Why Write? Journaling for Memoir 11


When I want to write memoir, the first places I go for research (other than my memory) are my journals. They are my memory-keepers, containing more details of events and my responses to them than my feeble mind could ever hold. In addition to my perception of the facts (what happened), my journals contain descriptions of my emotions and sensory details, such as what the sun felt like on my skin on that particular day, in that particular garden, the smell of a particular flower or place, and the sounds that were a part of the scene.

When I’m very lucky, I can pull entire sentences or passages directly from my journal and add them to my memoir (for later editing of course). When I’m unlucky, it’s because I’m writing about a time when I either didn’t keep my journals faithfully or, in some errant passion of self-deprecation, threw them away.

Journal writing is not the same as writing a memoir. However, journal writing (yours or others’) can be a wonderful research tool. When you become aware of the value of your journals, you begin to write in them differently, recording more of your life.

How to use your journal for research:

Writing for the future — I wrote a list of Things You’ll Want to Include in your journal in a recent blog post over at WomensMemoirs.com, including a record of daily activities, thoughts and feelings about relationships and family events, local and national news (our lives are lived in the context of our social and political cultures), and internal influences (things that are changing the way you think or behave). Other ideas contributed by readers included TV shows, news about close friends, coincidences, and places they traveled. One person said that she created timelines of events for each month and year, categorized by areas of her life, such as “social,” “work,” and “spiritual,” so that she could track trends and progress. Similarly, I keep my journal on the computer and mark my entries with keywords.

If you review your past journal entries with an eye to writing about your life at that time, you’ll most likely wish that you’d included more information about some of the above items. And though it’s true that your time is limited and you can’t include everything in every entry, some of these things can be jotted in abbreviated form. Just enough to help you when mining your journal for stories later on in life.

Mining past entries — When using past journal entries as resources for memoir writing, look for the following kinds of information:

  • Information that informs scene: descriptions of your surroundings, the weather, who was there with you, action, and dialog, and evocative prose.
  • Information that informs reflection: how you felt about the events at the time, questions you may have had, hopes and fears expressed. What you knew then about what happened.
  • Information that informs context: surrounding journal entries (the before and after an event), political and social events, general emotional state.

If you have a response to this post or other ideas about journaling for memoir, I invite you to leave a comment and share your ideas with other readers.

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11 thoughts on “Why Write? Journaling for Memoir

  • Kimmie

    I have already gained quite a bit of inspiration from reading only a couple of your posts!
    I have been into journaling for many years now, but unfortunately, I haven’t kept everything I have written. I wish I would have. When I write in my journal, I do it in complete detail because I happen to be an extremely detailed person. I also do not worry about how my thoughts come out onto the screen, I just allow it to flow.
    I’m not familiar with writing with the intent of creating a memoir, but it does interest me. I really like the list you mention here about what information to look for, about engaging all of your senses to describe things. It makes me think of creative visualization.
    I am enjoying your blog immensely! 🙂

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Kimmie, I’m glad you’re enjoying my posts, and thanks for your comment. I went through a phase in my thirties where I was ashamed of things I’d written and threw away several years worth of journals. I am so sorry now that I did that! Those years were tumultuous and, now that I want to write about them, having those journals as a resource would be invaluable. Instead, I have to rely entirely on my feeble memory. Ah well…

      The point is that all the journals you have, in whatever form they are, are precious and great resources for the future, should you ever decide to write about your life — or want to pull stories out for family members.

      And when you write for today (all the emotions, responses, cathartic mind-dump) and for tomorrow (dates, names, descriptions) it’s even better 🙂

      Happy journaling!

  • Laurel

    Thanks for sharing these suggestions – they open up wider possibilities than just the scribbled pages of the past. I think I’d come to the same idea myself when I started to read through old diaries – that they were good for jogging my memory, but like Kimmie above, there were years at a stretch when I either threw them out because they were too painful to have around or else I didn’t write at all because I was doing other engaging things like further study. Now when I’m thinking of the “memoir” I could write I regret that I stopped writing and have gaps. But I’ve started combing through the “sent” box in my email address and see that there are some entries there which can remind me, even though not in the detail that I would have written in the diary. Something to thank Microsoft for, as the reams of letters from the days before email are forever gathering dust in a box somewhere or thrown out.