Try This Technique
By Annette Rey
For the third time in less than a year, a person close to me has died. This has left me feeling fate knocking at my door. For protection from these outer influences I crawl into my writer’s hole and find memoir to be the perfect subject to contemplate.
Take a peek…
As humans, we fare better if we can understand ourselves. With that information we can solve personal dilemmas and gather insight into how others may think, too. As writers, we can then create in the lives of our characters some of our experiences and contradictions and foibles. But, life is lived in a bit of a jumble. It takes days, years, to complete certain cycles in our lives. Only in retrospect do many things make any sense at all.
It doesn’t even matter if your memories are accurate. Those thoughts belong to you. They are your possessions to do with as you choose. When creative writing, you can embellish or downplay any aspect you wish. The well you draw upon is entirely made up of your interpretations.
So to make the beginning of your project simple and easy, start with a columnar list. Title one column Facts, another Person Involved, another Place/Location, another My Feelings/Emotions, another My Actions, another Other’s Actions, another Conclusion. Limit one incident per page, saving the bottom of the page for your comments and elaborations.
Already you should be able to see where this is going and how these simple columns help you separate obvious factors out of a complicated incident.
The first key is – isolate the incident into its critical minutes. You can’t take a whole day, a whole chunk of your life, and see it clearly.
Let’s say you were an abused child or wife or even parent or grandparent. Remember an incident that you want to clarify for your own self, and perhaps want to write about. Start with the Facts. Like: I was beaten. Under the next column Person Involved you write: my mother. In the next column Place/Location you write: on the cold, kitchen floor. In the next column My Feelings/Emotions you write: I was terrified and hurting. Under the next column My Actions you write: I rolled onto my side trying to avoid blows to my soft stomach, I cried, I crawled across the floor, trying to escape. Under Other’s Actions you write: She followed me, striking me with a broom handle until she tired, yelling, “You are worthless. I hate you!” Under Conclusion you write: I was abandoned on the floor, cold, sobbing, in pain.
Putting an incident down in black and white and stating each factor in a detached sort of way should change your point of view to observer instead of participant, granting you more insight.
What I sketched out here is very basic. You can enlarge upon this, add other columns that have meaning to you. But stick with the facts. As I said before, you can embellish all you want when you are applying actions and motives to your characters. But for your own recollection of a life experience, be as coldly honest as you can in the detailing of an event. Either way you end up using this material, whether for a true memoir or for adapting the experience to your story, this method should bring more reality to your writing. Your readers will recognize this.
Do this exercise and plug into the columns a beautiful memory you have – the meeting of a future love of your life, the actions of a person you came to admire and later emulate, your first wildlife experience, enjoying a particular moment at a family Thanksgiving gathering.
These recorded thoughts are the skeleton, the bones, of writing larger projects. Make a lot of them quickly, one incident per page. Then go back and thoughtfully record your comments and elaborations in the bottom section.
This is just one technique to organize your memories, a technique that helps the mind cut out all the emotional noise and begin to see an incident in its fragments. From there you can put flesh on the bones using your own writing style.
This exercise gives you a place to start. It’s just another tool to beat that very scary blank page and defeat writer’s block.