Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Research & Memoir Writing

October is going to be a busy month for the blogmaster and other regular contributors as we prepare for the 2016 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference on November 12. So we will take advantage of the blog archives and reprint several previous posts about writing memoirs and preserving family memories.

We start with the May 1, 2013 post by Sandra J. Nantais titled “Research & Memoir Writing.”


A common misconception about writing a memoir or life essay is that the writer must write expressly from memory.  If that were so, that would make for a fairly flat and boring snippet of life tale.

Example 1: Summer!  Yea! It’s summer!  It’s the late 60s and summer means shorter pants, bare feet, Kool-Aid and the dunes!  The weekend arrives, sandwiches are made, Kool-Aid is in the metal jug and, with towels over our shoulders, we run out the door to the silver car.   

Upon opening the car’s back door, we all turn and run to the porch yelling Eeeeeuuuuu!

Example 2:  Summer!  Yea! It’s summer in the late 1960s and this means plaid knee-knockers, bare feet, sandwiches and the dunes!  It means waking to the sun shining and Mom packing sandwiches into a brown paper grocery bag (peanut butter or bologna on Wonder Bread of course).  The cherry Kool-Aid was already in the red and white metal picnic jug waiting for two trays of ice to be dumped in before having the lid screwed on.

Us kids would bound out of the house with a towel over our shoulder towards the shiny silver 1966 Dodge Coronet 440.  Whoever was quickest would open the back door, only to release the strong smell of spoiled milk.  Eeeeeuuuuu!! We’d yell and run back to the house and gather on the steps pinching our noses closed.

By adding a few vivid and specific details from that era, the reader is there along with the writer, in that moment.

Other then the memory of the car being silver with four doors and a black interior, I have no idea of the make or model.  My eldest brother is twelve years older and a lifelong car buff, so I asked him about the silver car, which is how we all still refer to it.

Why not just write it that way?  Just describing the car as ‘the silver car’?  Because by adding the make, year and model of the car, I can create more emotion or familiarity within a reader.

The same is true with the drink cooler.

I vividly remember the drink cooler and that it was metal.  Yet, I still researched vintage 1960 water coolers to keep with the time frame introduced.  If by the 1960’s the metal were replaced with plastic I would have left that detail out.

Is this wrong?  Does it make the memoir fiction?  Does it change a memoir from being my memory?  Not at all.   It is just facts about objects that were present.

With memoir writing the author is endeavoring to restore a memory as truthfully as possible.  Memories are deficient, and checking minor facts for accuracy shows that the author cares.  Verifying with someone what color something actually was or which beach you were at doesn’t change what you felt.

So go ahead and ask a sibling or research details.  It will only help immerse the reader into the moment right alongside of you as if they had experienced the same sadness or joy or laughter with you.

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