Tips on Writing a Memoir
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Preparing to tell your life story is less complicated than you think, with expert help from Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann in Your Life is a Book (Sasquatch Books, 2014). Peterson is the author of eighteen books, including two memoirs, and Freymann a top literary agent with years of experience working with memoirs; both offer tips on writing a memoir thoughtfully and skillfully, with exercises to help jump start your writing, examples of well-executed passages and advice on publishing your work. The following excerpt is from chapter 4, “Field Notes on Your Life.”
The universe is made of stories, not of atoms. —Muriel Rukeyser
Keeping a Journal as a Record
Is keeping a journal, a blog, a photo album, or a scrapbook of letters and ideas a good thing? Absolutely! Journaling can be an essential element of your daily writing practice, because it flexes the writing muscles and, like a good massage, loosens the tense ones. Because it is for your eyes only, you are free to express anything without worrying about your phrasing, your grammar, your punctuation, or how it all sounds. The process can be wonderfully liberating.
No matter if you jot down notes spontaneously during the day or sit down at a specific time, journal writing can open the door to your subconscious and help bring buried memories to the surface. It is also an effective way of consciously working through dilemmas. In addition to journaling, you may want to keep a record of the little observations, phrases, and thoughts you’ve experienced or encountered each day. Think of this journal as raw material the way an artist sketches details for later development. Ideally, if you are organized enough, these notes would be kept in a separate notebook that you keep with you wherever you go, or in a folder on your computer or electronic tablet.
Don’t worry if you are not journaling daily. It isn’t a question of frequency; it’s one of doing it when and as you can, and doing it seriously. There’s no question that there have been times in Sarah Jane’s life when nothing has been as unequivocally helpful. For her, journaling has been a way to look at a painful feeling or an urgent problem, examine it, and then somehow, almost magically, write her way to insight—to a truth that resonates in that moment.
Brenda doesn’t do much journaling, nor has she ever kept a diary, except of her dreams. Perhaps her mother’s years in the CIA, or the fact that in her family three people had top-security clearance from the US government, instilled in Brenda at a very early age that one’s secrets must be hidden or coded. So she kept a rather inscrutable dream journal that no one else could decipher. When she wrote her two memoirs, Brenda turned instead to family photos, letters, Moleskine notebooks, and audio notes that she made with her cell phone recorder app.
These “field notes” to your life are essential to re-create the sensory details and flesh out the epiphanies of any scene. But they are works in progress and not ever ready to be published. Why not? They have not yet been transformed by your conscious craftsmanship into the final creation—your memoir. They are the kneaded clay before the sculpting, glazing, and firing of a beautiful pot. They are life not yet tempered by art.
Tell Your Life Story as a Work of Art
Sometimes these journals and field notes are so stream of consciousness, uncensored, and raw that they are what Brenda calls “unprocessed pain.” They read like a cri de coeur, or “cry from the heart,” not like an artfully crafted memoir. One of the best pieces of writing advice Brenda ever received as a young writer was from her first mentor, Diane Johnson. When one of Brenda’s dear friends committed suicide in 1981, Brenda wrote about it and sent an early draft to Diane to edit. Very gently, but with her characteristic honesty, Diane advised Brenda to write down every specific detail: the bright spring light in the room when Brenda discovered her friend’s body, the freshly folded laundry she was carrying and dropped, the gun gleaming like a dark fist at her friend’s cold temple as Brenda felt for a pulse.
“Write down everything you saw and felt that horrible day,” Diane gently suggested. “Take notes. Write this story over and over, but don’t publish it for several years. Only then will you possess and understand it, beyond the trauma. Only then will you discover the larger meaning of this event in your life so you can give it to others.”
Gratefully heeding Diane’s advice, Brenda wrote down every single thing she could remember at the moment. Then, on the yearly anniversary of her friend’s death, Brenda revised the original story. This became a healing ritual, and every draft was more clear-eyed and complete. It took quite a few years until the memoir piece “The Sacredness of Chores,” published in Nature and Other Mothers, was more than just unprocessed pain, until more than grief framed it. The epiphany of this story was not “surrender to death” but survival. One detail Brenda had scribbled in her notebook about that day was the to-do list she had made before she discovered the suicide. This simple jot in a journal became the theme for the final published story:
1) Finish Chapter 10
3) Defrost fridge
4) Meet P. N. at farmers’ market (rhubarb?)
