When you’re figuring out how to write a memoir, it’s sometimes easy to get caught up in the mechanics. Of course these are important. But unless your memoir is primarily factual in nature, getting to the emotional core of the story – the most profound version of what really happened – is vital if you want your writing to be compelling.
But how do you do this? I’ve written in the past about the challenge of finding your memoir voice. Your unconscious mind may be prey to all sorts of strictures about telling the truth that you’re not aware of. You may have an inner censor that metaphorically blacks out your most intense memories.
Yet this censor is often asleep on the job, and it may not be difficult to get past them. Below are some tips for doing just that.
Sometimes your inner censor is only working on the level of the writing itself, and not your actual recollections. It may be that you’re easily able to picture and remember whatever you were feeling at the time of the event you’re writing about, but somehow the link between this internal state and the writing process is missing.
You need to be conscious of the gap before you can bridge it.
As an exercise, start writing about a memory. As you write, focus on what is present in your mind’s eye. Does your subject matter accord with the picture in your mind’s eye? If so, chances are you’re in touch with what was really going on emotionally at the time.
If there is a discrepancy between the two, start to explore this inner picture. Ask yourself the following:
Which room or environment are you picturing? Why is this room significant?
What are the feelings or thoughts that circulate around this mental image? Can you put them into words?
Sometimes there’s a delay between completing a piece of writing and being aware of the underlying emotions that accompanied the original experience. You may complete the writing and only later become aware of a deeper layer of feeling and experience. Try to capture this deeper layer in words as soon as it comes up, and use this later writing to enhance what you’ve already completed.
Photos are a great way of jogging memory and unearthing perceptions about the past.
One option is to find a photo that appeals to you, study it, and start to write freely about anything that comes to mind. Think about what was happening around the time the photo was taken, and what the underlying dynamics were. If you're writing about relatives, a photo that appeals to your imagination can spark a search for more information.
Another option is to keep a photo nearby, or in your mind’s eye, as you write, as a general reminder of the subject matter. In this case you're not so concerned about whatever is going on in the photo, but of the individual character of the people that feature in it. Whether the photo is of you alone, family members or other significant people, use it to help you retain a strong sense of the character, emotional burdens, or general circumstances of those you're writing about.
Perceptions on waking
Perceptions on waking
One of the times we’re most vulnerable to unconscious thoughts and memories is when we first wake up in the morning.
Sometimes a deeper layer of perception or emotion may reveal itself in a dream, or simply as a general impression when you wake. Keep a pen and paper or writing device next to the bed to capture these impressions, or alternatively write about them as soon as you get to the computer in the morning.
If you enjoyed this blog entry, you might also like Haunted by the Ghosts of Memory: Is Memoir Writing Good Therapy?