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.


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


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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Journaling for Memoir: The Character Journal — Memoir Writing Blog
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Linda Thomas October 8, 2011 at

Excellent advice. I appreciate your explanation of how journaling differs from writing memoir; it is my experience that many people confuse the two. I heartily agree that old journal entries “are great places to begin mining phrases, ideas, details, and reflections that can be used in your memoir writing today.” Happy writing!


Sharon Lippincott October 8, 2011 at

I’ve got, well, at least half a pound (not tons) of pages of super-charged material such as you mention. My earliest journaling sounds utterly bi-polar. For most of my life posts happened in times of great emotion, thus only several times a year. But indeed, those are the juiciest stories. Your post is yet another nudge to clear the time to organize and transform selected ones to story form!

Marilyn Clare October 8, 2011 at

Amber Lea Starfire has given me much to think about when writing memoir. Every day we live a new story. It’s a discipline to write every day in a journal. I keep all of my personal e-mail messages; they are like writing a journal. Even almost better. What I say to a family member is different from what I say to a friend. I write detailed messages and years of writing have accumulated. I go back on them as reference for some of my formal writing. There’s emotion, things of my past when growing up with my brother, and things of the moment that I’ve used as essay assignments for class. I’m a student of English Creative Writing. The collection is waiting for final edits. Memoir is a true adventure.

Heather Marsten October 8, 2011 at

You are right about mining journals. In writing my memoir I came across two journals that detail some crucial moments of my past. I an using them in my memoir by putting a few pieces into the memoir directly and also using some of the writings for the body of the memoir. In the following short passage from my book, I included direct passages and the dream was pulled from my memoir, but I turned it into dialogue, based on what I wrote about what my therapist said. Philip is current therapist, Martin was one who did not help me.

Journal entry: September 17, 1984 “I think Philip really cares about me. When I trusted Martin, life fell apart. Will Philip betray me, too? This morning, I dug out my suicide stash. It was comforting to hold a handful of green Chloral Hydrate capsules and flick through them with my finger. If things get too bad, I have the means to end it all. Even Jim’s love isn’t enough to override the pain. I’m so tired of hurting.”
In Philip’s office, I look down and crumple a tissue in my clammy hands. “Should have told you this dream last session, but I was afraid. Last week, I dreamed I was a boy in a mental hospital.”
I peek at him. He doesn’t have a hint of disgust on his face, so I continue.
“My father came to visit me in the hospital and brought me a lot of toys and gifts. I pushed them away. He tried to force them into my hands. I got so upset my therapist had to comfort me.”
There, I told the most frightening part – the therapist comforting.

Thank you for your blog.


Barbara Boatright October 8, 2011 at

Reading old journals prompted me to write and tell how life really was for me in the ’50’s. I’ve always used journaling as personal therapy. Consequently if my progeny ever read my journals , or anyone else for that matter, they’d think I was constantly miserable, a real basket case. The reality was that I only took time to journal when I was in trouble, emotionally. When life was serene or exciting or joyous, I didn’t take time to journal. i was having too much fun.
As I was finishing up my memoir, “Impaled on the Horns of the Devi,” I felt compelled to give my account of my life as it really was, a healthy range of emotions, with an extra emphasis on times of happiness and thanksgiving, even if the title doesn’t sound like it. Now, thanks to Amber Lee Starfire, I have a good reason to go back and read those journals with new eyes. Than you, Amber.

Kathleen Pooler October 9, 2011 at

Thank you so much for this excellent post on the role journals play in memoir writing. I am learning that writing my deepest,strongest feelings in a journal is different than spinning the memory into a story. I agree,it is essential to pour it on the page first in unedited form, to give myself permission to “let it rip” then to begin shaping it all into a story that will appeal to readers. The language I use in my journal does not automatically translate into the language in my memoir. Thanks for this “aha” moment :-) I feel enlightened and inspired!

Marilyn Clare October 9, 2011 at

Reading the comments above are inspiring.

And brings to mind the journalizing of my mother. I have her diary of late 1930 -1940s. My father and mother wrote letters, which have been saved and are in their original envelopes of the same years. All of them have been sorted and coordinated with her diary. Together they complete quite a story–movies they saw, events in their high school years, work accomplished on the farm, and aromas of things cooked and baked in the kitchen.

This is why we should savor our moments and not toss them away. Our next generations just might enjoy our history lived.

Susan Godwin October 9, 2011 at

Thank you, Amber, for these great suggestions. I am truly inspired by the comments left and can relate to a lot. More importantly, I am learning from all.
I grabbed a stack of old journals and four highlighters: yellow for “happy,” red for “depressed/anger,” green for “judgemental,” and purple for inspiring quotes I noted. I am only into entries from January of 1998 and vividly recall the emotions I felt upon writing them.

Amber Starfire October 9, 2011 at

@Linda, thanks for your comment. Yes, people do sometimes confuse memoir and journaling; it’s nice to get the distinction and know how much they complement one another.

@Sharon, I agree. Journaling (especially when we’re young) seems more emotional (bi-polar?). Perhaps because we are more emotional when we’re young! And yes, it’s juicy stuff for memoir writers. It’ll be interesting to hear from you what comes out of those journeys into the past.

@Marilyn, another person mentioned to me that she uses her emails in the way that you do. I think that’s wonderful…another form of recording our lives in the present. For most of us, our journals are kind of like letters to ourselves, so why not use letters to others? (Although, I know I am freer to say things in my journals that I would to any person :-)

@Heather — powerful stuff. I’ve been able (also) to use a few things pulled verbatim from my journal. It’s great when that happens … nothing in memory is as powerfully visceral as the stuff written in the immediate experience.

Amber Starfire October 9, 2011 at

@Barbara, I’m glad this post was helpful to you. I know what you mean … I often think that if/when my kids read my journals they’ll think I was an awful whiner. And the truth is, it’s much easier to write when we’re suffering angst of some kind. I’ve been making it a point to also write about and record the happy times, as well … I want to be able to look back at my joyful times as well :-)

@Kathleen, Yes … the language and shape of journaling is completely different than the language and shape of story. I like to think of story as sculpture carved from the rock of life.

@Marilyn, you are so lucky to have all those letters and diaries! I also have my mother’s letters, dating from the early ’30s, and really treasure them.

@Susan, I really like your idea of using different color highlighters for different emotions. I tend to use yellow and then make notes in the margins (or keyword my computer-based journals). I’ll have to try your method and see how that works for me.

smita jagdale October 19, 2011 at

Hi Amber! I love the way you and the other writers have described the different point of view towards our own writing. One day, while emptying the stored boxes, I found my old notebooks with daily journaling, and I realised I had blocked some of those painful memories, so, these old notes will definitely help me to describe the events and situation(s). Thank you for your inspiring blog.

Amber Lea Starfire October 19, 2011 at

Smita, thank you for your comment and for sharing your journaling journey with us. Happy … well, productive! … memoir writing :-)

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