Today, please welcome guest writer Lynette Benton, creative writing teacher and elegant memoirist. She reveals the special ingredients in compelling memoirs, although I think you’ll agree these pointers could apply to all creative writing.
As a memoirist who also teaches memoir and life-story writing, I’ve learned that remembering the past so we can record it might not be the greatest challenge. If we’re unsure of a date, we can dip into our diaries, as I do, or refer to old letters and recent emails. And in most instances, writing “late November,” or even “late that year,” is good enough anyway. We can contact a cousin if we’ve forgotten the name of Aunt Margaret’s first husband. We can check military records to be sure Dad really was honorably discharged after “that incident” Mom still mutters about 20 years later. But facts don’t make a memoir.
In memoirs, we are concerned not just with what happened, but with how what happened felt. Memoirs are fueled by emotion and sensory detail at least as much as by memory. It’s the emotions and physical sensations surrounding events that linger in our minds and our lives.
I don’t need a date book to remember the dark January afternoon that my colleagues and I leaned our backs against my office wall, the fluorescent lighting shining starkly on our faces, which were grim with helplessness. Our beloved 40-year-old boss, the mother of a small boy, was telling us that her husband had just been diagnosed with an inoperable, malignant tumor in his brain.
My 88-year-old student Rocky Mosca remembers the Allied Forces tossing candy bars to the starving prisoners after driving their tanks through the closed gates of the POW camp where Rocky was incarcerated. Another elderly student can recollect staring, unable to move, as his Greek sweetheart’s parents shouted that they didn’t want their daughter with him because he was Irish. He was 17 at the time. These stories engage readers because they are powered by the emotions and physical sensations that accompanied them.
Tell your readers how you felt. What joy, hope, sadness, or shock surrounded your personal victories or seeming defeats?
Appeal to your readers’ physical senses. Could you feel the hook and ladder’s shuddering vibrations the night the fire trucks came to douse a neighbor’s burning house? What were the distinctive odors escaping from the school cafeteria just before you got suspended? How did the carpet feel beneath you the day you almost passed out from dehydration at the gym?
Be specific. Telling readers that you climbed a hill and looked over the fields doesn’t give them a true sense of place or your frame of mind. What was underfoot, as you walked? Were you swatting at mosquitoes? Did your fear of what you would find render you nearly as breathless as the climb itself?
Share the “flavor” of the times you’re writing about. Did your family always sit down to pot roast and potatoes at Sunday dinner? Do you remember the smell of Vicks VapoRub your grandmother applied to your chest when you had a cold? Describe the cold and panic you felt when you were stuck in an evening snowstorm—before everyone had cell phones.
Avoid clichés. Readers want your experiences recounted in your own words, not in hackneyed phrases.
The emotional and sensual details of your past when you write are as important as the experiences themselves; those are the kinds of memories readers relate to.
Writing the Memoir, by Judith Barrington, Chapter 7: Using Your Senses