Our Tuesday Memoir Writing Class – that I teach at Oakland Manor – has just wrapped up our eight-week fall session. We have explored – at length – the remarkable richness of personal and public sources that offer promise to anyone writing a memoir of any type.
So I thought I would share a summary of our discussions. Memoir journal writings can come from a range of materials. Here are some common sources of personal and public information that can enrich your journal writings. Any combinationof these could provide enough richness to support your particular work, if you are trying to write a memoir. And we are lucky in that we have ready access to information than previous generations did not.
Talk with people who have a perspective to share and explore:
1. Memory – yours & others who shared events with you. Listen
& take notes.
2. Family Possessions – items passed down. Find the story behind
3. Journals – diaries & family writings, photographs, deeds, land
4. Family Bibles – hold birth & death notes and handwriting
records from the past.
5. Baby Books & Photo Albums — boxes of old photographs,
6. Boxes of old Letters and Papers – Estate Items – from your
family or others.
Public information specific to a particular time or event are easily obtained and are researchable from numerous public documents, Internet searches, libraries.
1. Documents — deeds, land records, marriage records,
birth & death certificates,
diplomas, dated items of any kind, such as: bills of
sale – for cars or other items.
2. Newspapers and Magazines of a particular time and place.
3. Old Movie clips – if only to “see” daily elements of a particular
4. Libraries & talk with experienced librarians – (They know
5. Interview family, old friends, neighbors, baby-sitters, church
6. Music – lots of things can be gleaned from listening to a period
piece of music.
At some point you will decide what to keep and what is excess to be jettisoned or used in another writing.
“As your vision for your writing project sharpens, as you write, rewrite and shape your material, you will find sources for specifics that will help your work resonate the literal and spiritual truth at its core.” from Tristine Rainer’s work.
Here are some useful sources to guide your writing:
Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature – by Tristine Rainer.
Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir – by Lisa Dale Norton.
Bang the Keys: Four Steps to a Lifelong Writing Practice – by Jill Dearman.
In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction – edited by Lee Gutkind.
The Best Creative Nonfiction – (vol. 1-3) – edited by Lee Gutkind.
In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction – edited by Judith Kitchen & Mary Paumier Jones.
Short Takes: Brief Encounters with Contemporary Nonfiction– edited by Judith Kitchen.
In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal – edited by Judith Kitchen & Mary Paumier Jones.
Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from the Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs – edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard.
Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction – by Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola.
Inventing the Truth: The Art & Craft of Memoir – edited by William Zinsser.
Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past – by William Zinsser.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing & Life – by Anne Lamott.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – by Stephen King.
Writing Down the Bones – by Natalie Goldberg.
Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life – by Natalie Goldberg.
Portrait of My Body – by Phillip Lopate. – (read “Confessions of a Shusher” and “The Story of My Father”)
The Writing Life – National Book Award Authors: Essays & Interviews (read Ron Chernow’s “Stubborn Facts & Fickle Realities: Research for Nonfiction).
Any Year of the Best American Essays – published yearly — with changing editors.
Readers can add notes to this blog to suggest additional titles.
Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2011 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers. Learn more at: