Honor the Memory: Memoir and Writing Alchemy

by Matilda Butler on March 7, 2013

catnav-alchemy-activePost #71 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler


Bombs. Explosives. Screams. Bodies.

uss-arizona-burning, memoir writingThe video we viewed prior to boarding the launch for the USS Arizona Memorial showed the factors leading to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor as well as the actual bombing on December 7, 1941 — just a little over 71 years ago.

memoir-writing, honor the memory, memoir and emotionThe video showed history. History. It’s over. We all know the story, or perhaps I should say the historical and personal stories of World War II. I asked myself why I would feel so involved in the story? Why would my emotions be so strong that I had to force myself to hold back tears?

I did learn new information such as the two targets not pursued that day — the large tanks filled with fuel that were not bombed and the working dry docks. Despite the devastation in life and ships, the loss of the fuel would have meant that Japan would have had unchallenged reign over the Pacific for at least a year while the US tried to rebuild the fuel reserves for its ships.

The second target that the Japanese overlooked, the dry docks, also made a significant difference in the ability of the US to repair ships and maintain them so they could actively engage the Japanese naval fleet across the Pacific. There would have been lengthy delays if ships had to return to the mainland.

But these are facts. It wasn’t the facts of Pearl Harbor that brought tears to my eyes. It was the way the story engaged my emotions. The way that the story evoked my feelings as a parent, the unimaginable thought of losing a child, or spouse, or parent, or relative in war as so many families have.

2013-uss-arizona, memoir, honor the memoryThe tears I held back were for what might have been in the lives of all those killed not only at Pearl Harbor or during World War II, but in all wars. After the video, we joined others boarding the launch that took us to the USS Arizona Memorial — a structure that sits over the sunken ship, honoring the dead who still lie beneath the water. Once on the Memorial, I saw the small droplets of oil breaking the ocean’s surface as I watched, still rising from the ship after more than 71 years. The tanks were full — more than 1.5 million gallons — when the ship went down and even after the explosions and fire, the oil tanks that sunk still contained more than 500,000 gallons. About two quarts escape to the surface each day, only slowly depleting the supply. The sight of the slightly oily water makes the ship and the experience seem alive.

uss-arizona-list, memoirThe plaques listing the names of those killed brought my emotions to the surface. The entire 21-member band was on the deck preparing to play for the raising of the flag when the first Japanese Zero attacked. They scrambled to their battle stations. All died. It is the only time in our history that an entire military band died in battle. They were in the finals for the Battle of the Bands that was to have been held on December 20 and the night before had been watching other bands still competing for their position in the finals.

And even more poignant, 24 sets of brothers were killed as well as the only father-son pair on the ship. As the mother of sons, how could I not feel the tug at my heart.

Honor the Memory

The phase “Honor the memory” is used in connection with Pearl Harbor as well as many other times. When someone dies, at least one person in the family is likely to say, “Let’s do this to honor her memory.” You may have said a variation on these words at some time.

Honor the memory. These words played in my head for several days as I thought about this blog post.

Change the phrase to “Honor my memory…my memories.” Memoir writing is a way to honor our memories. So often women say they think only a narcissist writes a memoir. Absolutely not. By writing about our lives, we are honoring our memories.

Writing Alchemy and Emotions

When we write, we want to engage our readers with our stories and one of the best ways to do that is to share the emotional content…to let them feel as we felt. Many memoir writers leave out the emotions and when they do the content becomes flat. If you are not fully delving into the emotional content of your stories, then you may want to consider our book Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep that gives you a process for exploring and developing the emotional aspects of memoir.

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