From Memories to Memoirs, Part 2 — Mapping Your Story

This is the second in a series on moving from memories to memoirs. Click here to read Memories to Memoirs, Part 1.

One of the great challenges (and satisfactions) of writing memoir is dealing with fragmented memories. We may remember only a snippet of an event; we may be haunted by a key images or emotions but don’t remember enough of the context — surrounding moments, people, places, and conversations — to write about it. Or at least that’s what we think.

What I have found is that the context to all our important memories is there, stored in our minds and bodies; it only needs a little probing to be released. So today I want to share with you a technique I learned from Bill Roorbach’s book, Writing Life Stories — a technique that has helped me and many of my students trigger and expand our memories.

Map Stories

Though we don’t often realize it, our memories are associated with the places in which the events occurred. Drawing maps of places you’ve lived, worked, played, and gone to school can expand memories in surprising ways, recreating whole worlds of experiences. By encouraging our minds to remember the details of those places, we unlock the details in each of those places’ nooks and crannies.

Try this:

Get a piece of paper, the larger the better, and colored pencils or crayons. If you don’t have colored pencils, a regular pencil will do the trick.

Now, draw a map of the earliest neighborhood you can remember living in. Draw the streets and neighboring houses with as much detail as possible. As you draw, ask yourself:

  • What were the names of the streets?
  • Who lived where?
  • Where were my secret places?
  • Who were my friends? Where did they live? What about the friends of my brothers and sisters?
  • Where wasn’t I allowed to go?
  • Where did the good and things happen?
  • Where did the bad things happen?

Don’t worry about making the map perfect or to scale. Don’t worry about getting the lines straight. Allow yourself to sink back into the mind of the child that you were as you draw. As images come up, draw them. (You can use a symbol that you’ll remember.) Take time with your map, drawing surrounding trees, geographic details, and so on. You’ll be surprised by how much comes up. Powerful memories will surface that you didn’t even know you had.

Once you’ve finished your map write a story, starting with, “One day ….”

Wrote about what happened in that one place on that one day.

Go ahead. Write.

What’s Next?

Put your map story in a binder. Then draw a map of another time and place in your life: another home, your school, your favorite place as a teenager. Write that story and add it to your binder.

In the next post we’ll discuss Making a Scene.


Photo Credit: neonzu1 via Compfight cc

Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

From Memories to Memoirs, Part 1 — What is Memoir?

Our greatest desire, greater even than the desire for happiness, Is that our lives mean something. This desire for meaning is the originating impulse of story.   ~Daniel Taylor

I believe that everyone’s lives, however “ordinary,” are filled with experiences that speak to universal human experience and are therefore interesting to other people. Today I’m beginning a ten-part article series intended to help you begin writing about some of these meaningful experiences in your life. Over the next ten weeks or so, I’ll discuss memory-triggering techniques and writing exercises to explore the stories your memories have to tell and (hopefully) help you get started telling them.

I know it’s  a busy time of year, and it might seem strange to begin a ten-part article just before Christmas, yet it’s also a reflective time of year —a time when we think back over what we’ve done and achieved during the previous year; a time when we think forward to the new year. If you have a little down time between now and the New Year, you might consider embarking on some memoir writing during the next few weeks. And if you don’t have time now, bookmark this post and come back to it when you do.

What is Memoir?

In its simplest definition, memoir is a written account of an aspect, period, or series of events from your life. An autobiography, on the other hand, is an account of your entire life. Memoir can be centered on certain people, such as parents, grandparents, siblings, and colleagues, or themes, such as marriage, divorce, death, and loss.

A memoir is an attempt to express your perception of the truth as remembered, while autobiography sticks more to the facts. Of course, it is important to remain as factual as possible in memoir, but because memoir is an accounting of memory — and memory is understood to be faulty and inaccurate at best — we also understand that memoir may express your experiential truth while, at the same time, not necessarily being factually accurate. (Did she really wear a red dress that day, or is it only the way I remember it?)

Writing about a sequence of events over a particular period of time, in an of itself, does not make a memoir. A memoir that is a story reveals or explores something about our humanity. It’s an expression of what matters about those events.

E.M. Forster famously said about plot (I’m paraphrasing): “The king died and then the queen died” is not a story. However, “The king died and then the queen died of grief” brings meaning to the events. They become story. Memoir applies the elements of story to your own life.

Truth in Memoir

In Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach writes, “Information is almost never the first goal of memoir; expression often is. Beauty—of form, of language, of meaning—always takes precedence over mere accuracy, truth over mere facts.” (p13, italics mine.)

