From Memories to Memoirs, Part 3 — Remembering Vividly

This is the third in a series on moving from memories to memoirs. Click here to read Memories to Memoirs, Part 2.

In part two, we used map drawing to trigger memories about place and time in our lives. In this article I present another technique to release sensory details from the subconscious and bring amorphous memories into sharper focus before writing a scene of the event. I taught a condensed version of this technique in my workshop, “A Legacy of Story,” at the Story Circle Network conference in Austin TX this last weekend, and I call it “Remembering Vividly” because that is what it helps us do.

Before you begin, to help you understand the importance of recovering memories of sensory details, select a piece you’ve written recently. Print it out and highlight every reference to a sensory detail. Which senses are included? Which sense is dominant?

If you’re like most writers the dominant sense is visual. That’s because most of us write “by sight.” That is, we include what we see and, sometimes, what we hear. Rarely what we smell, taste, or feel (as in the sense of touch). If your writing tends to fall within this “mostly sight” category, you may fail to engage your readers.  If you want to write vivid memories, then you must learn to remember vividly — not just see, but smell, taste, feel, and hear those memories — as well as expand your sensory vocabulary.

Remembering vividly is best accomplished in a light meditative state, and the practice of remembering takes only from 5 to 15 minutes. Writing the scene will take another 15-30 minutes depending upon the level of detail you include. If you’re on a tight time budget (and who isn’t?), I recommend allowing yourself a minimum 20 minutes to complete this process.

Here’s how it works (read the following directions all the way through before beginning):

Remembering Vividly

  1. Choose a memory to work with — either from the piece you selected or a different memory. For best results, the memory should be a significant moment in your life.
  2. Find a quiet, low-lit place where you can relax and not be disturbed. Sit in a comfortable chair or find an alternative comfortable position, close your eyes, and take long, deep breath. With each exhale, release tension in a part of your body, beginning with your toes and feet and ankles and moving all the way up your body until you feel the tension in your scalp and brows relax. Continue to breathe regularly for a few moments.

    To shorten the time, take five deep breaths, releasing tension from your entire body with each exhale. Then continue to the next step.
  3. Keeping your eyes closed, focus inward on your memory as if it were occurring in the present moment. Where are you? What’s around you? Who is with you? What is the quality of light? Pay attention to all the details: colors and textures, sounds, odors (if you can’t detect odors, think about what odors or scents might be present, given your environment), and physical sensations. If there is food, what does it taste like? What is its texture in your mouth?
  4. Now broaden your perception by turning around in your imagination — slowly, in a full circle. Again, pay attention to all the sensory details.
  5. Stay in your expanded memory until you feel satisfied you have remembered as much as possible, take a few more deep breaths, and gently bring your conscious mind partway back into the room in which you are sitting. Stay in a semi-dream or meditative state.
  6. Feeling the memory about you, write a list of all the words and phrases that describe it: colors, textures, sounds, scents, tastes, physical sensations. Don’t analyze or begin to write about emotions — stay strictly focused on the senses.
  7. When you have completed your list, bring yourself fully into the present moment.

Write Your Scene
Now write (or rewrite) a scene of the moment as remembered, including as many of the words from your list as possible. Slow down, making sure to record every little detail, and give yourself permission to “go overboard” with your description. Writing the scene in present tense will help you stay focused on the actions and concrete details of your memory.

Finally, take a few minutes to write in your journal about this process and what emotions, discoveries, or revelations came to you as you remembered or wrote. Later, you may decide to include some of these reflections in your narrative. For now, I suggest keeping them separate.

As always, I look forward to your comments and questions. Did you try this meditative method for recovering sense-based memory? If so, what happened? Are there other techniques that have worked equally well for you?


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

I Never Gave Up My Dream

I never gave up on my dream. That is the key. All it took was the persistence to never give up.

Early on in my life I thought of myself as a journalist and creative writer, but after college I settled for something more practical–technical writing and editing in the aerospace industry. And while I was even able to convince myself that I would never be able to achieve my dream, it kept gnawing on me.

While I worked my day job as a technical writer for over twenty-eight years and in a few other jobs as a real estate salesperson, programmer, and fundraiser for non-profits, I took creative detours. I learned to draw and paint, I learned to sew, I made needlepoint pillows, I quilted and knit. And, I co-authored a non-fiction book, Blue Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs–where the writing was just a little less technical than my work in aerospace. I did anything to keep my creative juices flowing, until I could stand it no longer. I needed to reconnect with my passion to write.

It finally took a tragedy in my life to help me realize my dream.

When my son was diagnosed bipolar and our family was going through the emotional upheaval his illness created in all our lives, I started to journal. Writing about my son’s illness and later about his suicide death helped me put my pain on the page–the only place I could show my true feelings. Keeping my fingers moving either across the page on or the computer keyboard became my calming and healing balm.

I also took writing workshops. At first I felt insecure about my creative writing abilities because they had lain dormant for so long. That changed when I took a workshop called, “Writing about Our Lives” at Esalen in Big Sur, California in the late 1990s. I wrote about my misgivings about ever being able to make the transition technical writer to creative writer: “My writing is so factual, so plain, so devoid of descriptors, feelings, and imagination.” And that was okay. When a private instructor in Los Angeles taught me to “write like you talk,” I knew I was on my way.

Once I got into the writing groove I never stopped. I had a memoir published culled from my early journal entries and poems, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir about Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide. Even finding a publisher took perseverance. Sixty-eight rejection letters later I found the perfect small press to publish my book.

And now, I still write something every day. I journal and write poetry regularly. I write for my own blog, and I am well on my way to completing my first novel. Instead of worrying about my lack of creative abilities, I took the power within me to accomplish my dream. My son’s death gave me that strength and power.


For more from Madeline Sharples, visit her blog.

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.)