Memory Lane: Memoir and Reflective Writing

By: Marilyn L. Davis

“I took a trip down Memory Lane. I drove in reverse.” ― Jarod Kintz, Sleepwalking is Restercise

While humorous, Jarod Kintz often captures concepts and ideas and re-frames them in an amusing way. However, going in reverse is exactly what we do in writing a memoir. We have the advantage of living through the events and writing about them in hindsight.

nearer than they appear car mirrorBut just as objects are distorted, and our perception altered in a reverse mirror, so are our memories. We are now filtering the experience through what we know today. The more important thing is that we know the outcome; something we didn’t know during the event.

That may seem like a subtle difference; living the event versus writing about the experience, but this difference is what can make memoir appealing or just a rehash of the facts and perceptions. It’s the modifications of the event that make a powerful memoir. What are some of those differences?

  • Emotions at the time
  • Understanding of the various factors
  • Attitudes towards the situation and the people involved
  • Insights gained from living the experience
  • Awareness of a lesson in the experience
  • Resolution of conflict or adversity
  • Regrets and resolution in hindsight

When we’re writing a memoir, it’s a snapshot of a time in our lives that we want to capture in another format – the written word, rather than the still picture. And it takes five elements to do this:

1. Define and Limit Your Purpose

Since I’ve lived sixty-eight years, that’s a lot of memories, and if I wrote a life story, I’d start at age 2 with a fuzzy memory of a trip with my Dad and end with the final edit of this post. God, you’d be bored, and I’d be tired.

However, there are moments in any life that have universal appeal, and when you define your purpose or theme, and narrow your scope, you can pinpoint those events from your life that are the best examples to touch, enlighten or help your readers understand and relate. Then you’ve captured that snapshot in words.

“Today, I’m sitting on a rock by the stream. It still smells of my childhood. Clean close to it. Then I see the trout.  They usually lie in the deep holes in the heat of the day, yet this fish feels free to come to the surface; it probably does not understand capture. Or the frog on the rock; staring at me; expanding its throat and croaking. I sit still, breathing in my yesterdays.The fish, frog and the maple grove all remind me of the joy I felt with these strong women.”

2. Use Creative Non-fiction techniques

The combination of facts, coupled with better descriptions of scene, emotions, and dialogue make the memories alive enough for your reader to be in that time through your words. Memoir is a excellent way to incorporate the five sense into the writing – the smell, taste, touch, sight, and sounds of the experience, the times, or the place.

Putting the ingredients together, I am always amazed, that the off-putting smell of yeast as it begins to bubble and froth can create something so satisfying. It is magic to me, how transformed yeast is one of the most delicious smells on earth when it is baking in a low-temperature oven.”

However, the event must have happened. In this case, it did and is part of my rituals with my grandchildren carried down from my grandmother. Isolated incidents that capture attention work well in memoir.

Otherwise, you’re writing fiction and label it as such.

And it might be a good fiction piece or book, but it didn’t happen to you, so don’t try to claim it. Ultimately, it will ring false for the reader, or if the book sells, someone from your past will pop up and disprove your memoir.

Embellishing is okay, lying is not.

3. Reflect Without Judging

Many writers want the reader to understand where they’ve been, what they experienced, and what they learned. Take someone who was abandoned, neglected and slighted. They might want the reader to feel righteous anger at those who did them wrong and think the only way is to paint the abuser using negative descriptors. There is another way that stays truer to the memoir – that’s how the writer felt, what they experienced, and what they thought as the result of an action. For instance:

“He held me together and made me whole. Without him, I could not connect or contain the tiny pieces of myself. Drugs and alcohol created the bubble where they all floated, seemingly together and created my illusion of wholeness again.” (from forthcoming memoir, Finding North: A Woman’s Journey from Addict 2 Advocate)

Now we know he left, not the “scumbag SOB cheated and took all my money and left with his honey” disparaging comments.

Part of the problem with memoir is how detailed we are about the others in our writing. Even in this example, we don’t know what, or if, there were other issues in effect. Was she just so needy that she became a burden that he couldn’t carry anymore? Who’s money was it to begin with or on paper? When did the honey enter the picture?

Each writer has to weigh the merits of the point of view and determine how much is appropriate and necessary to write about the others.

4. truth, Bigger Truth and The Universal Truth

Good memoirs find truth and Truth. Little truths and the Big Truths and in the writing process, the writer often finds the Universal Truth, and that will make a compelling experience for all.

“I am not in a particularly maudlin mood today while I write this. I am just reflecting on the fragility of life. I checked Facebook and found out that a friend from the rooms passed away after a motorcycle accident. Then I got a call that another friend is on life-support from an overdose. An email alerted me that another person I’ve known is dying of cancer with no hope of remission.

These made me think of how nonchalantly we go to sleep each night, fully expecting to wake in the morning.  I do not think we necessarily take our lives for granted. However, I do not think that we are always aware of how precious, precarious, and unpredictable life is.”

Life, death, gratitude, and complacency are all part of the universal attitudes and situations that occur, therefore, it will have universal appeal and if you’ve written a strong example, or life lesson, it can touch the reader.

5. Empathy, Sympathy and Make ‘Em Feel

Memoir, when done well, elicits strong emotions because it is authentic. You may have gotten to resolution and closure on a painful past, through life, therapy, or process, but your readers may come away angry at an injustice, and find the motivation to help a cause.

They may be wondering how you can forgive, and then reflect on those they need to forgive. They may be in awe of the adversities you overcame and wonder if they have that resolve. For others, they are encouraged by your commitment, courage, and drive, and be uplifted and inspired to try some of your methods.

It doesn’t matter what emotion you trigger in the reader; you’ve done your job as a writer to help them empathize.

Circumstances seem dissimilar for the writer and reader? That is a minor difference when you can help the reader see the comparison for Calcutta and California.

Since memoir is reflecting back in time, make the connection for the reader with today’s time, vernacular, or issues. It might be how you grew up in the ’50s with fixed social acceptance of roles for women, hindering your dreams. Then how a divorce forced you to change your perceptions and rise to power in the corporate world.

“Those Sunday shoes now filled the Monday through Friday quick-paced halls where she wondered if anyone would ask her if she was playing dress up. Instead, she found power in the pumps and realized that she had been an organizing guru with skills all along. She’d only used those skills before to manage a bake sale and cookie drive, but girls scouts and men had similarities.” (from forthcoming memoir, Finding North: A Woman’s Journey from Addict 2 Advocate)

What social rules and roles equate? Relating it to circumstances today make the memoir relevant, even when writing about events from 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

When you write a memoir and engage your readers on an emotional and perceptual level, you’ve traveled Memory Lane without veering off course. Good job.

Quotes from:

In my Veins: Love, Strength and Memories 

Writing Style and the Five Senses

What If Like Milk, You Knew Your Expiration Date? 


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