Writing a memoir means exploring who we are and where we came from, entering the unknown on our journey and discovering ourselves. It means striking out for the gold of truth and honesty, exposure and even a spiritual journey that leads us away from known territory. Writing a memoir is a lot like the pioneers that my great-grandmother told me about. She was in her eighties and I was about eight years old. Her face was deeply grooved, her eyes sank deep in her sockets, her voice sometimes sounded far away, like she was still back there where her memory took her.
She was still a young girl on the farm near the Mississippi River when the neighbors drove up in a covered wagon and got out to say goodbye. They were going to Kansas—this was in the 1880s, when the prairie was notched with the deep ruts of wagon trains. They knew they had to cross the Missouri River, but they didn’t know what they would encounter along the way. The Indians were more or less removed from the Great Plains by then, but there were outlaws and roving bands, there was not much civilization, and towns were far away from each other. The woman was pregnant, the children barefoot. Blanche never found out what happened to them, but she watched them drive off into the unknown. If any of you have ever driven on a regular road, not a freeway, between Iowa and Kansas, you know it’s quite a ways.
They had a map, there were guides, and they must have gotten to Kansas eventually. We memoirists need maps and guides. One form of the “map” that we can use is what I call writing your “turning points.” These are the most important moments of your life, when nothing was the same after the event. It might be meeting a new person, moving away from your hometown, encountering danger, an accident, an illness, or receiving an award or a scholarship, losing a loved one to death, a natural disaster, a birth. Falling in love. Notice that these are examples of emotionally significant events.
Dorothy Allison says to write “where the fear is, where the heat is.” That way we delve into the heart of our stories, of who we were, the high and low points in our lives. Emotion guides us into our journey toward 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. We are witnessing along with the narrator a world we have never seen before, just like the pioneers.
When I was little, my great-grandmother and my great-aunts were busy. They were either washing and hanging clothes on the line to dry in the sun, or cooking—my great-grandmother still used a wood cook stove, even in the summer! They would bake and can the bounty from the garden, or they were busy with their needlework. They belonged to quilting bees, and would sit around the quilting frame, chattering and stitching by hand. They cut out designs and patterns using pieces of old clothes, creating ripples of colors as the separate patches came together in the design.
This is what we do with our turning point stories. They’re vignettes that we can write in any order. Again, if we write where the heat is, we will gather the sections that one day will be quilted together into a more finished work of art.
Another guide on the journey is creating a timeline can be another guide. After you list your turning point stories, plot them on a timeline that you create out of an 18×24 inch piece of paper, large enough to hold several decades. Your memoir will most likely be a part or a theme from your life, but when you start writing, you may not yet be clear on your focus. It is not a waste of time to write more stories than you might end up using as you assemble your quilt, as you may have more than one quilt—I mean memoir! The way the turning points cluster on the timeline can offer new insights into your life, revealing things that you were unaware of. A visual element in creating our memoir is helpful. You can Xerox photos that go with the various turning points, and create a kind of vision board, where you weave the colors and the images of your past.
All these techniques help you to write with more power and focus, help to fuel your journey into your memories. The richness stored there goes beyond what you think you remember. The more you write, the more you develop your turning points and the sensual details of your life, the more you will remember. Maybe you will be like Blanche, in her eighties weaving the stories of the 19th century for me as we rested side by side in the featherbed. Those stories stayed with me, and made me want to write, to capture what she showed me, and honor the history that was within her.
And you too will weave magic as you write your memoir.