by Lyssa Tall Anolik
How do we pin down what’s “true”? This is one of the biggest questions facing memoir writers. I’ll explore this tricky topic this month, as well as offer brainstorming ideas for new stories and tips to tame the inner critic.
Truth is a big fish
Have you ever related a story from your childhood to a family member, perhaps as you sat around the Thanksgiving table, only to have them exclaim, “That’s not how it happened!” Whose version is “true”? The answer is both and neither: both, because each person experiences an event from their own point of view; neither, because memories shift. Each time we remember an event, the new instance of that memory overwrites the previous version. This is how the classic “big fish” story grows in size and drama with each re-telling, and why the teller believes each new version is the truth.
Does this mean trying to write a memoir is hopeless? No, because memory is more than facts – it mostly deals with emotion. How did a particular place or event make you feel? If you’re writing memoir, chronicle the events of your life as you remember them, but don’t worry if the chair in the room was red or yellow. Were you angry or happy in that room? If you were angry, make the chair red. If happy, make it yellow. Don’t invent or change significant plot events for the sake of drama – unless you’re going to call it fiction – but it is ok to use imagination to fill in some of the minor details missing from your memory. Bottom line: Stay faithful to the emotional truth you are telling. You know what is “true” for you. Trust that.
Last month, I suggested a few writing prompts to get you started. This month, I invite you to try the following brainstorming exercise to create your own prompts. Below is a list of topics:
Foods/meals you’ve eaten
Memories of your mother, father, siblings, or other relatives
Places you’ve lived and/or visited
Household family objects
Favorite books or songs
Memories of animals
Spend a minute or two listing memories for each topic. They can be a single word or short phrase. Don’t over-think; write the first things that pop into your head. When you’re done, read through your lists and star the items you’d like to explore further. Pick one and use it as a freewriting prompt. (See my October column for how to freewrite.) Write for 5-10 minutes. Repeat with as many prompts from your list as you like.
Quiet the inner critic
As you write, are you plagued with an inner dialogue that says, “My writing isn’t good enough,” “My stories aren’t important”? If you are, you’re not alone. The inner critic is prevalent among writers, but memoir has extra vulnerabilities: We’re marching our unmasked selves around on display. Terrifying! Here’s how I deal with those devilish voices:
Write down what your inner critic is saying.
Now write a list of rebuttals and affirmations.
Tear up the first list and throw it away. Better yet, burn it!
Keep your affirmations nearby as you freewrite in case that critic creeps back in.
I hope you gather an abundant harvest of stories this November. Next month, in honor of the solstice dark, we’ll explore how to delve into your deeper truths with archetypes and symbols.
Welcome to VoiceCatcher’s second in a series by writing coach and teacher, Lyssa Tall Anolik. If you ever wanted to write a memoir, here’s the perfect place to start. Check in every month for Lyssa’s practical tips on telling your story.
Lyssa Tall Anolik received her MFA in Writing (Creative Nonfiction) from Vermont College. She coaches writers and teaches memoir in Portland. Her personal essays and poetry have appeared in Drash: Northwest Mosaic, The Wild, VoiceCatcher3 and 4, EarthSpeak and other journals. Lyssa is a founding member of The Writers Next Door.