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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 Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 6

This is the sixth in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

When my children were small, I took them on short walks in nearby wooded areas. As they got older, I showed them the pleasures of hiking the trails of Yosemite National Park and other places of beauty. No matter where we went as a family or how easy or how hard the path, they loved to dash ahead to seek new adventures. Parental pace was much too slow for them. They ran ahead and then came back quickly. They wore themselves out by covering each distance twice. But that was part of their enthusiasm.

Reflecting on the different paces we manage at different times in our lives, consider this sixth and last Tao of Memoir Writing:

The child in us runs ahead on the path with boundless energy. The seasoned scout cautiously leads the way.

In writing, we tell others of delights or dangers, yet we are the same person.

There is more than one storyteller in each of us. We should let each of these voices come to the fore at different times to help others understand the many textures of our lives.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING TIP: Writing about a time of passionate youthfulness? Try using short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. You will convey some of the boundless energy of that period. Writing about a period of aging or time spent caring for your elderly parents? See if longer sentences and paragraphs better reflect the slowness of those experiences.

If you think about music, recall that there are fast passages and slow passages. Similarly, words create a tempo for the reader and the memoirist controls this by varying the length of the sentences and paragraphs.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING PROMPT: Find a paragraph in a memoir that is particularly vivid for you. Analyze it: Count the number of sentences. Count the number of words in each sentence. Do several long sentences follow each other? Are short sentences used to create impact?

Then rewrite the paragraph. Try making long sentences short. Make short sentences long. You can do this by combining sentences or by cutting some in half. How do the changes alter the rhythm of the story? Which do you like better?

In what ways will you use the craft of writing to show: “The child in us that runs ahead on the path with boundless energy. The seasoned scout that cautiously leads the way.”

by Matilda Butler

The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 5

This is the fifth in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

This reflection on the Tao of Memoir Writing begins with an understanding that not all stories are created equal. Some vignettes we write evoke pleasant memories. It is tempting to tell these stories as if we are still experiencing them. Other vignettes evoke quite the opposite memories. When we tell these stories, we want to “keep our distance.” Consider:

Too close or too far away, we cannot see clearly.

There is a best distance for recalling each event of our lives.

Some stories may be pure delight; they invite us to recount them from an intimate distance. Yet if we stand too close, we may miss their meaning.

Other stories may be too painful to tell without distance, without a narrator’s voice that lets us step outside the situation. Yet if we are too far away, we may lose sight of the emotional and factual truths hidden within.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING TIP: We write memoirs for many reasons. But a common outcome across all the reasons for starting is a better understanding of ourselves at the ending.

A TAO TRY THIS: Take a magazine article. Hold it up so that it almost touches your eye. What do you see? Take that same article and put it on the other side of the room. Now walk back to where you usually sit. What do you see?

If you do this exercise, you’ll understand what we mean in this Tao of Memoir Writing. “Too close or too far away, we cannot see clearly.” When the article was next to your eye, you couldn’t make out a single word, possibly not even a single letter. The parallel in memoir writing is the story when you include many details but forget to bring out why it mattered.

When the article was across the room, you couldn’t read words. In memoir writing, this is the equivalent of crafting a vignette in such a remote way that the reader wonders why you bothered to include it. Again, to “see clearly” our lives, we need to write at the mid-range, neither too close nor too far away.

This is not to say we write about all events in the same way or from the same distance. Be prepared to move in as close as comfort allows. But before you conclude your story, move back. Put the story in context. Consider its impact on your life.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING PROMPT: Write a paragraph about an event or person in your life. The first time, lavish details on this vignette. Get as close as you can. The second time, write with coldness and detachment. Reflect on how you feel after each effort. Write a second paragraph for each version. In the second paragraph take the story and put it in context, personal, cultural, or historical. Give the vignette perspective, personal perspective. How did you feel? How did it change you?

As you write your memoir consider the implication for you and your reader of writing at various distances from the story.

by Matilda Butler

So Many Benefits from Journaling


The advice below is excerpted from a piece I published in Inspire Me Today, three years ago.

Since then I’ve had numerous articles published in print and e-publications. I’ve also published my YA, Talent, after starting, stopping, revising, reshaping, and adding new strands for years, and I am almost finished with a memoir about getting married for the first time at age 62 to a two-time widower seeking his third wife on … Craigslist.

None of this would have happened, though, without the benefits of journaling. At the risk of sounding like I am writing in my journal, where anything goes, I am living proof that journaling works and you don’t lose until you quit trying.

Here is some advice for starting or reviving your journal:

Record what matters. No one can tell your story but you.

Who’d be interested? Kids, grandkids, spouses, your siblings who remember each moment differently, and generations you may never meet.

Write as often as you can. Add photos. Remember you’re writing to friends and family who may live a very different life. What do you want them to know about you and the way you lived?

Don’t worry about rules. Your journal—your rules!

Not sure how to start? There are two surefire ways:

One is to start with a sensory image:

I’m writing on my laptop and listening to the muted clicks of the black keys that glow from the light underneath.

I’m at Starbuck’s, listening to the snatches of conversation that whirl around me.

Afternoon sunlight makes the leaves on the ivy outside my window look shiny.

The second surefire way to start is with a sentence start:

  • I want…
  • I remember…
  • What if…
  • Today I feel…
  • On the best day of my life…
  • Love is…
  • A year from now…

Where can you find sentence starts?

