Storytelling, From Journal to Memoir

If you still don’t believe you have a story worth telling, or that your life is too insignificant to merit writing about, or you have a tough inner critic that shoots down your every thought, I challenge you to start by journaling privately. Loosen up your mind and shrug off the feelings of self-consciousness that come from wondering what folks will think of what you write. Be a little wild and just write. Wild? Yes. Tell your stories! All those inhibitions, fears of not being good enough, wondering what so- and-so would think if they read what you write, all those thoughts that cramp your expression will evaporate until you’re left with the distillation of your true thoughts. That can be a little heady, that can make your thoughts free… and yes perhaps a bit wild.

Journal privately and let the words flow. Access your wild side!

If you start with a journal you can write about all the things that happen in your life; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Tease out the feelings that are keeping you up at night. Often reducing nebulous feelings to words helps release their power over you. To paraphrase the title of  a good book on writing by Natalie Goldberg; write down to the bones. Strip down to your raw emotions, express your anger, fear, sorrow, joy, and hope. Rant if you need to. My rants can rage and bounce all over the page and leave me wondering where that came from! Write letters and then destroy them. Sometimes the simple act of writing will help you find out what you really think and help you sift through your life to the story you want to tell, while the chaff of insignificance blows away with the breeze. Thoughts in a jumble? Raw hurt or joy or wonder can be sorted out on paper until you unearth that story that will resonate with your children and grandchildren.

This same principle works with the interviewing process too. Find someone you trust to ask the questions that will loosen your tongue. Or interview someone close to you to find out the untold stories. The private stuff can be sorted out later as an interview is refined to uncover the gem of a story.

Some folks like to start out journaling, then lift material from that secret private place to a memoir that can be read by all. Do you already have journals that you would hate for your kids to find and read? Do you sometimes have an urge to burn them? Sift through them first and salvage the heady stuff, the froth of your life that can add color and illuminate your unique personality. Most likely your life is more interesting than you first thought as the stories all come together, and yes, perhaps, just perhaps, a bit wild! Wild is good. You can always tame your beast later when you uncover stories you can share.

Here’s a hypothetical transformation of feelings from an event to a private journal, then to a memoir with a wider audience:

Experience: You are betrayed by someone you love and trust. Your chest feels tight, your hands are clammy, and your gut roils as you experience the bludgeon weight of a betrayal.

Journal: I feel anger, hurt, sadness, distrust, jealousy and confusion. But the feelings are condensed into one heavy weight, stifling, crushing. Thoughts swirl. Am I loved, can I still love? What is love anyway? Can love exist without trust? I never would have believed it could happen. Today the unthinkable knocked me off kilter, shocked me to my core. _________ said this, revealed betrayal. I responded with _________.  I feel numb, crushed. You get the gist… so many of us have been there for all sorts of reasons. The journal entry sorts through feelings and explains what happened.

Changed to memoir:  This part is tricky and in a later blog I’ll write about how to figure out how much to share when there is the possibility of hurting someone with new knowledge, or heaping insult on injury by exacting your own mini-betrayal by sacrificing someone’s privacy. The beauty and power of a memoir is measured by the illumination of universal truths in experiences that folks can relate to or empathize with, stories that affirm and release our feelings that resonate with people. We discover our lives are not ordinary, but significant in ways we had never thought of!  A well told story can protect the privacy of those concerned while interpreting an event to reveal the common thread of shared humanity. Oh.. you wanted an example from an actual (or hypothetical!) memoir based on the above experience? Tune in later!

Interview the vets in your family!

How about honoring a veteran by interviewing them and writing the story of their life? My Great Uncle Wayne was in WWII and his ship was torpedoed and sank in the Pacific. I always knew that was part of our family history, but how I wish I had talked to him more about his experience. Many of his buddies were killed or drowned. He’s gone now, too late for me to hear his whole story. Appreciate the amazing sacrifices that were made for our freedom by talking to the veterans in your family.

I’ve mentioned George and his Blue Yonder book. I also interviewed a delightful man named Elmer who was a paratrooper in WWII. He started his intense training for that elite group in March of 1945. They tossed big paratrooper-3

logs back and forth for an hour at a time, and jumped out of planes in full gear. By that time the war in Europe was over. They completed combat training so they could be dropped into Japanese villages for battle. Elmer grinned when he remembered the saying, “We’re supposed to be surrounded, we’re paratroopers!” He was based in the Philippines getting ready to leave for Japan for the invasion when the United States dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in mid-August 1945 and Japan surrendered. Elmer said he felt a fleeting disappointment that he would not get a chance to utilize his training, but was as elated as the rest of the country that the United States had achieved victory.

ElmerBookElmer enjoyed telling his story and received his book as his familycelebrated his 90th birthday. Copies were passed all around and Elmer basked in the knowledge that his life stories would not be forgotten. (His last name has been edited from the book cover to preserve his privacy) What better way to honor a veteran? Don’t wait too long to interview the vets in your family.