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.