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How narrative memoir journaling can improve your nonfiction

Learn to love your memories.

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There’s a recurring memory that pops into my thoughts two or three times per year. Centering on a childhood incident, the memory is of a specific day when I opened my lunchbox to find my father had filled a thermos with brown mushroom soup.

Besides reliving it in my head, I often journal about the story as well. My third grade diary entry for that day reads simply:

Dad packed mushroom soup for lunch today. I didn’t like it because it reminded me of slugs.

Basic information only, yet the memory has so much more to offer when fully fleshed out. The “slugs” description came about because I was lucky enough to take my lunch outside that day – only to see a moist slug sneak past me while I ate the soup, solidifying the unfortunate connection between the two in my susceptible brain.

Dad doesn’t remember that day. “I didn’t expect it would have such an impact on you,” he comments. “It was probably the only food we had in the house that day.”

But the collision proved to be hard-hitting and long-lasting, with the vivid memory overtaking my stomach whenever I saw mushrooms in a meal. It would be decades before I learned to enjoy eating fungi again.

Happily, I now take delight in trying new mushrooms and love eating them. Pushing past those two basic lines of the Mushroom Lunch memory has not only transformed my memoir journaling practice, but my taste palate as well.

When most of us hear the term “journaling,” we think of it in the traditional sense: jotting down our thoughts and emotions on the events of the day. It’s a deeply personal habit – for our eyes only – the words filling the pages of notebooks on our desk, in our bag, by our bedside.

As someone who’s been journaling since I first learned to hold a pen in my hand, I’ve filled boxes upon boxes of notebooks, decades of daily writing on the happenings of life. But in these notebooks, I wrote statements, which always felt too brief and too boring. I wasn’t aiming for pedantic, but I felt discontented with my hurried storytelling. Something was definitely missing. Since then, I’ve learned lessons on memoir writing, and now my journaling practice has become significantly more satisfying. My stories feel fully fleshed out instead of bare sketches.

Using the aforementioned Mushroom Lunch memory as an example, here are some helpful ideas to elevate your own memoir journaling practice.

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The power of “I remember”

How many times have you found yourself listening to others, and something they say triggers an “I remember that!” moment? We never know when a memory will strike us. There may be days when we’re flooded with remembrances and others still where we find none. On those leaner days, start your journaling with “I remember…” The power of beginning with those two simple words can bring up memories long forgotten. Use the refrain as many times as you need in order to pull details. This can be in list form if you find that easier. For example, the list for Mushroom Lunch looked like:

I remember wet grass and dry sidewalk. I remember a thermos with a cup lid. A brown soup with a new flavor. I remember slime trails and a slick brown slug.

Seeing the details in this way can help to better shape and form the full story of the event. Follow where your mind leads you. Writing Down the Bones author Natalie Goldberg writes, “Don’t be concerned if the memory happened five seconds ago or five years ago. Everything that isn’t this moment is memory coming alive again as you write.”

With “I remember,” you’ll always have a place to start.

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Be ready to receive your memories when they arrive

Sure, it’s straightforward to sit down with the intention to write out your memories, but recollections can strike at any moment. At a stoplight one day, I watched a shiny pink sports car speed past. Suddenly, I remembered the thermos of mushroom soup was that exact pink – a detail I’d forgotten until that very moment. Not wanting to lose this new insight, I wrote it down when I reached my destination, making note on the memo pad I keep in my car’s center console.

We never know when memories will hit us, so we should be prepared as best we can, whether that’s with a tried-and-true memo pad like mine or an app on your phone. Rather than convince yourself that you’ll remember it later (how often does that really work?), it’s better to record new insights as soon as possible. Ray Bradbury (author of Zen in the Art of Writing) says, “We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.” Keep small notepads in every room, in your bag, and in your car, or find helpful mobile apps that will allow you to jot notes, sketch out ideas, or record voice memos on the go.

Whatever method works for you, you’ll have an easy recorded reference for these details whenever you need them. 

Pay attention to the small stuff

It sounds cliché to be told to remember every little detail, but when it comes to memoir writing, the smaller details often morph into larger stories.

