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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.


six medallions


Part 6: The Story Only You Can Tell: Childhood and Family Memoirs

As you have seen from Parts 1-5 of this retreat workshop, no matter how ordinary your life may seem to you, you have a story only you can tell. Be grateful for your life as you remember it. Our families and friends know us; God knows even more intimately. Pray in these words from Psalm 139:

“If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the depths of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
your hand shall hold me fast.”

Book shops and libraries overflow with books of memoir, a very popular literary genre today. You may want to read a few memoirs as you write your own. Part 9 consists of a list of suggested books. If you print it out, you will have reading suggestions for years to come.

Now it is time for you to concentrate on the kind of memoir you want to write at this time. Perhaps a memoir about some aspect of your childhood. Or is there a place that is particularly memorable for you? Or perhaps you plan to write a reflective memoir about some spiritual or intellectual insights you have had which you want to ponder over from the perspective of your present experience. A memoir can be about any aspect of your life that you want to look at now.

Whether or not you have decided on the focus of your memoir, you will find it helpful to continue to do exploratory writing regularly. Find your “energy points” to let what lies deepest in you surface. When you “free write,” let your memory, imagination and senses discover as many details and facts as possible. Let your senses show you what an episode looked, sounded, smelled, tasted, and felt like!

Eudora Welty says, in One Writer's Beginning, that in writing of our experience we

listen (to our own voice and the voices around us);
learn to see (by observing life around us and within us);
find our own voice (the “I” speaking, who writes from personal experience).

In free writing about your childhood, pay attention to what your memory hears and sees. Try to capture images or sense impressions which will lead to further memories and greater consciousness.

Listening:

“I [Eudora] learned from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of day was there to read in, or to be read to. My mother read to me. She'd read to me in the big bedroom in the mornings, when we were in her rocker together, which ticked in rhythm as we rocked, as though we had a cricket accompanying the story. She'd read to me in the dining room on winter afternoons in front of the coal fire, with our cuckoo ending the story with “Cuckoo.” .... She was an expressive reader. When she was reading “Puss in Boots,” for instance, it was impossible not to know that she distrusted all cats” (pp. 5-6).

Learning to see:

“As soon as the sun was beginning to go down, we went more slowly. My father would drive sizing up the towns, inspecting the hotel in each... Towns little or big had beginnings and ends, they reached to an edge and stopped, where the country began again as though they hadn't happened... You could see a town lying ahead in it's whole, as definitely formed as a plate on a table. And your road entered and ran straight through the heart of it; you could see it all, laid out for your passage through. Towns, like people, had clear identities and your imagination could go out to met them, You saw houses, yards, fields, and people busy in them... You could hear their bank clocks striking, you could smell their bakeries. You would know those towns again, recognize their salient detail, seen so close up” (pp. 50).

Finding your own voice:

Annie Dillard's An American Childhood is a favorite of many readers and writers. She shows how memories emerge and gradually take shape. Her story is about a child's capacity for wonder and joy, combined with an adult's reflective intelligence about not only what she experienced but how she experienced it. The “plot” of this memoir is the unfolding of a child's entry into consciousness.

She writes in a variety of ways about self-discovery and self-knowledge: “You may wonder where they have gone, those other dim dots that were you: you in the flesh swimming in a swift river, swinging a bat on the first pitch, ... stepping out of the cold woods into a warm field full of crows, or lying awake in bed aware of your legs and suddenly aware of all of it, that the ceiling above you was under the sky - in what country, what town? .... What is important is the moment of opening a life and feeling it touch--with an electric hiss and cry - this speckled mineral sphere, our present world” (pp. 248-49).

Dillard's epilogue is addressed to “you,” that is, to all of us, with our own geography and chronology of life. Annie Dillard's is a book you will find enjoyable and inspiring if you plan to write a memoir about your childhood. Like Annie Dillard, you can come awake to yourself in a world that was familiar to you “then” and that becomes familiar again to you “now” as you remember. Like her you can see yourself as a character in your “unreeling” story.

As you write your memoir of childhood, you will be able to see the “I” become visible (physically, emotionally, historically). In writing you can start anywhere but you need to let each idea or memory lead you (not the other way around). You might say: not so much do I have a memory but “a memory has me.”

Clear a “room” in the memory house of your imagination where you enter and are open to whatever memory comes in. It may take the shape of a sense impression or image, an emotion, a person, a place. Ask yourself about childhood experiences:

What was your favorite toy, book, possession?
Who was your most (or least) favorite relative? Why? Describe him/her as doing or saying something characteristic.
What was a moment of childhood triumph or humiliation? Give sensory details that correspond to your feelings.
What about a family celebration (Christmas, birthday, Halloween, etc.? Remember the where, the who, the details, the conflicts.
Who was your closest childhood friend? Describe this friend in as much detail as possible. What did you have in common?


WRITE*** You might find it helpful to do some guided memory writing. Jot down as much as you can as you move through each step of the process of remembering a particular event, person, place, thing, etc.

What is the raw experience of this memory (image, sense, etc.)?
What is your action to this memory (emotional)?
What is your reflection regarding this memory (consciousness)?
What is your “survivor sense” (“I lived through it.”)
How does this experience fit into your self-identity?
What is your deeper sense of survival (your acceptance of the memory and your seeing an overall pattern)?
Identify any tension, conflict, energy in this memory.
How does the story of this particular memory connect with other memories? What pattern of meaning is emerging?

Your story is always unfolding. Let the pieces come together.



Most childhood memoirs are family memoirs as well. Read some of the childhood and family memoirs included in the selected bibliography in Part 9.

Now look over the writing you have done in the past weeks. What are your reactions? Do you want to continue in the direction you have been going? Or are you uncovering better ideas? Your memoir is mainly for your own purposes--to gain greater self-knowledge or to capture in writing some of your precious past. Your aim is probably not to write a publishable memoir. But you can give pleasure to yourself and to those close to you by capturing the past through your own memories.



WRITE*** Continue to do daily free writing. By now you may have a body of memories that you have put in words. Continue to involve your memory and your imagination. You may find it helpful to practice the technique of guided reflection:


Go into the room in your mind where you imagination dwells. Invite in a member of your family who was important to you in your early years and re-member him or her now.

WRITE*** Quietly let your imagination open up. Greet the person who enters your memory room and observe him/her. Describe the person in as much detail as possible. What does he/she look like, speak like, act like? Invite the person to converse with you through the dialogue technique.

Do some timed (10-15 minutes) free writing on whatever emerges from your memory-raising. Then take some of the details that have emerged and do free writing on those. You will be surprised on how much memoir material you have developed.

Continue to uncover as many memories as you can. Take time to read over all that you have written. Can you see a memoir taking shape? If not, continue to free write, dialogue, cluster, and use whatever other techniques that will stir your memory.


WRITE*** What events of your early life stand out in your memory? Free write about one or more of them. Then reflect on the beginning of Psalm 27, keeping in mind that you are not alone:

“O God, you are my life and my help:
whom shall I fear?
You are the stronghold of my life;
before whom shall I be afraid?”


When you are ready, turn to Part 7:
Memoirs of Place; Reflective Memoirs



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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