How Journaling Can Help You Write Memoir

by Amber Lea Starfire on May 28, 2011

catnav-journaling-activePost #37 – Memoir Writing, Journaling – Amber Starfire


Journaling and Memoir Writing are not the Same Thing

Journaling is a personal, reflective practice. Memoir writing is the craft of writing your memories in a structured, meaningful way. In past articles here, I’ve written about a number of ways you can mine your journal for details, essentially using it as for research. I’ve also written about how to use your journal to develop your writing craft through setting scene, recording details, and creating lively characters on the page, to name a few.

This post, however, is about using your journal to help you in the process of writing your memories.

In my experience as an editor and teacher, people often write their memories down as narrative, in a “this happened,” and then “this happened” way. Or we try to cover too much ground, describing a lifetime’s worth of relationship dynamics in one short piece. All of that is okay, as a starting point for approaching things, but if you want to communicate the deeper, emotional truths of your life, you need to give your readers more: scene, sensory information, and emotion as you experienced it then, and your thoughts and reflections as you experience them now. Here’s where your journal comes in.

First, zero in on one event. For example, if you want to write about a complicated relationship with someone in your life (past or present), pick one scene to work with. Pick a memory that has stuck with you over time and has some kind of emotion attached to it. Maybe it’s the time your ex-husband put his fist through the wall, or the time your mother cared for you when you came home from the hospital, or your first day in your new job. Okay, got your scene?

Now, using your journal and the following process, turn that memory-scene into a memoir vignette. When you write in your journal, be informal. Don’t worry about writing full sentences or whether your spelling and grammar are correct. You can use fragments and one-word associations. You can even draw pictures — in fact, I encourage you to draw pictures. Drawing can help you recover lost parts of the memory.

9 Journaling Steps to Help You Write Your Memoir

Do these steps in sequence and take as much time as you need — a week, a month, whatever. (If you try to do them all at once, your head might explode!)

  1. In your journal, go ahead and write your memory as you see it in your mind. Get it down on paper.
  2. In a separate journal entry, describe the surroundings in which the scene took place. Use as much detail as possible: colors, textures, smells, tastes, and how things felt physically (hot, cold, soft, hard). Draw a picture of it, if you’re so inclined. Slow down and try to picture everything. You may not know until later what’s important to include in your story.
  3. Write down who said what to whom and what you thought about it at the time. Such as, “John told me to shut up. I was tired of him always telling me what to do. Tired of him bossing me around. I picked up the vase on the coffee table and threw it at him.” Note that this is not formal dialogue, but a way of remembering who said what, and what your feelings and reactions were at the time.
  4. Make a list of every physical and personality trait you can think of for each person, including yourself. (Brown shoulder-length hair, blue eyes, pockmarked, 6’4″, gangly arms, tendency to frown, likes to dance … I think you get the picture.)
  5. Now, in your word processor or on a separate piece of paper, write out the whole scene, including descriptive and sensory details, when it happened, what happened, dialogue, and what action was taken. You can include feelings and thoughts that happened during (are part of) the scene, but don’t include any background information, any prior stuff, or any thoughts you have about it now. The idea is just to write the scene, raw and simple.
  6. Read the scene aloud to someone. Ask your listener if he can picture the scene clearly and, if not, what he needs in order to do it. If you really don’t want to share it with someone, record yourself reading it, then listen to the recording with your eyes closed. But it’s more effective to get another person’s feedback.
  7. In your journal, freewrite, for as long as you can, about your current thoughts and feelings regarding that scene. Here are some questions to consider while you write. Why do you think you reacted the way you did? Why do you think the other person or persons behaved the way they did? Would you do anything differently if you were in the same situation? What do you know now that you didn’t know then? How did it affect your life and what kinds of choices have you made as a result? What have you learned and/or how did this event transform you in some way?
  8. Examine your scene. Are there places you could insert a sentence or two (no more) of reflection within the context of the scene? Try it and see what happens.
  9. Rewrite the entire scene, including your perspective today. For example, using bits of your journal writing, write a paragraph about the scene as you see it today and place it at the end of the story.

Further things to think about. Does reflecting on your scene from the distance of time change its meaning? If so, in what ways? What can you add to your story to help your reader understand the journey and transformation you’ve experienced as a result of this experience?

As a journal and memoir writer, are there other ways you use your journal to help you write about life? Leave a comment. I would love to hear from you.


For more about ways to use your journal, as well as writing tips and prompts, be sure to connect with Amber on Writing Through Life.

reflective journaling

Image Credit: Neovain

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