Virginia Woolf once said, “A memoir is not what happens, but the person to whom things happen.”
Whenever we return to a remembered place, catch a whiff of a childhood smell, feel nostalgic over a photograph the seeds of memoir are there. When we listen to stories and say, “That reminds me of when . . .” or “Once when I was little . . .” we are unlocking forgotten memories that resonate and fill us with stories. Memoir is not only about emblematic moments, it is also about the themes that run through our lives.
Memoir is a great place to start writing with students because it allows us to use our lives as a catalyst for writing and storytelling. Memoir is shaped by feelings and exploring a memory includes looking back at what happened AND also how it impacted you.
In Ralph Fletcher’s A Writer’s Notebook (2003) he writes, “Memories just may be the most important possession any writer has. As much as anything else, our memories shape what we write. Memories are like a fountain no writer can live without.”
Here are twelve writing prompts to help students get started writing:
Savor a remembered image
Collect favorite lines from memoir texts and then have students write off these lines or write similarly to the writer
Interview or research your family members
Write about a time in your life when you say, “I can’t believe that happened to me . . . ”
Write a double entry on the “you now” and the “you before”
Zoom in very close to a remembered scene from your life
I remember . . .
When I . . .
I always . . .
I used to . . .
Experiment with voice/perspective/structure
Use a memory box to help you write and let artifacts fuel your writing
Use a photograph to help you write and let the photograph fuel your writing
Make a family tree and let the branches become stories
Document your most sensory memories of home
Once students start writing and begin to revise their writing, here are twelve revision strategies for memoir:
Write 5 possible titles for your memoir
Write 3 different beginning paragraphs
Write 3 different endings
If you have sections or vignettes, take them out and make one long continuous flow
If you have one piece, divid into vignettes with individual titles
Choose a memoir except to mentor you
Take one section and write it in 3rd person
Take one section, write it from the other person’s point of view
Twist time around and backwards, inside and out, weaving all about. Give it a precise day, time, minute
Take one section, climb inside and write from the “inside out”
Look for words and phrases that could be more alive, more sensory based (the smell, taste, sensation of the memory)
Write about the person in your memoir as if s/he is a character. Who is she? What kind of person? What are her likes and dislikes? What does she want? What stops her from getting it?