Journal Writing for Memoir: Mining Emotional Extremes

by Amber Lea Starfire on October 8, 2011

catnav-journaling-activePost #49
Memoir Writing, Journaling
by Amber Lea Starfire

EmotionComposite1_400x602Journals are a wonderful place—if not the place—to express emotions that cannot or should not be expressed elsewhere. On those pages, we attempt to put into words all the energy we feel about things happening in our lives. One day, we soar with love that cannot be communicated adequately; on another we admit (only to ourselves) that at times we hate our children and our husbands or mothers. We cry, laugh, think, muse, confuse, and pound ourselves onto the pages of our journals. Then, usually, we forget about what we’ve written; we feel better, and we go about our days.

It can be difficult to go back to our previous journals and read our own verbal histrionics; in retrospect, we see them for the overblown theatrics they were. However, some of our best—as well as our worst—writing happens when we feel our strongest about things. When we melodramatically proclaim that life as we know it has come to an end because so-and-so left or because something we desperately desired didn’t come about. Once, when I was upset over a loss, I wrote: “It’s just another death, piled upon previous bodies and buried together in the corporate holding ground of grief. If I work hard enough, I’ll be able to leave the flowers at the grave, allow them to dry, wither, fall apart, until nothing but stems and faded memories remain.” Reading that now, I think about all the ways that statement applies to loss and grief in general, how one loss piles upon another, until all that remain are faded memories. This is a line I could pluck out and use as I write a memoir chapter about loss.

What about positive emotions, such as joy, hope, elation? Those, too, produce phrases and ideas for memoir writing, of a different kind. In my own journal writing, I’ve found that looking for the words joy and happy results in finding descriptive details, because it’s the small things that make me feel most content. Once, while sitting in a small restaurant overlooking the ocean, I wrote, “A brave young man is sailboarding out there now. The waves are crashing against the beach, only a couple hundred yards from where I sit… The sun beats warm against my black cashmere sweater, and I feel something between content and excited — exultant almost.” Another time, while visiting a B&B in Mendocino (hmm…seems to be an ocean theme here), I wrote, “Breakfast was served in the main house: coffee, orange juice, blueberry cream cheese bread pudding, apple crepes with sour cream, and melon. …I don’t think I’ve ever had a breakfast that elegant—sitting at a lovely table in an antique-filled room, overlooking the ocean. Now, fat and happy, with a full tummy, I’m sitting on the deck writing. The sun is behind me, on the back of my neck and I am sheltered from the wind.” Together, these excerpts provide a wealth of detail that I can expand upon in scene when I want to communicate feelings of contentment or happiness.

To mine your journals for phrases, thoughts, and details to use in memoir writing, get a new notebook or start a new document on your computer and begin collecting ideas using the following prompts:

  • Look for statements that begin with, “I wish…” or “I want….” Choose one or more of these statements to work with. Copy the statement(s) into your notebook. For each statement, ask yourself, What is the need underlying what I’ve written? Freewrite for ten minutes about that need. How has that need or desire woven through events and/or relationships in your life?
  • Look for journal entries about upheaval, upset, anger, or depression. Highlight lines that seem insightful or descriptive. Would these be phrases or thoughts you could use elsewhere in your memoir writing?  If so, copy them into your notebook.
  • Read journal entries that express happiness or contentment, looking for insightful or descriptive phrases. What do you notice about these entries? What kinds of things were you writing about? Copy the lines, details, and your thoughts about them into your notebook.
  • Look for entries that, when you read them now, evoke feelings of shame or embarrassment and self-judgment, thoughts such as: I can’t believe I wrote that! I hope no one ever reads it; How stupid; How silly; How immature! Resist the urge to burn those pages. Instead, notice your perspective now, as you look back at that event from your distance in time. In your journal-mining notebook, write down the date of your original entry, then write a compassionate letter to your younger self giving advice, comforting, and explaining your perspective today as you look back through time. (What you write here can become passages of reflection on earlier times in your life.)

While not always easy to read, journal-written emotional extremes—from joy to despair—are great places to begin mining phrases, ideas, details, and reflections that can be used in your memoir writing today.

We would love to hear from you about whether or not these prompts have been useful to you as you write your memoirs. Please leave a comment.

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Related Articles:

Journal Writing for Memoir: Mining for Metaphor
A Week’s Worth of Journaling Prompts: Using Your Journal for Memoir
How Journaling Can Help You Write Memoir

Why Write? Journaling for Memoir

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

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