THROUGH WRITING YOUR MEMOIR
Eleanor Lincoln, CSJ
Women at the Well Ministry, St. Paul, Minnesota
A retired professor of English from The College of St. Catherine,
Dr. Lincoln has given numerous workshops on memoir writing.
This online workshop is adapted for your personal use.
Part 5: Keep Writing
All of Psalm 139 speaks to those who seek wisdom and self-knowledge. These lines may give you encouragement as you continue to work on your memoir:
“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast the sum of them!
If I count them, they are more than the sand.
When I awake, I am still with you.”
As you have been seeing, any memoir interweaves the strands of past and present to reveal the writer's inner and outer lives at the moment of the memoir's focus.
You will now want to work in earnest by exploring your inner and outer lives through as much free writing as you have time for. Try to write in 10-15 minute stretches of free writing several times a week (according to your schedule).
WRITE*** Choose another “energy” point from your life review. Begin with a question or focusing sentence, and free write for 10-15 minutes. Continue to do this in order to surface and flesh out more and more memories.
In a way all writing is a dialogue between the writer and a question or a topic. By dialoguing you can bring an experience or insight to light. In dialoguing let your imagination roam freely.
You can dialogue with anything or anyone. One of the partners can be yourself at any age dialoguing with a person, a place, a thing. For example, you might want to dialogue with your deceased grandfather whom you loved or your aunt whom you found difficult. Or you could even dialogue with yourself at a particular age or in a memorable situation. Or choose a place such as your childhood bedroom or a favorite lake and talk to this place. You will be surprised that after a while the place will “talk back.” You can even dialogue with a thing such as the blue bicycle you were given for your eighth birthday or your beloved guitar which you lost on a bus trip when you were sixteen.
Dialoguing, a technique used in psychology and in writing to surface what is in the unconscious, will be very useful to you as you free write (for 15 or 20 minutes) to develop your memoir. The process for dialoguing is as follows:
Greet the person, place, or thing.
You are the speaker who initiates the dialogue but decide who/what is talking to you and what the relationship/encounter is.
Let the dialogue be two-sided. Free the person/place/thing to speak with you. Use your imagination as fully as possible.
Don't worry about “facts” as much as the “truth” that will emerge.
You might find it helpful to use two different pens (one in each hand) to designate the partners in the dialogue.
Believe it or not, something will happen. You will achieve some insight or solution.
Say “thank you” to your partner and suggest the possibility of “meeting” again.
WRITE*** Write a dialogue with some person, place, or thing in order to free your imagination to reach down into your memory. Follow the steps suggested above. Much can be surfaced through this exercise. You can do it over and over to open up your memories and insights about moments in your life.
Another helpful way to surface memoir material is the cluster technique. By clustering the bits of memory as they surface, you can draw out of yourself a lot of material in a short time. By this method you can expand and deepen any memory.
WRITE*** Try this cluster method with any memory you have:
Begin with a clean sheet of paper or an empty computer screen.
In the center write the focus of the memory you want to expand and deepen. For example, your first day at school.
Draw lines out in all directions from the center and write at the end of each line a detail of that day: descriptions of some of your fellow kindergarteners, of the teacher, of the room, of some activities you did that day. You will be surprised that you will remember more and more details as you begin to cluster.
Then you can cluster from any of those details so that you uncover more details. For example, cluster some details about the activities. Did you play a game, sing a song, fall out of your chair? Keep on with the clustering as you remember more and more details.
You will find it helpful to remember the senses involved in that day: the smell of the chalk, the colors of the papers you used for drawing, the sounds of the singing, etc.
Now choose a memory important to you and cluster all the details you can remember.
WRITE*** Now try writing a mini-memoir so you can get the feel of how simple writing a memoir can be. This mini-memoir will be just a paragraph:
line 1 I am ... (first name)
line 2 )
line 3 ) three self-describing adjectives
line 4 )
line 5 I love ... (complete the sentence)
line 6 I hate ... (complete the sentence)
line 7 I am afraid ... (complete the sentence)
line 8 I wish for ... (complete the sentence)
line 9 I am ... (give an insight into your self)
In the terminology of Peter Gilmour, you now have an immediate “icon” of experience, a representation of who you are - briefly put.
In writing a memoir you need to be willing and able to express yourself. You need these ingredients as you continue with memoir writing: imagination,energy,dedication, and discipline (perseverance)!
A review of some points you might want to remember as you continue to work on your memoir:
1. Writing is like tip of an iceberg; there is much more underneath.
2. Writing is a matter of choice. What do you want to say?
3. Trust in the process of “articulating” your experiences (that is, finding words for what your memory and imagination have surfaced).
4. Recalling memories is not an objective process but subjective. We have no complete objective memory; our memory is spotty and we have to fill in around the pieces.
5. We have to give up the idea of telling the “truth” (factual truth). We are getting at metaphoric reality (truth behind/beyond the “fact”). Who is doing the re-membering? Remember Zinsser's title, “Inventing the Truth.”
6. Stay focused on reality as closely as possible - unless you want to call your writing “fiction.” Remembered truth (not totally objective or factual) makes a memoir. Fiction, on the other hand, is a constructed imaginary world altered for artistic effect.
7. Writing is an act of witness, saying “I live. I matter.” Your writing is a gift to the persons you remember, too. It affirms that they also live or have lived.
WRITE*** Take each point in turn, and write about whether and how you agree with it (or not). Pay particular attention to #7.
Notice that this part of the retreat workshop is entitled “Keep Writing!” How much writing have you done thus far? Could you resolve to do even more free writing that will stir your memory? Are you ready to move on to developing your memoir?
Spend some time reflecting on your life. What are happy memories? Sad memories? Remember that they are all good memories. Say with Psalm 139:
“I praise you for the wonder of my being,
for the wonder of all your works.”
When you are ready, turn to Part 6: The Story Only You Can Tell: Childhood and Family Memoirs.
Part 1 Self-knowledge as the beginning of Wisdom
Part 2 The Gift of Memory and How It Functions
Part 3 The Wisdom of Memoir
Part 4 Re-membering
Part 5 Keep Writing!
Part 6 The Story Only You Can Tell: Childhood and Family Memoirs
Part 7 Memoirs of Place; Reflective Memoirs
Part 8 Shaping Your Memoir
Part 9 A Selective Bibliography