Stay At Home—And Write Your Memoir #2 (from May 2020)

Last month I wrote about using your time, while at home, to work on a memoir and suggested the basics for getting started.

This month here’s the next step: what to do with all those memories you’ve been stockpiling, or with all the stories you’ve already written. Do you use them to plot your memoir? Should you create an outline, and stuff all the memory stories into it? It’s tempting to try.

But my belief is that in the early stages, it’s best to write freely, without any structure hanging over your head. The heart of your memoir—what it’s really about, and what will guide its shape—is best found by letting yourself suss out the emotional hot spots in memory and record the details before you define a story line.

Still, I know you want to master the shape of your story sooner, rather than later. Hence, here’s a tool for control: Create a series of folders (hard copy or digital) and store inside them the memory fragments you’ve been gathering—with catchy titles to remember them by: Heron; Thunderbird cruising Hampton Street, whatever. Or file the stories you’ve already written in these folders.

Label the folders with general topics. If a lot of your memories revolve around your mother, label one folder: Mom. Or maybe you’ve been remembering a lot of stuff about your son. Put his name on one of files. Maybe you’ve been writing about a place you used to live, or somewhere you’ve traveled: Aunt Louise’s house; The Beach; Indonesia. Group all those stories in a folder with that name.

It’s pretty rudimentary stuff, I know, this kind of organization, but it can, miraculously, give you a lot of power and help you see new connections, and the gentle structure and those connections will give you glimpses of central concerns in your life.

And those concerns will lead you to your plot.

As for the idea of coming out of the gate with a plot for your memoir and typing up an outline—before you’ve even mined your memories—chances are, if you feel compelled to do that, you will shortly feel stuck.

And why is that?

Because crafting a plot implies you know what the narrator (you) wants to achieve, what you are trying to show with your story, and usually when you first begin writing, you don’t have a clue.

That’s not a bad thing; it’s just the reality of writing memoir.

Once you get a handle on what you are writing about—your central concerns— you can start shaping the story arc.

But until you have gotten past that first burst of memory and emotion, and begun to understand the larger forces behind your memories, you are better off just puttering along: recalling, writing, filing.

What you are looking for in this process are the pivotal memories that will gird the structure of your memoir. Those pivotal memories are the key, but first you must find them, and that takes some free-form puttering—not plotting—for now.