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Writing Memoir

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

This article is not a treatise on writing memoir; it is, rather, a compilation of my thoughts and the creative process I drew upon to write Moonlight on Linoleum.

I. Excavating the Past

Memoir writing is about mining the past. I was curious to know why, out of the millions of moments of my childhood, I remembered some events and details clearly and others not at all. What makes experience memorable? As an exercise, I wrote my most vivid memories on yellow sticky notes and arranged them in chronological order on the inside door of a closet.

As I pored over these notes, I realized that many of my memories were attached to an emotional charge—love, abandonment, awe, disgust, fear, excitement, bewilderment. This observation helped me recognize the desire line* I had as a child. A desire line is what a character most wants; desire lines can change or evolve as the story progresses. Tension, a necessary ingredient to a good story, is created as desire lines are either met or thwarted. The narrative arc of Moonlight on Linoleum follows my evolving desire lines.

I also mined the past by perusing old photographs, researching former places I lived, interviewing family and friends, and re-reading old letters. I spent several months creating a detailed time line that included ages, major milestones, moves, marriages, deaths, graduations, etc. I then inserted historic events into the time line to help recreate the social milieu in which my story transpires. I referred to the time line again and again; I felt like an archaeologist trying to correctly place a shard of memory into a larger whole.

II. Facing Your Dragons

Writing memoir requires honesty, tenacity and courage. I sometimes felt as if I were riding in the basket of a hot-air balloon lowering myself into an abyss of the past. It isn’t easy to filter through the pain, disappointments, anger, embarrassment and minutia of a lifetime. Real-life scenes and characters were sometimes difficult to funnel onto the printed page. To include one memory was to leave out another.

It is a courageous act to enter into the realm of your psyche looking for a handful of memories to portray what you most want to express. You can’t carry everything across the threshold of memory and commit it to paper. Courage is what allows you to even try.

III. Riding the Chaos

Once I began to write in earnest and incorporate my research, everything felt unwieldy. I would lie awake at night wondering how to structure the story; what information should I include; what information should I cut. A great idea might fizzle after a long day in front of the computer. Or, just as easily, a random idea might turn into gold.

I call this stage of writing the chaos phase.

The chaos phase is not about flow, rhythm, being in the zone, or hitting your stride—these feelings come later. Chaos is more about creative angst, not knowing which path to follow, an inability to pin down an idea before it shape-shifts into something else, wondering if there is any merit in what you are undertaking. I think a lot of writers get stymied in this phase because it feels so dissonant and uncomfortable.

In my early years, I shelved a number of projects believing that the creative process would be easier if I were on the “right track.” I know differently now. I’ve learned that my creativity can be enhanced by “riding” the chaos to its conclusion—not succumbing to it. These days, I picture myself determinedly climbing astride a wild bucking bronco refusing to let go of the reins despite the ups, downs, and spinning around. Invariably the bronco begins to tame, the dust settles, and an idea comes—and oftentimes it’s a really good one.

IV. Finding the Universal

If a story is imbued with enough substance, it will likely tap into a universal truth or theme of the human condition—something that goes beyond the particulars—like pieces of a hologram which reflect the entire image. The universal themes of Moonlight on Linoleum are the mother/daughter relationship, sisterhood, holding onto hope despite difficult circumstances, and, the predominant theme, even if others abandon you, you must never abandon yourself. All these themes helped structure my story.

I also made use of symbol, metaphor and myth which tap into the collective unconscious and create resonance on a deeper level. If something was important to me as a child, like my favorite oak tree, I explored its symbolism. I recognized that my tree symbolized stability and deep roots. For a child who had no roots this was important. My collection of butterfly wings tied to my feverish desire to fly. Flying meant freedom.

I wrote that my grandmother was born with a Hestian gene. In myth, Hestia is the goddess of the hearth who kept the home fires burning. One of the great aches of my childhood was the feeling that our hearth fire was dangerously low. This was not said explicitly, but it was implied.

Sometimes I felt I tapped into the universal by allowing my intuition to lead the way. I allowed myself to write what I had energy for—even when I didn’t know why I was writing a particular scene. The most notable instance was toward the end of the book. I found myself wanting to write about a seemingly inconsequential photograph. Since I was so close to the end, I didn’t want to detour from my planned route. However, in the end, I decided to follow my creative impulse down the rabbit hole. And am I glad I did. While writing about the photograph, my mind suddenly linked to something earlier in the book. I thought, Wow! In a lightening flash, I stumbled across the ending for my book and the memoir’s universal theme: You can be abandoned by others, but you must never abandon yourself.

V. Developing Your Craft

Creative writing must be met with an equal measure of craftsmanship. Craftsmanship helps hone ordinary stories into gems. Literary craft, like all craft, demands expertise. I know of no magic route to publication that can bypass the craftsmanship of writing, re-writing, and more re-writing.

Describing everything craftsmanship entails would be a book in itself. Fortunately, there are resources to help writers hone their literary skills; I would venture to say almost every book on the subject of writing** contains at least one pearl of wisdom.

Read your genre. If you want to write memoir, read memoir. If you want to write fiction, read fiction. Pay attention to the techniques used by various authors in your genre. What stands out? What is similar? What publishers publish the type of book you plan to write? Who are the agents and editors mentioned in the acknowledgments of your genre?

If you want to publish your work, be professional. Nothing screams amateur more than handing an unsolicited manuscript to an author and asking him or her to pass it on to the “right” people, give you editorial feedback, or help you publish it. It’s your responsibility to do your homework. Research the internet and visit the library to find articles about how to write query letters and book proposals. Follow the submission guidelines for agents and publishers. Many writers hire editors to help them polish their manuscript and ready it for publication.

Poets and Writers and Writer’s Digest magazines offer informative articles by editors and other writers on writing and publishing. They also list writing contests, advertise writer’s retreats and publicize workshops. Consider networking with like-minded individuals by attending a writer’s workshop, enrolling in a writing course or starting a writer’s group to share work and offer critiques.

If you want to write memoir, mine the past, ride the chaos, tap the universal, and hone your writing skills. The writer’s journey is not an easy one, but neither is it impossible. Dragons scare away only the weak hearted. I wish you courage as you bear up the treasures of your past.

* A term described in Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature by Tristine Rainer

** Books on writing that I have found helpful: The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters by Christopher Vogler Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature by Tristine Rainer. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

© Terry Helwig 2011


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