Journal Writing for Memoir: Uncovering the Heart of Your Story

by Amber Lea Starfire on December 10, 2011

catnav-journaling-activePost #51
Memoir Writing, Journaling
by Amber Lea Starfire

“A careful first draft is a failed first draft.”
~Patricia Hampl


If you’re a memoir writer, your journals are goldmines in which the precious details of memory lie buried and waiting for excavation. But, once you’ve dug up the entries you need for your memoir, what then? Those words and phrases are diamonds in the rough—not useful without the cleaning, cutting, and polishing that will make them shine. You’ll need to uncover the truths hidden within your original, unpolished entries—truths that lie beneath the surface of your writing and reveal the heart of your story. How rough those memory jewels are depends on what and how much you included when you created those entries.

I’ve written previously about what to include in your journals on a regular basis to help future memoir writing efforts. If you’re lucky, and you’ve been a journal writer for some time, your past journal entries outline major events with concrete, sensory details, bits of setting and dialogue, and your emotional responses. But even if you didn’t write fill in all those details, your journal entries contain the kernels of your memories, and they will energize the memoir-writing process.  It is by combining what you’ve written with what you remember that you arrive at a deeper, richer story. It is by listening to what your story wants to tell you, that you are doing the real work of writing memoir.

The following seven steps will help you unearth and polish the gem of your story. Remember: no one ever said this was easy! But satisfying? Oh, yes!

Step One: Read journal entries written during the period of time or event you want to write about. Focus on a short period of time surrounding a particular memory—no more than six months. As you read, highlight passages that give you solid physical or emotional details, and make notes about any thoughts and responses you have while reading.

Step Two: Transcribe those highlighted journal entries and notes into your writing journal or computer program, adding additional memories and reflections as you work—make note of any images that come to you. Think of this as an unstructured, brainstorming type of activity that serves to awaken body memory of events and prime the memory pump, so to speak.

Step Three: With your notes in front of you, but without working directly from them, write a first draft of your story. Do not stop, do not edit, do not censor. The point is to write from the heart, from that part of you that simply needs to tell this story.

Step Four: Put this first draft of your story away for three days. Why three? Because that’s just long enough to give some perspective to your work. While your story is gestating, consider these words by Patricia Hampl, author of Stories I Could Tell You: “For the memoirist, more than for the fiction writer, the story seems already there, already accomplished and fully achieved in history (‘in reality,’ as we naively say). For the memoirist, the writing of the story is a matter of transcription. … That, anyway, is the myth. But no memoirist writes for long without experiencing an unsettling disbelief abut the reliability of memory, a hunch that memory is not, after all, just memory.”

Step five: Three or more days later, print out and read your story, highlighting images, descriptions, and phrases that evoke strong emotional reactions.

Step six: Ask yourself the following open-ended questions about your story.

  • What do you know for sure, and what do you only think happened? Include descriptions of people, dialogue, and actions in this analysis. If it’s helpful, draw a line down the middle of a fresh journal page; title the left column “What I know” and title the right column “What I think.”
  • Make a list of images that appear in the “What I think” column. For each of these images ask, “What hidden emotion is tied to this image?” Note that it is perfectly normal to struggle with this prompt. There’s a reason it’s hidden. Your job is to help yourself feel safe enough to reveal buried emotion. Be patient and kind with yourself. Close your eyes, take deep breaths, and allow the emotion to surface as you hold the image in your mind. Think about each image as a symbol for something: perhaps a longing, a fear, or a hope.
  • Write down anything and everything that comes to you during your musing, without judgment. What details surface? What emotional truths reveal themselves?
  • Freewrite for as long as it takes, but at least ten minutes, asking yourself, “What is this story really about?”

Step seven: Rewrite the story with your new insights in mind.

Like mining for gems, uncovering the heart of your story is not an easy process; it takes guts, persistence, and desire. These seven steps, however, will help you work through the process of revealing and making your memoir the jewel you know it to be.

I invite you to leave a comment. What do you think?


Image Credit: QThomas Bower

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