Memoir Writing Prompt: The Power of Story

by Matilda Butler on May 21, 2012

Writing Prompt LogoPost #151 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

A Story Shared is a Story Remembered

Recently I concluded a class that I teach using Skype by discussing the importance of digging deep into the characters in our memoirs. It’s important to visually describe each person so that the reader can picture the characters in our stories. (And, yes, as we’ve said before — the people in our lives are definitely characters.) But that isn’t enough. We need to understand their personalities and their backgrounds in order to be able to explain their behaviors.

My Mother, a Glass Juicer, and a Friend

In our book Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep, we show how research about personality as well as the findings from many well-known social scientists can help us better understand the people that we write about. For example, Henry Murray’s Needs Theory helped me understand my mother. Murray has five major needs and I saw that my mother was highest on Materialism although Information and Ambition (for her husband) were also motivators for her. Reviewing Murray’s research helped me explain some of her behaviors that seemed unexplainable at the time.

memoir-Glass-juicer-1, Writing Alchemy, memoirHere’s the story I related to my students: My father squeezed fresh orange juice for my mother almost every day of the 66 years of their married life. He used a glass hand juicer, most assuredly inexpensive when first bought. Somewhere across those decades, he bought two of these. A few years after my father died at the age of 90, I was visiting my mother in Oklahoma City. I asked if it would be all right if I took home one of the two juicers, explaining that it reminded me of my father. Mother responded, “Oh, you’re going to think I’m selfish, but I can’t really let you have either one. I continue to use both of them.”

Well, she was 93 and had arthritis so badly that she had not been able to use the juicers in years. At that time, I just shrugged it off as “the way she was.” Then as I examined her behaviors through Murray’s needs theory, I had new insights. His theory explains that Materialism includes not only Acquisition but also Retention. And while my story involved an item as minor as an ordinary kitchen juicer, you can imagine how tightly she held on to her other possessions. Although I used to laugh that she probably thought she could take them with her, I now understand that was part of what kept her motivated and lively until just past her 95th birthday.

Back to the Class

I explained to the class that their next assignment was to read the advanced material in the Writing Alchemy chapter on the element of character in our book. They’ll be digging deeply. In fact, a student in a new advanced character development class that Kendra and I are teaching through Story Circle Network sent us an email saying: “Yes! It’s quite healing! I’ve been telling all my memoirist friends that I’ve just been through another $50,000 worth of therapy with your lessons!”

memoir-glass-juicer, memoir and character, character developmentThe story I shared about my mother resonated with Kris Maas — owner of Bar 46 Ranch — one of my students. You can imagine my surprise and delight when I opened a box last week and found a glass juicer. As you can see from the two photos, my father’s juicer (the first photo) is frosted from minerals in the water and from many years of use. The new one, although an antique, is still clear.

Now, like my mother I have two glass juicers. So someday, when one of my children asks if he can have his grandfather’s glass juicer, I can say “Sure, I have another one to use.” Of course, I hope that doesn’t happen too soon. Right now, I have juicers with special meaning — one my father used and one that a good friend and student had inherited from her mother. What could be more perfect!

Stories are powerful. They connect us with each other.

Memoir Writing Prompt

1. Do you have a favorite object that belonged to your parents? If so, write about how you got it. Consider what this tells you about the person who passed it on to you. Write for 10 minutes.

2. Was there an object that you were supposed to get, but someone else in the family took it? Again, consider what this tells you about the person. Write for 10 minutes.

LOGO-BAR-NEW

We hope you’ll consider getting your copy of Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep while it is still being offered at its pre-order price of just $15. The book will be $24.95 after its release in mid-June.

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