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 4: Re-membering
you begin Part 4 reflect on this antiphon, to be used with Psalm 139:
“O God, how great is your wisdom, so far beyond my understanding.”
REMEMBERING AND RE-MEMBERING
recalling our memories we re-member, that is, put separate parts
together to make a whole. In writing a memoir we connect our separate
memories with the meanings that speak of and for the “I.” We give
utterance to the voice inside ourselves. Remembering is a sacred act.
All authentic memoirs are inherently spiritual.
There is an old
Hebrew saying that God made human beings because God loves stories so
much. According to Martin Marty, a contemporary Christian theologian,
narrative theology is “talking abut God by telling stories of humans.”
When people tell their own stories, they become authors of narrative
theology (whether they realize it or not).
Make a list of the members of your family you might include in a
memoir. These are all people who have been or are part of your life
journey, your sacred journey. Remind yourself of a story about one of
these persons that you might include in a memoir. Then do 10-30 minutes
of free writing about this person.
Find on your book
shelves or in libraries or bookstores some of the published memoirs
mentioned from time to time in this retreat workshop. You will discover
both the everyday and the sacred. In memoir we usually see the ordinary
experiences of the writer, but often we can see God behind the scenes,
even if the writer is less aware than we.
Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain (also a story of conversion and the discovery of contemplation);
The Autobiography of Malcolm X (a testimony to the power of conversion);
Dorothy Day's The Long Loneliness (a prophetic call to social justice);
Kathleen Norris' Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (a theological
reflection on the geography and people of the western Dakotas and how
religious traditions shape communities and individuals);
James Martin's In Good Company (the story of his involvement in corporate America before he answered a call to be a Jesuit);
Jill Ker Conway's The Road from Coorain (a description and reflection
on the geography of Australia as a revelation of her early life).
Begin by being quiet; breathe deeply, close your eyes, look into
yourself and into your life. After you have reflected enough to let a
memory surface, jot down your memory of some ordinary moment in your
life when, as you look back, you could say, God was there!
you can see from the bibliography (Part 9), memoirs take many forms.
All memoirs are individual and personal but they also reflect the world
outside the person. A certain dynamic between past and present
undergirds all the varied forms and styles of memoir. The foundations
of any memoir are memory and perspective on memory. Interestingly
enough, this dynamic process of memoir is also the defining
characteristic of what it means to be human. To live is to remember and
to be affected by what we remember.
Words are what make up all
writing (and speaking), and certainly words are the medium for memoir.
Words that are vivid and communicative are at the heart of memoir.
Without words you may have memories but no memoir! The poet, Emily
Dickinson, puts it so well - in words that are short but profound! You
might want to memorize or print out this pithy poem:
“A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
As Dickinson knew, words
reveal the writer's point of view
establish the meaning of the incidents or events.
you begin to develop your memoir beyond your free writing, you will
want to keep in mind that the choice of language is the key to an
YOUR OWN MEMOIR
Jill Ker Conway,
memoirist (The Road from Coorain), has some wonderful things to say
about memoir that are worth reading at this point in your own
“Until we lose it we take memory for
granted. Along with language it is the force that makes us human....
“We travel through life guided by an inner life plot--part the creation
of family, part the internalization of broader social norms, part the
function of our imaginations and our own capacity for insight into
ourselves, part from our groping to understand the universe in which
the planet we inhabit is a speck.... [W]e are all unique, and so are
our stories. We should pay close attention to our stories. Polish their
imagery. Find their positive rather than their negative form” (When
Now is the time to get to your memoir in
earnest. In Parts 1-3 you have already done some free writing. Be sure
to keep every scrap of this writing.
The only way to create a
memoir is to keep writing. Memoirs don't emerge full-blown. You will
need to accumulate your memoir episode by episode, memory by memory.
You will necessarily go through many stages before you reach the wisdom
of having written a memoir or before you perhaps share your memoir with
your siblings - or even have your book-signing party!
WRITE*** Life Review Time Line
Any age is a good age to take an inventory of your life.
Your life story has a power all of its own.
your page horizontally into the decades of your life. (Many or few!)
Then list the key episodes and turning points of your life, placing
them in the appropriate decades.
Then choose and circle the two
or three around which you sense a lot of energy or interest to yourself
at this present time in your life. These are your “energy points.”
This life review will take time so work on it as you can.
WRITE*** Timed free writing of an episode in your life
one small episode from your Life Review Time Line that is most
memorable for you or for which you have the most intense feeling. (What
we remember most is what we have the most feeling around. This episode
is an energy point around which you might start re-membering as fully
Now take this energy point or episode and “free
write” about it. List as many facts and details as you can. Let your
senses remember: what did things look, sound, smell, taste, and feel
This also may take time.
Now look again at the episode or energy point you just wrote about.
Flesh it out (through more free writing) by re-membering the context of
the episode at the time you experienced it.
example, what emotional and spiritual feelings were you experiencing at
the time? How were members of your family involved? What was happening
in the neighborhood, city, and world around you?
writing you have done in Part 4 you will have much to think about.
Before continuing your re-membering, take time to reflect on these
beautiful concluding lines from Psalm 139:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart!
O test me and know my thoughts!
See that I follow not the wrong way,
and lead me in the way of life eternal.”
When you are ready, turn to Part 5: Keep Writing!
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