If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. Toni Morrison
You want to share your life with your readers—the smell of your grandmother’s garden in the spring, how you and your sister struggled with each other, only to leave love notes of apology after. Your mother, father, friends, the geography of your hometown and state—all these and so much more are part of the history you carry inside you. Your memories are a part of your inner life all the time. The challenge is to find a way to bring them to the page so you can share them with others in your memoir. Writers often struggle with memory, asking, “Do I have enough memories to write a memoir? Are my memories ‘correct?’ What if someone disagrees—will I be found out or exposed like James Frye was a few years ago?”
There is no such thing as “correct” memories. We all interpret what we have perceived, which is why people see the same events differently. Each person who sees a single event is like a slice of pie—each section looks toward the middle from a different angle. Everyone in a family could write a different memoir—if they dared—and some family members have done just that like Augusten Burroughs in Running with Scissors and his mother Margaret Robison’s The Long Journey Home. Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction by David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff’s book Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines show different sides of the same story. So decide on your point of view, the memories that are important to you, and write.
There are many ways to capture your memories. Memories exist as wisps of perfume, snippets of images, stories that haunt our dreams, fragments that wait for us to breathe full life into them so they can unfold on the screen of our story.
Streams of memory arise when we hear a song, or when smells and sounds remind us of certain moments. You can look for these streams by doing research: visit your home town where there is history and meaning, memories around every corner. When I first started exploring my past, I took the long trek to visit the town where I grew up in Oklahoma. As the familiar lay of the land, the rise of the wheat elevators, the smells of earth rose up, I was shocked and amazed at the rush of images, like a movie in fast motion, as I drove down familiar roads. My body knew this as home, and triggered more memories than I could have imagined—fueling my need to capture them before they just as easily flew away.
To remember more details and find new memories, look at old family photographs, listen to songs that were popular when you grew up, explore your town on Google Earth. Research is a great way to get started. Then place your fingers over the keyboard and invite images and snippets to flow from your fingers. You can begin with a piece of story, an image, a sensual experience — listen to your body/mind as the story takes shape and take dictation!
Begin with a scene—put yourself in a specific time and a place in the scene. This helps you to write directly from sensual experience. Write from who you were at a specific age, and freewrite what flows.
Dreams help us get into our stories and memories. Write down your dreams, and then keep writing, free associating, exploring. Sometimes insights and connections happen when we aren’t trying.
Dive into the tough memories, into the stories that scare you, the stories you don’t want to write. It is here where the gold is found, the moments in your life that you need to understand, your secrets and regrets. What are the life lessons that haunt you, that come back to you on soft feet in the middle of the night? These contain some of the important points of your life, the times that tug at your heart and soul. There are riches in these moments for you to explore.
Memoir writing is about capturing who we are and were. We need to be honest, to write our truths as best we can, not worrying about a publisher, the public, an agent or even the family. We have to be true to ourselves in our first draft. The best stories are the deepest truths that we can share as we dig into what it means to be human, what it’s like to travel our own unique path. In the current marketplace, if and when you’re interested in publishing, people are eager to learn from others—a memoir invites people into their own living room, even their hearts—and in this we all become deeply intertwined in the shared stories of human experience.
Tips for Capturing Significant Memories
- Write down memories on envelopes at the market, in the car—parked of course, or taking a walk. Call yourself and leave a message. Text it to someone. Take a note on your cell phone. If you don’t write it down, it disappears.
- Get out photo albums. Use photos as a trigger to write. Write about what you were feeling. Write about what happened before and after the photo was taken.
- Describe the photo in detail, and muse about its meaning, what’s hidden that the viewer can’t see. If it’s a photo of long dead relatives that fascinates you, write what you imagine happened on that day. Weave in the family stories.
- Talk with friends, and write down what you remember together.
- Family events can be triggers for your memoir file. Write things down or put them on tape.
- If you have a computer, surf the web for memoir writing sites, memory preservation sites, war stories. It’s all out there.
- Write for 10 minutes, a short vignette.
- Next time, write for 20 minutes. Notice that the more you write, the more you write!
- Basic rule: do not throw away anything. Do not hit the delete key. The Make a file called “saved early drafts.” Don’t listen to that inner critic. It doesn’t yet know what you are about. Fear and shame are friends of the inner critic. If these are parts of you, then beware of any little voice that tells you to throw your writing away. It’s most often wrong. Besides, computer files don’t take up much room. Keep your stories—they are part of your research and your journey.
- Invite dreams, favorite memories and unforgettable moments. Allow them to flow through you in a freewrite—writing for 15 minutes without taking your fingers off the keys or your hand from the page. Get into the flow—it helps develop your writing stamina.
- Don’t worry about where to start or what you will write about. Write short vignettes to quilt together later.
- Remember, you have your own story. Don’t let the point of view of family members interfere with writing YOUR story.
- Childhood can be a treasure of all kind of memories, both good and bad. Allow yourself to be in the body and in the sensory experience of the child and take dictation. Notice voice, details, and language and write in the flow of what you remember.
There are only two ways to live your life. One is as if nothing is a miracle, and the other is as if everything is a miracle. - Albert Einstein