by Lyssa Tall Anolik
Welcome to VoiceCatcher’s newest 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.
Anyone can write memoir. Whether you’ve trekked the Himalayas or gorged on blackberries right off the brambles, you have stories to tell. This series will offer tools to help you discover those stories and tips to develop and shape them. But first, let’s talk about the genre.
What is memoir?
From the French, mémoire (memory) means to write about your life. However, it can take diverse forms: book-length narratives (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou); short narratives (River Teeth, David James Duncan); humor (A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson); essays (Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard); or even poetry (The Crooked Inheritance, Marge Piercy).*
What it’s not
Autobiography recounts most or all of a person’s life in a straight chronological telling. Celebrities write autobiographies; the rest of us write memoir. Memoir tackles shorter time periods (a six-month sojourn in Norway, a three-year battle with cancer, a one-minute transformative encounter with a weasel); or it examines a lengthier slice of life through a single theme (your life as told through food). Memoir uses literary devices like plot, character development or poetic language. It’s a process of inquiry, an opportunity to examine bits of your life and discover what they mean.
How to begin
You have millions of memories, so how do you choose? I like to start with freewriting, a stream-of-consciousness technique I learned over 25 years ago in 10th grade English class. It begins with a prompt – usually a phrase – that serves as a portal to get you time-traveling into memoir.
Here’s how it works
Write the prompt on the page. Continue writing for a timed period. Keep the pen moving – no crossing out or planning ahead. Just do a brain dump. If you get stuck, write the same word until the next one comes. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling or grammar. It can just be a jumbled list of words, but sometimes you’ll slide into story. There’s no right or wrong way – it doesn’t have to be “good.” Allow your subconscious to direct you and be open to what shows up. Be surprised.
Try this: Write “I remember …”** on a page and free-write for three minutes.
This is a good bread-and-butter prompt you can use daily to begin a memoir practice. You dip into your life at random points and see what emerges. Three minutes is a good starting time because it fits into a busy schedule. You can increase writing time when you’re ready. Like a handful of clay scooped from a river bank, freewrites form the raw material from which to find and shape stories,
Here are a few more memoir prompts:
A place I lived …
Ripe tomatoes …
October smells …
Get started with one or more of these freewrites and watch your stories begin to unfold. Next month, stay tuned for fun brainstorming tools and tips to address the inner critic.
* See Sue William Silverman’s essay, “The Meandering River,” in Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, for more details on the sub-genres of creative nonfiction.
** This prompt comes from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, a juicy resource packed with prompts and tips.
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.