family ghosts, invisible kitties and memoir writingThe other day my grandson, Seth, regaled me with a story about kitties as I was putting the red and blue cap on top of his swirl of blonde curls.

“Remember, the kitty who died, Shanti was her name, right? Well, she’s one of the invisible kitties. She’s still with us even though we can’t see her. There are others too, and one has an X on his back.”

As with four year olds, the story began to meander and new characters joined up, and more kitties, some invisible and some visible. I thought, wow, we have the makings of a fiction writer here!

I also thought how true it is—loved ones who have died, or those who are missing in our lives, Seth’s father is in the hospital right now, are with us even though we can’t see them. And that is what memoir writing is all about: to bring them to life again, to walk and talk with them, to keep them close to us.

In the writing world, we hear many reasons that people want to write their memoir—to set the record straight, to go on record as a witness to astounding events, or to try to understand the past. Another reason is simply for love—to find the love that was missing in a conflictual family story, to honor those whom we loved, to honor the memory of family who will otherwise be forgotten. Books are a way of capturing a sliver of immortality. However, much of the advice for memoir writing centers on the practical—be sure to create a plot, figure out before you write how to market your book, choose the books that are like yours and aim your points to your audience. Keeping all this in mind is like listening to chatter while you are trying to hear the voice of your story and feel its beating heart.

Memoir writers, in my opinion, need to focus on tuning into the poetry of their lives, to take time without Facebook, Twitter, web traffic and audience as a distraction to listen to the color of sun on the leaves, to see the beauty of snow as it falls, to take in life as an artist and a poet. All the rest of what happens after you write your memoir will take care of itself, you will have new drafts that will help you when it is time. For now, you need to see the invisible kitties, to hold in your heart the ones you love and show how their lives braided into yours. Writing a memoir is an invitation to celebrate life, what we have now and what we value from the past.

I can’t wait to hear where the story that Seth has to tell is going. I know that the next time I’m with him, I’m going to be thinking of what his four year old mind is grasping that will one day become his memories. As the wind makes the leaf on the wisteria bush outside the window twirl, he tells me about it. When he picks up pine needles and floats them down the gutter, I wonder if he will remember that we did these things together during the winter of the year when he was four. As his memories form, mine entwine with his, and then I’m time traveling as I remember my own past, and the invisible ones whose voices and faces appear day to day—my father, great-grandmother, my mother and grandmother, not to mention friends who have died along the way. But now through Seth’s story I have a new way to think about them. They are like the now invisible kitty that once purred in my living room, the kitty whose life I saved so her golden years were peaceful. I think of picking up the phone to call my long gone loved ones, only to realize they died nearly forty years ago. It seems impossible, how could time do this, but then I remember that I’ve captured them in my stories, and my heart is lighter.

  • What stories do you carry in your heart that need capturing in a memoir vignette?   Think about moments that illuminate your life, whether amusing, heartbreaking, uplifting, or inspiring.
  • Simple moments are often the threads that weave our lives into a great pattern of meaning.  Allow your mind to veer from the absolute “facts” into your imagination. Psychologists tell us that given the fluid nature of memory and the mind, we might even be remembering “true” event when we unmoor our minds from the tension of absolutes about memory, truth, and facts.
  • Notice what kind of writing, fiction, memoir, or nonfiction most moves and inspires you. Keep notebook of your thoughts and reactions, and allow yourself to be taught by other great writers.
  • Write summaries of books that you enjoy, and even book reports. All writing helps to feed your writing skills.
  • Write summaries of books that you enjoy, and even book reports. All writing helps to feed your writing skills.

I love hearing from you.  Please share your thoughts, comments, reactions or samples of your responses  to these writing prompts in the comments section about your family ghosts, invisible kitties or memoir writing in general.