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SELF-KNOWLEDGE
THROUGH WRITING YOUR MEMOIR


prepared by
Eleanor Lincoln, CSJ
Women at the Well Ministry, St. Paul, Minnesota
© 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.


four medallions

Part 4: Re-membering

Before 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

In 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).

WRITE*** 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).


WRITE*** 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!

As 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:

#1212
“A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.”

As Dickinson knew, words
communicate facts
shape perspective
reveal the writer's point of view
establish the meaning of the incidents or events.

As 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 effective memoir.

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 memoir-writing endeavors:

“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 Memory Speaks).

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.

Block 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.” Remember them.

This life review will take time so work on it as you can.


WRITE*** Timed free writing of an episode in your life


Choose 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 as possible.).

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 like?

This also may take time.



WRITE*** 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.


For 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?


After the 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



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