When you write a memoir, you take on the task of exploring your life and being willing to write with truth and honesty. Writing a memoir is a journey that leads us away from known territory into the unknown and unexplored parts of our lives. We need a map to guide us as we write so we can find our themes and the moments that have meaning, moments that shaped us into who we are.
Being a memoirist is to encounter your brave self. I liken the courage to write a memoir as similar to the pioneers my great-grandmother Blanche would tell me about when I was a little girl. She was eighty and I was eight as we lay in her featherbed on summer nights where she spun the stories of her life. She was still a young girl on a farm near the Mississippi River when neighbors drove up in a covered wagon. They were on their way to Kansas in the 1880s, when the prairie was notched with the deep ruts of wagon trains from settlers who wanted to explore the larger world beyond the Mississippi. Tribes of Native Americans were still inhabiting the Great Plains, along with outlaws and roving bands of ne’er do wells. Blanche watched them drive off into the unknown with a crude map, but going on that journey meant that they had to advance into unknown territory while still raising children, giving birth, and fixing dinner. Memoirists need maps and guides for the journey too.
Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina, says “Write where the fear is, where the heat is.” That encounter with what is difficult takes us into the heart of our stories, the high and low points in our lives. Authentic emotion guides us into our journey of speaking and writing with truth and honesty. Judith Barrington says that the memoirist, “Whispers into the ear of the reader.” When we read a memoir, we feel that we are being invited into the secret heart of a person, a family, a time and a place. As readers, we are witnessing along with the narrator a world we have never seen before, the private world of the writer that is unfolding story by story.
To help writers get started and find their way to the end of the first draft, I teach the turning point and timeline exercises.
Find Your Turning Points
Your turning points are the emotional hot spots of your life. Focusing on these points will help to sort through the file cabinet of your memories and will help to build the spine of your memoir structure.
These are moments of BIG CHANGE, the times when your life took a turn in another direction, propelled by powerful forces. These can be inner forces, such as a spiritual awakening, a moment of complete clarity, or outer forces such as an illness, a move, a sudden loss.
A turning point can be a powerful moment of utter happiness, a marriage, traveling to another country, or the birth of a child. These are special times that have deep meaning to you, and that made a difference in the course of your life. Your turning points taught you a lesson, woke you up, shaped you into the person that you are now.
Ask yourself: what moments ended the life I was living before, and changed the direction of my life? In a fictional story or a movie, we know that the plot is going to change when someone new wanders into town, when this new person shows up, we expect there to be important changes or we would not, as readers/viewers, be shown this event.
Make a list of the 15-20 most important moments of your life—emotionally significant events.
Women used to belong to quilting bees. They would sit around the quilting frame, chatting and stitching by hand. They cut out designs and patterns from old clothes, creating ripples of colors as the patches came together in new designs.
This is what we do with our turning point stories. We can write our vignettes in any order. If we write where the heat, and heart, is, we are gathering the pieces that will be quilted together into a finished work of art.
The Timeline Technique
The visual map of your memoir journey is the timeline. After you list your turning point stories, plot them on a timeline. Draw a horizontal line across a large sheet of paper, preferably 18×24–large enough to hold several decades. Divide the line into 10 year sections, and then divide those into years.
List your turning point stories on the timeline by drawing vertical a line at the date you selected and put a circle at the bottom. In this circle, name the story, chapter, or turning point moment you want to include.
This exercise reveals many things: you see how some events cluster together, and how certain events followed other ones, revealing lapses in your memory. How your turning points cluster on the timeline presents new insights about time and relationships—memory is not always accurate. You can use your journals from the past and other research to help fill in your turning pints and your timeline. To enhance the visuals on your timelines, copy out photos to place on or near your turning points, creating a kind of vision board.
These techniques will help you to have a focus and structure for your memoir. As you write, you will continue to develop your turning points and the specific details of your life. The more you work with your list, timeline, and stories, the more you will remember. Maybe you will be like Blanche, who in her eighties was weaving the stories of the 19th century for me. Those stories stayed with me, and made me want to honor the history she shared, made me want to be a storyteller.
You too will weave magic as you write your memoir.