As you can see in the photo, I have years of journals to draw from as I write my new memoir about transformation in the 60s and 70s! When I wrote Don’t Call Me Mother, I didn’t use journals, as most of what I had to write about happened long before I started journaling. However, there were a few entries about my mother’s death that were helpful–sometimes we don’t want to remember everything! But for most of writing that memoir, I wanted to draw upon memory as my method and context.
Writing now from my more recent past, a time when I underwent major changes and development is different–and I’m finding the journals illuminating–even surprising. So that’s what I was thinking when I was thirty years old! I knew a lot, and I knew nothing. I see that my choice of journals were workaday lined notebooks where I could write messy and fast. What is your favorite style of journal?
Do you like that delicious feeling of holding a brand new journal and a new pen to go with it as you sit down to write? As you hold it, perhaps you imagine what you are going to write and feel the invitation of the paper and the pen. Some people are journaling online now too, which has a certain appeal to, a safe place complete with locked password. But for many of us, there is something seductive and wonderful about cracking up that new journal. Whatever your method, in your journal you’re inviting the words lead you to new places within yourself as you explore your thoughts, feelings, and your life story.
Most of the writers I work with come to memoir writing from having journaled for many years. I remember how some women in my workshops talk about the boxes of journals they’ve hidden in their closets. One woman says, “What will I do if my children find them. Should I shred them now?”
Another one answers, “I want to save my journals so I can draw upon them as I write my memoir.”
Yes, therein lies the dilemma that both journalers and memoir writers have in common: “How do I feel about other people reading my private thoughts and feelings?”
But there is an important difference—we write our journal in an atmosphere of privacy, not for other people to read. In a journal, we write freely, exploring our psyches, digging deep to try to understand ourselves more, seeking peace, transformation, resolution. Sometimes we need to rant, we need to make lists of what we love or hate, we need to write letters that we don’t send, we need to express anger, fear, joy, sorrow, ecstasy, hope. We write to find out what we think, inviting the flow of words to emerge from us in whatever way they wish.
To write a memoir, we need to invite that same kind of free writing at times, to get the juices flowing, but a memoir is written ultimately to be shared with readers. We need to shape our stories, thoughts, and narration so readers can see, hear and feel the world we create on the page. We draw upon fictional tools of description, scenes, character development and sensual details to bring the reader close to our experiences. As memoir writers, we need to learn these tools for creating that world and keep the reader in it. John Gardner calls it “the fictive dream” in his book The Art of Fiction—and the same idea applies to memoir, which reads like a novel—only everything is true!
I advise all my students of memoir writing to dig back into journal writing to keep the flow going, to explore their memories without being self-conscious of the structure and style. In the early stages, your memoir is being assembled, dreamed, quilted together and you need to allow that process to unfold.
This week at the National Association of Memoir Writers member teleseminar, we’re so pleased to speak with a journaling expert Dr. Jackie Swensen. She is going to talk about self-discovery through memoir writing, and bring her considerable skills as a therapist and avid journaler to all of us. Please join us!
In the meantime, keep your journal handy. Or go out and buy a new one! Enjoy filling those empty pages. Now, back to my research in my inky, messy but oh so informative journals!