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eight medallions
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.

Part 8: Shaping Your Memoir

Has the reflection and writing you have done so far led you to deeper self-knowledge? Has it also led you to a better understanding of yourself in relationship with God, other people, and creation?

By now you have accumulated many pages of free writing, and you have triggered memories throughout this process. What you have done thus far in this retreat workshop should be valuable to you. Are you interested in going farther with it? If so, Part 8 will help you to more fully develop your memoir.

You may be your memoir's only audience. If so, let the wisdom of memoir-writing lead you to further self-knowledge and wisdom. Perhaps you want to share your memories with a few appreciative readers.

Treasure your memories and be grateful for them. Now is time to decide if and how you want to shape your memoir.

What focus or theme are you discovering?

How is your “voice” emerging? The “voice” is the person behind the “I.” Can you (or a reader) hear your “voice”? Your voice should be recognizable through the experiences the “I” chooses to write about and also by the word choice, the pacing, the overall structure. Your “voice” will come clearer as you shape your memoir.

All memoirs include (in varying combinations):

voice (the person behind the memoir)

exposition (the facts and information included)

narration (the stories about the experiences)

description (details which affect the senses)

reflection (the meaning and significance, both then and now).

Your memoir will reveal your past experiences seen from the perspective of the present. This perspective varies according to the distance in time between the experience itself and your reflection about it later. For instance, there is a long time between memories of childhood and your adult self. On the other hand, the time lag is much less in a memoir written about last year's travels.

As you look over your materials, find the “energy points,” the themes, the vivid language. Start with these. Be prepared to continue to write and rewrite, to revise your plans, and to work hard. As you write, you will find yourself creating anew as you go. You will continue to grow in self-knowledge as you work with your memoir.

Free writing

As you have learned by now, free writing is important at every stage of the writing process. Continue to explore your unconscious, your imagination, your memory. Whenever you are stymied, do more free writing! Don't forget to continually brainstorm, cluster, dialogue. Go into your “memory room” frequently. Review your free writing from time to time. Mark the places of “energy” and do further free writing around these.

Articulating is an important part of the writing process - finding the words for what you want to say. Gather much more material than you think you will need. As you collect/write your memories, keep a list of other memories whenever they come. The more your write the more memories will come.

Review your pages of free writing to see if you have enough detail. Continue to brainstorm about sense details to bring the memory more alive to you (and to any reader you may have).


How much do you want your memoir to include? What focus, what time period, what people, what places? Let your material speak to you of its organization and focus. Remember, your memoir does not need to be a book. It might be a short sketch or a chapter. What do you want your memoir to include? You are in charge!

Not only does the material as a whole need focus. Each section, each paragraph should be focused--with all the details leading toward or away from that focus. Note the focus of each of the published memoirs included in the bibliography (Part 9).

Be more and more aware of any readers you may share with. Keep this audience in mind as you write. For whatever audience you choose, write authentically and vividly. Good writing is always specific, using concrete detail. In being specific, you will be unique.

Principles of effective writing

Even if you are your only reader, you will need to strike a balance between generalizing and using detail to support your general assertions. Effective writing depends on an appropriate selection of detail to bring the experience alive. You will find Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones very helpful.

Use vivid words. When you name something specific (e.g. “apple” or “pear” rather than “fruit”), you take the blur of fuzzy language away. Discover the sense images that are in your body or your imagination.

Find ways to give life and energy to your sentences so that your ideas move, rather than just sit on a page. Let your verbs be full of action.

Remember, let your voice come through. Everything should come from your perspective. When you are speaking, your voice is recognizable. Let the “you” come through in your writing too.

Rewriting, Revising

To revise means to re-see. You have a vision of what you want to say. But your early drafts will probably not capture that “vision” fully. So continue to re-see or re-vise until your memoir says what you really mean and envision. Revising is a matter of options--of choosing the best way to say what you intend to say. (All good writers revise and revise!)

In revising try to find the most effective ways to shape the piece. Then look at each paragraph to see if it really says what you mean. Do the same with each sentence and each word. Do they work together to carry out your focus?


Editing should be your last step. Self-editing before this final stage of the writing process can be counterproductive because it can stifle your creativity. But now you will find it helpful to use a dictionary and a good English handbook. Use spell check on your computer with caution. You will find a critical reader the most help of all.


If you decide to share your memoir, you can simply print out the pages on your computer. Maybe you can include photos.

The process of publishing your memoir in book form would go beyond the scope and purpose of this retreat workshop. But you might want to entertain this idea some day!

If you have gained in self-knowledge through your writing and have developed a more reflective approach to your life, your examined life is indeed worth living!

As you continue to write may you grow in self-knowledge!

If you haven't already looked at Part 9 The Bibliography,
you might like to do so now.

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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