From Memories to Memoirs, Part 8 — Balancing Story and Reflection 16

What could be simpler to understand than the act of people writing about what they know best, their own lives? But this apparently simple act is anything but simple, for the writer becomes, in the act of writing, both the observing subject and the object of investigation, remembrance, and contemplation.

Sidonie Smith and Julia WatsonReading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives

If you’ve been following this 10-part journey from transforming memories into memoirs, you’ll have traveled from defining memoir and truth in memoir to triggering memories and learning how to write about them in ways that will move your readers. So far we’ve focused on the telling of events through scene, and you may have written a number of scenes using the tips and techniques recommended in this series. If we were writing fiction, scenes would be enough.

A novel moves from scene to scene, action to action (even if that action happens only in the mind of one of the characters). But a memoir contains another element — reflection — the writer’s observations, beliefs, meditations, and musings about what happened. In memoir, you paint your understanding of events.

As the quote at the beginning of this article implies, memoir, for the writer, is really a journey of investigation, an attempt to make meaning of and reconcile with life events and their purposes in her life. That process of investigation — the journey of the writing itself — must be transparent to your readers. After all, they too want to understand.

In memoir reflection can appear in many places and forms: sometimes it occurs in snippets in the voice of the narrator in time (the younger self in the middle of the experience); sometimes it takes up paragraphs as the narrator discusses his current understanding of what happened; and sometimes it is presented within scene, within dialogue and gestures, though this is less common than the first two.

For example, in my memoir, Not the Mother I Remember, I reflect both on my own experiences and my mother’s as revealed in her journals and letters. For example, in the chapter, “A Man’s World,” I write:

Everywhere we went my mother was the only woman traveling alone with children and without the protection of a man. I knew we stood out for this reason, but I was too young to understand my mother’s fears, how difficult it was to navigate the language barrier in each new country, or how concerned about money she was.

This passage highlights how my perceptions of events as an adult can reveal aspects of an experience I was unaware of as a child.

Here’s another example from Maya Angelou’s Even the Stars Look Lonesome. In this excerpt, she writes of moving to North Carolina after her divorce and buying a house in which to live. She reflects upon the healing that occurs in the shift from living in a house to living in a home.

This is no longer my house, it is my home. And because it is my home, I have not only found myself healed of the pain of a broken love affair, but discovered that when something I have written does not turn out as I had hoped, I am not hurt so badly.


  1. Take out one of the memoir scenes you have written.
  2. In your journal, answer the following questions, as well as any new ones that arise while you are journaling.
    1. How did this event change me and influence who I have become?
    2. How has my understanding of this event changed between when it happened and now?
    3. Why did it happen?
    4. What lessons did I learn, if any, from what happened?
    5. If I could go back in time, what would I do differently?
  3. Incorporate some of your reflection into what you have written. You can incorporate it into the scene directly, using sentence starters such as “Looking back …” or “If I had known …”  Or you can write a separate paragraph including your thoughts about the event.
  4. Only incorporate reflection that illuminates meaning not already evident in the scene.
  5. Keep your reflections short and to the point. Too much reflection can feel like a lecture and bore your readers.
    Join the conversation.

Finally, please leave a comment sharing your challenges and discoveries about including reflection in your writing.


Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc


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16 thoughts on “From Memories to Memoirs, Part 8 — Balancing Story and Reflection

  • Heather Marsten

    It is harder to put reflection into your memoir if it is written in first person. I’ve managed to find some ways to add some reflection.

    As a young child, there was no way in first person to do that, so I’m trying to answer readers’ questions about my parents’ history. I had my mom talk about her childhood and about some of the things that happened to my brother and sister (already out of the house by the time I was seven). I also had my father give a testimony in church that detailed some of his past.

    As a teen – I began seeing guidance counselors and writing a journal – that allowed some inner thoughts (hopefully age appropriate and within the awareness I had at the time).

    As a young adult, I’m in therapy and the therapist is pointing out things that I needed to reflect on. My current scene is after my marriage/handfasting to my husband and my therapist meets him. In the following session he points out that my husband is the spitting image of my abusive father – but with the opposite personality. That was an eye-opener to me at the time. Since I’m, at this point in my memoir, into the new age and occult I also use prayers to the Goddess and Tarot readings to point out things.

