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Memoir 101: How to Use Journaling to Write and Tell Your Story in a Memoir

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Rafini has a BA in Creative Writing from UW, Madison and has evolved her own journal entries into memoir pieces ready for publication.

Starting a memoir can be intimidating, but luckily the simple act of keeping a journal can help you learn where to start.

Starting a memoir can be intimidating, but luckily the simple act of keeping a journal can help you learn where to start.

Which Story Should You Tell?

Writing your memoir can be a difficult, and often painful, task. Of course, it can also be inspiring, uplifting, or delightful, too. It all depends on the story you choose to tell. But, how do you choose which story, out of the countless stories which encapsulate your life, is the one to tell? Which story defines what you’d like to say about yourself and your life?

Some writers are blessed with knowing exactly which story from their life is the best one to tell, to illustrate whatever it is about their life they are wanting to share with readers. Other writers may struggle so much with discovering their story to tell that they want to quit writing altogether. And then there are those writers who fall somewhere in the middle and either understand or learn, one of the best ways to discover your story is through journaling.

A memoir is about feelings and experience rather than about ordinary things like the weather.

A memoir is about feelings and experience rather than about ordinary things like the weather.

How a Memoir Writer’s Journal Is Different From a Regular Journal

No matter where you are in your writing endeavors, keeping a journal is a good idea. You can use it to document your daily activities – so you can remember, tomorrow, what you did yesterday. You can also use it to record the weather – and what you wore as a result. You may even choose to use a journal to keep track of what you eat and how much exercise you get every day. While all of these are completely acceptable uses of a journal, they won’t really help you all that much when it comes to writing, and telling, your story in a memoir. Why? Because a memoir is about your feelings and experiences about particular events in your life, rather than everyday things.

At this point it is advisable to understand you are keeping a memoir writers journal, rather than an ordinary journal or even a writer’s journal. This memoir writer’s journal will eventually be filled with thoughts, feelings, events, people, places and memories from your past. Some will bring a smile to your lips, a giggle to your heart, while others may deliver a punch to the stomach you weren’t expecting. My main advice here: Expect, and be prepared for, the unexpected.

What to Write in a Memoir Writer's Journal

While this may sound counterintuitive to what I just wrote, it has to be said, anyway: Write whatever you want to write about. At first. Get used to writing in your journal on a regular basis. Write as much and as long as you want. Or as little. It could be three pages in twenty minutes or a single paragraph in fifteen or as little as two minutes. The important thing at this beginning stage is to get yourself writing. After you’re comfortable with writing regularly, about whatever comes to mind, then you will be ready for what comes next.

You can use a laptop or a notebook for your journal—anything as long as you're writing!

You can use a laptop or a notebook for your journal—anything as long as you're writing!

Filling Your Memoir Writer's Journal

Writing regularly will be different for every writer based on individuality and time available. Some writers will joyfully write a solid fifteen minutes every morning while drinking their coffee or tea, while others will force themselves to sit down for thirty minutes, once a week, before bed. Some will struggle to write consecutive sentences or paragraphs, while others will be disappointed when their allotted time comes to an end. The thing to remember is: There are no rules! It’s okay if you write for twenty minutes today and only five minutes tomorrow. Maybe last week you only wrote one day, but it was a forty-five-minute session you hated to see end. When it comes to a keeping a memoir writers journal, it’s important to give yourself permission for inconsistency. Why? Because you never know what hidden feelings and emotions your memories are going to dredge up alongside the fantastic images you treasure.

As far as putting memories on paper goes, sometimes it can be difficult to know where to begin.

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As no story ever begins at the beginning, yet all stories do, all you can do is write one word after another and keep going until you finish what you began. Sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it? Let me try again:

Keep going until you have nothing more to say about it, or until your time is up for the day. Then, tomorrow, do the same thing – only choose a different topic. You may even want to create a list of topics, and either go straight down the list or pick and choose whichever sounds most appealing each day. Then, when you’ve finished, you can either recycle the list or move on to what comes next.

Putting Together the Pieces

After you’ve sufficiently covered your list of topics in your memoir writer’s journal, the next step is to put the pieces together. Let’s say one of your topics was family and another was holidays. Maybe yet another was vacations. For some reason, these three topics are on your mind today, so you check out what you’ve written under each. Then, like an epiphany, you remember the time your family spent Thanksgiving at the airport when you were twelve, rather than skiing in the Rockies, because your flight was cancelled due to severe weather. Take this opportunity to write a story about it. Make it as long, or short, as you’d like. Maybe you’ll need three or four sessions to write it all down, or maybe you’ll be able to finish writing it all in one sitting. Either way, there are no rules about writing it.

Look into your memories for inspiration—the more you remember, the more you have to write about!

Look into your memories for inspiration—the more you remember, the more you have to write about!

Continue Writing Stories About Your Memories

Even the one about Uncle Joe’s accident. You know, the one where he was hit by a drunk driver and spent two months in the hospital. You may have only been fourteen at the time, but he was your favorite uncle, and the accident had a profound impact on you, and how you view drinking alcohol. Didn’t it?

This fictitious example of Uncle Joe’s accident, along with the cancelled flight example, could be combined to highlight how you handled disappointment and tragedy at such a young age. This combined story, then, can foreshadow the story you wrote under the topic of health. The story of when your mother told you she’d been diagnosed with lung cancer – despite the fact she’d never smoked a day in her life, and neither had anyone else in the family.

Continue Digging Deep Into Your Memories—You May be Surprised!

As you write in your journal, write your short stories, and go through your list of topics, you may wonder how this tremendous mishmash of writings is ever going to tell a single, cohesive, story. At this point, don't worry about it. The important thing is to get started writing - in your memoir writers journal - and get your memories down on paper, whether in a book or electronically. Remember, there are no rules. But, if you seriously want to write your memoir then you have to start writing.

In my own journal I went through my list of topics several times over, and wrote on a different memory almost every time I approached the same topic. I didn't always write every day, and sometimes only jotted down ideas rather than complete sentences. But what surprised me the most was rediscovering thoughts and memories I had believed were gone forever.

At this point in my memoir writing journey, I am finally assembling all the short stories and poems I've written into a single storyline. And, I've discovered some of the pieces I've written belong in a second, or even third or fourth, memoir. In other words, after years of journaling, I have plenty of material to write several memoirs rather than just the one I had originally intended.

What do you think?

© 2017 Rafini

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