In this time of shelter-in-place, many of us have turned to gardening, baking, or writing to help us stay focused and grounded. I have done all of those things, but mostly I write.
Writing is how I make meaning out of seemingly meaningless events, and journaling about Covid-19 and the fires now surrounding me in California continues to serve that purpose.
I recently published a memoir. When I am interviewed, or questioned after a virtual reading, I am often asked “How long did it take?” “What was your process?” “How did you remember all those details?”
The simple truth is, I began by free writing and journaling at least an hour a day.
My first step was to select a journal that felt good in my hands, opened flat, and was lined. I wanted to use a physical journal to begin my memoir project because the physical process of writing connects us directly with our brain.
If you are someone who likes to sketch, you might want to choose a journal that has both blank and lined pages. Drawing or doodling events from the past engage the visual and motor parts of our brains and can produce wonderful material that you can later write about.
Writing mostly happens in the frontal lobe. The problem is that this area of the brain is also responsible for reasoning and judgement, planning and problem solving.
Thus, when we write in the traditional way, we tend to edit our words as we write, telling ourselves we aren’t remembering the incident correctly, or are forgetting key elements, or – worse – that no one will be interested in what we write.
Free writing, on the other hand, increases the flow of ideas, and reduces the chance that we’ll censor what we write. I begin each writing session with 15 minutes of free writing.
The process is simple – just put your pen on a page in your journal and start writing. If you have something specific in mind you’d like to write about, such as a childhood incident or a happy or sad memory, just start writing and don’t pick up your pen for at least five minutes.
Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Just write. If you start out brainstorming a list of things to write about, or touched on more than one memory in your free write, select one topic after five minutes, and go back to writing for another 15 minutes.
If you can’t think of anything to write, just keep repeating your subject (e.g., “Mama’s birthday,” or something like “I’m waiting for an idea to come and it will, I’m waiting for an idea to come and it will,” over and over until an idea comes. It works!).
Ray Bradbury described free writing this way: “Don’t think; just write!”
Callum Sharp of The Writing Cooperative offers eight reasons why free writing can also help us become better writers. These five relate directly to memoir writing:
You don’t need to attend a memoir workshop or read a book about writing a memoir to free write. You don’t even need to join a writing group. Just find a comfy place to sit and an hour a day to reminisce and write down your memories.
I did this for several years before I began to structure my memoir, or to do any research. Then I began to dig into family history – photograph albums, birth, death, and marriage certificates, financial records, correspondence.
I found a treasure trove of letters in a box with a ribbon around it, and it helped me decide what part of my life I wanted to write about. Because memoir is not biography – it isn’t about your whole life, just a part of it that you want to explore and understand.
That is an important thing to remember about writing memoir. Memoir is a process before it is a product. A memoir is a historical account written by you from personal knowledge or special sources. It’s a book about a sliver of your life, a collection of memories, the lessons learned, and key moments that shaped who you are. Written by you.
In order to narrow your focus, it can be helpful to list five life-changing events that you have experienced. They don’t have to be earth shaking – just life-changing.
Like taking a math class because you liked boys, then discovering you like math (that was me, back in the days when girls were rarely seen in higher math classes). Or meeting someone who took you to a sushi bar and discovering that you loved sushi.
If you’re over 60, you probably remember where you were when President Kennedy was shot. Most of us alive today still remember where we were when the airplanes flew into the World Trade Center. Each of those was a life-changing experience.
Brainstorm from five to 10 events in your life that you remember having some kind of significance. They may or may not be related to the life-changing events you listed previously.
For example, a life-changing event might be the inauguration of President Kennedy, but your personal story might be about waving a tiny American flag as you stood in the freezing sleet with your sixth-grade class as Kennedy’s arcade made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Select one of these ideas and spend the rest of your hour writing about that event. Don’t judge yourself, or worry about grammar, spelling, or how many adverbs you’ve used. Just write.
No one writes an entire memoir without doing some research, and eventually, you will want to start doing some too.
If you are at all like me, most of the source material will come from photo albums, old Christmas Card lists and letters, boxed up in your garage or basement or attic, or in file cabinets you haven’t looked at in years. But there are other sources of contemporary information you want to consider as well.
Did you or your parents save newspapers or magazines depicting important events? Did you keep a diary? Make memory boxes that contained the orchid corsage you wore to Senior Prom, or the tickets to Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theater in New York.
Do you keep receipts and other financial records beyond the required five years? Do you have access to birth, death, or marriage certificates, or a membership in Ancestry.com? (If not, you might want to get one).
Review the story you wrote during the last hour – where will you go to find background material or facts to make that particular story more interesting?
Leave a blank page in your journal then list every resource you can think of that might provide insights, details, memories. Leave another blank page and start to think about who shared these events with you. Who can you talk to who might help you remember details or who know details that you never knew?
Are you still in touch with any of those sixth graders who flew with you to Kennedy’s Inauguration? Do you still communicate with the friend who double-dated with you to the Senior Prom? The ex-boyfriend who took you to Phantom (or his children)?
How about Great Uncle Fred who seems like he’s going to live forever – what stories can he tell you about yourself at family gatherings? Does he know anything that you can use in one of your stories?
By working just an hour a day, you will soon build up a collection of stories. You will also start to work on your memoir in your head between sessions. Each time you open your journal you will have fresh ideas and resource material to add to your lists or to write about.
Eventually, you may want to lengthen the time you spend writing, or limit your sessions to three days a week, or two, or even one. The most important thing is that you have made a start, and to keep writing.
Once you have a reasonable body of work, it will be time to start studying the memoir form, how to add interesting details, dialogue, and historical background. In a future article I will describe how I transcribed my journal stories into Scrivener and organized and compiled them into a manuscript.
When you have that finished, you might want to find a memoir critique group – lots now meet virtually – and begin to share pieces of your story for feedback. There are many books about memoir, and many wonderful memoirs you can read for ideas. Enjoy the journey!
Have you written a memoir? How did you begin? If you haven’t, what is your biggest hurdle? Have you tried free writing? Please share your experience and let’s have a conversation.