BlogTalk: Memoir, Journal Writing, and Story 6

As I was in the process of developing my new workshop and soon-to-be course, Journaling for Memoir Writers, I spent time revisiting all the reasons for journaling that reach beyond the cathartic. Not that there’s anything wrong about writing for catharsis—it’s just that journaling often gets pigeonholed, as if it’s good only for emotional healing and self-help. I would argue that the reasons to journal are so many that journaling could be considered a foundation for all types of writing.

Hear me out.

One such reason for journaling is to hold onto memories through story.  When we write about something that happened in our lives, more than simply recording it, we are actively making sense of the event and bringing it into perspective with the overall arc of our life. We describe, explain, justify, and complain; we create a beginning, a middle, and an end. We develop themes and moral conclusions. The event becomes a story—whether we choose to share it with others or not.

These stories then become the lens or filter through which we view the world. They are the basis of all the memoir, fiction, and poetry we go on to write.

If you don’t journal, you still create stories about your life events—but only in your mind. There, they can get lost in the jumble of life stories; it’s like throwing memories in a filing cabinet without folders. When you write about them as they happen, you file those stories in logical places. You get to keep those stories in more vivid detail than the ones you didn’t write down. You can revisit them, revise and change them as your perspectives change, and you can share them in more details with others.

The same is true of stories we preserve by telling them (sometimes repeatedly) to others. Today, I came across a blog post and video by a young woman named Eve, titled How Storytelling Saved My Memories. Eve uses the art of live storytelling to reveal the kinds of events you and I might write about in our journals or memoirs.

One thing Eve wrote really stuck with me: “By actively molding my own memories for an audience, I found that I was creating small pieces of self-mythology; fairy tales, with insightful little morality nuggets.” As I read it, I thought, Yes, that’s exactly how I feel when I capture my life stories in my journal, and then later polish them into short memoir vignettes or scenes, personal essays, or my memoir in progress. By molding my memories for an audience—whether it’s for publication or for my family—I add to the story of who I am—my self-myth.

But what do I do with events in which I’ve played a less-than-stellar role, the times for which I feel embarrassment or shame? Do I journal (or not) about those events and hide them away, or do I use them to help learn how to be a better person? Is my self-myth honest and well-rounded, including all aspects of who I am, or do I try to present only my best side? And, if I’m determined to present myself truthfully, how do I get to those truths? My answer is to further explore the meanings of my behaviors and responses within my journal. They are part of my story.

Questions for thought: Do you write honestly about your role(s) in your life events?  When you write your stories for an audience, how do you present yourself?

For the sake of conversation, I’m going to leave you with a version of Eve’s parting question: How have you turned embarrassing stories or shameful truths into helpful self-myths? And have you written them down?


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6 thoughts on “BlogTalk: Memoir, Journal Writing, and Story

  • Barbara Toboni

    Amber: Interesting subject. I like the idea that writing about oneself for an audience creates a self-myth. As far as how I write about an embarrassing or shameful memory, sometimes I use the letter as a form. It might be addressed to a person involved or to myself. In this way I am able to forgive myself and that’s important for me to move on.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Barbara, I love the idea of using the letter form as a way to write the truth about myself. I think writing about oneself—whether it’s for your journal or for an audience—helps create that self-myth or, put more simply, your story about yourself.

  • patsy ann taylor

    It’s hard to be brutally honest but if I use humor, I can tell more truth. Keeping memories, even the sadder ones, matters to me. So does my role in them. Looking back on some of my entries, I see how much I have grown as a person and a writer.

  • Penny

    I agree that if you only journal about certain details of your life, whether good or bad; you are leaving out the other side which is a sum of the whole. I also struggle with the fact that you are telling the story of your life which may include other family members for your perspective. I know that that is all you have, but it still is not the complete story. I still think it is important to journal to help you process these thoughts or actions.
    I would like to learn more about the process you take to plan a writer’s workshop. I would like to offer one in my area. I am new at this. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

  • Mary Gorden

    I have been journaling daily for over 20 years. I don’t use it therapeutically much. Sometimes I complain about something going on in my life and frequently record days of depression or exuberance. Mostly its to record what is going on and to some extent how I feel about it. The most interesting thing is the times I don’t say much about something that was important. Those always seem to be the times I remember without much prompting. And when I periodically review parts of my memoir I’m always pleased to discover things that I’d forgotten.

    My last memoir ended in the early years of journal writing so it was helpful in parts. One of the more interesting things was that my memories of my divorce contained a few good memories. What I wrote in my journal did not. The written record was an emotional rollercoaster ranging from total despair to glimmers of hope. So the next memoir will have more substance behind it as journaling will cover all of it. The journals have the power to make me a better memoirist but sometimes it’s the little repetitive things that appear most years (the daffodils are in bloom, weed wacking has started, the first tomato of the year..) that make it the most worthwhile.

    To answer the question you ask at the end of your post. I always record events from my point of view. And most of the time I come out looking just fine. Never thought of that as helpful self-myths but its a good description.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Mary, thank you for contributing to this conversation. I think journaling is always therapeutic; after all, who else do we have to complain to all the time and who won’t mind? About not saying much about what is important – I think we tend to do that because we assume the event or whatever is so huge that of course we’ll remember it. And we do, for the most part. However, I also think that if we can record some of the concrete details surrounding that time — things like the daffodils blooming, the smells, sights, sounds, and feelings — then we will have that not-always-memorable information at hand when we are writing. As you note, it’s the little things, the details, that can really make a difference to your memoir.