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Exercise: Memoirs from memories

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Pam Hauck
Posted on: February 2, 2003

Memoirs from Memories

"This is the age of memoir. Never have personal narratives gushed so profusely from American soil as in the closing decade of the twentieth century. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone is telling it." ~William Zinsser ~

Memoirs are first person narratives composed from the memories of personal experiences.

Merriam-Webster Online defines memoir as:
   Pronunciation: 'mem-"wär, -"wor
   Function: noun
   Etymology: Middle French memoire, from memoire memory, from Latin memoria
   1 : an official note or report : MEMORANDUM
   2 a : a narrative composed from personal experience b : AUTOBIOGRAPHY --
   usually used in plural c : BIOGRAPHY
   3 a : an account of something noteworthy : REPORT b plural : the record of
   the proceedings of a learned society

The boundaries between memoir and autobiography are often blurred. Gore Vidal in his memoir "Palimpsest" writes, "A memoir is how one remembers one's own life while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked." Autobiographies usually start with birth and are a chronology of key events up to the present while memoirs are thematic in nature. Theme is the central underlying point to your story. It's the message behind the words. Memoirs also differ from the daily chronology of facts found in diaries, journals, and blogs. Well-crafted memoirs are stories shaped with a beginning, middle, and end.

Memoirists borrow techniques from fiction writers. Judith Barrington, author of "Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art" writes, "Although the roots of the memoir lie in the realm of personal essay, the modern literary memoir also has many of the characteristics of fiction. Moving both backward and forward in time, re-creating believable dialogue, switching back and forth between scene and summary, and controlling the pace and tension of the story, the memoirist keeps her reader engaged by being an adept storyteller. So, memoir is really a kind of hybrid form with elements of both fiction and essay, in which the author's voice, musing conversationally on a true story, is all important."

For further research, you can find the first chapter of books on writing memoirs at these URLS:

   "Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art" by Judith Barrington

   "You Can Write a Memoir" by Susan Carol Hauser

Another link on memoirs:

   Memoir Project by Mrs. Hoffman

Part of the challenge in composing memoirs is deciding which memories to write about. Look through your old photographs, letters, and journals for story ideas. Think about places you've lived and worked. When you get together and reminiscence with family and friends what stories do you tell?

EXERCISE: In 500 words or less, write a memoir in first person singular with a beginning, middle and end. Use believable dialogue and make us care about your characters. Tell your story using a distinct, personal voice. Set the scene using descriptive details and sensory imagery only you, the writer, could have noticed. Accept the challenge of writing about your real-life experiences. Be honest and don't make things up. Remember the differences between writing for yourself and writing for an audience. Please don't disclose information might later regret.

CRITIQUES: Let the writer know which elements seemed most real, and which seemed contrived or fictitious. Was the narrator's voice distinct and personal? Is the story interesting or memorable? Can you identify a theme? Remember to critique the work, and not the writer.

Pam Hauck's wrap-up
Posted on: February 10, 2003

Thanks to everyone who participated and helped make this week's exercise a success.

We've seen a broad variety of approaches to writing memoirs. Some stories were based on childhood memories while others were set later in life. Some were humorous while others were tragic and sad.

This exercise shows us we can use the many of the characteristics of fiction to write about our personal experiences. And hopefully, you've come to realize how easy it is to create a story from your memories.

Thanks to Rhéal and Pat for helping me develop this exercise and the opportunity to present it. I appreciate everyone's response and wish you all the best with your writing.

Pam Hauck

Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.