In revisiting Mushroom Lunch, I focused on the seemingly inconsequential details to make the moment feel richer and fuller to the reader. Take, for example, the scene where I first see the slug:

The grass was still wet from the morning drizzle, but the concrete path was perfectly dry. That’s where I chose to sit and eat. The soup was still steaming hot as I poured it carefully into the pink cup lid. Just as I was savoring the first delicious bite in my mouth, my eyes caught a shimmer of light near my foot. I paused my chewing and leaned forward to get a better look. A slime trail. My eyes followed the zany route all the way to the slug at the front of it.

The minor notes of the wet grass and dry concrete may have seemed insignificant when I remembered this day but ultimately add to the memory as a whole.

No remembered detail is wasted. Anthony Bourdain masterfully demonstrated this idea in his book Kitchen Confidential. His essay “From Our Kitchen to Your Table” begins when he observes a sign hanging outside a restaurant:

I saw a sign the other day outside one of those Chinese/Japanese hybrids that are beginning to pop up around town, advertising “Discount Sushi”. I can’t imagine a better example of Things To Be Wary Of in the food department than bargain sushi. Yet the place had customers.

From there, Bourdain expands to talk about his experiences buying, cooking, and eating various fish and the best practices to apply when doing so. It is that initial moment of noticing the sign for discount sushi, a concrete and tangible introductory visual for the reader, that serves as the springboard to launch him to the other larger parts of the essay.

Tell the narrative story

When you journal, it’s easy to tell the basic events as they occurred and leave it at that. But as all writers know, it’s always preferable to show instead of tell. Adding dialogue is one of the best strategies to upgrade your memoir journaling. We’re not talking full-blown conversations – it can be difficult to recall what was said long ago, of course – but sometimes there will be at least one line from the occasion that stands out.

Shannon Leone Fowler peppers her memoir, Traveling With Ghosts, with dialogue. For instance, during her travels through Morocco by camel, she recalls her lover’s reaction to the experience: “Camel humps are definitely not designed with the male anatomy in mind.” Even this one remembered line adds so much more to the memory.

With Mushroom Lunch, I remember my father’s unsettled response to my sudden disdain for mushroom soup.

“You love mushrooms,” he proclaimed. “You’ve always eaten them before. What was different this time?”

I couldn’t answer him, my gag reflex threatening to summon the events of earlier.

“OK, OK,” he added quickly, “I’ll never buy that soup again.”

With memories, your journaling can take on a storytelling feel, similar to the scenes you’d find in a novel. Go ahead and write out the memory as though it was a scene in a novel. Perhaps then the dialogue will come back to you and enrich the memory.

Go there again

Another common practice in journaling is to quit once you have written down your thoughts – to consider the memory recorded. But every time I revisit the Mushroom Lunch story, I recall new details. I rewrote the opening of the story with some of those details:

It was grey and raining outside, and we were running late for school. I threw on my parka and boots, grabbed my lunchbox, and took off out the door after my brother. There was just enough time to kick at a bunch of pale brown fungi that had sprouted near the tires of the car before Dad was ushering me to my seat.

It explains the wet grass later on, and now there is a tie-in with mushrooms. The memory was two lines in my original entry but entire paragraphs in my mind. Rewriting the scene allowed me to let the details out and achieve a fully satisfying story.

Granted, we might not want to revisit some bad memories. Others, however, may seem unfinished when we read them again, and going back to rewrite them a second and third time can be tremendously beneficial. New details may arise. You might discover better words to use in your descriptions. In some instances, you may even find a completely different take on the memory – what may have felt serious the first time around could feel much lighter when you reexamine it the second time.

Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club) puts it best when he says, ”So this is why I write. Because most times, your life isn’t funny the first time through. Most times, you can hardly stand it.”

It’s commonly said that you need distance and time before you can truly process the events of the day. Memoir journaling gives you the opportunity to take as much time as you need to revisit the memories as many times as you’d like. Find ways to enjoy the process along the way and learn to love your own memories too.

 

—Chelsea Leah is a tech and culture writer living in northern California. When not writing, she can usually be found with her nose in a book or her toes in the sand.

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