There are over 200 of them listed in You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers. This isn’t an ad; it’s a resource.

You can also take them off of TV and out of books, but why reinvent the wheel? Don’t let the subtitle fool you. It should be Journaling for Everyone.

Can you reuse a sentence start? Absolutely! It shows your change and growth.

As you’re writing, trust your instincts. Trust yourself. Who do you want to be? How do you want the world to perceive you? What do you want the reader to know? Let those questions guide you.

Want to share your results? Leave a comment here or share it with me through www.writeradvice.com.

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.

The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

Today’s Tao musings focus on the habit of writing. Consider:

Good habits are good friends; we return to them gladly every day.

A ritual or habit creates a path that is shaped by use.

We seek to release ourselves from rituals that bind or restrict. We seek to open ourselves to habits of creativity that we gladly practice daily. The habit of writing, once established, carries us forward toward our goals.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING TIP: How often have you said, “I’ll work on my memoir when I have more time.” If you are busy today, it is a safe bet that you will be busy a week from now, a month from now, a year from now, and five years from now. Time doesn’t suddenly become available on its own. You need to put writing into your admittedly busy schedule.

Do you know the memoir by choreographer Twyla Tharp The Creative Habit? In describing her life, her creative art, she has given us a way to understand that a set of habits, habits for creativity, can keep us moving forward.

Try writing daily for two weeks, even 10 minutes per day. You’ll be amazed at how this one creativity habit lets the ideas begin to flow. This habit will become like a good friend, one you look forward to greeting.

by Matilda Butler

Betwixt & Between: Creativity in a Liminal Time

liminal – adj. [technical]
1. of or relating to an initial or transitional stage of a process
2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a threshhold.
origin: late 19th century; from Latin limen, limin ‘threshhold’

For the past few weeks, the word “liminal” has been in my mind. It’s a curious word most often used in sociology, anthropology and psychology, and it is almost oenomatopoetic (sounding like its meaning). Say “liminal” out loud and the word feels drifty, as if it’s a kind of floating place, there in transition, on the threshhold to… what?

I think I first heard the word from Molly, home on break from Reed College more than 15 years ago. Her daddy was talking about how he was struggling with the transition from being a professor of Economics, his time structured–constrained, really–by classes and grad students and committees, to a self-employed consultant who had to find his own work and schedule every day.

Molly said something like, “You’re in a liminal state, Dad.” He who always loved learning new words or new anything asked what ‘liminal’ meant. She explained.

I listened to their discussion as I prepared dinner for the three of us, and rolled the word around in my mouth like a marble, intrigued by the way the consonants and vowels slid out like quiet water.


Richard, Molly, and Isis, our late, great, Great Dane,
at Christmas break in 2003

As a freelance writer, I knew the feeling of it, that curious pause, the hesitation at being betwixt and between that came when I finished a writing project, whether one that had required months and months of my attention like a book, or just the days and weeks devoted to reserching and writing a feature article or commentary.

As soon as a manuscript leaves my desk, I enter that liminal time–even though I didn’t know the word until Molly mentioned it–that shift and confusion in reorientating my life and world to whatever the next project is. There is always that moment, standing on the threshhold or just before it, when I feel a queer combination of bereft and adrift, and also the quickening of excitement (and no small amount of terror) at taking off into the unknown.

Liminal comes to mind now because it’s where I am. I finished what I hope is the final major rewrite of Bless the Birds almost three weeks ago—the day before what what be Richard’s 66th birthday—and sent it off to my agent (who is reading it right now).

I have some smaller projects to work on, but they’re not occupying the same intense and exhilarating creative space the memoir did. They’re good work but not the deep work of heart and spirit that I’ve come to put into my books.

I can’t quite see what’s ahead, though I have a vague outline, and I’m drifting a bit. When I’m not engaged in those immediate deadlines, I read and let my mind wander, which is sometimes comfortable but often not.

I am much more used to a focus and a schedule, but honestly, creativity does not come from being comfortable. This betwixt and between state is far more open to creativity than when I have my tidy self organized and pointed at a deadline.

I need this unmoored, edgy, awkward time to push my boundaries, to throw open the doors in my mind, to think of ten impossible things before breakfast, to be surprised and amazed and unsettled, to open myself to what I didn’t know I didn’t know, the paths that will take me far beyond the familiar and comfortable and safe.

It helps to have useful work to occupy the front of my mind right now, so my subconscious can wander and integrate things that didn’t necessarily seem to be related, find pattern in chaos and meaning in random thoughts and memories and ideas. So that I can weather the uneasiness of knowing that possibilities are so wide open that it’s bewildering and somewhat overwhelming, that I have no set goal to aim at or even more than the vaugest idea of a general direction I might want to take.

Come November, thanks to the Women’s International Study Center and the residency they awarded me at Acequia Madre House in Santa Fe, I’ll have a whole glorious month to explore whatever has presented itself in this liminal time. A month to wander paths–both literal and metaphorical–without caring where they go, just to see and feel whatever is there.

Liminal time, that state when anything and everything is possible, when we have yet to choose the path or even know which door we will go through. It’s scary, discomfiting, annoying, and increatibly [oops, that was supposed to be “incredibly,” but I kind of like “increatibly” too!] liberating; if we can stay with it, that awkward and difficult process may yield our most creative inspirations, like a bud, cells dividing seemingly at random until the whole assemblage forms a glorious bloom.