Writing memoir is hard work and often messy. Some stories get stuck halfway out. Or they may not get out at all. We feel them stirring within, writhing and turning, kicking to get out, but the harder we try, the harder we push, the more tightly they stick in their spot. Sometimes we need help.

I’d be terminally discouraged if I kept track of all the stories I’ve begun and eventually deleted because they just didn’t work. More often I am able to finish them, but only with considerable rewriting, rephrasing, and perhaps a few days of fermentation.

Sometimes when I’m stuck, it’s enough to sit back, breath deeply and ask myself, Just what is it that I’m trying to say? What do I want people to understand when I’m done? What is my purpose in writing this? These questions usually serve to pop things into focus.

The next level of action involves calling or e-mailing a friend, or consulting my husband, who is my resident idea-bouncing partner. He’s especially good at extracting the kernel of meaning from my ramblings, and getting me back on track.

The most powerful tool of all is a writing group. My writing group will listen with great tenderness as I read awkward words, or struggle with a half-formed idea that just doesn’t want to emerge. They are patient and respectful, and they withhold suggestions until I’m ready to hear them. I’m never surprised to hear someone blurt out some seemingly unrelated nonsense that jolts everything into perfect focus and allows the story to flow unimpeded out of the darkness.

I collectively call these helpers Story Midwives. The story that emerges is still fully mine, but they help bring it into the world, robust, thriving and fully formed—though still needing polish.

You can find Story Midwives in writing groups, and you’ll also find them in classes and workshops. Many communities have lifestory and other creative writing classes available in libraries and continuing ed programs, and there lots more online, such as the NAMW writing workshops and roundtables. A quick web search will turn up other online classes and workshops.

Classes do way more than function as midwives. The exchange of ideas and viewpoints in a good class weaves the wisdom of the group into something larger than the sum of the parts, and everyone leaves richer for the experience.

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