5 Memoir Tips for Writing about Home

by Matilda Butler on February 8, 2012

Writing Prompt LogoPost #133 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Memoir Writing, Home, and You

I recently received a snail-mail card from a dear woman, the first neighbor that I met when I moved to Palo Alto, California in 1970. She became a good friend; she helped raise our children. We have continued to stay in touch over the intervening 42 years. Tucked into the card she sent was a clipped newspaper ad for the home we used to rent when we lived across the street from her. I vividly recall that during our four years there, the home next door sold for $20,000. Today, that amount of money only covers the property tax each year. The current asking price is $1,895,000. Wow.

This got me thinking about home — about homes I’ve lived in over the years. Homes are an important element in our storytelling. Here are five tips for memoir writers. Hope they give you some new thoughts.

Tip #1: Close your eyes and remember one particular home you have lived in. Recall as many details as you can. Before you begin to write, remember your age and work that into what you write. A home that is lodged in the memory of a 6-year old is quite different from the memory of a 22 year old bride. Now, with the house vividly held in memory and its place in your history known, write about the house. Don’t worry about storyline or plot at this point. Think of this as a character study.

Tip #2: With physical descriptions out of the way, close your eyes again. This time invoke your emotions. How did you feel about that place. Were you happy? Did the home house a period of sadness for you? Let the feelings return to your body. Now, write about home but focus only on your strongest emotions. If you lived in one place for a long time, you will have had many specific emotions. Try to be specific.

Tip #3: A home is not a stand-alone, isolated place. It belongs someplace. Put the home into that place. As the writer, you always get to define what you mean by place. You might focus on the neighborhood that surrounded the home. Or you might scale up the sense of place and also enrich your description by including the neighborhood, the city, even the state. Your home is the anchor consider the pond where the anchor hangs.

Tip #4: Research, research, research. The Internet makes research about as easy as it can be. Do some research on the home you have described. Then look around the neighborhood. How has it changed since you were last in that home? You can even check on how many times it has sold over the years. Give yourself a limited amount of time for research, otherwise you may go down a rabbit hole and not surface for hours. Write after 30 minutes (or so). In what ways do you think differently about the home now that you see its history. As you can tell from my little introduction, I feel a disconnect between an era when homes in Palo Alto were $20,000 and when they are close to $2 million. What values have changed? How differently are children raised there now versus when we raised our children? In many ways, the home is a spokesperson for the time in which we live.

Tip #5: I’ve saved this one for last because I wanted you to have plenty of time to think about home before considering this tip. Walk through the home in your imagination. What do you smell? What do you touch? What do you hear? Using the senses will help bring that home to life.

The next time you sit to write a piece of your memoir, consider the possible importance of the home you lived in at the time of the story you are telling. Including details will make your story more vivid.

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