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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.

three medallions

Part 3: The Wisdom of Memoir


Before beginning Part 3 continue to be aware, as you prayed in the words of Psalm 139, of how God knows you and discerns your thoughts from afar.

As you know from Parts 1 and 2, writing a memoir involves your remembering of certain times, places, events in your life and reflecting on these from the perspective of your present experience.

A memoir is self-recollection, a re-telling of your experiences in the first person.

Memoir focuses on moments or periods of life that were especially significant to you in emotion or intensity as you remember these in the present. A memoir will not tell your whole life story but single out a theme or portion of your life.

A memoir is a focused memory, a “window onto life.” An autobiography, the chronological recounting of the facts of awhole life, is not limited in focus as memoir is.

In a journal you record, daily or frequently, your present thoughts, reflections, and experiences of everyday life as it occurs. A diary, a daily recording of facts, is similar but less reflective than a journal Referring to a journal or diary, if you have one, will help you as you write your memoir.

All of us constantly tell stories: both inside our head (always) and to people who will listen to us (sometimes): “Guess what happened to me today--or last Christmas--or when I was five?”

We need to value our own life journeys, our own stories, stories only we can tell. It is our viewpoint that imposes order on our memories. Mary Jane Moffat says in The Times of Our Lives: A Guide to Writing Autobiography and Memoir: “We cannot change the facts of our lives, but in comprehending them we are free to move forward in our journey, affirming the values we have won from experience” (p. 17). She compares writing a memoir to going into your attic of memory.

Another expert on memoir writing, William Zinsser, tells us that “memoir is how we validate our lives” (Inventing the Truth: TheArt and Craft of Memoir, p. 24). He uses the phrase “inventing the truth” to mean that we discover what to write about by writing our insidesout! He makes the distinction between fact and truth to demonstrate what the memoir writer actually does. By “inventing the truth” we as the writer of memoir must own the experience, reflect on it, and then tell about this experience from our present (and perhaps wiser) perspective.

Zinsser quotes Annie Dillard, well-known memoirist, who describes the writing of a memoir as “waking up” and noticing that you are alive. Memoir is about being aware of living and then writing down that awareness. “The writer of any first-person work” Dillard says, “must decide two obvious questions: what to put in and what to leave out” (p. 25).

Zinsser and the other writers of memoir quoted in Inventing the Truth reveal to us that the “truth” of memoir is to be true to your own memories as you reflect on them from the present. We never remember all the facts but we look for ways to find the inner truth, our truth. This we find through writing - and then writing some more.


Timed “free” writing is the best way to start to uncover your memories. Free (or “flow”) writing will help you to uncover your memories from your mind and imagination by moving them into words. When you do free writing you “articulate” your memories, uncovering them as quickly as you can by expressing them in whatever words come quickly to mind. This timed writing will help you surface your memories by showing you how much you can write in a short time.

Here are some pointers for timed “free” or “rush” writing:

1. Always begin with a focused question or topic sentence in front of you. Begin immediately with one key idea and write, write, write.
2. Never stare at a blank page! Keep writing.
3. Write in lists of words, images, phrases. Further details will come as you write.
4. Let go of control! Say what you want to say without too much conscious thinking. Let your first thoughts come alive as they emerge from your unconscious. Write whatever comes into your head or off the end of your fingers. Don't try to figure out what you want to say - but just say it!.
5. Be specific (e.g. not fruit but apple, not animal but puppy, not puppy but three-month-old golden retriever, etc.)
6. Don't “edit”! In free writing no editing is allowed! Far down the line you can worry about spelling, punctuation, etc. But not now!

WRITE*** How many memories can you jot down in your notebook in a ten-minute writing session? Look at your list when you finish. Do you begin to see the direction your memories are taking you? When/if you are ready, decide on the direction your memoir might go. (You will have many more opportunities to write and think so don't worry if you are still “in the dark.”)

WRITE*** Focus your memory on a particular moment/episode in your life. Center a focused question around this memory. Free write from that question for the amount of time you specify (e.g. 10, 15, 20 minutes):
Chose a vivid memory of an episode in your life.
Who was I at this particular moment? What was I really like?
What were my surroundings at that moment? Who else was present?
What happened and why?
What am I not remembering? What am I choosing not to remember?

You could do this exercise with any number of memories. You could build up your memoir in this way.

Brenda Ueland's key idea in If You Want to Write is this: “Everybody is talented, original, and has something to say.” She is very encouraging in reminding us over and over, “You do not know what is in you - an inexhaustible fountain of ideas.”

A memoir needn't be long, perhaps shouldn't be long. Your memoir can capture a significant moment in time (person, place, event) or a series of related moments in time: “the piano in my life” or “why I wear purple” or “when I turned five” or “the death of my dog.”

“I” is always the subject. We are each the “I” ( the pun here is “eye”) of our own memories and memoir. A memoir speaks the voice inside ourselves.

WRITE*** Free write about any number of incidents from your life:
Recall an incident from your childhood when you were punished for doing something you were not supposed to do. What happened? Who was there? As you look back, how did such punishment shape your character? [Spend only 5 minutes now. This is rush writing. How much were you able to get down on paper? Always leave space in your notebook so you can finish this later.)

Our lives are determined more deeply by the questions we ask than by the answers we get. Even our memory fragments and memoirs are determined by the questions we ask.

The many and varied form of human expression from groans and chuckles to letters and manifestos reflect the irresistible and insatiable urge for expression and meaning. People everywhere tell their own stories, expressing what is immediately and/or ultimately important to them. Then other people listen to or read these stories, however they be expressed. This is the process by which we can establish and clarify meaning in our lives.

These expressions reveal, at least in part, what it means for us to be human. And through such revelations, the sacred nature of life and living begins to be manifested. Elie Wiesel, a concentration camp survivor, writer, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, writes in his memoir that his generation was obsessed by a thirst to retain and transmit everything. “Remember,” he says. This is good advice for you as you begin to “re-member,” that is, put together your memories.

Memoir is a form of revelation of the real world, even of God in the real world. Even though they seem to be about the ordinary and the secular, Gilmour in The Wisdom of Memory suggests that these human expressions are icons of experience that reveal wisdom.

Memoirs, like icons, are created and developed by real people in real-life situations, and like icons they speak of things sacred and in so doing become sacred texts. “Icon” (from the Greek word denoting image or picture), as you know, has been used for a kind of painting which tells a story and reveals a depth of meaning.

Just as various religions and cultures have developed ways to remember and communicate what they hold sacred and thus extend their vision into the present and the future, so can our contemporary memoirs memorialize individual lives and share them with their culture. While not necessarily “religious,” memoirs are spiritual in that they portray the lived experience of the writer's beliefs and values. This will be true of the memoir you plan to write.

The writer of Psalm 139 reminds us, “Before a word is on my tongue, behold, O God, you know the whole of it. Behind and before you besiege me. You lay your hand upon me” (vv. 4-5).

When you are ready, turn to Part 4: Re-membering.

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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