    As I continue to revise my memoir, the therapists I see will point out more information until I get the whole picture.

    Hope this helps other first person authors.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Heather, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Reflection usually — not always — is from the POV of the narrator looking back at the past. For this reason, first person is usually appropriate.

      I gather from your comment, however, that what you want to do is give your readers an understanding of what happened but not in the voice of the current day narrator. In other words, you want to communicate that reflection within the context of the scene. Is that correct?

      In this case, you have to use other literary devices. A child may not understand what is happening, but an uncle or aunt might give voice to the situation. Using excerpts from journals also allows the reader to get into the mind of the past narrator (the teen in your example) for reflections that occurred in the past, but if you want to communicate how you, as the current day narrator, think about those teen journal entries, you must use your present day POV and first person voice (unless the entire memoir is written in 3rd person, which would be an interesting experiment).

      One bit of caution (or maybe clarification) … I can’t be sure from your comment, but it sounds like you are manufacturing conversations and scenes in order to provide understanding for your readers. It’s okay to do that, but in that case it is no longer nonfiction. It becomes fictionalized memoir.

      There’s nothing wrong with fictionalized memoir, if that is what you are doing — it’s just important to be sure you let your readers know what you’ve created and why you created it. A preface is a good place to do this. You are still communicating your essential truth and understanding, but using fictionalized events and conversations. Make sense?

  • Heather Marsten

    Thank you – I think all memoir dialogue is manufactured (no one walked around with a tape recorder to get exact wording), but I’m not manufacturing the content – I am as honestly as possible reporting what went on in the therapy sessions. For example, my therapist did comment on the resemblance between my first husband and a photo he had of my father. Something I didn’t notice when I married him. It helped explain the difficulty I was having with sex with my husband. That comment by my therapist floored me – I remember the feelings and the content because it impacted me so.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Heather, thank you for that clarification. Yes, dialogue in memoir is always an approximation based on our memories. (I wasn’t sure if you were creating scenes in order to get information to your readers, and I understand now that you are not.)

      I appreciate the raw honesty you are striving to bring to your memoir and the courage it takes. Kudos to you!

  • barbara toboni

    Great questions and great timing, Amber. I’m writing a short memoir piece from a writing prompt right now and this will help. I think it’s good to get the rough draft written out first and then go back and slip in answers to these questions. Otherwise I can get too caught up in reflection when not enough is happening yet.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Barbara, you make a good point here … get your first draft written and then go back and add any missing reflection during your second draft. Otherwise it’s too easy to overanalyze and lose the thread of the story.

  • patsy ann taylor

    I’m not sure I do much reflecting in my journal writing. Sometimes it feels more like a laundry list of my day. The prompts you offer will help me. Thank you.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Patsy, there’s nothing wrong with laundry lists of your days … in fact those may come in handy when writing future memoir pieces. And it’s good to reflect on life and lessons learned … those in the past and present. I think writing memoir presents opportunities for greater insight into how we understand the events in our lives. Would you agree?

  • Sandy Frye

    This was quite helpful. I wonder what you think about the idea of adding a reflection at the end of each chapter. I am trying this technique but some people say it interrupts the narrative flow.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Sandy, thank you for your comment. The first time you write it, you’ll probably just tack it onto the end of a section, and that can interrupt the narrative flow. Two things to pay attention to: transition and length of reflection. The transition should feel normal and as part of the narrative flow, and the reflection should be short. One or two sentences. You can also weave reflection into the narrative. A lot depends on the age and voice of the narrator.

  • M. Mark Miller

    I’ve been grappling with incorporating reflection in my memoir about my college years at the University of Montana in the 60s — tumultuous times. Your insights will be most helpful. I particularly like the list of question you pose in point 2. I will use them, along with a couple more, to query my scenes and try to add reflections.

  • Beth Eidsor

    This is so helpful. Thank you! I’m concerned that reflecting in present tense will take away from the novel “feel” I’m working toward. But this certainly has me thinking, and the strategy you describe really works. Thanks, again.