After you’ve written several memories down, you can keep going, you can take a wee break and make a list of memories to come back to, or you can pause that part of the process and focus on fleshing out one or more individual memories. Sometimes it’s best to vomit everything onto the page. Sometimes it’s better to flesh out a handful of memories to give you a clearer idea of where you’re headed thematically. Either way is productive, and they’re certainly not the only ways to approach writing your memoir. If you’ve got a way that works, keep at it.
Writing a list of memories is a compromise between the two. You can take a step back from the close writing necessary for the other two approaches, but you are still moving forward. It doesn’t matter what order the memories are in. The point is to get them on the page. I know from experience how difficult this can be, so I’ve developed a couple of tricks to help me write. I bought a kitchen timer–the kind that ticks because the that is an important part of this for me–and I set the timer for 5-15 minutes, depending on how loud my inner censor’s being. The five minute trick always tricks me into writing more because I’m not even done thinking the first time the timer goes off. Fifteen minutes works, too, because it goes faster than I expect.
The other thing I do is tell myself that I’m going to play with words for a while. Part of what has kept me from putting things on the page is that I know they won’t be perfect. So I remind myself that I can play, and that I can always come back and fix mistakes.
As you write your list or blast through another handful of memories, be thinking about where you want to go in your memoir. What is your “so what?” You may not really know this for a long time, and that’s fine. But the sooner you put that pot on the back burner, the sooner your ideas will bubble up.
Who is your audience? This can guide you to your “why.”
Look for patterns.
Start with the obvious, and go beyond it. For example, in my family we have abuse, but we also have strong, bossy women.
And in several generations, on both sides of my family, we have various name issues: either someone had a name constantly misspelled or mispronounced, or it was not what it should have been–in the case of my great-grandfather, he and his brothers had his mother’s maiden name instead of his father’s. This happened in a fervently religious household, one in which at least five of the brothers were Methodist ministers. This helps me understand why my grandfather was judgmental toward me when he found out I was pregnant before I got married. It also sheds light on other family issues. I myself have two sets of names. My mother changed her middle name in her 40s; my son, Josh, has two middle names (not on purpose); and back in my roots lived a woman named Rhayerdagowy. One census taker just left her name blank on the census. I imagine she said her name and he just threw his hands up in despair.
Perhaps there’s a pattern of violence, but it’s a peculiar, particular type of violence.
Perhaps hoarding is an issue.
These are all generic, but how your family manifests them is unique.
When you explore, be aware that you will likely find discrepancies and contradictions. Write anyway. Write your perception of the events and be true to your inner eye on these things. Right now, you are writing your story and no one else’s. You will come back later and add the other interpretations and your own adult perspective. How you view your childhood events gives you a strong clue about your worldview. The discovery process is fascinating and surprising.
Press on, even when it’s difficult. Your story is important.
“We can, by telling our individual truths in the most authentic way, touch the universal truths that can change us all” (xv).
-Hal Zina Bennett, in the foreword to Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir, by Lisa Dale Norton.