The holidays are the season of gratitude—a time when we reach out to family and friends to celebrate all the ways we appreciate them, a time when we count our blessings. During the holidays we make a priority to gather and share joy and stories, though for some people, it can be a time of stress and loneliness. If that is the case, then use your journal to write out how you feel and what you remember.
If you are planning to visit with your family, it can be an opportunity to dig out the photo albums and tell stories around the fireplace: “Remember when, see what you looked like then?” as you pass around the album—or share the photos on your computer.
I advise memoir writers that the holidays is a good time to do some “research” about family stories. As you write your memoir you discover your memories through writing prompts and digging into your memories as best you can, but it’s amazing what immersing yourself in family can bring up. Being “at home” brings you into the family circle in two ways—as a family member and as a memoir writer. Not only are you with the people you are writing about—which can feel like a strange situation at times!—you’re also in the settings, the houses, towns and landscapes of your past that trigger evocative memories.
You might wonder at these gatherings if your family members will share more of their stories—or will they try to keep them closer to the vest if they know you are writing a memoir?
Doing research about family stories requires a decision tree
- If you have told your family that you’re writing a memoir, your research may need to be subtle—especially if some people are feeling sensitive or worried about being exposed, or if there are secrets in the family that some people want to protect. These techniques include talking innocently over the family photo album and finding innocuous ways to ask questions. See if some of the questions mentioned in point number 4 below are helpful to you.
- If your family does not know you are writing a memoir, you need to gather data, dates, and stories carefully—again depending on how open your family is about talking about the past. You can disguise your research as you seek family stories about the holidays or about the far past, or about people they used to know. Sometimes these stories lead to them being more willing to share more personal and private stories.
- If your family is open about talking about the past, you could prepare questions about the family history ahead of time for them to think about, or ask them beforehand if they would consider being audiotaped when are all talking together about family stories. If a family gets along and is supportive of the memoir, this can be very helpful. Think of the questions you have never asked before, or points that you feel are tender, and probe gently from your now-adult perspective. You might be surprised at how willing people are to revisit the past, especially if you are accepting and gentle about creating a positive “remembering” atmosphere.
- In a situation with a closed family dynamic, you can gently ask leading questions:
- When you were young, what is your favorite memory?
- What did people used to say about Uncle Joe (substitute the person you want to ask about here) back then?
- What were the best and worse stories you remember about me?
- Tell me about the best holiday you remember. Why was it so special?
- What was the most challenging thing you had to do when you were younger?
- Questions about weather and how personal history intersected with public events can be fruitful.
- What new items were the most shocking to them?
- Who were their favorite family members?
- What were their favorite books and movies and why.
- Think of other favorite topics like sports, politics, or possibly religion—that they are willing to talk about. Sometimes this can lead to inroads to what you want to know more about.
Gentle leading questions can open doors to more questions, if your relatives and friends are cooperative and curious. Your own curiosity, especially if you don’t have a grudge, can be contagious and help to open up the conversation.
5. Remember, family stories are like slices of a pie—each person has a different angle of view toward the story being told—people remember different aspects of the same event. One might remember colors and clothes, another what happened in vivid detail—from their POV of course—and another who said what to whom. Just listen to the different ways people remember—and marvel at it! Your story can include other people’s versions or not—it’s up to you. The memoir you are writing is ultimately about your memories!
I want to thank you all for joining me in the joy of memoir writing. I wish all of you a happy holiday season, and look forward to seeing you in the New Year.
Be Brave—Write Your Story!
Linda Joy Myers
President of National Association of Memoir Writers
Photo credit: Free digital photos
Truman Capote: To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.
Memoirs are woven from memories, but many memoirists I speak with wonder if they have enough memories, or if their memories are “correct.”
Families share memories around the table and pore over family photo albums, reminiscing and remembering—and these memories are the tools we use to create our stories. Some people feel they don’t have enough memories to write memoir while others are overwhelmed by them. We can evoke and mine our memories, to help coax them from hiding, to invite them to awaken.
There are many ways to capture your memories. Memories exist as wisps of perfume, snippets of images, stories that haunt our dreams, fragments of our lives waiting for us to breathe full life into them so they can unfold on the screen of story.
Streams of memory arise when we hear a song or when smells and sounds remind us of certain moments. Do you start remember more when you visit your home town? To help me remember more details, I would visit the town where I grew up, flooded at times by a river of memory as I made my way down familiar roads and looked at the high school, grade school, and where I was first kissed. In my journal, I captured the rush of images and memories that seemed to arise from the cells of my body.
One way to encourage your memories: simply place your fingers over the keyboard and begin writing. Start with a piece of story, an image, or a sensual experience and listen to your body/mind as it spins out words. Allow it to flow through you, to take its own form. Some of you prefer a pen and paper. Just allow the words and image to follow in a non-linear way. You can sort it out later. Begin with a scene—place yourself in a specific time and a place. Being in a specific setting helps you to ground you as a “character” who is experiencing the moment as you lived it. Your body remembers.
Dreams help to reveal our stories and memories. Write down your dreams, and then keep writing to muse about the meaning of your dream. Write it in detail in the present tense. Your subconscious mind wants to help you!
Dive into the tough memories, the stories that scare you, the stories you don’t want to write. It is here that you will find gold. These are moments in your life you need to understand better, the things you are embarrassed about, the decisions that you regret.
What life lessons haunt you, that come back to you on soft feet in the middle of the night? These contain important points of your life, the times that tug at your heart and soul. These stories can form the emotional core of your memoir.
Remember, writing a memoir invites us to explore the meaning of our lives, the stories of our true selves, not just the superficial moments. Memoir writing is about capturing the essence of an experience. We need to be true to ourselves. We are not writing to justify our lives we are writing to learn about who we are, to explore meaning and make a discovery. The most interesting stories are when readers discover who they are along with you. That means you are writing into the unknown!
Tips for Capturing Memories
- Write down memories on envelopes at the market, in the car—parked of course, or taking a walk. If you don’t write it down, it disappears.
- Record your thoughts on your smartphone or a small recorder.
- Send yourself an email of the ideas that come up on your hike or as you drive—pull over first!
- Get out photo albums and select the images that have the most meaning to you. Use the photo as a trigger to write about what was important for you. Write what you were feeling. Write about what happened before and after the photo was taken.
- Describe the photo in detail. Muse about what is hidden that the viewer can’t see.
- Talk about your memories with friends, and write down what you remember together.
- Family events can be triggers for your memoir file. Write things down or record them.
- If you have a computer, surf the web for memoir writing sites, memory preservation sites, war stories. It’s all out there.
- Write for 5 minutes, a short vignette.
- Next time, write for 10 minutes.
- Basic rule: do not throw away your early efforts. Keep them. The “critic-censor” can be far too critical. Make a file called “saved early drafts.”
- Allow dreams, favorite memories and unforgettable moments to be your writing material. Allow the writing to flow through you without stopping.
- Write short vignettes to quilt together later.
- Remember, you have your own story. Don’t let family or friends 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 the voice, details, and language.
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