Memoir writing is a tool for introspection

by Jerry Waxler

Entire epochs of my life, like the decade after I got out of college for example, have disappeared into the haze of the past. And I’m not sure that decade made much sense when I was living through it the first time. The past is strewn behind me in a jumble of memories that won’t go away, but won’t come clear either.

So instead of leaving that pile just sit there and bother me in its messiness, it’s more fun to search through the piles, and turn them into something beautiful and sensible. This exercise of finding the stories in life might seem daunting at first – so many memories, so little structure. But like cleaning up any messy pile, the starting point doesn-t really matter. I could start anywhere.

For example I could take out a photo album and when I feel an emotion stirring, jump into the scene and write about it as if I was there. Or compile a timetable of my life, including dates and short descriptions of major events and transitions. “I was born in 1947. When I was five I went to Pennypacker Elementary School. I walked three blocks to school and then walked home for lunch, everyday for six years.”

Ask yourself questions about the past. You’ll discover remarkable material lurking within your mind. Describe the furniture in your living room. What year did you move? What did you plan to do for a living, and what changed as you grew? Describe your aunts and uncles.

Then add emotion. What frightened you? (Recurring dreams of being chased by dinosaurs.) What did your parents want from you that you could never do right? (Be perfect.) How did it feel when you visited your grandparents? (It felt good when grandmom pulled out her piano music and started playing. It felt bad when she lectured me.) How did you feel at summer camp, or during a big argument? As you gather the information, and turn memories into scenes and time-lines, take a step back and think about how you would pull these disparate elements into a story that would make sense to someone who doesn’t know you.

By seeing it through the lens of a story, you regain so much of who you are. Out of the pile of vague memories emerge a sensibility that can help you organize who you are today. And if you strive to make it a good read, you’ll be taking the next step of your journey, turning yourself into a craftsperson, a storyteller of life.

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