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about truth in memoir. And we all know the story of James Frey, who became the poster child of what not to do when writing memoir. It’s never acceptable to fabricate events or exaggerate something beyond what we remember or know to be true in order to make something more dramatic or interesting. On the other hand, a child’s memories of an event may naturally be exaggerated, compressed (where several events are remembered as one), or in other ways untrue to the facts. In this case, the memories themselves are true. When a writer puts those memories to the page, she acknowledges the fact that she is writing from the child’s viewpoint. Her memories of events are part of her personal story, as much as the events themselves.

Journaling/Writing/Discussion Prompts

  • What, for you, is the essence of “memoir”?
  • Where is your personal line between “the truth” and “the facts”?
  • What kinds of research can you perform to assist with writing your memories?
  • If you find out that a memory is inaccurate, how might you still write about that memory as true?

Photo Credit: ZedZap. via Compfight cc
Reprinted by permission from Amber Starfire

The Grip of the Gripe: Shutting the Duck Up

I’m not a griper, at least not an out-loud griper. My griping is done in the privacy of my own little head–it’s all internal chatter. I get hooked into playing a Spiral Mind Game that keeps me in a swirling ain’t-it-awful loop. By the end of the day, it has successfully sucked the life out of me.

I lose my true aim, and feel like I should just give up. Ugh.

I know. Griping about a situation is a waste of time yet, there I was, doing it. I was complaining, grumbling, grousing, and, my favorite, whining.

“But I promised myself I would write daily. I’ll never get the draft of You’ll Never Find Us finished,” I whined in my journal. I thought I had paved the way to easy writing by reducing obligations and saying no to meetings unless they furthered my book and/or my health.

It sounded good at the time. Here’s the reality of it.

It has been a frustrating ride writing this book. Life still gets in the way. When I fell off the proverbial writing-wagon the chatter in my head kicked in almost instantly. It sounded like the quacking of a duck telling me: give up, you’ll never write the book, it’ll always end up on the back burner, you’re not good enough.

I needed help to shut the duck up.

And then the weirdest thing happened.

As I continued to journal, whining about the plight of my book and questioning my worth, who shows up on the page but a”voice” I’d never heard before. It was Big Mama: bold, full-bodied, with a loud mouth and very funny.

You know what she said? She said, “You need to let go of that garbage, girl. Get a grip! Stop listening to that quacker.”

Startled, I asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m your new best self. You already got enough crazy voices in that head of yours. You don’t need another one. You don’t need permission or anybody’s approval to write your book, and you sure don’t need to work your fingers to the bone proving your worth. You’re a worthy girl, you hear me?”

I told her I felt like I had a new spine.

“You’re my baby now and we’re gonna take baby steps when the crazies start getting to you. Got it? If they show up, just ask yourself, is this making me feel better about myself? If not, shut them up and start writing. I’ll check in with you tomorrow.”

“Wait,” I wrote. “What’s your name?”

It was as if I could hear a big, deep belly laugh when she responded, “Honey, just call me Rita.”

I got a grip and plan to keep my aim true…and write that book. Rita and her sense of humor have saved me.

What saves you?

If you hear yourself repeatedly complaining about the same thing, I’ll send Rita your way and have her get in your face, or at least in your head.

Those other voices don’t make you smile. Rita will–if you’ll listen to her.


Jeanne Guy Gatherings
Explore~Reframe~Restory Your Life
Reimagining Your Life Through Reflective Writing
www.jeanneguy.com

Where To Submit Your Work

Writing Personal Essays or Life Stories? Here are some places to start your search for the right audience and/or publisher. Click on the link for more information–save to your favorites if the site looks useful.

Chicken Soup for the Soul, http://www.chickensoup.com/ Story Circle Network, www.storycircle.org The Sun Magazine, http://thesunmagazine.org/

WOW: Women on Writing, http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/

TheWriteLife: http://thewritelife.com/19-websites-magazines-want-publish-personal-essays/

Interested in publishing your work yourself?

Balboa Press, www.balboapress.com/

Create Space, https://www.createspace.com/

Lulu, http://www.lulu.com/

Amazon Publishing Services or Barnes & Noble Self Publishing

Here are two hybrid publishers (they do some of the work a traditional publisher does, but not all)

Outskirts Press, www.outskirtspress.com

She Writes Press, http://shewritespress.com/

If you prefer a small press, do some research: Type your genre + “small press” into a search engine. Example: Memoir + small press. See what comes up and follow the directions given. Approach small presses on your own if they say it is okay. You need an agent for the larger ones.

