Journaling as a Part of the Memoir Writing “Toolkit”

by Ruth Folit

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Writing your memoir is a great opportunity to not only tell your story to others, but in the process of writing it to learn from your own life.  How to begin?  With a journal entry!

A memoir is a series of your life stories which are stitched together to form a coherent whole.  The memoir requires that you make meaning out of your own life events and then present the reader with a point of view, showing a change in your character, attitude, and behavior.

Journals, on the other hand, are a conglomeration of disparate vignettes, inner musings, quick character sketches, emotional outpourings, boring or anxious ramblings, overheard conversations, unrelated tangents, and poorly written sentences. However, think of your journal as consisting of the building blocks and the reference material from which you write your memoir.

If you have kept a journal for years and years you may be lucky enough to have written about an experience that you are including in your memoir. In that case, you’ve struck gold! There are a myriad of specifics about the actual event, written from your point of view during that particular time.  Sift through these kind of journals entry for clues about who you were and what your attitudes and belief system was. This is an invaluable goldmine for your memoir.

If you’ve kept a journal for a few years, but it doesn’t include the time period of your memoir, don’t despair. Your journal holds many clues about who you are.  Perhaps you need a conversation in your memoir that shows how you and your sister treated each other as kids.  Search your journal for an entry in which you and your sister were in a parallel situation more recently. You’ll learn a lot about the relationship patterns that you have with your sister.  Or, equally possible, is that you and a friend of yours who is a surrogate sister also repeats the relationship patterns of you and your sister.  You can use these insights and materials when writing your memoir.

If you have never kept a journal, it’s never too late to start.  Your journal can be a repository of memories as well as filled with information about your life today.  Remember that journaling is informal and the process invites you to write about memories whenever they surface.  For example, if you just wake from a dream that includes people or places from the past, immediately describe it in full detail in your journal.  Or, if you eating dinner at a friend’s house and the silverware pattern is the same one that your family had when growing up, a flood of memories of eating family dinners will appear.  (If your friend is a good friend, ask him/her if you can borrow a fork or a spoon and use that as a touchstone to bring back memories.)

Write whenever memories bubble up, and remember to write the details–about your feelings and thoughts about the event as you lived it, and try to include such sensing details as the temperature, the odors that are associated with the setting you were in, the sounds that you heard, and so on.  Close your eyes and bring yourself back to that time as much as possible.  No need to concern yourself with grammar, spelling, or any of the rules of writing.  Just get the words and phrases out—no need for full sentences if that slows you down.  No need to worry about whether you are making sense to potential readers.  Just get the information out onto a page or computer screen! There are never too many details or too many tangents in a journal.  It’s better to have too much material that you have to cull through and not include in your memoir, rather than not having enough. 

Whether you have old journals or are just starting out new, journal entries are perfect raw material from which to write engrossing, meaningful memoirs.  If you have even a whisper of an idea that someday you’d like to write a memoir, start journaling now.  It’s the perfect first step!

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