A new writer asked me a good question the other day. She started writing memoir because she wanted to chronicle her life but only expected to write about the events of her life. She was finding out there was a whole lot more to it, namely, she was hearing she should include feelings at the time of an event and later, in some cases. Not always easy.
Remembering to include your feelings can seem unnatural sometimes when you’re writing memoir, contrived. You have to remind yourself to do it! But it’s a good idea. Readers won’t always know what an experience meant to you at the time it happened or later if you don’t tell them about that both with your feelings about it and with reflection on what it meant in the scheme of things.
In memoir, reflection is essential. And that reflection has to be spelled out in the narrative. It’s your take on things, not just what happened, but what happened for you.
In a novel, one event leads to the next, characters develop along with the plot through plot complications, conflicts, and resolve of conflicts. In a life story, particularly one you’re writing chronologically, events may not lead one to the next because you’re not following as tight a plotline. But every event you write about should have a reason — for you — to be written.
Try writing up a timeline (see my Story Circle Network post How Do I Shape My Memoir?). Look at the events you included on it. Can you answer the question: What did I learn from this at the time? How did it affect me? Did it shape who I became (or am now)? As you write each story about your life, include that reflection. Write it in.
You could think of good memoir as having three key parts:
1. Narrative, or “telling,” which provides context and a sense of continuity, which links, leads in, and paints the broader strokes of time passing and scene changes;
2. Scenes, or “showing,” which bring the story to life with details from the time you’re describing in narrative. As the writer, you get to go there again in memory and draw from experience (with a touch of imagination) and bring a sense of presence to your reader;
3. Reflection, where it fits. Some stories won’t need your reflections — what it meant to you/to others/its affects then and later. But many could. Be sure to always ask yourself this question when you’re writing: How did this affect me? Your feelings will deepen the story, make it realer, even remind you about or help you realize the event’s value.
Memoir is mostly the story. The story is the base. Reflection is an important spice. Reflection can come at the end of a story/chapter or it can be intermixed. Example: You write about having lunch with Liz Taylor. You’ve described her and all the rest from that day. Your reflections can come in the middle of that story, like: “I’d never done anything this exciting before, and I had the feeling I never wanted to do anything ordinary again.” At the end of the story you might conclude with another reflection, something like: “I wasn’t the same after meeting her. She didn’t think I was a shy 14-year-old, she thought I was wonderful. And suddenly, I wasn’t shy anymore. I wanted more new experiences in my life and I did everything I could to get them.”
Reflect before you write about an event and while you’re writing it and chances are your reflections will fall naturally into place, balancing your narrative, as you write about what happened. Memoir is your opportunity to see in, to connect the dots, and to share about it as you share about yourself in the stories of your life.