If you are seeking an agent who will represent your work to a larger house, type in “agents seeking” + your genre and see what comes up. Example: Agents seeking romance

Another strategy: go to several bookstores. Find where your book would be shelved. Look in the acknowledgements section of the books there to see who has represented work in your genre and query those agents. Tell them how you learned about them.

There are resources listed quarterly at Writer Advice. Go to http://www.writeradvice.com/cm2. Or go to www.writeradvice.com and click on Contests & Markets. While you are there, go to the home page, www.writeradvice.com, to find out about our current contest. We are known for our sound and solid feedback.

Additional Places Calling for Submissions & Giving Advice:

69 Poetry Contests That Pay Really Well, http://www.ardorlitmag.com/poetry-contests.html

Duotrope, https://duotrope.com/ (You need to become a member)

Funds for Writers, http://fundsforwriters.com/

New Pages, http://www.newpages.com/

No Fee Chapbook Publishers, https://trishhopkinson.com/2015/02/19/no-fee-chapbook-publishers-and-other-chapbook-listings/

Poets & Writers Classifieds, http://www.pw.org/classifieds

Writer Advice, http://www.writeradvice.com/cm2

Writer’s Digest, http://www.writersdigest.com/submission-guidelines

The Writer, http://www.writermag.com/

In case it sounds too good to be true, here are a couple of watchdogs:

This one gives advice about which editors, agents, and publishers to avoid: http://critters.org/c/pubtips.ht

This one warns which Contests & Services to avoid and gives good reasons: https://winningwriters.com/the-best-free-literary-contests/contests-to-avoid

When in doubt, use your best judgment. Weigh the benefits against the cost. Read contracts carefully. Remember that the publishing world is evolving.


B. Lynn Goodwin owns Writer Advice . She’s written You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers (Tate Publishing) and Talent (Eternal Press).  Goodwin’s work has appeared in Voices of Caregivers; Hip Mama; Small Press Review; Dramatics Magazine; The Sun; GoodHousekeeping.com; PurpleClover.com; and elsewhere. She is working on a memoir about getting married for the first time at 62.

Starting cold? Warm up first! (part 2 of 2)

This post is one of Susan’s LifeStory Briefs, written exclusively for Story Circle members and shared with you here with her permission.


Have you ever tried to start a cold car in the middle of December? You hit the ignition, you give it extra gas—and nothing happens! Sometimes getting started on a piece of writing is just as hard as starting a cold engine. No matter how much we might want to get going, sometimes we just can’t find the spark, or we can’t seem to turn on the fuel. What we need is an extra charge for the battery, a little push, a boost. What we need is something to get us started, to warm us up!

Here are some warm-up exercises that will not only get the ink flowing, but will also give you plenty of ideas to write about later. You might try doing each of these warm-ups on a clean page of your notebook, so that you can come back at another time and expand what you’ve written. (We’ve given you some ideas for ways that you can use the material you develop here.)

  • Write about the three most significant jobs (include volunteer work) you ever had. Later, choose one job and write about it. Be sure to tell how you grew from the experience. How did the work enrich your life?
  • List the three most memorable events in your life. Later, choose one and write down everything you can remember about it.
  • What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you? Later, see if you can remember two or three other funny things.
  • List four things you would do differently if you had a choice. Later, write in detail about one of these. Why would you choose differently? What choice would you make instead? What difference do you think it would have made in your life?
  • Write down five things that please and delight you the most. Later, choose one and do it. Write about the enjoyment and pleasure you feel.)

Starting cold? Warm up first! (part 1 of 2)

This post is one of Susan’s LifeStory Briefs, written exclusively for Story Circle members and shared with you here with her permission.


Have you ever tried to start a cold car in the middle of December? You hit the ignition, you give it extra gas—and nothing happens! Sometimes getting started on a piece of writing is just as hard as starting a cold engine. No matter how much we might want to get going, sometimes we just can’t find the spark, or we can’t seem to turn on the fuel. What we need is an extra charge for the battery, a little push, a boost. What we need is something to get us started, to warm us up!

Here are some warm-up exercises that will not only get the ink flowing, but will also give you plenty of ideas to write about later. You might try doing each of these warm-ups on a clean page of your notebook, so that you can come back at another time and expand what you’ve written. (We’ve given you some ideas for ways that you can use the material you develop here.)

