In memoir, a self is speaking and rendering the world. The real subject is your consciousness in the light of history. The objective is to be personal and impersonal all at once. In a sense it is to be a witness and a storyteller.

The hallmark of memoir is the expression of both Now and Then. It is a kind of shuttling back and forth between the past and present, interrogating the experience back then and expressing what that experience means to us now.

We can also think about this as the “I” that was then and the “I” that is now. Or, imagine that your present self is having a conversation with your much younger self.

Memoir begins with a kind of intuition of meaning. The event itself usually happened years ago and a memory, a scene, lingers. I remember weeping in a kitchen in a lonely apartment in a foreign country in 1968 and devouring a box of graham crackers – a big box.  Whenever the memory came back, I was uncomfortable. When I eventually described the scene by writing about it, the events before and after came flooding back and I started to get closer to the story.

Memories survive on fleeting things – a wisp of a fragrance, a plaid shirt your father wore, a song that reminds you of another song. These details are the starting point for the deeper story..

Writing memoir is a way to figure out who you used to be and who you are today. It is mental and emotional time travel and sometimes it might involve actual travel.

The memoirist Patricia Hampl wanted to understand who she was as a free-thinking adult relative  to her strict faith in the Roman Catholic religion as a child. She explored the question by traveling to several catholic shrines and monesteries in the U.S. and Europe – re-immersing herself in the rituals and beliefs of the church. Her memoir Virgin Time is a thoughtful reflection of her findings.

Writing is a way of grounding yourself. It’s a way of making sense of life, to find meaning in accident, reasons why you might respond the way you do – even though looking for the “why” can be a distraction. Truth and clarity is the goal. Not THE truth, but your truth.

The best stories arrive from lifeexperiences. We’re constantly collecting bits and pieces, odds and ends. Especially if we write down seemingly random notes as much as possible using descriptive language that utilizes the five senses. Smell, taste, touch, hearing and sight. Our memories are a collection of precious broken bits floating about. Writers are faced with a collection of shards of  memory. When we take one of these bits and begin to fashion something we realize that life is not a fixed star.  It’s full of brokenness, that sense that this happened and this happened, and a great happiness comes from bringing the pieces together into a story in which the parts become connected.

Here is a good place to say what memoir is not.  It’s not a place to take revenge or to cast oneself as a victim. It does not have to be a tell-all or a serving up of dirty laundry in order to be interesting to readers. Memoir should not be self-serving. If you come out in the end as anything less than profoundly human, you’re probably writing something else, possibly fiction.

Stand far enough back and get close enough. Provide lots of details. The reader will be interested in the ordinary. Perhaps you walked barefoot to school or you grew up on a ranch in Wyoming, The craft of memoir involves writing from the inside out but that inside can be full of light. It can be funny, inquisitive and cautious. It must profoundly human.

Poor little me – or good little me – is not a good motive for memoir. A memoir is clear and generous, and clarity usually involves humility, maybe more than you started out with.  We hopefully find our humanness in the process of writing.

Just as an exercise try writing a couple of pages about a time when you were extremely pleased with yourself and then another time when you, “failed to rise to the occasion.”

Daily writing become a habit.  After you’ve been collecting those bits and pieces for a while – something will emerge.

If you really feel blocked or cut off from writing but, at the same time, feel there is something simmering inside, try writing a couple of pages of completely uninspiring diary entries. Anne Frank called her diary “Kitty.” When you think of the sameness of her days, DSC02865even in the midst of the tension she lived in, somehow she managed to say something to Kitty day after day. She was interested in her own normal daily thoughts and reactions to things around her. I wonder how she would have reflected back on her diary entries if she had survived to write a memoir of her experience.

A lot of writing consists of waiting around for the aquarium to settle so you can see the fish. It’s the same idea expressed by Vivian Gornick when she said, there is the situation – in fact their may be several situations – and then there is the story. If you remember a situation – an argument between you and a sibling where Chinese food sailed across the room, or the time you stole a piece of silverware from a restaurant – describe it as a scene, as if it was a movie with as much detail as possible and then put it away and go back to it later. Look for patterns. In memoir we illuminate our personal experiences so that readers thinks about their own lives in more meaningful ways. They find their own connections. Write, plainly and clearly, and the reader will layer in his or her life story. Readers will resonate if you demonstrate honest, thoughtful reflection with vivid details.

We need for people to write memoir in this world because we are all representatives of what history actually is: the collective experience of many. We need witnesses.

In the words of Czelaw Milosz:

…unless we can relate it to ourselves personally, history will always be more or less of an abstraction, a clash of impersonal forces and ideas. Generalizations of history are necessary to order the vast, chaotic material … at the same time those generalizations kill the individual details that stray from the schema – the individual stories of human experience – every family archive that perishes, every account book that was burned reinforces classifications and ideas at the expense of reality … and all that remains of entire centuries is a kind of popular digest.