Save the Objective Witness Role for Reporters

Reflection deepens a story. Reflection personalizes. And better yet, when a story is personalized by using reflection—when you include how you were affected—a story has a better chance of drawing a reader in.

With memoir you want not only to write about what has happened in your life, you also want to extract meaning from your stories through reflection so readers can understand what a particular experience meant to you. 

Instead of only including what was happening around you, include the interior view. What were you thinking when something happened or when you went somewhere? How did you feel? Share your insights, dreams, triumphs, and disappointments in a story. If you’re writing about an adventure, what did you learn about yourself along the way?

Using a writing prompt recently, in twenty minutes I explored a time when I got a different outcome than what I expected to have. I’ll share that writing here as example of using reflection.

Turquoise waters spread out below the four-seater airplane, dotted by dark circles of land. This was the 300-island archipelago of Fiji and I was traveling to an outer island from the mainland the only way possible: by sea plane. The trouble was, I’m afraid of heights.

While planning the trip it became clear my partner was going to go to this remote outer island. I was equally sure I was not. But faced with the prospect of staying alone for seven days in an urbanized paradise on the other side of the globe when I could be adventuring on the white sand of a small tropical island where only natives lived, I had to look my fears in the eye.

At home, to prepare I watched YouTube videos of sea planes in flight—with equally disconcerting audio of roaring engines. I went to a hypnotherapist. I bought a life jacket at a secondhand sporting goods store. I packed a photograph of my beloved dog and a piece of obsidian to use as a talisman in my lap on the flight. I accepted a friend’s offer of a valium to take with me, half for the flight there, half for the return trip to the mainland.

When the day came for the sea plane flight, I was as ready as it seemed I could be. A week already in the South Seas may have softened some of the edges of my lifelong fear of heights, but that fear was still along for the ride on this necessary adventure.

In a taxi on the way to the sea plane launch dock I popped the first half a Valium. Ten minutes later, at the window to buy our ticket I got a big surprise: The sea plane was two hours late. Oh no.

The long wait at the sea plane dock turned out to be wonderfully relaxing. When the plane pulled in on the water and we boarded, I settled into my seat with the photo of my pup and my piece of obsidian on my lap. The sea plane wing was in full sight through the window, but more fearsome was the look of our pilot wearing thigh-high rubber boots. The engine roar grew louder, suitcases were stacked in the rear of the plane. I took my last look at the situation then closed my eyes for the flight and warned my partner not to tell me how wonderful it all was or try to describe the view to me. I wasn’t going to look.

Ten minutes in, I broke my vow. One little peek led to one eye open, then two eyes were open and I was breathless with awe. Two weeks later I flew back to the mainland with half a Valium still in my bag and a feeling greater than the joy there is seeing such vast natural beauty. I had looked my fear in the eye and couldn’t wait for another chance to see what this wider world I was ready for had to show me.

What is your experience of a time you got a different outcome than you expected? How did it affect you? Try writing about that and notice how much more your story becomes when it includes that personalized layer of meaning.