Let me tell you about spending the last three days with some very different people; the ages ranging from early twenties to … considerably further along the road.
And no, I wasn’t on jury duty.
The first day of my Telling Your Own Story: A Memoir Workshop was spent defining what a memoir is and what it isn’t. An autobiography is everything in your life so far; but a memoir is a carefully selected series of special events tied together by a common theme. We also, that first day, looked at various possible resources for building the database needed to undertake this project: old photos and letters, scrapbooks and yearbooks, journals, diaries, family trees and people with longer, or better, memories than yours. Then we spent the lion’s share of our day digging around in the toolkit of devices and manipulations available to every writer, the tricks of the trade and rabbits out of hats like sentence length variation, sensory description, suspense, irony, analogies, and on and on and on. It’s a big toolkit. And a writer’s unique narrative voice depends on how he or she uses some or all of them.
On day two we got specific, looking at how each participant might go about selecting the several episodes from their past they would include in their final draft and determining a common theme that would be the plumb line dropped down through each little story that ties them all together.
Day three, the best of all, saw all of us grouped around the table reading and marking up several pages of one episode by each participant. I encourage the participants in my workshops to see the memoir they envision as a metaphorical house, and each of their chosen episodes as a different room in the house that they open the window to so their readers can look in that room and live a piece of their lives with them.
Let me tell you, ten intriguing windows were thrown open for us on that third day as we critiqued each offering. Everything from a courageous battle with cancer to a frustrated teacher’s attempt to cure an attitudinal student’s constant smirking to a young boy being slowly lowered in a bucket down into a well to clean out a sump hole at the bottom to a young fellow’s trip to Europe in a small cabin on a freighter in the 1950’s.
Some of the ten participants in that workshop had known each other for decades, others for exactly three days. But at the end of it we all knew each other better, had widened our horizons a bit, and felt a very real, very special bond with a small group of fellow travelers on life’s pilgrimage.
Whether those ten folks decide to staple the pages of their efforts into a packet just for their children and grandchildren or take the bigger step and try to find a publisher so we call can enjoy them, I hope they’ll finish their memoirs. Because, believe me, those ten books will be gems.
I encourage you to consider writing your own memoir, getting a little help along the way in a workshop, mine or somebody else’s, or getting a copy of one of the several fine books about how to go about it, like several titles available from Writer’s Digest Press or, one of my favorites, The Art of the Memoir by Mary Kerr.
I totally agree with with whoever said “when your life story is told, make sure you’re holding the pen.”