Journal Writing for Memoir: Capturing the Details

by Amber Lea Starfire on February 12, 2012

catnav-journaling-activePost #53
Memoir Writing, Journaling
by Amber Lea Starfire


What makes a memoir compelling? And how do you convey the emotional resonance of your story to your readers? It is not through large, sweeping statements, but through the tiniest details: the rise and fall of a father’s eyebrow, the gesture of a sister’s hand, the heat of the sun on your skin, a scene reflected in a window.

As I write this, I’m in Cabo San Lucas sitting in my room at a round, glass table which looks out over a balcony railing and onto the bright surface of the Pacific ocean. From here, it looks flat and nearly grey. Only a thin line on the horizon separates it from the white layer of clouds obscuring the sun. Far below, waves crash against a beach of tan sands, their constant and rhythmic sound lulling me into a sense of peace. The air is moist and salty against my skin and, in spite of the overcast sky, pleasantly warm.

If I don’t write in my journal the details of this moment—the glass table, the smell and feel of the air, the look and sound of the ocean—months or years from now, will I remember them? Most likely not. Yet, some time in the near or far future, I might wish to write about this time of my life, or what it’s like to vacation in Cabo San Lucas. Or, I’ll simply want to be able to relive the day in my mind. In order to make this possible, I’ve made it a habit to record as many concrete, sensory details as I can about the events in my life—while they’re happening—in my journal.

If you write memoir or want to record your life story for your children and grandchildren, here are a few ways to incorporate the necessary detail into your daily journal.

  • Stop and look around. Often, we’re so involved in our activities we don’t take the time to raise our eyes and look around. Do this now. Notice the room or space you’re in. What is its shape and size? Are you indoors or outdoors? Is it familiar to you or new? What do you see, feel, hear, and smell? Write it down.
  • Set a timer to go off three or four times each day as a signal to stop and be aware of your moment. (Do this until awareness becomes more of a habit.) What is happening? What are you doing? Where are you? What are you feeling? Make a mental note of some of the details, or if you’re near your notebook, jot down your impressions.
  • Record dialogue. When you have a significant discussion with someone—especially if it has an emotional impact on you—write it down in dialogue form as soon as possible. Include gestures and facial expressions, along with a brief summary of the circumstances and place surrounding the conversation. Don’t be too concerned about getting the dialogue exactly as it happened; just write it the way you remember it. Then, after you have recorded the conversation, write about your responses and feelings.
  • Use lists. You may not have time to write the details of a moment as it occurs. However, if you always keep a small notebook with you, you can list words that will jog your memory when you do have time to write. As a hypothetical example, if I have a conversation with my son about his future plans that I want to write about later, I might jot down: me; Jake; home; living room; gray; raining; concerned; grades; anger; resistance; calmed; reason; ended well. This list tells me who the conversation was with, where we were, the weather and environment, what we talked about, the emotional arc and ending. It’s not the full picture, but if I can write about it within a day or two of the conversation, I can recreate it fairly well.
  • Mundane details count. We may think some details too boring or commonplace to include in our journal. However, it is this very day-to-day familiarity with people, places, weather, and local events that makes them significant later on. Be sure to include a few details that seem unimportant, but which add to the overall picture.

In Tell it Slant, authors Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola write, “Even in discussing the largest ideas, our brains engage with the small workings of the senses first. And the specificity of a piece of nonfiction is generally where the sensory details lie: the aroma of honeysuckle, the weak film of moonlight.”

When you capture sensory and emotion-based details in your daily journals, you will improve your general powers of observation and writing craft. Perhaps more important for creative memoir writers, you will give your future writing efforts a huge boost, because you will not have to depend solely on the unreliable nature of memory to tell your stories.


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

Related Articles:
Using Your Journal for Memoir

Journaling for Memoir

Journaling the Sensory Details


reflective journaling

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