When you write a memoir, you take on the task of exploring your life, and being willing to encounter yourself with truth and honesty. Some liken writing a memoir to a spiritual journey that leads us away from known territory. We need a map to guide us where we are going.
To be a memoirist is to be brave, similar to the pioneers I heard about from my great-grandmother Blanche. 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 going to Kansas—in the 1880s, when the prairie was notched with deep ruts of wagon trains. The Indians were still around on the Great Plains, as were outlaws and roving bands. Blanche never found out what happened to the family, but she watched them drive off into the unknown.
They had a map and guides, but taking that journey meant they had to advance into unknown territory. Memoirists need maps and guides for the journey too. To help writers get started and get all the way to the end of the first draft, I teach the turning point and timeline exercises.
Make a list of the 10-15 most important moments of your life—meeting a new person, moving away, encountering danger, an accident, an illness, losing a loved one, a natural disaster, a birth. Falling in love—emotionally significant events.
Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina, says to write “where the fear is, where the heat is.” That 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. We are witnessing along with the narrator a world we have never seen before, just like the pioneers.
During those summer visits when I was young, my great-grandmother and great aunts were busy, washing and hanging clothes on the line to dry in the sun, or cooking—Blanche still used a wood cook stove, even in the summer! The women belonged to quilting bees, and would sit around the quilting frame, chattering and stitching by hand. They cut out designs and patterns from old clothes, creating ripples of colors as the patches came together in the design.
This is what we do with our turning point stories. We write our vignettes in any order. If we write where the heat is, we’ll gather the sections that will be quilted together into a finished
work of art.
Another map of the journey is creating a 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 the years you want to focus on. Then list your turning point stories on the timeline on vertical lines running down from the horizontal. Put your turning point moment in a circle with its brief title.
The timeline can show you many things: how some events clustered together, the way some events followed others, but you’d forgotten that. How the turning points cluster on the timeline reveals new insights. You can Xerox photos to place with the various turning points, creating a kind of vision board, weaving the images of your life.
These techniques help you to have a focus for your memoir. 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. Those stories stayed with me, and made me want to write, to capture what she showed me, to honor the history that she shared with me.
You too will weave magic as you write your memoir.