Use Actions to Jump Start Memoir Writing

August 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Memoir Space

Formal Gardens (c) 2010 Bo Mackison

Action doesn’t have to be a large commitment. It doesn’t need a complicated plan or a large chunk of your time. Many things, including adding a bit of daily writing to your day, can be done in very small steps.

Carve fifteen minutes out of your morning to write a hundred words and in a month you will have accumulated 3,000 words. A few minutes of active writing will turn a few dozen sentences written every day into a wealth of memories and information.

Here are three writing actions that can be done in 15 minutes segments of time. If the prompts lead you nowhere you want to follow, then you have only invested a few minutes in them. Stop. Try a different prompt or technique. Not every prompt works for every writer. But if you strike a rich writing vein, you may want to continue writing longer than the planned time. Or you may want to put your writing aside for that day and continue the next day.

Either way, the words will add up quickly, and you will have stories, free flowing thoughts, ideas, glimpses of the past, snippets of descriptions — all inspiration to add to your memoir project.

Pick an Action and Start Writing Today

Action #1. Write for 15 minutes describing what you and your immediate family were doing when you heard about or experienced a newsworthy event. Pick one that affected a large number of people in the world. Perhaps you watched a global event like the tearing down of the Berlin Wall or when the man first walked on the moon on television.

Action #2. Contrast this prompt with the first action. Write about an event that affected only a small number of people on a personal level. Perhaps it was the birth of a long awaited baby in the family, a move to a new home, or the loss of a job. Or write about an event that happened in your hometown or the death of a well known person that affected you and yours deeply.

Action #3. Another technique for zeroing in on a specific event, and then expanding on its effect on you, is to do short interviews – only one to three questions in length – with several people who experienced the same event. Asking people of different ages and who are at different stages in life can highlight the similarities and differences that an event had not only you, but on other people in your life. It adds meaning and depth when viewed from different perspectives.

Putting Action #3 in Action

I choose a rather difficult topic when I decided to do Action # 3.  I asked family members questions about 9/11, the World Trade Center tragedy in New York City that occurred nearly a decade ago.

I asked my husband, two of my kids, and my mother questions about that unforgettable day. I purposely chose family members from three generations.

(In 2001, when the event happened, the participants in my interviews were a 76 year old woman living in a small town in the Midwest, a 46 year old businessman who was at work in a downtown Chicago skyscraper on that fateful day, a 20 year old college junior studying at the University of Michigan, and a 13 year old living at home and attending middle school.)

I asked two questions.

First, a personal question: “What were you doing when you first heard about about the 9/11 tragedy?”

Second, a perspective question: “How did you think this event would affect you, your family, and/or your country?”

Here are a few excerpts from the interviews:

“…didn’t even know about it til the evening news. I’d been in the garden…never in my life we ever had the enemy on American soil…I thought maybe soldiers would be a coming, maybe we’d have war right here…”

“…was working on the 45th floor of the Sears Tower, one of Chicago’s skyscrapers…we had to evacuate. Walk down the stairs and not take anything except our briefcases with us. The streets were jammed with stalled traffic and people crowding the sidewalks. When I reached the train station, I was told the trains were no longer running…I was in a park and drive 40 miles from the station…I was 150 miles away from my home and family…desperate to get home. I figured we would be okay once we were all together…”

“While getting ready for a class, I saw a bunch of kids crowded around a TV in the lounge. I stopped to see what they were looking at. I was watching the TV and I saw the second plane…I couldn’t even think what it could mean. I was in shock. We were all in shock…”

“I was in eighth grade. The teachers kept whispering in the hallways all day long, and kept saying “don’t worry.” Except we didn’t know what we weren’t supposed to worry about, so we worried more than if they had just told us…parents started coming and taking their kids out of school… during my last class of the day, my history teacher brought a TV into class and we discussed what had happened… I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand what it meant.”

When the experiences of others are added to my interpretation of the day’s events, it presents a vivid picture of that time in history from different perspectives. It adds depth to the story and helps ground the events in real time.

Try one or more of the actions. Get inspired. Set your timer. Start writing.

Stay in action.

Photo Credit: Formal Gardens (c) 2010 Bo Mackison


5 Responses to “Use Actions to Jump Start Memoir Writing”
  1. Marcie says:

    Such a clever and creative way to record and remember an event. It would be a really wonderful exercise to try out with my family. Amazing – how one (your mother?) was so totally unaware..whereas your kids were on heightened alert only because they sensed something..but didn’t know what.
    Great idea!!!

  2. Bo Mackison says:

    Thanks, MArcie. It’s a great exercise to try in all kinds of groups of people. I love ask how a small group remembers an event where they were all present — My, how we all have a different version of the same happening.

  3. This is an amazing way to connect, Bo! For anyone older than 5 or so, that day (9/11) is etched on our memories, like a carving in stone. Your stories certainly took me back! I’m going to write out my memory for my youngest, because he plays a huge part in it (and was only 3, so too young to realise what was going on)! thank you for that!