Turning Memories into Memoir–Where to Begin?

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As much as I consider myself a fiction writer, it seems my most successful (and when I say successful, I mean published…and when I say published, I mean twice) writing projects have been memoir or personal essays.  The biggest mistake many writers can make is to pigeonhole themselves into one particular genre, simply because it’s all they’ve ever done, or because it’s the genre they most enjoy reading.

Well, okay–maybe I’m being a bit dramatic here. Perhaps it’s not the BIGGEST mistake you can make…but maybe just consider the possibility that you could be missing out on a whole new world of creativity–a niche that, by default, you already possess all the knowledge and skill you need to craft a full-fledged, captivating, honest-to-Pete story that people can relate to…and want to read.

Because that’s the kicker, isn’t it? Unknown writers are bound to wonder, “Why would anyone want to read about me?” when it comes to considering memoir as a creative outlet. But believe you, me: nobody was more surprised than I was when, after umpteen submissions of short stories, my two successful entries were memoir. And the things that people commented on after reading these essays, time and again, were the little, seemingly mundane or useless details I worked in throughout. Things like the manner in which my three younger siblings and I would ascend the steep, narrow stairway to the second floor of our childhood home (on all fours, because it somehow seemed faster), or describing my father’s favorite footstool (brown velour, mushroom-shaped), or the fact that the built-in china cabinet in our dining room was inexplicably used as a medicine cabinet when were were growing up.

These glorious glimpses of magnified minutiae are what pluck at people’s heartstrings and strike some relatable chord of familiarity–enough to extricate memories of their own that they forgot they even had. And these are the things that turn your seemingly non-remarkable story into a memorable tale that leaves traces of itself behind in the hearts and minds of perfect strangers.

So, where to begin? Let me point the way:

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Obviously.

But really. If you haven’t done this already, set aside a block of time to just make a list of a few memorable moments in your life. Don’t think about it too much–the memories can be good, bad, momentous, innocuous…you get the idea. Know this; whether you’ve ever really thought about it this way or not, emotions are the seeds of pretty much every memory: Happiness…sadness…anger…embarrassment…pride…contentment…fear.

So this list–no need to go into a ton of detail. Just a quick bullet point, like so (I included the “emotional seed” in parenthesis):

  • When I wrote my sister’s name on the wall beside her bed, hoping to get her in trouble, and being blamed for it anyway because my parents were far smarter than I took them for (anger/embarrassment)
  • Getting caught stealing milk crates from behind the grocery store and faking an asthma attack to make the policeman feel bad (fear)
  • When a wall of water crashed through the bulkhead door in our basement during  a violent summer storm and we had to flee to the neighbor’s house–in our underwear (fear/embarrassment)
  • When my Dad accompanied me to purchase my first car–and almost killed the salesman (embarrassment)
  • When I brought my Dad to a Red Sox game (with free tickets from my new job in marketing at the local cable company) and he almost killed the drunk in front of us for dropping the f-bomb (embarrassment) (I’m seeing a trend here…and yes–all of the above are true. Don’t think less of me for the first two–I was young and shallow.)

Once you’ve done this, put the list away for a day, and when you come back to it with fresh eyes, pick the one that jumps out at you–and just start to write. Don’t stop to correct, to fix, to rearrange. Just write. Write until the story ends–and walk away again. Give it a day or so.

When you come back this time, read through it again, reliving that moment in time. Consider your senses–things you saw, smelled, tasted, felt, and heard–and don’t worry about whether or not these things are accurate. Two words: creative license. These are your memories, and you can embellish or flesh out the storyline however you see fit! Mine your memories for details, and fill in the holes with your creativity…and if it makes the story all the better–then DAYUM! Why wouldn’t you?

Everybody has stories to tell, and they don’t need to be tales of amazing feats, jaw-dropping conquests, or fantastic adventures. If you have some of those to share, feel free. But I feel safe saying that most of us don’t. And I don’t know about you, but I get much more out of reading a well-crafted story about someone like me doing something normal, something I could see myself doing. Give me the details–make me feel like I know you, like you’re an old friend. Just write what you know, and put as much of yourself into it as you possibly can.

So…what are you waiting for? Go write something!

(Oh, and if you’d like to read one of my published essays, click here.)