Mini Memoir Moment #1: The Story-Generating Power of Lists
I know. Alliteration is for soup-selling jingles, not titles for writing lessons, of all things! But alliteration comes naturally to me. And that is what these short lessons are about—just getting started naturally. Many of us have a head full of memories we’d like to give form to, but either we don’t know how to get going, or we when we do, we write in such a dry, detached way that we bore ourselves, to say nothing of our intended readers.
So for my corona-canceled OLLI at Furman participants (and anyone else who’d like to come along), in lieu of the spring class on memoir/creative nonfiction, every Friday for the next month or so I’ll give some tips, examples, and exercises to get you started writing your true stories. I will also include links to resources that will help you develop, expand, and improve your writing. But for here and now our goal is simply to get started.
Punch lists, shopping lists, to-do lists—they keep us organized and help us note progress as we complete each item. However, we can also utilize lists to activate our memory-making muscles, generate ideas, and enrich our stories. Let’s look at a few exercises and examples.
1. Use lists to stir up memories. As one thing leads to another, so does one memory often evoke another—especially when you write them down as they surface without having to worry about form, structure, and grammar. Use the following ideas to list the first memories that come to mind. Later, if one memory captures your attention, go back and fill in more specific details. Maybe you can develop this into an anecdote or illustration for your bigger story.
a. First, Last, Best, Worst—These moments often have a big impact on us. Title four columns or sections on your paper with each of these headings and then use the following topics to generate memories under each heading. You can, of course, add your own topics.
Kiss, Car, Job, Date, Meal, Day of school, Dance, Vacation, Family gathering, Pet . . . etc.
b. A time when . . . Again, jot down the first memory that comes to mind; later you can go back and explore the event in greater detail. Here are a few ideas for times when something happened that had an emotional impact on you:
Opportunity knocked, You overcame an obstacle, You were lost, You experienced wonder, You became aware of the spiritual realm, You were rescued, You had to forgive someone, You were embarrassed, A bad situation turned out well, Someone made you feel proud, You had to make a big decision, You were scared . . . etc.
Here’s an example of how a list was incorporated into a bigger story:
A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout’s memoir about surviving 460 days in captivity, opens with scenes from her life as a child. For someone whose story is ultimately about having the courage to transcend and survive, she begins by recounting things she was afraid of as a child:
I was a frightened kid, almost all the time. I was scared of the dark and I was scared of strangers and I was scared of breaking bones and also of going to doctors. I was scared of the police, who sometimes came to our house . . . . I was afraid of heights. I was afraid of making decisions. I didn’t like dogs. I was supremely afraid of being laughed at.
2. Use lists to inform or explain. We are an information-consuming people and are drawn to articles and books that can deliver what we want to know in 3, 5,7, 10, or 21 easy steps. Numbering points makes them easier to remember—the pastor’s 3-point sermon—and breaks information into tidy, doable units. Usually we remember (for reasons not gone into here) odd numbered lists better. But then, some of us remember there are 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. Just slip out the back . . .
List 7 things
I wish I told my husband/wife/children
I learned by the seat of my pants
My mother told me
I’d like to pass on
I wish I’d never done
I wish I had done….etc.
So go ahead and play with these ideas. Expand them and make them your own. If you’d like to share some comments here, please do. If you’d like to share some writing here, I’d love to see it, but please keep it brief. Play nice. Play clean. And play short, aware of other people’s space. No more than 5 items per list. And no anecdotal memories over 100 words.
Hope to see you next week.