The process of writing memoir attempts to lure us into organizing our lives by significant events. While this kind of thinking isn’t necessarily wrong and it is true that major events in our lives impact us greatly, examining our lives through different lens often leads to unexpected insights that offer a fuller perspective. If we imagine the memoirist as a memory archeologist, we can begin to see the process of writing autobiography as one that does more than simply record a life lived or tell an entertaining story. The true memoirist is writing to discover her/his own personal truths as much as they are hoping to share those discoveries with the reader.
Let us first acknowledge that there are no “insignificant” events in our lives. Our subject matter, therefore, is unlimited. A story doesn’t have to (and often doesn’t) have roots in a major life event. I can, for example, trace my career in academia and my lifelong love of learning back to a single quiet classroom and a kindergarten teacher that tucked my hair behind my ear when I began to work. Because my parents were not affectionate people, this small, kind gesture impacted me greatly and likely established school as a positive, nurturing environment where I felt safe and valued. I might never have remembered this particular teacher or moment if I hadn’t allowed my mind to return to a place I knew long ago in an exercise like the one you’re about to complete.
If I had simply asked myself to write about how I came to academia and a career in teaching, I probably would have written a much different narrative than the one that included my kindergarten teacher. When we think of our lives in terms of major events (I was an undergrad in Georgia, got my masters degree in Nebraska, and then started my doctoral program in South Carolina), we survey our lives in a shallow way that cannot truly convey our experience to our reader. Writing through events often turns us into “flat” characters— people without dimensions. We, as autobiographical writers, are always attempting to make ourselves “round” instead. There are many ways to achieve this and this exercise will get us started. Ironically, one of the best ways to approach the subject of ourselves, isn’t through ourselves at all (at least not directly).
Exercise 1: Place
It’s no secret that place/setting is an important part of storytelling and one of the best ways to introduce your reader to you is through your unique interpretation of the space around you. Creating your world for the reader helps them to accurately place you within that world so every story, no matter what genre, benefits from careful attention to place. Returning to the places of our past can also provide unexpected memoir material since you are “returning” with a new, informed perspective. I might never have remembered that my
kindergarten teacher used to tuck my hair behind my ear had I not tried to recreate my first memories of school in my mind. While I cannot, obviously, remember every detail of my first classroom, I can remember the warm feelings connected to that place. When I attempted to discern where those feelings came from, I realized they were connected to the one-on-one lessons I received and the single loving gesture that shaped my early education.
Chooseaplacefromyourpast(ideally,aspecificplacethatyouspentagreatdeal of time in and knew well).
Try to use all your senses to recreate the place vividly in your mind. Along with every detail you can imagine, also try to remember how the place smelled, felt, and sounded. Can you remember how it felt to sit on the plastic-covered sofa? Did your bare legs stick to it in the summer? Allow yourself to linger for as long as you can in your place. The longer you spend there, the more likely you are to inadvertently find yourself inside a story—and it probably won’t be a story you were expecting to tell.
When I put myself inside my first classroom, for instance, I didn’t expect to find myself wondering why a simple gesture like my hair being tucked behind my ear impacted me so greatly that I still remember it. I thought I wanted to write about my path towards academia so a classroom seemed a good place to start, but lingering in that space showed me that the real story I wanted to tell involved the ways in which caring teachers took the place of an absent mother. Familiar places can lead us into new territory. I can’t wait to see where it leads you!
Wendy Ralph, PhD (A.B.D) is an an award-winning author and writing instructor published in Upstreet, The Los Angeles Review, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, Yemassee, and many others. Wendy is also a Pushcart Prize nominee whose scholarly and teaching excellence earned her high honors at The University of South Carolina and beyond. Learn more about Wendy and her work at www.wendyralph.com.