From Journal to Memoir: Capturing Scene 4

One of the reasons we journal is to hold onto significant events in our lives. If you also use your journals as resources for memoir writing, you’ll want to go beyond recording the basic event and your reactions (John and I had a big fight tonight. I’m sick and tired of the way we are together) to describing the scene in which it occurs.

Think of yourself as the screenwriter of your own life, capturing in your journal the true drama and comedy of your life as it unfolds. When you eventually write that memoir or personal essay, your readers will want to be anchored in the where and when the action takes place. And, believe me, it’s much easier to describe and set a scene in writing when the details are still fresh in your mind, than it is later, when you are trying to recall everything from memory.

When you journal with memoir writing in mind, you don’t need to write everything out in narrative form, worry about syntax, grammar, spelling, or writing full sentences. You’re capturing the event for future development, so it’s fine to jot down your impressions in shorthand. Use any form you want: lists, short notes, drawings, and pictures glued into or attached to your journal entry.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you are journaling about your daughter’s wedding. Here are some things you’ll want to capture:

  • When was the event? You’ll want to make sure you record not just the date, but also the day of the week (Friday evening? Saturday afternoon?), and the season (a sultry summer wedding? a winter wedding?)
  • What was the weather like? For some events, this won’t matter. For others, especially outdoor events, describing the scene includes describing the weather: the sense of heat/cold (Was everyone perspiring in the hot sun as they waited for the bride to appear? Did a breeze knock over the flower display on the outdoor altar?), wind/breeze, cloudy/sunny, and so on.
  • What did the scene look like? Think about the size of the space (a room? a field? tight? expansive?), the furnishings, if any, the shapes of things, the colors of things and people. In your mind’s eye, do a 360 degree visual review of the event and write down everything you can remember.
  • Who was there? No scene is complete without a cast of characters. As you’re listing the cast, take a few moments to describe or list what they were wearing, physical features, moods, character-defining gestures or expressions — anything you may have noticed about them. Was Aunt Nancy’s wig askew? Grandma Corker carrying her cane? Do you have snapshots? If so paste one or two into your journal.
  • Bring in the other senses. At a wedding, the flowers’ scents may have been powerful, or the mingling of perfumes overwhelming. What about the food? And sounds . . . were birds chirping in the background? If the wedding was held near the ocean, did the pounding of the surf make it difficult to hear? In the city, did sirens interrupt the wedding sermon?

Once the scene is recorded, the action can begin. As you list actions, continue to think about the scene. Does it change in any way? (Clouds covered the sun, just as the wedding vows were spoken.) Make notes of these changes as you are writing.

At first, setting the scene as you journal will take extra time. But as you get used to integrating this practice into your daily journal writing, it will become automatic. And when you eventually sit down to write that memoir, you’ll have a rich source of information waiting for your creative touch.


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