Memoir writing: Make a list of memories and then cull from it

Write a list of 25 memories. The note for each memory should be short.

Example:

  1. the time I sledded into a tree
  2. the summer I spent with my brother’s grandma
  3. taking the shortcut to school through the woods
  4. shooting the rapids in the Santa Ana aqueducts with Mama
  5. the night my mother attempted suicide
  6. ice skating in 7th grade
  7. Greyhound road trip from CA to NC with my 70-year old foster mother
  8. road trip to my mother’s funeral
  9. road trip to wedding when I was in college
    (I see a pattern with road trips so now I’m pursuing it on this list)
  10. weekly trips to gay bars to dance with friends when I was attending a Christian college
  11. road trip to Oregon after my father and stepmother retrieved me from foster care
  12. taking the train from Oregon to California to see my Nana (age 18?)
  13. shortcuts I learned from my Nana when she planned the routes for Daffodil Days
  14. the sole trip to see my mother when I was in foster care
  15. moving to Forest Falls after Mama got married to Schuy
  16. trips to get firewood
  17. trip to Vermont
  18. trip to Wallowa lake the summer I had nowhere to go–driving past house on Stone Road
  19. trips to see friends during failing years of my first marriage (theme: escape)
  20. finding roots in Danville, VT and searching for the Pettingill cemetery
  21. visiting the Evergreen cemetery with my now-missing son
  22. my mother’s story of her road trip with my dad and then her running away from him
  23. the day I realized Jake was missing
  24. walking ditch banks with my sons when they were small
  25. flying kites with my sons out in a field off West Ross

This list is fresh; I’m going through the process myself to show you how I work with it.

When I got to #9, I realized I was free-associating road-trips, so I just focused more attention on that theme. All the road trips or trip-related things I could think of, fast. As I wrote, I started thinking about why I took those trips.

I took some of those trips to escape to a place that felt safe, and now, when I think of traveling, I think of how present I can be in every place. So I ask myself now, when I am running away, can I actually see where I am at any point? In the leaving place, the journey, or at the destination? I think perhaps my own sight was limited. I tend to recognize my surroundings no matter what, but I am not always present.

So now with this list I’m looking for themes. Escape. Fear. Longing. Curiosity. Friendship. Adventure. Connection. Family.

I see that in three parts I can identify a theme for my mother:

  • the summer I spent with my brother’s grandma
  • the night my mother attempted suicide
  • trip to see my mother when I was in foster care
  • my mother’s story of her road trip with my dad and then her running away from him

They all relate somehow to escape. I spent the summer with my brother’s grandma the summer Mama got married to Schuy.  Pushing us off for that time is, in my mind, a form of escape because Schuy didn’t want kids, and this kept us at arm’s length for a while. (It could also have been their honeymoon, I realize.)

This escapism is also seen in some of my own trips:

  • road trip to my mother’s funeral
  • weekly trips to gay bars to dance with friends when I was attending a Christian college
  • road trip to Oregon after my father and stepmother retrieved me from foster care
  • trips to see friends during failing years of my first marriage

In each of these trips, I was escaping something. When I went to my mother’s funeral I was driving from misery to misery, but it was all about escape.

If I were to pursue this, I might explore the things my  mother and I each fled from, and why, and then I might explore what I see now.

Some patterns don’t stand out immediately, so you may have to ponder for a while.
Right now, even as I write, I’m thinking of other ways I escape–reading, browsing thrift shops, binge-watching Criminal Minds or Bones, eating–and I see that those are dimensions I would have to add to the narrative.

My goal in creating the list is to identify a framework on which to hang my stories. The theme of escape here is my through-line, my thesis, so to speak. Everything I then would write about these memories would be with this through-line in mind.

Likewise, you should pay attention to that common theme so that you are writing for a purpose. Because this is your narrative, only you can decide what to cull, only you can decide what the themes are.

Keep in mind that each of the items on your list may also serve as a launch pad for other themes. My weekly trips to gay bars with friends while I attended a Christian college have many layers, not the least of which is rebellion. I have a lot of memories in which that theme resides, along with the themes of belonging, faith, and connection.

If you make a list, please feel free to tag me in your post so I can come read your list.

 

 

 

 

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