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 1: Self-knowledge as the beginning of Wisdom
“A Day Unremembered”
“A day unremembered is like a soul unborn,
worse than if it had never been.
What indeed was that summer if not recalled?
That journey? That act of love?
To whom did it happen if it has left you with nothing?
....Any bits of warm life preserved by the pen
are trophies snatched from the dark,
are branches of leaves fished out of the flood,
are tiny arrests of mortality.”
Laurie Lee, I Can't Stay Long
“I can only note that the past is beautiful
because one never realizes an emotion at the time.
It expands later, and thus
we don't have complete emotions about the present,
only about the past....
That is why we dwell on the past, I think.”
The Diary of Virginia Woolf
As quoted in Mary Jane Moffat's The Time of Our Lives
eight-part workshop retreat will give you the opportunity to read,
write, and reflect at your own pace, perhaps over a period of eight
days or eight weeks, even eight months. During that time you will
perhaps choose to read some of the published memoirs included in the
selected bibliography (Part 9.)
WHAT IS THE WISDOM OF MEMOIR WRITING?
is a universal human longing. To achieve wisdom is the goal of life in
many cultures. This retreat workshop is one way that you might grow in
self-knowledge which will lead you to wisdom. Knowing yourself is the
beginning of wisdom, as the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, tells
In the Bible Wisdom is an attribute of God. God is eternal
Wisdom, and Jesus in his incarnation brought that wisdom to dwell among
us. In Jesus “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”
(Col. 2:3). Wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift which leads us
to an experiential knowledge of God and of God's presence in all things.
recent description of wisdom speaks to those of us who value memoir
writing: “I like to describe wisdom as profound insight into life,
living, loving, death, and eternity” (Peter Gilmour, The Wisdom of
Memoir: Reading and Writing Life's Sacred Texts). Gilmour describes
memoirs as “deeply reflective stories that capture and communicate
portions of the inestimable mysteries of life and living” (p. 13).
The question for you now as you begin to think about your own memoir is this:
* HOW CAN I RE-MEMBER, RE-IMAGINE, AND RECORD MY LIFE THROUGH DEVELOPING A MEMOIR?
This question can lead you further into “the inestimable mysteries of life and living”:
* HOW CAN I TAP INTO MY PERSONAL WISDOM AND DEEPEN MY SPIRITUALITY?
your memoir will be a powerful way for you to gain insight into your
life and develop greater wisdom. Insight comes through reflecting on
and expressing who you are. The wisdom of memoir leads you to capture
and communicate your own experiences. By reflecting on your life you
can find and deepen your identity and can value and celebrate who you
are. This is a spiritual activity; indeed it is wisdom.
The process of creating memoir is essentially a spiritual activity because it centers on:
how you choose to be human,
what it means to be human,
what the implications of your humanity are.
What you will do in developing a memoir will be to live your spirituality, whatever that may be for you.
is spirituality? It is your life as a whole human being: the fullness
of your human development (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual)
lived within the context of God's love. Spirituality is who you really
are in your deepest and truest self in relationship to God, other
people, all of creation.
The wisdom of this spirituality means that
you are attentive to what your senses and heart tell you;
you keep your mind alive and growing;
you are free to be fully alive: to respect your need for re-creation, getting in touch with your body as well as your spirit;
you are in relationship with God and others; you work, pray, love others, and deal with life?s joys and sorrows.
your spirituality means to be whole, which is another word for
holiness, which is another word for wisdom. Memoir writing presumes
serious and substantial reflection on life and living.
people (those near and dear to you, those unknown to you, and those not
yet born) are potential beneficiaries of your memoir writing. But even
if no one but yourself ever reads your written memories, you are
enriching the totality of human life.
You share your wisdom when
you share your stories and insights with others. Think of all the
people throughout history who would be unremembered except for their
Before you begin to create your memoir, take some time now to pray for knowledge and wisdom.
PRAYER FOR WISDOM
God of wisdom, be with me. I ask for the gift of wisdom to know you and
to know myself. Help me to remember, to reimagine, and to record
memories of my life. May my spirit be reflective and my memory active.
your spirit of wisdom be my guide and friend as I tap into my personal
wisdom. I pray that you deepen my spirituality, give me renewed insight
into the mystery of life and living, and stimulate my memory as I
THE MYSTERY OF MEMOIR
are your memories. Your memories shape your identity and connect your
present with your past. You may not remember where you put your car
keys today, but your long-term memories remain. Like your computer your
memory is sometimes on overload, but you can recover your vivid
memories when you trigger them. Some of these memories may be pleasant,
In life you are a character to yourself in an
unfolding story. In writing a memoir you become visible to yourself
(and to others who may be privileged to read what you have written).
This visibility may be physical, emotional, historical. You can start
writing your memoir anywhere, at any time. Each idea or memory can lead
you to another memory. In your memory process your memories are
constantly moving from deep within, to the surface, to insight - back
BEGINNING YOUR JOURNEY
do you remember? What is your own story? Begin this retreat workshop by
opening up to the memories that have shaped you: the scenes, the
people, the places, the ideas, the experiences.
Some of your
memories will be of happy times, some will be sad, some will be quite
difficult to recollect. Any of these memories could be the focus of the
memoir you want to write.
To begin this retreat workshop you
will want to be ready to pray, reflect, - and WRITE. Write down
memories or stories as they come to you.You will be given suggestions
for remembering and writing as you go through this retreat workshop.
your memoir will involve your memory, certainly, but also your
intelligence, your emotions, your imagination, your spirit. This memoir
will give shape and words to your memories. As you will capture your
own specific life experiences and see their significance, you will be
both the author and subject of your memoir. If, as Socrates says, the
unexamined life is not worth living, then memoir helps to make life
In writing memoir you will be writing only about
selected portions or aspects of your life. Memoir is not autobiography;
autobiography would involve the facts and history of all of your life.
on a way that is most convenient and comfortable for you to write. You
may want to do your writing in a notebook (preferably one with a
binding) or in a document set up on your computer for this purpose. You
may find it helpful to print out this retreat workshop itself so you
can refer to it easily.
Whenever you are ready to write, find a
time and place that is quiet for you. To set an atmosphere you might
want to keep a candle lighted whenever you reflect and write. Do
whatever you can to encourage yourself to write!
by writing, lettering, or typing your name. Choose one or all of your
names. Put a circle or box around your name(s); this can represent all
that is around you (God, creation, family, nature, your home, etc.).
look at your name intently. Sound it with your mouth several times.
What does your name say or mean to you? to others? What words or
phrases does your name call to your mind? (You might also want to think
about your nicknames. What special meanings do they have for you?)
Honor and treasure your name! It identifies you.
Now that you
have reflected on your name(s), begin to think about your memories -
about your life. Turn to your notebook or your memory document and
****WRITE: Describe in a few words your earliest memory. What insights into yourself does this memory give you?
Begin to collect all the writing suggestions given in this retreat workshop, and at the end you will have a memoir!
grateful for the gift of memory and pray that it will serve you well
for years to come. Ask God to bless the memories that have surfaced for
you so far, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. Take a moment to
be silent, then say, “O God, only you know the whole truth about me.
Guide me with your wisdom and compassion as I move to greater
When you are ready, turn to Part 2: The Gift of Memory and How It Functions.
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