Memoir Stories: In Plain Sight

by Matilda Butler on August 27, 2013

Writing Prompt LogoPost #182 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompts and Life Prompts – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Be a Memoir Scientist: Discover Your Stories

Olinguito-memoirYou probably saw the news about the olinguito (August 15, 2013). Recently, I was taken by the stories of this mammal, the first new mammalian carnivore discovered in the Americas in the past 35 years. Kristofer Helgen, the Smithsonian’s curator at the National Museum of Natural History, made the announcement and has pursued his research since first finding “unusual” pelts of the olingo at the Chicago Field Museum in 2003. They didn’t look right so Helgen began a decade of research that resulted in the identification.

And while all the information about the olinguito was fascinating, it’s the discussion about where olinguitos were found that peaked my interest. It turns out that there were numerous signs of the animal. One even had a name — Ringerl. Although she died in 1976, she lived in five zoos during her lifetime — New York City, Washington, D.C., Louisville, Salt Lake City, and Tucson. Everyone thought she was an olingo. (The zoos kept moving her around because she would never mate with a male olingo. It turns out, “Duh.” She was a different species and therefore wouldn’t mate.)

The mammal’s skins were in natural history museums. One spent time in multiple zoos. And when looked for in their native habitat in Ecuador and Columbia, they were easily found — on the first evening of the expedition.

In other words, this new species had been around and was discoverable for decades. Since it looked similar to other species, we can conclude that they were hiding in plain sight.

What Stories Do You Have That are Hiding in Plain Sight?

This story of the olinguitos reminded me of the stories we have that are discoverable, but that we overlook. So put on your memoir scientist hat and get to thinking:

#1. Take your life in five year chunks. Look for the one story that shaped you out of that five year period. Jot down a paragraph or two about the story.

#2. Before you move on to the second five year chunk, go back–go deeper. What caused the story that you just wrote about? Sometimes we recall the oft told story, but forget to look at the circumstances of the story. What people or events or circumstances were necessary for the story to take place? Sometimes, that is your story hidden in plain sight. Write a few paragraphs about the causal sequence that led up to your pivotal story from #1.

#3. Continue examining each for year period, writing a paragraph or so about the shaping story and then a few more paragraphs about the story behind the story that helped shape you.

Remember, it has been 35 years since a new mammal species has been found. It won’t take you that long to discover one or two life stories that have been overlooked until now, but don’t expect there to be one from each five year time block. Just a new look at what really helped shape you, helped you become the person you are today, makes this a worthwhile exercise.

If you have been working on your memoir, you might want to modify this exercise. Take one important event in your life that you have already written about. Then write down the story about what circumstances enabled the event to happen. Go deeper. Go deeper. Go deeper. You just may find a new story species.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Annie Payne September 15, 2013 at

What a great point you have made in this article, Matilda. As a personal historian, I often hear people say “I just led an ordinary life, nothing special about me,” and then, during interview, amazing stories emerge. It’s all a matter of perspective, of looking at past events through different eyes as they, like the olinguito, have been there along waiting to be recognised and acknowledged.

Matilda Butler September 15, 2013 at

Annie: I have a feeling that as a personal historian you have found ways to draw out the amazing stories. Thanks for all that you do. I know your clients appreciate it.

Pamela Jane September 16, 2013 at

I love your analogy, Matilda. Extraordinary stories often emerge from ordinary life. As Annie says, it’s a matter of perspective. Wonderful post!

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