfold. However, if you let your memoir lead all the time, you will inevitably reach a point of chaos, because only you can give the memoir its structure and shape. This is another part of the creative process, but it requires some forethought—and boundaries.

You give your memoir boundaries by planning. This can be outlining, or it can be using a process I call scaffolding, which is projecting out your chapters one or two chapters at a time instead of trying to map out your whole book in advance. Scaffolding is a helpful exercise because it’s not daunting, but it requires you to make some decisions and to stick to them. The beauty of scaffolding is that, if you’re struck by inspiration, it’s not etched in stone. You can change your scaffolding, but having scaffolding in place can function like the trail of crumbs that can lead you out of the forest. And it provides the needed boundary of saying to yourself, Self, we know where we are going next. We may not know how we’re going to turn our whole experience into a full-length book, but we know where we’re going next—and that’s good enough for now.

We’ve found that our students who put into place some boundaries on their memoir experience less fear of the process. Doing scaffolding requires you to sit down and project out a chapter or two before you write, but it’s a lot like casting a safety net for yourself. Which is something all memoirists need when things get emotionally hairy, or when you feel like you simply can’t sit down to write because you don’t know what’s coming next.

Treat yourself to some organization principles, and start practicing taking the lead with your memoir. You’ll quickly discover whether you’ve been in a process where you’ve been allowing the memoir to dominate. And if you have, that’s okay, but notice what happens when you take the reins. A lot of writers worry that structuring and planning kills their creative process, but we’ve found the opposite to be true. Having boundaries doesn’t mean you don’t get to have fun—quite the contrary. All it means is that your writing adventure is not a free-for-all. Most writers who’ve had no process and adapt boundaries discover, to their surprise, utter relief. If you’re longing for a little relief from a tortured process, set some boundaries and see what happens.


Note: We have written more extensively about scaffolding in our ebook, Breaking Ground on Your Memoir, which includes an example of scaffolding.


  1. Eleanor Gamarsh says

    Well, Brooke, you got me with this blog. I felt like crying when I read it …and , well, my eyes want to tear as I am writing this comment. I got to about 30 pages in this unintended memoir… “Hello, Maizie” and LIFE took over so I haven’t been able to get to write for a couple of weeks. Now as I try to get reconnected with the spirit of my story, I am stumbling. I told my husband last night that I needed someone to talk with about what I am trying to write and how I am trying to compose it. My writer’s group reconvenes after Labor Day but they shy away from critiquing personal stories. They are uncomfortable after a few pages. So I am alone with my efforts. I do not afford paying anyone which makes my isolation worse. Dang, there come the tears again. I know I have an interesting style of storytelling, just some difficulty keeping the momentum on track.

    I have tried a suggestion of just writing the individual stories in a separate file to be placed later into the book. But that feels very awkward. So disjointed to my creative style. I have done research for some information I want to include and have more to do for a part of the theme. I have a problem keeping track of what I have done and where I have put stuff, a difficulty I blame my disability for, in part. Perhaps this is only because I am trying to do too many things in any given day. This is a long comment but you can see I need some community, somehow. I will take a look at that scaffolding idea. No matter what, Brooke, I still don’t believe I could ever write a memoir in six months. Even this one that was begun for a collection of stories I have written in Maizie’s name and has evolved into a memoir.

    • Brooke Warner says

      Eleanor, I hope you will seek out community online. Both SheWrites.com and National Association of Memoir Writers have some free offerings. NAMW has a facebook group, and there are all kinds of online forums at She Writes. You definitely don’t want to do this in isolation! Thanks for your comment. Baby steps are just fine. Hang in there!

  2. Judy Pigman says

    I have a story screaming to get out. I’ve been working on my memoir, off and on, and sometimes mostly off, for 18 years! I’m nearly embarrassed at the number of years! Mine isn’t a coming-of-age story. I don’t have an addiction. My father didn’t beat me. My childhood was probably fairly normal. My story is from a time in my life, well, two twice, when I struck out on my own, doing two fairly adventuresome solo sojourns. The first one consisted of leaving my rooted midwest existence by myself at the age of 50, for two years, moving to the ‘home of my soul,’ New England, for two years! It was a life-altering adventure in that I lived out my dream to live in coastal New England. Upon returning to Ohio, I was satisfied in the knowledge that I lived out a dream that had been calling me since I was 12 years old! Then ten years later I traveled alone to Paris to celebrate my 65th birthday, again my choice to travel solo. It was a real test of my courage and I passed with flying colors!! Both of these solo journies contributed to the woman I am today, and as if I had to prove to myself that I could do these, especially the time alone in Paris not speaking the language! I have thousands of words in essay form, journal entries, etc. but feel stuck, as though I don’t know HOW to tell my story, what form, doubting myself as to whether it’s a memoir or not??? I am constantly aware that this “story” is screaming to get out…but, don’t know how or what form it should take? Hate the feeling that though my courage to write is waning!

    • Linda Lee/@LadyQuixote says

      Regardless of how long you’ve been trying to write your story, if you are carrying a story inside you that is begging to be told, I hope you don’t give up. Thanks to Brooke and Linda Joy, I am well on my way to making my memoir a published reality. And I have been trying to write my harrowing tale of extreme survival since 1975…. almost 42 years ago!

      I had almost given up hope of ever finishing my memoir. But my attitude has completely changed since I purchased Breaking Ground on Your Memoir: Craft, Inspiration, and Motivation for Memoir Writers by Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers. The help I am finding in those pages, and here on their blog, is invaluable.

      For the first time in more than four decades, I can clearly see what has been holding me back from finishing my memoir. To put it in a nutshell, my problem all along has been a lack of focus, the lack of a theme, and most of all, lack of a good scaffolding system. NOT an outline, which I have tried and hated, but something fluid and alive, to give my creativity a productive place to grow.

      Wow!! I am not even sure if it’s legal for a 60-something great-grandmother to be this excited! 🙂

      I have read literally dozens of “how to write” books over the years, including most of the classics and best sellers. I just looked at the number of books I have loaded on my Kindle in my “writing and publishing” folder, and I am too embarrassed to tell you how many I have. Plus I have read through a library’s worth of print books on the topic of writing.

      Although I found something valuable in each of those books, it was nothing like the practical, where-the-rubber-meets-the-road advice that I have found in Breaking Ground. I now have solid hope that the longest memoir work-in-progress in human history is actually going to be finished — and soon.

      I will bookmark this page so I can come back here and leave a comment after my memoir is published. It may be six months from now. It may be a year from now. But, Lord willing, it will happen. No more wasted effort and no more wasted time!

      Ha… I think I just wrote my Amazon review. 🙂

      • Brooke Warner says

        Thank you so much for posting this, and for posting it on Amazon! We’re very grateful. And yes, let us know when your memoir is published. We want to hear about it!

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