How long does it take to write a memoir?

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How long does it take to write a memoir? Both longer, and shorter than you’d think.

Many famous memoir writers had their stories swirling in their heads for years, before they even began writing.

A career full of stories

James Herriot, author of the classic veterinary stories from Northern England bored his wife for years over lunch with stories about incidents from his work as a vet. ‘I’ll put that in my book one day,’ he said, constantly.

‘You’ve been saying that for 25 years,’ she said one day. ‘If you were going to write a book, you’d have done it by now.’

Herriot took the challenge, bought some paper, and began almost immediately to write.

A life of memories

Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, a Pulitzer prize-winning memoir had thought about writing down his childhood memories for years, but his biggest fear, was that no one would think his life was interesting. When his high school writing students showed interest in his stories, however, his past ‘began to assemble itself’ in his head.

Finding his writing voice was a challenge; it wasn’t something that emerged for years, until once Frank had retired. But he always had the material, ‘circling around my head and lying there in my notebooks waiting to be tapped.’

Trial and error

The Glass Castle author, Jeanette Walls wrote version after version of her memoir over 25 years, always throwing away the pages afterwards. Finally, when she felt she was truly ready, she created a new version in about six weeks. Similarly, Mary Karr says that she threw twelve hundred pages of her memoir Lit in the garbage, and broke her delete key doing constant rewriting.

The writing process

After Jim Herriot purchased his paper, he would click clack the keys of his Olivetti typewriter in half hour bursts in front of the TV in the evenings after work.

Jeanette Walls put her hard work in on the weekends, about 11 hours a day, when she was creating her draft of The Glass Castle. She then spent five years polishing the draft before submitting it for publication. Walls writing advice is simple: “Just sit down and write. Tell the story from beginning to end. Read it out loud. It takes a lot of work to seem spontaneous.”

Acclaimed author of Eat, Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert makes a ‘two hour’ rule when she’s starting a book. For two hours every day she must not stand up: the idea is to sit in the chair and write. Whether or not she gets words on the page, she can’t move from the chair until the two hours is done.


Every writer has a different way of getting their words on the page. The thing all successful writers have in common, however, is persistence, doggedness, and making their writing a priority.

Your memoir isn’t going to write itself. You’re going to have to put every single word of it in there on your own. What time are you committing to the writing process?

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