Writing a Coming-of-Age Memoir

Today’s guest post comes from author Terry Helwig.

Terry is an award-winning author whose book, Shifting Shorelines: Messages from a Wiser Self, is a Gold Winner of the 2022 Nautilus Book Awards. A naturalist at heart, with a master’s degree in counseling psychology, Helwig writes about the solace and well-being she finds at the intersection of mother nature and human nature. Her coming-of-age memoir Moonlight on Linoleum, won ELLE Magazine’s 2012 Grand Prix Nonfiction Book of the Year.

Photo from Terry Helwig

A coming-of-age memoir shares how the author grew into a young adult, ready to face the world. It exemplifies character development, change, and, most often, how the author overcame obstacles and hardships. The following is the five-step creative process that I drew upon to write my coming-of-age memoir, Moonlight on Linoleum

I. Excavating the Past

Why, out of the millions of moments of childhood, are some events and details clearly remembered and others not at all? What makes an experience memorable? 

In my case, my memories carried an emotional charge—love, abandonment, awe, disgust, fear, excitement, bewilderment—all of which helped me recognize my desire lines. A desire line is what a character most wants. Desire lines can change and evolve as they are either met or thwarted.  Desire lines become the narrative arc memoir.

I also created a detailed time line that included ages, major milestones, moves, marriages, deaths, graduations, etc. Then, I inserted historic events into the time line to help recreate the social milieu in which my story transpired. I referred to the time line often, feeling like an archaeologist trying to place a shard of memory into a larger whole.

II. Facing Your Dragons

Writing memoir requires honesty, tenacity and courage. It isn’t easy to filter through pain, disappointments, anger, embarrassment and the minutia of a lifetime. Real-life scenes and characters can be difficult to funnel onto the printed page. To include one memory means leaving  out another.

Entering into the realm of your psyche, looking for a handful of memories to portray what you most want to express, can be daunting. You can’t carry everything across the threshold of memory and commit it to paper. It takes courage to even try.

The coming-of-age memoir Moonlight of Linoleum details the story of Terry Helwig (front center) and her younger sisters who triumphed over adversity and refused to be defined by a dysfunctional childhood. 

III. Riding the Chaos

I believe a lot of writers get stymied in, what I call, the chaos phase because it feels so dissonant and uncomfortable. The chaos phase involves creative angst, not knowing which path to follow, an inability to pin down an idea before it shape-shifts into something else, and wondering if there is any merit in what you are undertaking. Chaos is the polar opposite of flow, rhythm, being in the zone, or hitting your stride—feelings that come later. 

I shelved a number of early projects believing that the creative process would be easier if I were on the right track. I know differently now. Instead, I ride the chaos. I climb astride the wild bucking bronco of uncertainty, grip the reins, and refuse to let go, despite the ups, downs, and spinning around. Invariably the bronco begins to tame, the dust settles, and ideas begin to flow.

IV. Finding the Universal

The use of symbol, metaphor and myth tap into the collective unconscious and create resonance on a deeper level. If something was important as a child, like a favorite oak tree, it might symbolize stability and deep roots. If a story is imbued with enough substance, it will likely tap into a universal truth or theme of the human condition—something that goes beyond the particulars—like pieces of a hologram which reflect the entire image. 

The universal themes of my memoir Moonlight on Linoleum are the mother/daughter relationship, sisterhood, holding onto hope despite difficult circumstances, and, the predominant theme, even if others abandon you, you must never abandon yourself. All these themes helped structure my story. I wrote that my grandmother was born with a Hestian gene. In myth, Hestia is the goddess of the hearth who kept the home fires burning. One of the great aches of my childhood was the feeling that our hearth fire was dangerously low. This was not said explicitly, but it was implied. There’s something archetypal about the hearth and keeping this flame alive in our lives.

This photo illustrates one of my desire lines being thwarted in my coming-of-age memoir Moonlight on Linoleum. Mama did not come back for us—even at Christmas. My younger sister Vicki (left) is happy with Mama’s gift. I, on the other hand, realize that Mama has been gone so long that she no longer knows our sizes. 

V. Developing Your Craft

Creative writing must be met with an equal measure of craftsmanship. Craftsmanship helps hone ordinary stories into gems. Literary craft, like all craft, demands expertise. I know of no magic route to publication that can bypass the craftsmanship of writing, re-writing, and more re-writing.

Also, read your genre. If you want to write memoir, read memoir. If you want to write fiction, read fiction. Pay attention to the techniques used by various authors. What stands out? What is similar?

If you want to publish your work, be professional. Do your homework. Research the internet for articles about how to write query letters and book proposals. Follow submission guidelines. Some writers hire editors to help them polish their manuscript and ready it for publication.

The writer’s journey is not necessarily an easy one, but neither is it impossible. Dragons scare away only the weak hearted. I wish you courage.

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