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seven medallions
prepared by
Eleanor Lincoln, CSJ
Women at the Well Ministry, St. Paul, Minnesota
(C) 2003
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 7: Memoirs of Place: Reflective Memoirs

Before continuing your search into your memory, take a few moments of quiet while reflecting on these lines from Psalm 121:

“O God, you will guard us from all evil;
you will preserve our lives.
You will protect our goings and comings,
both now and forever.”

Memoirs of Place

Although some “memoirs of place” are listed in the bibliography (Part 9), place is actually a part of every memoir, of every life. Place is the context for life.

We all have places to remember through long association: our home, school, neighborhood, city, country. For childhood and family memories, place is very significant. Annie Dillard discovered herself in her family home, around her neighborhood, and in the city of Pittsburgh, all of which were contexts much bigger than herself. Egypt made Penelope Lively's childhood what it was.

WRITE*** In five minutes of timed free writing make a list of some of the places important in your life. Then for another five minutes list some of the places you have traveled to.

Now choose one of the places, and list as many sense impressions, sense details as you can about the place. Read the list to yourself and re-member more details.

Do the same with other places important in your life.

William Zinsser in Inventing the Truth describes his family home that now lives only in memory. His parents had sold it after World War II and only once did he visit it, only to discover many changes:

“It could have been in an affluent suburb anywhere. The sloping fields that I remembered on both sides of the road were so dense with ranch houses and three-car garages and swimming pools that I had no sense of their topography; I only knew it in my bones.

“At the end of the road, however, our house was still king of the hill. I had heard that it had changed hands several times over the years.... Its integrity was gone, but at least it was still there. I could tell my children, 'This is the house I grew up in'” (19).

Zinsser is an adult looking back. So is Kathleen Norris, a New York writer, who returns to her grandparents' home in western South Dakota to live. She shows how vast and remote places challenge and form the spirit. In choosing to live there she found wisdom and simplicity. She shows the townspeople's fear of change and their desire to hold on to old days. Refusing to be affected by this attitude, she finds beauty and meaning in landscape. “Like many who have written about Dakota,” she says in a chapter entitled, “Can You Tell the Truth in a Small Town”? “I'm invigorated by the harsh beauty of the land and feel a need to tell the stories that come from its soil” (79).

Many travelers feel the need to tell the stories about the places and people they visit. Henry James, the American novelist, says of those who travel to a place unlike their own: at the first visit the person is a “tourist,” at the second visit this person is a “traveler,” only after the third visit might this person consider himself a “resident.”

Peter Mayle is a “resident” (according to James' categories) in A Year in Provence. After falling in love with this area in southern France, Mayle gives up his business in England for living in Provence for a year. He describes the landscape, the people, the hospitality, and the cuisine. His Year includes many mouth-watering passages about food and restaurants. His memoir is, among other things, a song of praise for French cooking and eating.

My Love Affair with England by Susan Allen Toth is also a song of praise and remembering of a country she loves well. In this memoir as she travels with her husband and daughter, she remembers all of the other times she spent in England. Her book is not chronological but the past and present can be found in each chapter on a particular topic, ranging from to “The Enchanted Island,” to “Sheepdog Trials: A Field Trip,” to “The Royal Family and Me,” and concluding with “You Can Go Back Again.”

“Whenever I return to England,” Toth writes, “I find myself noticing things I might not see at home...that have slowly turned into a strong and tightly woven bond between England and me. 'Why do you go back to England so often?' Jenny once asked me. Even now, after almost finishing a book to answer her question, I am not sure I have told her why” (p. 314).

WRITE*** Make a list of places you have dearly loved. Why does a particular place mean so much to you? Give your reasons as you describe the place (with sense descriptions).

Reflective Memoirs

All memoirs are made up of people (you and others), places where things happened, and reflection. Memoirs are reflective when the writer reflects deeply on an experience with consciousness of its spiritual or philosophical meaning. In true reflection you can find your inner truth. When you are reflective, you can find yourself at home with yourself, with other people, with all creation, and above all, with God. You dwell in God, and God dwells in you.

Annie Dillard organizes her An American Childhood by means of her reflections. Her book is about growing in wisdom. She begins each chapter with reflection on some aspect of her childhood. As she remembers about the people and places of her life, she looks at them from the context of her adult awareness. These reflective sections point to the theme of her book, coming to consciousness.

