Memoir writers are architects of their life stories. Writing a memoir is like embarking on a journey through time as you traverse the landscapes of your past, unlocking forgotten moments and reliving cherished memories on the page.
So you’re writing a memoir? Congratulations! But like me, do you sometimes struggle to:
• Retrieve your distant memories from the mists of time?
• Express authentic feelings to make your story come alive?
• Keep your inner critics from sabotaging your creativity?
Moving from Head to Heart
“If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.”
~ Marc Chagall
We may think we recall a scene clearly in our heads. But memories are ephemeral and fragmented by nature. Only our hearts hold the courage to shape our recollections and secrets into truths we have yet to discover. And while facts are important, feelings breathe a memoir to life. Especially in the early stages of creativity, we are more likely to access the essence of our emotions through right-brain intuition than left-brain logic.
I had ample opportunity to grapple with this shift from head to heart while writing my first memoir, Newcomers in an Ancient Land. I desperately wanted to recapture the youthful rapture I’d felt on arriving in Israel at age eighteen, but the fifty-year gap between that experience and its writing felt daunting. Who was that long-ago girl? Even if I could I hear her voice, would she want to speak to her older self? That’s when the idea of a vision quest in an imaginary plane popped into my head – oops, heart. A trip in a Time Machine seemed faster and more fun than a deep archeological dig into my dim past.
Piloting Your Time Machine in Seven Easy Steps
Curious? Then follow the seven steps below and enjoy the journey!
- Safety first: Though memory travel is only imaginary, winging through mental time zones can be a bit dizzying, so it’s important to get grounded in the present. Before take-off, empty your mind, close your eyes, relax your body, and take a few minutes to meditate.
- When you’re ready, imagine yourself fastening your seatbelt and checking the controls. This is solo flight so, no, your Inner Editor and Judge aren’t on board.
- Next imagine yourself in the time and place you want to revisit. A specific memory is usually easier than a sizeable chunk, but that’s up to you.
- Whoosh – suddenly you’re airborne! Now visualize the scene you want to write about until the landscape of memory rushes up to meet you as you gently touch down.
- Exiting the aircraft, allow all the sensory details of sight, sound, and smell to envelop you as first experienced them. What landmarks do you recognize? What are you wearing? Are you sweating or shivering? Who else might be there to greet you? Are your feelings excited, joyful, blamed, or ashamed? Whether “good” or “bad,” allow these emotions to fully envelop you but not overwhelm you. Remember, feelings are like turbulence, but as a skilled memory pilot, you’re in control. With a few deep breaths, they’ll likely subside. You made it this far without crashing; you’ll make it home just fine.
- Once you’ve absorbed all the sensations you need (or can handle), run back to your imaginary plane, grab your notepad or laptop, and scribble down as many notes as you can before flying home to the present.
- Back at your desk, you may also want to thank your younger self for showing up. Now that you’ve come as close as possible to the heart of your memory, does your writing feel ready to flow? I hope so. But if you’re still skeptical, here’s an excerpt from the scene I mentioned I was struggling to write.
After my first flight back in time, it virtually wrote itself.
When a girlish figure with bright red curls materializes on the tarmac, I recognize her as my adventurous, adolescent spirit. The undaunted girl who first led me to Israel and later France, ( fueled (or fooled?) by a mix of idealism, bravado, and naiveté. As I step onto the rocky soil, a blast of hot air hits me and I squint into the sun that blazes over the hills of Galilee. From a ramshackle shed nearby comes the sound of doves cooing.
Hungry for lunch, I follow a tantalizing scent to an outdoor stand where I find a curly-haired young vendor juggling sizzling balls of falafel high in the air, then deftly catching them in pockets of pita bread to the delight of a crowd. When it’s my turn, I stuff my order with roasted condiments, savoring their sounds in my newly acquired Hebrew as much as their spicy taste—pilpelim (peppers), chamutzim (pickles) and chatzilim (eggplant).
Suddenly, something pricks the soul of my foot through my sandal. Ouch! My whole body quivers. A scorpion? No, it’s only a pesky thorn. Once more, I’m struck body and soul by the beauty and danger of this place.
Did You Enjoy Your Journey?
Of course, your finished scene may turn out differently from your initial draft, but that’s okay. Just take care not to edit out the authenticity of your heart’s journey. Did you enjoy your travels? What memories did you retrieve? Stay in touch fellow memoir writers and let me know.
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For another version of the scene above, see The Mythic Journey of Memoir, originally published in The Magic of Memoir.