Journal Writing for Memoir: Mining Metaphor

by Amber Lea Starfire on September 10, 2011

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Memoir Writing, Journaling
by Amber Lea Starfire


This is the first in a series of articles about how to use your journal for memoir writing.

In October of last year, I wrote in Making Meaning Through Journal Writing: Stories of Our Memories about how and why, at the beginning of each month, I read my journal entries for the same month of the previous year. There are many reasons to re-read old journal entries: for self-growth, such as recalling where you were and what you were doing a year ago, discovering progress made toward your dreams, and finding patterns in your life; and for memoir writing purposes, such as research into past events for scene details, characters, and emotions.

Another writing-related purpose for reviewing journal entries is to look for metaphors you incorporated into your writing. Metaphors are, essentially, the use of concrete, tangible objects and their characteristics to describe intangible, abstract ideas. Another way of explaining metaphor is the use of images to represent concepts. For example, when we say that “time is money,” we are using the image of the tangible, concrete object of money to help us understand the abstract concept of time. When we apply the characteristics of money to time, we understand that time is something we can spend, waste, save, trade for something else, and so on.

In my course, Finding Your Writing Voice, we spend a week examining how our backgrounds, upbringing, families of origin, and life experiences influence our world views and, ultimately, our shared and individual metaphors. Your journal entries are one place your unique way of understanding life presents itself in the form of metaphor.

Try this exercise: read ten to twenty previous journal entries, highlighting images used to describe feelings or concepts. It’s important to do this in a non-judgmental way: don’t ask yourself whether the metaphor is “good” or not; the merits of your metaphors are not important.  Secondly, once identified, spend time exploring the nature of these images and their meaning(s) to you then, and today.

Here are some journaling prompts to begin with, though you may create some of your own:

  • Freewrite for ten minutes about the image(s) in your journal entry and their possible meanings and/or connections to the way you see the world.
  • What characteristics does this image/object have, and how does it apply to the emotion or concept(s) you’re trying to express in the passage?
  • Where and/or when did you first associate this object with this concept? (Let your mind wander into the past. Think about what parents or other family members may have told you, other influential people, books you’ve read, and past experiences.)
  • Perform a word association exercise with the image(s).
  • In what ways can you extend this metaphor?

For example, while reading my journal pages from September of last year, I found two entries that used metaphor to describe how I was feeling. The first uses my experience while gardening as metaphor for tending to my soul. While not a particularly unique metaphor, working in my garden that day obviously touched a need for some soul-nurturing.

Playing in the garden touches my soul. Weeding is like meditation, cleansing my mind of clutter, caring for the soil, tending to the plants that need the room for root and stem. Watering is a meditation all its own, as I stand and count the seconds, holding the spray so that it soaks the soil around the roots, watering my roots, the mist pleasant against the skin of my face.

In responding to the suggested journaling prompts above, I might explore how and why tending to my soul is like gardening. It suggests, for example, that I think of my soul as a place where “flowers” and “weeds” might grow, where I might want to uproot undesirable “plants” in order to make room for and nurture desirable ones. It suggests that a soul must be tended or it will become fallow and useless.

Each of my metaphor’s characteristics are also extensions of it, so I would explore what a “flower” and what a “weed” would be in this soul garden. If, for example, I think that compassion is a flower and fear is a weed, I can play with extending the metaphor in new ways. Other characteristics of gardens include quality of soil (fertility, ph levels, earthworms), placement (is my garden in the sun or in the shade?), types of plants (flowers, weeds, trees, shrubs, grasses), and so on. Thinking about each of these characteristics expands my understanding about my concept of soul, what it means to be spiritual, as well as ways to express these concepts in writing.

If the metaphors you’ve discovered and explored come from journal entries surrounding events you’re writing about in your memoir, you may find that you have a direct use for them. If not, keep these metaphor explorations in your writing journal and review them once in a while. Metaphors that come from your journal are personal; they resonate with you at a core level and will, most likely, surface again as your write about your life.

We would love to hear from you about the metaphors that have surfaced in your journal. Share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment.


Related Articles:
How Journaling Can Help You Write Memoir
Why Write? Journaling for Memoir
Blog Talk: Finding Your Writing Voice


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

Image Credit: H. Koppdelaney
reflective journaling

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