Creating the Details

BY Cindy Maguire

Writing memoir seems deceptively easy. We all know our own stories. And each of us has a unique voice. But memoir is not autobiography. The goal is not to start at the beginning and write your story from birth to the present. By definition, memoir focuses on a particular event or period in your life, often one that involved change or transformation. But choosing what to write can be challenging. Free writing- letting your mind wander unfettered as you keep the pen moving across the page- is the best way to start.

Try writing about some “firsts” in your life- your first day at school, your first best friend, your first kiss, your first bicycle. Or about some of the places you have lived. Or about the foods you loved as a kid. Focus on your five senses as you write. Remember how scared you were as you tried to stay upright on the bike. Remember the gooey, warm comfort of that grilled cheese sandwich and the zing when you tasted a bit of the ketchup on the side. See all the details of that bedroom you shared with your sister and hear her voice as you whispered together after the lights were out. When you let your senses lead, your memories will be vivid and they may take you down an unfamiliar path. Follow that direction. The sights and sounds and colours are vital. This kind of writing practice is the backbone of memoir. But as the memories pour forth you may be left with piles of raw material, but no story.

The question you want to answer is, how have these details shaped my life? Why did I make certain choices and not others? During the writing of my story, “The Sweater”, which was a tale of first love, I began to see a pattern of behaviour that I had not fully recognized before. The loss I felt when my parents divorced and when the family business began to falter, scarred me deeply. In my desperate, needy state, I was blind to the kindess and love that came my way. I wanted so much more than any one person could give me. I wasn’t able to see the love all around me. As I wrote, I finally saw my first love in a true light. He was a kind, generous man and acknowledging that, brought closure for me.

Natalie Goldberg says that “we write memoir to free ourselves.” But that freedom will only come if you dig down deep into the layers beneath the surface. Ask yourself what the details you are recalling in your free writes, are really telling you. Look for patterns, for recurring images. Sometimes the story you thought you wanted to tell, is not the one that needs to be written. My latest story is about my female dog, Oreo. There are hundreds and hundreds of dog stories out there about the unparalleled love between a dog and her owner. I started writing my version of that story but soon realized that our relationship is more complicated and less sentimental than the norm. But I needed to write my truth.

Sometimes you need an outside opinion to help you see the real story that needs to be told. Our closeness to our material can blind us to the best direction for our writing. Sharing your story with a trusted friend can lead to great insight and give you the permission to take your story even farther. And don’t be dismayed if you end up discarding a lot of what you initially wrote. That writing played a part in getting you to your final destination; it was not wasted effort.

I want to talk a little more about the process of taking your raw material and fashioning it into story. I find this challenging. I am not a big fan of order, routine, structure. I get uneasy when the conversation turns to following a form. But you need to find a way to shape your thoughts and it needs to be unique to you. I look for an angle, a way into a story. Then I start to write, sifting through what I’ve collected as I go, rereading my free writes, going back to a favourite author. I find it helps to see the gathering of all the raw material, the sorting and the reflecting on ideas, as a process that holds as much enjoyment as free writes. I try to savour this writing, as much as I do the wild writing. There are discoveries to be made in this part of the process too. But I go back and forth; there is not a straight line from free write to finished product. I question myself. I push. I really want to get to the heart of what matters to me. I don’t always feel I have been successful, but I am learning to appreciate the journey.

Til next time, keep writing.