Writing a memoir involves remembering bits and pieces of your life and putting them down on paper. After all, a memoir covers a portion of your life—a few months, a year, a few years—that happened previously. And sometimes this period of time lies in your distant past. It may seem like remembering the conversations, the places, the experiences could prove way too difficult. If you know how to bring these memories back to the forefront of your mind, though, you’ll discover it’s not difficult at all. Before you know it, your memories…and your memoir…will be flowing quickly and easily.
Linda Joy Myers, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, is back again today as our memoir expert to tell us how to mine our memories so we can write a memoir. She’s got some great tools and tips, so read on…
Mining Your Memories 101
Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D.
If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. Toni Morrison
Writers often struggle with the issue of memory: do I have enough memories to write a memoir. Are my memories “correct?” What if someone disagrees—will I be found out or exposed like James Frye was a few years ago?
The answer is no! There is no such thing as correct memory, it’s all about perception and interpretation. Everyone’s view of an event is like a slice of pie—each section looks toward the middle from a different angle. Everyone in a family would write a different memoir—if they dared! (And the James Frey thing was not about memory, it was about exaggerating.)
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. You can look for these streams by doing research: visit your home town where there is history and meaning, memories around every corner. When I first started exploring my past, I took the long trek to visit the town where I grew up in Oklahoma. As the familiar lay of the land, the rise of the wheat elevators, the smells of earth rose up, I was shocked and amazed at the rush of images, like a movie in fast motion, as I drove down familiar roads. My body knew this as home and triggered more memories than I could have imagined, fueling my need to capture them before they just as easily flew away.
To encourage your memories, look at photographs, listen to a song, explore where you town is on Google Earth. Research is a great way to get started. Then place your fingers over the keyboard and invite images and snippets to flow from your fingers. You can begin with a piece of story, an image, a sensual experience—listen to your body/mind as the story takes shape and take dictation!
Begin with a scene—put yourself in a time and a place, setting where you are physically. This helps you to write directly from sensual experience. Write from who you were at different ages.
Dreams help us get into our stories and memories. Write down your dreams, and then keep writing, free associating, exploring. Sometimes insights and connections happen when we aren’t trying.
Dive into the tough memories, the stories that scare you, the stories you really don’t want to write. It is here that the gold is found, the moments in your life that you need to understand, your secrets and regrets. What are the life lessons that haunt you, that come back to you on soft feet in the middle of the night? These contain some of the important points of your life, the times that tug at your heart and soul. There are riches there for you to explore.
Memoir writing is about capturing who we are and were. We need to be honest, to write our truths as best we can, not worrying about a publisher, the public, and agent or even the family. We have to be true to ourselves. The best stories are the deepest truths that we can share as we dig into what it means to be human, what it’s like to travel our own unique path. In the current marketplace, if and when you’re interested in publishing, people are eager to learn from others—a memoir invites people into their own living room, even their hearts—and in this we all become deeply intertwined in the shared stories of human experience.
Tips for Capturing Significant Memories
- Write down memories on envelopes at the market, in the car—parked of course, or taking a walk. Call yourself and leave a message. Text it to someone. Take a note on your cell phone. If you don’t write it down, it disappears.
- Get out photo albums. Use the photo as a trigger to write. Write about what you were feeling. Write about what happened before and after the photo was taken.
- Describe the photo in detail, and muse about its meaning, what’s hidden that the viewer can’t see. If it’s a photo of long dead relatives, but it fascinates you, write what you imagine happened on that day. Weave in family stories.
- Talk with friends, and write down what you remember together.
- Family events can be triggers for your memoir file. Write things down or put them on tape.
- If you have a computer, surf the web for memoir writing sites, memory preservation sites, war stories. It’s all out there.
- Write for 10 minutes, a short vignette.
- Next time, write for 20 minutes. Notice that the more you write, the more you write!
- Basic rule: do not throw away anything. Do not hit the delete key. The Make a file called “saved early drafts.” Don’t listen to that inner critic. It doesn't yet know what you are about. Fear and shame are friends of the inner critic. If these are parts of you, then beware of any little voice that tells you to throw your writing away. It’s most often wrong. Besides, computer files don’t take up much room. Keep your stories—they are part of your research and your journey.
- Invite dreams, favorite memories and unforgettable moments. Allow them to flow through you in a freewrite—writing for 15 minutes without taking your fingers off the keys or your hand from the page. Get into the flow—it helps develop your writing stamina.
- Don’t worry about where to start or what you will write about. Write short vignettes to quilt together later.
- Remember, you have your own story. Don’t let the point of view of family members 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 voice, details, and language and write in the flow of what you remember.
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
About the Author
Linda Joy Myers is a memoir mentor and editor, and the founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers. She’s the author of The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story, and the award winning memoir Don’t Call Me Mother. Linda is Co-President of the Women’s National Book Association, San Francisco branch, and past president of the California Writers Club, Marin branch. She is a speaker and workshop leader nationally, and helps people capture their stories through coaching, editing, and online workshops. Visit the National Association of Memoir Writers (ww.namw.org) and Linda’s blog (http://memoriesandmemoirs.com).