I’ve read countless journal entries about what my students did over summer or Christmas vacation. They enjoyed journal assignments where they could share stories about themselves. Yet, most of the entries were more of a list of what they did and did not do. When given the language, structure, and strategy, students can puzzle past memories into compelling stories that others will enjoy reading.
Writing a memoir piece is different from journaling because it forms a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end, just like a short story. Like fiction writers, memoir writing tells stories in interesting and lyrical ways by employing dialogue and literary devices like metaphor, alliteration, imagery, and symbol. In order to get to a strong personal narrative or memoir piece, students need to know how to approach their memories like a fiction writer would.
Where to Start:
Deciding what memories will make good stories requires students think about past experiences that were significant to them. These memories will often have a strong emotion attached to them and have changed them in some way. Guide students to superlative memories like the most embarrassing experience, a family trip gone bad, or a time they felt celebrated. They can choose from the best or worst experiences they’ve had so far or the first or last time they did something they will never forget. These kinds memories are fertile ground for good stories.
5 Strategies to Shape Memories into Story
1. Make Sure Something Happens
Begin in the midst of an action, reaction, or dialogue between two or more people. The beginning should be a moment when something is happening. If the writer begins with action, it automatically avoids having to remind them “to show not tell.” Beginning with a scene of action will naturally lead into the next moment or action. Exposition should be used to lead the reader to the next event in the story.
2. Ground in Setting
Grounding readers in the time and place of the memory will help give the story a landscape and backdrop for the actions that will take place center stage. Setting does not only include the time and physical space the story took place but also the culture, historical period, geography, climate, and hour. Setting is an important feature of any good story and can let the reader settle in to the environment and mood of the story.
3. Make it Sensory
When recalling a memory, using the five senses in describing it will help writers tap deeper into their recollections. Memoirist Mary Karr says, “A single image can split open the hard seed of the past.” Using imagery can stretch out a memory for the writer and the reader and give the actions and events more life and context to the here and now. Students should work to not only include what something looks like, but also work to remember what something felt, tasted or sounded like when including the details. Using all five senses are not required for a good story, but two is better than one and employing three of the five in a story can be an aspirational goal.
4. Make it Speak
Using remembered dialogue can put the reader into the experience or action of the memory. Hearing what was said either through the writer’s inner thoughts at the time or spoken aloud between two or more people can immerse the reader in the past with the writer. Dialogue or monologue should be sparse, and it should not make up all the action happening in the story.
5. Add Reflection
A key feature of memoir writing is including present thoughts or feelings about the events that happened in the past. When the writer adds thoughts and feelings, it gives the events context and shares a new perspective, lesson learned or how the writer feels now about a past event. In memoir writing, the reader expects to read how the writer has changed or been impacted by the experienced shared. This makes the story relatable and creates a connection with the reader.
Yolande Clark-Jackson is a Miami-based freelance writer and educator with over twenty-years experience teaching writing to middle grade students. She currently hosts creative writing workshops for adults and teaches college writing as an adjunct professor.