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 Watson, Reading 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.
~ TRY THIS ~
- Take out one of the memoir scenes you have written.
- In your journal, answer the following questions, as well as any new ones that arise while you are journaling.
- How did this event change me and influence who I have become?
- How has my understanding of this event changed between when it happened and now?
- Why did it happen?
- What lessons did I learn, if any, from what happened?
- If I could go back in time, what would I do differently?
- 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.
- Only incorporate reflection that illuminates meaning not already evident in the scene.
- 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.