  • Make a list of the ten most important things that have ever happened to you. Later, write a page about each one. What happened? Who was involved? Why did it happen? Why was it important to you? What were the consequences?
  • Write down the three most important lessons you have ever learned. Later, write about what you did with the knowledge. Why were these lessons valuable to you?
  • In chronological order, jot down all the houses you’ve ever lived in. Later, choose the 3 most important and describe them. What made them important?
  • Write down the names of the people you have loved longest and most dearly. Later, choose 3 to write about. Why did you love these people? What did they add to your life?
  • Describe the three most imporant choices you’ve ever made. Later, write about what happened after you made each of these choices. What did they lead to?

Seeing Double: Writing from Photos

This post is one of Susan’s LifeStory Briefs, written exclusively for Story Circle members and shared with you here with her permission.


For most of us, a photograph is a way of holding the past in our hands—seeing what happened, when, with whom. Photos are a testimony to a time now gone, and to our intimate connection with people who may no longer be alive. They are a way of “seeing double”—recalling past events and reliving them in the present. For those of us who want to write about our lives, photographs can be a fine resource.

Using Photos to Remember

Here today, gone tomorrow—the past is as slippery and hard to hold as a wet fish. But when we have a photo to write from, our memory of the past may become much clearer—or we may find something new to notice, some new discovery about the past that has eluded us.Try this: find a favorite photo of yourself with someone who has influenced you—your mother, your father, a much-loved aunt, a husband or lover. Look at it for a moment, thinking about your relationship with the person and putting yourself back into the perspective of the girl or woman you were at that time. Then write. Who were you, back then? Who was this person? Why was he or she important to you then? What lessons did you learn, at that time, from him or her?

A Later Perspective

As you wrote the passage above, you were seeing the photograph from the point of view of the person you were at the time it was taken. Now, let’s try a different perspective, take a later point of view. We know that nfluential relationships are often double-edged: that is, we may be influenced to change in ways that might not be altogether right for us. Look at the photo again, but this time from the point of view of the woman you are now. How might your life have been different if the person in the photo had not been there? What did you learn from this person that you now wish you hadn’t? Is there something in the photo that gives you a clue to this more problematic aspect of the relationship? Perhaps there is something in the posture, in the facial expression, in the setting, that helps you see something different. Viewing the past from your present perspective may help you to uncover a different understanding of the events and relationships you have experienced.

Seeing Double: Finding the Truth

We’ve all heard the old saying, “Photographs don’t lie.” But this isn’t always true. In a workshop a few years ago, an older woman named Pearl brought a photo of herself as a small child, sitting on her mother’s lap. Both were smiling, both looked happy. “But those smiles were lies,” Pearl wrote. “My father had abandoned both of us. We had no money and we were afraid. But Mother didn’t want her parents to know how bad it was, so she sent them the photo to show that we were doing fine. ‘Just keep smiling,’ she would say, ‘and nobody will know the difference.’ Deception was the first lesson I had to unlearn,” Pearl adds, “when I began to search for my real self.” If you look through your photograph collection, you may find one that you can “see double”—that is, one you can see with the eyes of the person you were then, and with the eyes of the person you are now. What truth can you find in this photo? What new thing does it show you about the past through which you have lived?

Memoir Albums

If you have lots of photos, you might consider assembling a memoir album: a book of photos and your interpretations of the people and the events depicted—together with your own history, of course. You may be surprised by what you learn from this. Photographs can be a key to the treasures, and the traumas, of the deeply buried past. —Susan Albert

The Past in Pictures

You can learn a great deal about your past by studying the photos you have collected, particularly those of the family you grew up in. Use these questions to help you get started writing.Who?
Who are the people in the photographs? If you know them, write a paragraph or two about them: who they are, where they lived, how they were connected to you. If you don’t know them, ask family members to help with identification. Pay attention to the details of dress, posture, facial expression: these silent messages often speak very loudly.

Where and When?
Where were these photographs taken? What scenes are depicted? What do these tell you about the people? What years were the photos made? How old were you? What details of the period are evident in dress, vehicles, furniture, etc.? What can you write about the time and the place?

What?
Photographs often commenorate important family occasions: weddings, funerals, reunions, holidays. What are the occasions of the photos you have collected? What family rituals are being celebrated? What does this tell you about your family’s ethnic background, religious beliefs, economic and social class? How do you feel about these occasions now, as you look back on them? Write about the events, including not just the details of the event, but your feelings, as well.