At the time of her friend’s death, Brenda could never have imagined that this scrawled note would become the organizing principle for a story, the magnet that drew all the seemingly insane pieces together and gave meaning to this loss. A simple to-do list that, at the time, seemed so busy, so foolish, so small set against suicide, would, upon reflection, become the sacred death chores of cleaning, of surviving, of staying on. This story ends: “As long as the washer and dryer spin, I tell myself, I am safe and those I love may choose to keep living alongside me. There is laundry to be done and so many chores—chores of living. Think of all the chores we have yet to do, quietly and on our knees—because home is holy.”
Whether you’re journaling about loss, death, illness, divorce, or any of the painful events that both detour and yet shape our lives, keeping field notes and journals of the raw, unprocessed pain can become the touchstone for your final well-crafted memoir. Writing a memoir can even help heal trauma. As author Amy Greene writes, “It’s not forgetting that heals. It’s remembering.”
© 2014 by Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Your Life is a Book: How to Craft & Publish Your Memoir by permission of Sasquatch Books.
Brenda on book tour teaching from YOUR LIFE IS A BOOK: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir
We're thrilled that Oprah.com is featuring 11 time-tested "Two-Minute Journal Prompts for Quick Inspiration that Inspire Real Change" drawn from YOUR LIFE IS A BOOK: Here are a few and you can go to OWN on Huffington Post to see all of them. Happy writing!
Two-Minute Journal Prompts That Inspire Real Change
Posted: 12/26/2014 9:39 am EST Updated: 12/26/2014 9:59 am EST
These ideas, from the authors of Your Life is a Book, get you writing quickly -- about the things you most want to examine. (Our advice: Fill in the last blank of each one with at least a paragraph.)
By Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann
To see all of the writing prompts please visit Oprah's Huffington Post page: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/26/journal-prompts-inspirational-writing-exercises_n_6373424.html?utm_hp_ref=own&ir=OWN
LISTEN TO memoirist Brenda Peterson and literary agent Sarah Jane Freymann talk about writing memoir as a way to find more happiness in your own life story.
LISTEN FREE through Dec. 23rd to Brenda's new PUBLIC RADIO interview on "THE HEALING POWER OF WRITING MEMOIR" on NEW DIMENSIONS at this link:
The Healing Power Of Writing Your Memoir with Brenda Peterson
Free Listening Through December 30, 2014:
Writing a memoir is not just for established writers and celebrities, as we might expect. Memoir writing can be a way of leaving a legacy for generations and imparting wisdom from real life experiences. It can also be a tool for gaining a better understanding of one’s self. Brenda Peterson teaches that writing a memoir can reveal who we are and can answer the question: “What is the story you are telling yourself about yourself to yourself?” A memoir has a narrative arc, a plot which is “the evolution of the soul through any experience or through time.” Peterson believes that a good memoir will incorporate all of the senses. The memoirist should bring to the surface as much depth of experience as possible to create a meaningful and compelling story. And, she adds, a little levity can change everything. A memoir doesn’t necessarily have to be all about the writer, but inevitably, the writer is the narrator and main character. One of the first things Peterson teaches is the chapter on ‘’Showing up, creating a character of the self.” She often uses playful exercises to draw out the inner critic and to encourage epiphany. Writing a memoir requires reflection, emotion and patience. Memoirs take time, she acknowledges, and becoming an apprentice to the craft is important. She uses an exercise to help spark the process that might be referred to as the “one scene” method. Peterson believes that everyone has a story to tell, “So do it now.” (hosted by Justine Willis Toms)
Brenda Peterson is a novelist, nature writer, and writing teacher. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and O: The Oprah Magazine.
Brenda Peterson’s books include:
- Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals (W. W. Norton 2001)
- Duck and Cover (Backinprint.com 2004)
- I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth (Da Capo Press 2010)
- Your Life is a Book: How to Craft & Publish Your Memoir (co-author Sarah Jane Freymann) (Sasquatch Books 2014)
To learn more about the work of Brenda Peterson go to www.brendapetersonbooks.com.
Topics explored in this dialogue include:
- What is a memoir
- What are some of the compelling reasons to write a memoir
- What story are you telling yourself about yourself
- Is there one scene that sums up your story
- Why a memoir does not have to be chronological
- What are some ways to jump in and begin your memoir
- How to turn your inner critic into your protector
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Happy Solstice, Hannukah, and Christmas everyone!
Here is my new Huffington Post and listen to the lullaby.
THE HEALING POWER OF HOLIDAY COMMUNITY SINGING
Live community music during the holidays is one of the most life-affirming gifts we can offer and receive. But what about those who can't get out to hear all this wonderful music? Many chorales all over the country bring music to elders in senior centers, to homeless shelters, and hospitals. Every year when my Seattle Metropolitan Glee Club offers our holiday concert to elders in senior centers, I'm reminded of the first time I witnessed this Christmas miracle of community song.
