Writing your memoir is a profound gift to yourself and to those with whom you’ve shared a walk down difficult paths.
You live and learn as a wife, mother, grandmother and friend. Wanting to share epiphanies, revelations and heartfelt experience is human nature. But how many of us are equipped to construct a complete memoir, no less want to share it with a wide audience?
So, let’s think small for a moment. Small and short. Whether called flash memoir, short memoir or memoir essay, short-form memoirs can accomplish the goal of interpreting the past – through your eyes – for an audience of loved ones.
Let’s start with a quick review on why well-told, short storytelling can provide the desired impact.
Pushing the Refresh Button on Lasting Impressions
The storylines of our lives are often cast and spun by others. Refocusing on a key event from the past can reframe the experience with insight not previously obvious or understood. Learning or relearning – as well as teaching or reteaching – by story is native to the way we think.
Here are two examples of story types that continue to have wide appeal and impact:
While technically not memoir, Bible stories focus on events that significantly alter the lives of their characters. Prime examples are Jonah and the Whale, Cain and Abel, The Last Supper, and Joseph and His Brothers.
Fairy tales and fables like Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and The Tortoise and The Hare have an equal influence.
These crafty narratives serve to expose us to a sense of truth, ethics and morality. They leave audiences with a refreshed point of view. Even when our ultimate memories of these stories turn toward the visceral, we’re somehow more complete for having heard or read them.
They have sticking power! Your first-hand reflections on events can provide similar guidance and mentorship to readers.
The Value Received from Sharing Your Voice
Catharsis. Gratitude. Completion. Redemption. Memoirist, writer, lecturer and educator Patricia Hampl says, “Our capacity to move forward as developing beings rests on a healthy relationship with the past.”
Brush-stroke memories from the past can benefit from re-examination through more experienced, sophisticated eyes. Finding the truth in shared memories can be as important to the writer as it is to the reader.
In an earlier article Writing A Memoir Can Help Exorcise Your Childhood Demons I discuss how the vetting of memories can help redefine the truth north of your past.
Joan Didion, the writer responsible for mainstreaming the genre of personal essay, a close relative to memoir, says, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means… what I want and what I fear.”
Didion’s examination of memories critical to finding an okay place to live among them is, arguably, the epitome of the memoir process.
It was most notably used in the exhaustive recollection of her husband’s death in, The Year of Magical Thinking. It defined her process of grieving and threw a merciful light onto grief for those who can’t articulate such pain on their own.
The Value of a Memoir to Those Hearing It
Nothing can replace getting memory directly from the lips of the source itself. Through inspiration or insight, hearing the voice of a loved one describing backstory to shared critical moments in life can bring peace, build character and offer hope.
My father was not a communicator. Had he left some view onto his puzzling actions, we, his children, could better understand his motivations. A great deal of hurt could have been avoided by those left in the wake of his behavior. Without memoir or at least frank discussion, everything is left to guesswork.
On the Road to Short-Form Memoir
If your message doesn’t feel important enough to survive even the briefest process of memoir, remember this: Everyone’s life forms a unique metaphorical fingerprint onto the universe. And like fingerprints, no two lives are exactly alike. The unique story of your life is your story to tell.
How to Write a Memoir
- Select a key moment that created major change or misunderstanding.
- When feeling unstressed and unencumbered, jot down all related memories of the event.
- Seek to understand your state of mind at the time.
- Determine the universal theme or themes running through the narrative.
- Reframe the experience based on those universal themes. The use of a theme is a galvanizing vehicle to move your story forward.
- Determine how you might judiciously tell the story to enable greatest understanding and impact.
How to Convey Your Feelings
The medium used to convey your findings need not be overly complicated. Here are some suggestions:
- A written narrative just long enough to cover the topic.
- A recorded reading of the narrative.
- A free-style talk with loved ones using notes taken from your work.
- A video to describe your contemporary understanding of the subject matter.
- A drawing or series of drawings with annotations.
If pleased with your effort, pick another moment or event that could benefit from similar treatment. Begin to build a small library of memoir. You can share the results with loved ones in the short-term, or have the material released, posthumously.
It you decide there’s no better time than the present, good planning will be necessary. And remember, if your work is done without judgment or rancor, you can only be responsible for the message – not how it’s received. Memoir can sometimes be a contentious exercise.
Here’s a place to go for hints on how to have challenging talks with loved ones, from The Family Dinner Project.
What key life experience would you like to re-examine? Who is your audience and what do you hope to accomplish? Please share your thoughts so we can have a fruitful discussion.