When someone is about to embark on a writing journey, they often do so because they want to document their memories, or those of someone close to them. Why? Either for posterity or to share a fascinating period of time or to distribute to family now and in the future to give a glimpse of the times they lived through.
In fact, life writing, or memoir, can be one of the best places to start your writing practice. You don’t need to worry about imagination, or being creative, or deciding what genre or style to write in … you simply write from memory. You write the life you know, have experienced and can talk reliably about. Who else is an expert on your life more than you?
If you are one of those organised people who has kept a diary for all or part of your life, your raw material is easily accessible! The rest of us have to rely on memory, and we know how unreliable that can be.
Writing about a period of your life can be entertaining, cathartic, difficult, humorous, and everything in between.
Personally, I avoided writing memoir pieces for two reasons. Firstly my memory is limited: a lot of my life is blank and I rely on photographs much of the time to recall certain things. For those times I don’t have a physical image, I have an emotional or mental image in mind. Secondly, it can be painful bringing back some memories and life events. They say not to dwell on the past but at some point we all revisit it to reminisce or remember.
If you’re intending to publish your memoir, then making it easy for the reader to engage in your story is paramount. In all writing, you need to find a way to let the reader into what’s in your mind that you are trying to share or replicate for them. How you do that is through traditional story-telling techniques.
In memoir, perhaps one of the best methods is to employ the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach.
When writing a piece, aim to recollect as much sensory detail as you can.
- What season of the year was it? What time of day? Example, ” Wearing my shiny new black shoes, I skipped through the freshly fallen leaves that were all tones of yellow, brown and orange: I felt them crunch under my foot.” That gives you the sense this piece takes place around Autumn/Fall. Much better for the reader than saying, “it was autumn.”
- Think about the feelings you had at the time and where you felt it in your body. “I knew I did wrong and my throat started to constrict, my tummy tightened and my chest felt like it would fall in on itself. I hid my hands behind my back: I knew I was in for the Principal’s cane.” That has more import for the reader than “I was scared going to the Principal’s office because I knew I’d get the cane.”
- Which of your senses were involved? Was there a certain smell, aroma or scent? Were there noises around that were distinctive like “the rumble of an approaching locomotive”? Could you taste something? How about the physical feel of something, example, “the yellowing linen on Grandma’s table was crisp and standing to attention. I ran my hands over the tablecloth and it was smooth – so stiff I didn’t dare crinkle it.” Sounds, scents and tactile memories are keys to readers memories and imagination. You can use music to underline a period of time: “and I heard ‘Let It Be’ by the Beatles playing in the background” puts the memory around 1970 and will probably have your reader singing the words in their head.
- In your memory piece, were other people involved? Who was there? What role did they play? How did you feel about those people? How did you feel about them being there? Alluding to them or describing them and the impact of the other people being there brings your reader in as well.
- Did anything change, alter or shift during this period? Was it a pivotal moment in some way?
Memoir or life writing is more than the simple retelling of events. The more visceral you can make the experience, the more you can engage your reader to really make them feel as though they are in the moment with you/your character.
Use emotion, sensory cues and lots of showing (not telling) to bring this life-writing alive.
Make your reader want to turn the page to find out more.
This article was inspired by an online webinar presentation led by Dr Alison Daniell on the topic of Life Writing, held by Southampton University.
Photo credit: jarmoluk @ Pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/photos-hands-hold-old-256887/