AS ANYONE WHO HAS WRITTEN ABOUT MEMOIR KNOWS, memoirs are much more than memories put to paper. And they are more than journalistically written true stories. Memoirs are comprised of two important elements: scene (narrative) and reflection. Without reflection, you do not have a memoir — you have a vignette or series of vignettes that describes events, but does not imbue the events with meaning and relevance. Meaning and relevance come from reflection.
Thinking deeply about what happened — that is, reflecting — is done on more than one level. The first, and easiest level, is that provided by distance of time and experience; for example, I can tell the story of an event that occurred in my youth while providing reflection that comes naturally from a mature point of view. I can also ask myself questions about what occurred (the whys and wherefores) and write down the answers that occur to me.
A deeper form of reflection, however, is informed by research. And by “research,” I mean any form of inquiry that helps you increase your understanding of what happened. Research may include digging up old photos, reading newspapers and histories of the time you’re writing about, or studying memoirs by authors who have undergone similar challenges. If your memoir is about illness, abuse, or other social and psychological themes, research may mean reading studies or talking to professionals on the subject. It may involve traveling to the places where events occurred. In fact, going back to places in your past can be incredibly powerful, and provide the emotional, sensory, and concrete details necessary to give life to your scenes. Interviewing is another powerful form of research; what do others remember about that time and the people involved?A deeper form of reflection is informed by research Click To Tweet
And don’t forget the library. In this age of online information availability and satellite maps it’s easy to be lazy, restricting research to what can be found on the Internet. The library offers a rich resource of materials not to be found online, as well as staff to help you find what you’re looking for.
As you research, take copious notes, and allow yourself to digest the facts and history and conversations and opinions. Research, when done in this manner, will organically affect the nature and depth of your reflection. Of course, you will then need to decide how much history and facts you want to (or can) include in your work without interfering with the narrative.
Of course, research is important for fact checking your memories, giving your memoir a high level of credibility. Research is also important to help you understand and interpret the scenes you write while placing your story in the larger context of life. It helps you discover and uncover your universally important message.
- What is the memoir you are writing (or want to write) about? What are its major themes?
- Where and when is your memoir set?
- Describe what kind of research you’ve done so far.
- What do you see as the greatest challenge to researching your memoir?
- What kinds of research could you do to increase your knowledge of setting or theme?
How has research helped to inform your memoir or legacy writing? Please leave a comment.