The distance in time between childhood experience and reflection on it may vary greatly. For instance, in a childhood memoir the adult has a long time to reflect about childhood experiences and to gain a reflective perspective. A reflective memoir is a memoir written by an adult reflecting on adult experiences and realizations. While the experiences are important, it is the reflection that really can categorize the memoir as “reflective memoir.” The insights discovered in a reflective memoir can lead the writer to deeper wisdom.

One of the greatest of all reflective memoirs is Henry David Thoreau's Walden. He tells us he went to the woods to live deliberately, to suck the marrow out of life. So that when he came to die, he would have lived! He came to self-knowledge and courage as he spent his days and nights in and with nature at Walden Pond, aware of everything. His simple life of reflection has spoken to millions of readers ever since.

Alice Koller in her memoir, An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery, takes a very courageous journey inward when she spends a winter alone on Northeastern sea coast. She has come from a life and a career which have been discouraging for her. Writing about herself proves to be very hard. “I am now feeling very anxious and tight in my throat and almost on the verge of tears. What am I remembering? No answer” (39). However after being alone for many months in this bleak and desolate place, she, the “unknown woman,” gradually finds a reason to live. Her reflections have led her to hope and wisdom.

In Virgin Time poet Patricia Hampl takes a journey to search for the wonder of faith and the contemplative life. She begins by going to Italy and France, the “old world” of her Catholic upbringing. She gives wonderful vignettes of her fellow travelers and does a lot of remembering of her high school friends. Like Koller, this is an inward journey, but unlike Koller she is not alone either physically or in her memories, but she is always searching.

In the third section of the book, “Silence,” Hampl finds the contemplation she has been seeking. She traveled to Northern California to make a retreat with people of various faiths. She comes to deeper and deeper realizations as the retreat progresses through the week: “....[E]verything, everything was part of one inseparable thing. It was--It. And It really existed, outside me and inside me” (202). She had tried to fight her “ingenue life.” “I had done everything I could think of to wrestle free: broke my parents hearts, hardened my own, mixed it up in every way I could, tried to be a furious artist myself” (206).

It is the poetry of prayer that wins her over. Ever the poet, Hampl discovers that “prayer only looks like an act of language; fundamentally it is a position, a placement of oneself. Focus. Get there, and all that's left to say is the words” (217). She discovers that “silence sorts.” This “ordering instinct sends people into the hush where the voice can be heard” (217). Monastic prayer, this poet realizes, is “poetry itself.... Like poetry, monastic life seizes upon daily life and renders it as a symbol, attuned to season, to hour, to the cycle on which our lives depend” (219).

“You'll come home, won't you?” her husband asks when she calls him a few days before the end of the retreat. After her search she has found herself: “Prayer as focus is not a way of limiting what can be seen; it is a habit of attention brought to bear on all that is. And who is it we pray to here in the great gray chapel: the God who is,who was, and who will be for ages unending. Amen. The God inside and outside history” (224).

WRITE*** In preparation for reflecting on some of your own experiences, slowly read through the following list of images to see if any of them triggers a memory for you. Stare at these images, then hear yourself name each one, enter into it, let it absorb you. If/when an image triggers something for you, write down what it says, what it means to you:


Take your time doing this before moving to the next exercise.

WRITE*** Brainstorm to find a word or image important in your life and memory. Write it down and stare at it; let it absorb you. Then free write about the experience that this word/image evokes in your memory. Free up your senses and imagination.

What does this word/image say about your life? Does it mean something different now than it might have in the past? Doing this exercise, again and again, will help you to progress with your memoir (whatever direction your memoir is taking).

Where are you now with your memoir writing? Which parts of your writing have the most promise? What more do you want to write about? Does your writing reveal who you really are? What have you gained in self-knowledge? Whatever you have written is a gift to yourself, whether or not you complete your memoir.

Think about how you might share this gift with others. If you want to give shape to your memoir, continue to the last part of this retreat workshop.

Before moving forward, take time to reflect about where you have come this far in memoir writing: “O Spirit of Wisdom and Understanding, thank you for my life and for the memories and insights which you have given me. I am grateful for coming to know myself better and will try live more fully and consciously.”

You may end your retreat here. If you wish, continue with
Part 8:Shaping Your Memoir

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


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