Rita Watson MPH

With Love and Gratitude

Give Yourself a Memoir Gift: 18 Thoughts to Help

Holidays are good times to collect and treasure memories.

Posted Dec 19, 2017

Lily, Charlestown Frenchie, Copyright Rita Watson 2017
Source: Lily, Charlestown Frenchie, Copyright Rita Watson 2017

Memoir writing is like piecing together a variety of squares for a carpet or the crocheted quilts that my grandmother often put together. She would make little squares of color, frame them in black yarn, and then piece them together. These became beautiful afghans for all of her children -- one colorful square at a time.  Whenever anyone asks me, “How do you write a memoir?” my answer is always the same – one memory at a time.

Just this one photo of Lily, my children's French bulldog, is a reminder of my own mother's Boston terrier, Mimi, and my dad's Peggy, the Boston terrier he had while growing up. Three stories inspired by one photo.

Memoir writing has become more than just a recording of events.  Dr. James W. Pennebaker, says it helps us to view our life story with objectivity.  He is the Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. The third edition of his book, with Joshua M. Smyth, Ph.D,  is Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain

Not all memories are happy ones.  While memory writing can be therapeutic, it can also be painful. Jungian analyst John A. Sanford, in his book Healing and Wholeness, wrote, "Our life must have a story in order for us to be whole.  And this means we must come up against something, otherwise a story cannot take place."

We so often hear, "Everyone has a story to tell."  However, even more often someone will say, “I wish I knew how to write, because I want to remember this story.”  Over 15 years ago Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson at the University of Minnesota pointed out the emergence of the memoir as a distinct field of study.  In 2010 they published Reading Autobiography: A Guide to Interpreting Life's Narratives.

Keep in mind, however, that memoirs do not need to be rigidly researched. Write yours in the genre of Creative Non-fiction.

A 40 minute memoir

If we think in terms of gratitude, instead of talent, anyone can write a mini-memoir in 40 minutes that can create a bridge between the past and the present. In my “Memories to Treasure” class for octogenarians, I selected a picture and they would write whatever came to mind.  We would talk for about 15 minutes as they recalled events. Then each person created a handwritten, one-page memory in about 40 minutes. Later we word-processed the little gems, added a unique picture, and framed their work.

Here is a very simple way to encourage you to write a cherished memory. In your search, when a smile comes to your face, linger for a moment in gratitude and hold those thoughts until you can begin writing.

For starters, here is a 6-step formula:

1.      Start by thinking about the photograph, image, or visit that conjured up a special memory.

2.      Write about the feelings that the memory elicits. Did a smile come to your face? Did you tingle with excitement?

3.      Describe the place. Was it in the country, the city, or out in the fields?

4.      Were there people in your image? What did they look like?  How were they dressed? Describe the expressions on their faces.

5.      Listen for their words, the way they spoke. Recreate the dialogue.

6.      Explain why you are grateful for the memory.

How can you expand the memory?

1.      Talk to family members, see what they remember of your family or of the incident about which you are writing.

2.      Try to discover family secrets.

3.      After talking to others, write a 300 word memory.

4.      Show it to other family members, if you wish. See if they agree or disagree.

5.      What if others disagree with your point of view?  Listen.  However, keep in mind that no two people remember a story in the same way. Write your memory just as you remember it.

6.      After talking with family, you may wish to start another story.

7.      When you are pleased with what you have written, craft an outline to help you prioritize which stories you might wish to write.

8.      Decide on a time frame that was meaningful to you; for example, a year in your growing up life.  Summers, holidays, or seasons perhaps.

9.      Do you want all of the memoir to take place in your family home or neighborhood? If so, describe every detail that comes to mind.  Do some research if you wish to add specifics.

10.  Search for family recipes or old attic treasures.

11.  Begin collecting old family photos or photos from the era or neighborhood.

12.  Give your memoir collection a title and put the stories together. This is like taking the crocheted colored squares and sewing them together at the black framed edges.

Here is one of my family:memories.Grandma Was the Pizzagaina Queen.

Happy and sad memories

In thinking about your own story, begin by writing memories for which you are grateful, memories to treasure.  Perhaps in the process, even for those memories that were painful, you might find a way to come to come to terms with them.  Think of the people who helped you through those difficult times and you may find a moment of gratitude and a certain peace of mind.

Copyright 2017 Rita Watson


Reading Autobiography – A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives / U of Minnesota Press, 2001