Remembering experiences as a WWII nurse



Beginning a memoir project is like being an explorer of unexcavated territory, except that territory is within you. You are an anthropologist, a psychologist and a sky diver all at once without leaving your writing table. You take risks on the journey as you delve deeper and deeper into the ravines of memory, but the journey itself is your challenge, a way to stretch yourself and grow as a writer.

A memoir is a story that is true. It can consist of looking back at a single summer, or the span of a lifetime. It is some aspect of life, some theme about which you want to reflect so it becomes a process of unearthing memories and then turning them over and over like a stone embedded with fossils. The more we look the more we see.

There are two basic ingredients in a strong memoir. The first is honesty. The memoirist makes a commitment to tell the emotional truth. Sometimes when the writing is not coming easily, it is often because we’re avoiding what needs to be written. It’s not about baring secrets – it’s simply telling the emotional truth about what you’ve chosen to write about.

Russell Baker told the story of writing a complete manuscript – 450 pages – of a well-researched and documented family story. He included a slew of facts about his family’s genealogy and history. But in the end he realized that, although he was accurate in the reporting of facts about his family, he had been dishonest about his portrayal of his mother. He said, “I had been unwilling to write honestly… and that dishonesty left a great hollow in the center of the original.”

The second ingredient of a powerful memoir is a reflective quality; that sense of looking back on experiences, exploring patterns and organizing and finding meaning. Some things that we choose to write about may not be inherently all that interesting but it is what you make of them that counts – how you intensify the feeling behind the moments. Using the five senses to describe a scene heightens that intensity and makes it accessible to the reader.

You may be writing about ordinary family experiences, but the reflective process lets the reader know how you were transformed, how you understand that experience, today.