Finding the heart of your memoir
Unlike an autobiography, a memoir does not have to start in early childhood and cover the span of a lifetime. Therefore, it can be difficult to select a starting point or a theme to focus on. One concept that I’ve found to be incredibly helpful for my students is what Lisa Norton outlines in her book Shimmering Images. I encourage memoirists to write their most memorable experiences in whichever order they come up and use them to construct a longer story. Writers often discover the theme of their memoir after writing several of these scenes or vignettes.
For example, I had a student in a class for several years who felt like she couldn’t focus on a theme to her story. But after reading so much of her work – which included making a big move across the country as a young woman and overcoming numerous roadblocks in her personal life – I pointed out that every incident she shared had a literal or metaphoric mountain for her to overcome. She was also an avid skier in her earlier days. The mountains represented challenges, triumphs, and joy for her, and she eventually used them as metaphors for her life journey.
Writing these “shimmering images” may sound simple, but quite often I hear from my students that the most vivid memories are often the most painful or embarrassing. My advice is to write about these incidents. Each writer decides which aspects of their lives to include in their memoir, of course, and some may choose to omit these stories entirely. However, I find that once the most nagging stories are written, it clears the mental cobwebs, so to speak, and allows for clarity while mining for other memories – which can ultimately lead to clarity about how to identify a theme for the memoir.
Making your life stories interesting to others
At least once a semester, students confess that they’ve lived what they believe to be painfully ordinary lives and don’t think their stories are worth sharing. I point out that we have all lived through extraordinary times, and that fact alone makes everyone’s story worth telling. For example: I often give a prompt asking students to write about a significant moment in politics. Many can recall – with great clarity and rich emotion – the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Some share stories of living in Germany or Italy when World War II ended and can describe rations their families received as if they were on the table in front of them. Others write about the time a family member or neighbor was drafted to Vietnam. Many students think younger generations don’t or won’t care about their life stories, but I disagree. Every story has value, and writing them with strong socio-political contexts can provide compelling sources of information about the past.
For example, in the introduction to The Autobiographer’s Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir, edited by Jennifer Traig, Dave Eggers recounts his experience of reading the memoir of one of his ancestors. In it, he says, are tales of Thomas S. Hawkins making his way west to California in the 1860s and all of the trials and tribulations of leading a band of covered wagons across the Wild West. “In writing these recollections, I do so, not expecting or believing that there has been anything in my life that would be of interest to the general public,” wrote Hawkins. Eggers’ response to this statement is, “How nuts is that?”