Memoir Writing: 7 Questions to Help you Get Past the Surface and Deepen Reflection 6

IN MY EXPERIENCE as an editor and writing teacher, people often begin writing their memoir in a linear, this-happened-and-then-this-happened way. Or they try to cover too much ground, explaining a lifetime’s worth of events or relationship dynamics all at once.

All of that is okay as a starting point for getting your memories down on paper — that is the first step, after all — but if you want to communicate the deeper, emotional truths of your life, you need to do two things: 

  1. Learn how to write scenes that immerse you and your readers in the events. Scenes contain the physical and sensory information and emotion as you experienced it at the time and are therefore more emotionally powerful than explanatory narrative.
  2. Include your thoughts and reflections about the events and people in your life as you understand them now. 

This second point is the focus of this article.

Just like most of an iceberg is hidden beneath the surface of the water, the important and profound truths in our stories (and in ourselves) are not obvious; we have to dive deep into our memories and emotions and experiences to reveal them.

In order to deepen your reflections and open yourself to inner truths and authenticity, I recommend keeping a journal (or a section of your journal) focused on and related to your memoir. Journaling throughout the memoir-writing process can help you better understand the reasons certain events had a greater impact on your life and the consequences of that impact. Reflective writing with an exploratory attitude can open up understanding to the stories you’ve been telling yourself all your life, allowing you to become more honest about your own responses and actions.

I know this can be difficult to do with topics that are painful to write about, but if you approach it gently and with the intention of learning, journaling with focus can give you clarity and a greater understanding of even the most benign and ordinary kinds of events and topics.

The secret to deepen reflection is to ask and answer questions that require you to get beneath the surface.

How? One way that I’ve found effective is to use the journalistic questions they taught you in elementary school — with a twist.

Ask questions that begin with:

  1. What? — What happened? What were the circumstances around the event or situation? What do I remember most? What do I remember least, but would like to find out? What would the other people who were present say about what happened? What do I think is the truth at the core of what happened? What do I know now that I didn’t know then? 
  2. When? — When did it happen (what time of day, in history, in my life)? When did I first remember it? When did I speak about it for the first time? When did my family acknowledge it? When did the subject first occur to me? When did I realize it was important to my growth or sense of who I am? 
  3. Where? — Where was I living? Where was I in my life or my career? Where do I feel this emotion in my body? Where was my mother/father/brother/sister? Where were the people that most cared for me? Where were my friends? Where were my enemies?  
  4. How? — How did the event happen? How did I respond? How did my father/mother look? How did I feel at the time? How do I feel about it now? How might I think about it differently? How might things have been different and would I want them to be? How did my response serve me at the time? How does my current response serve or not serve me? How did this event change or alter my life and the choices I have made? 
  5. Who? — Who was involved? Who was nearby? Who noticed? Who didn’t notice? Who did I talk to about it? Who should I have notified? Who cares most about this situation? Who cares least? Who would I have wanted to be there? Who was I then? Who am I now as a result of this event. 
  6. Why? — Why do I remember this? Why is this subject/event/situation important to me? Why do I want to write about it? Why do I think this story is important? Why did I react the way I did? Why did the other people involved do or react the way they did? 
  7. Then, for any question that feels like an opening to new understanding, repeat the question with the word “really” attached, as many times as it takes to get an answer that feels inspired. For example, let’s say that I’ve asked the question, “Why do I think this story is important?” And I’ve answered, “Because I believe that other women could learn from my experience.” I would then ask the questions, “Why do I really think this is important?” and answer with whatever first comes to mind. I would continue digging by asking the “Why do I really . . .” question until I hit gold — or bottom, whichever comes first.

These questions are merely examples of the kinds of questions you can ask using the journalistic method — but focusing on the deeper implications and meanings of an event helps you to uncover previously hidden effects, attitudes, thoughts, and feelings that can not only enhance your personal understanding but add power to your memoir story as well.

Do you keep a writing journal now? If so, how it has benefitted your writing? If you don’t currently use journaling to enhance your memoir-writing practice, start today. You’ll be glad you did.


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6 thoughts on “Memoir Writing: 7 Questions to Help you Get Past the Surface and Deepen Reflection

  • Stacy E Holden

    Your first point is well-stated. So often, I forget to write in scene. I have printed out that point, and that short passage will act as a book mark–something I will see with great regularity. Thanks, Amber

  • Sara Baker

    I found your advice helpful, Amber. Discovering the hidden and profound truths in my life experiences requires patience and going back from time to time and reviewing what I’ve journaled. Sometimes the truths reveal themselves slowly as I am ready. Your questions help that process. Thank you

  • Barbara toboni

    I do keep a journal and occasionally write short vignettes about my life. This will help me finish what I have already started. Thanks Amber!