This Is Your Life! Writing Your Memoir….
By Peggy Markham

Memories. We all have them — pasted photographs in an album, musings in a diary, stories repeated around the dinner table, a grandmother’s wedding ring, family reunions, anniversaries, birthdays. Are you ready to take a pen in hand, fill a blank page with your story and put your memories in writing? A memoir is simply a record of events based on personal observations and you are limited only by the scope of your imagination. If you are hesitant about tackling the task of writing a memoir, then seeking the advice and guidance from a teacher will help. Look around your community for sources such as classes taught at a local college, art centers, libraries and your hometown newspaper for writing groups that meet regularly.

This journey of self-exploration can be cathartic, healing, laughable, sentimental and will open your awareness of the life you have lived. You have a story to tell, so how to start? The first hurdle to overcome is staring at a blank piece of paper on your new tablet with your pen poised in your hand and you feel stuck. You don’t know where to begin. Forget the rules your ninth grade English teacher drilled into you and let your mind remember an event, put yourself in that scene and let the words flow onto the paper. Write fast and don’t worry about mistakes; there will be time later to polish your piece. Your goal is to try to make writing a 10-minute exercise every day. Begin with, “I remember……” and immerse yourself in the details of the memory. Purchase a small journal and carry it and a pen with you as you never know when a wonderful thought, a rich word, a phrase or a buried memory will surface. Many of us have been known to wake up at 3 a.m., turn on our book light and then scribble away in a journal. We know from experience that upon waking in the morning, those unique thoughts that we had in the middle of the night are hard to remember. The respected author, Anne Lamott, says that she always carries a pen with her and has been known to write spontaneous thoughts on her hand if her note pad is not available.

Here are some memoir suggestions:

Computer or pencil on paper?
Sounds like a simple question. Each teacher will have their opinion about how you approach your work. Some prefer the “organic” touch of a pencil or a smooth pen on paper while other writers like the swift peck on the computer keyboard. It’s your choice. Whatever method you choose, always save your material in a notebook.

Chronological order or flexibility?
Narrowing down your memoir to a list of carefully recorded dates, times and places makes your writing dry and uninteresting. You have the flexibility to shift your time sequences, blending events to suit your story. The emphasis can be on your impressions of the recall and if you mix things up a bit, then your approach falls more into the genre of “creative nonfiction” and this is your option as a writer.

Just the facts or use your imagination?
Memories are often fuzzy as to the factual details, leaving you with the freedom to enhance and embellish the facts from your point of view. Facts alone may be necessary to form the frame of the story and often doing research to substantiate your recall brings in a wider viewpoint. Your recollection of a conversation may be vastly different from the person you were talking with and this other perspective can bring about a shift in your story. Was your mother really scolding you because you failed to tell her you were going to see your friend or was your mother terrified and worried that you had gone missing? Her recall of the event differs from your memory and these two points of view offer a contrast that can bring an element of interest to the tale. From the facts of the memory you can pull in some imaginary details adding tone and color. This “poetic license” doesn’t destroy the validity of the story, rather it fleshes out the piece.

The Nitty Gritty of Specific Details
Here is where you start to “paint with words” on the canvas of your memoir. Think about your five senses: taste, touch, sight, smell and sound. Think of an event such as attending a high school prom. This event is more than the statement, “I went to the dance in May of 1958”. Dig down into this memory and have fun with your five senses. Use juicy words to describe the scene. Something like: “I remember my senior prom in May of 1958. I wore an evening dress of aqua netting over lace with high heel shoes dyed to match. My date looked so handsome in a tux with a pink sweetheart rose pinned on the lapel of his white jacket. He gave me a wrist corsage of fresh, creamy white gardenias. We danced the night away to doo-wop music in the beach pavilion that the junior class had decorated with glittery stars and giant cardboard cutouts of sea shells”. Adding embellishment to the details makes the story vivid and memorable. Use strong, active verbs and pare out the adjectives and adverbs. Keep verb tenses consistent and generally avoid the passive voice.

As you proceed in this adventure of creating your memoir, you will become more comfortable with the tools applied to the craft of writing. Teachers will introduce you to usage of the reflective voice, point of view, dialogue, setting the scene, summary, tone and theme. As you add chapter after chapter, your story will fill you with the satisfaction of a tale worth telling. Take 10 minutes and fill up that blank piece of paper with “I remember….” This is your life, your memoir.

Suggested reading for memoir “how-to”
Writing Down the Bones
Old Friend From Far Away
by Natalie Goldberg

Popular Memoirs to read:
Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott
Edge of Taos Desert by Mabel Dodge Luhan
The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
West With the Night by Beryl Markham
Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire

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