Seattle Metropolitan Glee Club, of the Seattle Glee Clubs
When I was 15 in Northern Virginia, our church youth choir carried our Christmas treats and our singing to the prestigious and widely-revered St. Elizabeth's mental institution in Washington, D.C. The complex cantata we had practiced all fall was called "Night of Miracles," and in addition to my mother's piano accompaniment, our performance would be bolstered by the choir's diva, Mrs. Helena Simmer. Her rich, dark mezzo-soprano voice was reason enough to go to church. Mrs. Simmer had sung professionally before succumbing to the fate of many a Southern Baptist wife -- motherhood, under what I was beginning to think of as "house arrest."
When Mrs. Simmer sang, this rather odd-looking woman with her bouffant black hair and a distracting wart on her lip was transformed into a guardian archangel. With each high note, Mrs. Simmer held on to the choir loft and practically levitated; with each vibrato low note, her dark eyes smoldered. I marveled that any man, especially just a husband, could keep her housebound. Mrs. Simmer's singing was so heartfelt, so full of longing and sensuality, that everybody, even little children, leaned toward her vibrato. It was acoustic light, full of unseen overtones and mysterious resonance.
We were bewitched. Some bowed their heads and wept openly. Mrs. Simmer's voice was rumored to cure high fevers and help the dying pass to their reward. Most of all, Mrs. Simmer called forth a kind of musical rapture in us. This world was not so heavy, not so hard, when Mrs. Simmer sang.
Her solo, I was firmly convinced, would also heal some of the mentally ill incarcerated at St. Elizabeth's. In the same way that Christ had cast out demons like so many pigs tumbling over a cliff, perhaps Mrs. Simmer's singing would ease psychosis. In any case, those who could not be cured with singing could enjoy our special dessert: Gift of the Magi cupcakes. This was my mother's special recipe: a trinity of chocolate on chocolate on chocolate. It was like the original sin of chocolates -- why else would it be called "devil's food"?
Some of us in the youth choir had sampled the cupcakes en route to St. Elizabeth's and sang out with lips stained dark. Once we arrived, the patients gathered around us in a circle, all dolled up for our visit. When we sang, they nodded and tapped feet like normal folk, and we decided they weren't crazy at all. I suppose we had expected to see people foaming at the mouth or even worse, naked. But the inmates all ate their cupcakes and clapped, just like any polite go-to-church audience.
All that is, except a very small old lady with two bright splotches of rouge on her cheeks that endeared her to me. She peeled her Gift of the Magi cupcakes with delicate white lace gloves and then, smiling, as we belted out the rousing chorus of "Night of Miracles," smashed her cupcake right atop her head.
No one moved. We stopped singing, shocked. And then Mrs. Simmer did something that was so simple. She left the choir and crossed over to the old woman with the cupcake smeared over her silver head. Singing ever so softly -- as if they were the only two people in the whole world -- Mrs. Simmer began her solo, all the while disentangling the gooey chocolate cupcake from the old lady's hair.
Sleep, holy child, for thou art safe, in heaven's keeping, Mrs. Simmer cooed.
The old woman looked up trustingly at Mrs. Simmer. She was not crazy, I saw -- she was a child. Someone had dumped her at St. Elizabeth's because they didn't want to see her return to the incontinence, incoherence, and helplessness of an ancient infant. But was this old woman just being born again, like all the Baptists talked about? Maybe old people have to become babies again to be reborn.
Mrs. Simmer smiled and stroked the old woman's shoulder. She raised her voice to a reassuring mezzo forte. The old lady now gazed up at Mrs. Simmer. What did she see? I wondered. Her long life, her heavenly afterlife? Or did the woman simply hear radiance showering her and see a mother who never stops loving, who will never leave her child?
When I was young and singing to elders, I couldn't quite fathom what might be on these seemingly ancient and far-away minds. Now that I'm closer to being an elder myself, and having sung "Sleep, Holy Child" myself as a solo in memory of that gorgeous voice now gone, I understand why singing in community is such a physical and spiritual communion -- and why singing together can make us happier and healthier.
I also now understand the healing collective power of Mrs. Simmer's solo: We sing because hearing is the first and last human sense; we sing to blend our voices and find harmony in a world so often dissonant and at war; we sing to celebrate and to mourn; we sing to carry on our traditions. And when we sing to those who might be lost, homeless, or wandering, we help them find their way back -- to us and to themselves.
Brenda Peterson is the author of 18 books, including the Indie Next "Great Read" I Want to Be Left Behind, from which this story was adapted. Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir, is just published. www.BrendaPetersonBooks.com