Journaling for Memoir: Setting the Stage 8

Journal writing is a powerful tool for capturing significant events and memories. For future memoir writing—or if you just want to capture the memories as fully as possible—you’ll want to do more than just write about what happened. You’ll want to go beyond recording the emotional impact of an event to describing the environment (the scene) in which that event occurred. Because nothing happens in a vacuum.

Think of yourself as the screenwriter of your own life. And instead of writing a fictional story, you are writing the story — the drama — of your life as it unfolds. When you write that memoir, your readers will want to be anchored in the where and the when of the action taking 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.

Keep in mind that when you are journaling, you can jot down your impressions in shorthand. You’re not writing your memoir right now; rather, you’re capturing an event for future expansion. So don’t worry about syntax, grammar, spelling, or even writing in full sentences. Any form you want to use is fine: lists, short notes, and drawings all work quite well. You can also attach photos to your journal entry.

Let me give you an example of how you might approach capturing scene in your journal. Let’s pretend you are writing about your daughter’s wedding. Here are some things you’ll want to think about as you write:

  1. 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?)
  2. What was the weather like? For some scenes, this won’t matter. For others, especially if an event occurred outdoors, 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, etc.
  3. 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.
  4. Who was there? No scene is complete without a cast of characters. As you’re listing the cast, take a few moments to describe what they were wearing, physical features, moods — anything you may have noticed about them. Was Aunt Nancy’s wig askew? Grandma Corker carrying her cane?
  5. Bring in the other senses: Where there any smells/scents? At a wedding, the flowers’ scents may have been powerful, or the mingling of perfumes overwhelming. What about 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?
  6. Bring in emotion: In addition to your emotional experience, what was the prevailing mood? Was  tension in the air, or were people relaxed? What happened the day before the event that might have influenced the general mood?

Once the scene is set, the action can begin. As you makes notes about the action, 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 a little extra time. As you get used to integrating this practice into your daily journal writing, it will become automatic. Make it a practice to capture one setting each day and, in those faraway future days when you sit down to write that memoir, you will have all this wonderful material waiting for your creative hand.


A version of this article first appeared on in October, 2010

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8 thoughts on “Journaling for Memoir: Setting the Stage

  • Pingback: Journaling for Memoir: Setting the Stage | Writing Through Life | personal storytelling |

  • Barbara Toboni

    Good idea, Amber. I never thought of writing scenes in my journal. Next time Aunt Nancy’s wig is askew I will be ready with my pen. Love that detail. My sister’s name is Nancy.

  • patsy ann taylor

    What a great way to create the fictive dream in nonfiction. Using all the techniques fiction writers must keep in mind as they work, the journaler ( is that a word?) builds the world as he/she experienced it.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Yes, absolutely—nonfiction writers need to employ techniques of fiction writing, while remaining true to the facts. It’s a challenge. One that journaling techniques can assist.

      “Journaler” isn’t a recognized word, but I’ve used it myself, and believe we’ll see it more and more as time goes on. It just makes sense.

  • Amber Myers

    I know it’s obviously easier to recall a scene when it’s fresh in your mind rather than years later. But do you think it will compromise the integrity (and publishability) of a memoir if it’s written mostly by memory? As part of my healing process, I semi-recently decided to burn all of my journals from the traumatic years of my life (a span of 12 years). I told myself, ‘oh I’ll just write from memory when I write my book.’ I do not regret my decision to burn my journals, but I do fear that it will hinder my memoir writing process. Thoughts??

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Amber, thank you for asking. While having a journal and other records of our lives can be a big help when writing memoir, it’s not necessary. To write a “memoir” means to write from memory. So no, it doesn’t compromise the integrity of your memoir to write from memory. In fact, it’s necessary. You’ll also want to do your research of course and verify as many of the events and details of those events as you can. But the bottom line is that memoir is YOUR story, told from YOUR perceptions and YOUR memories.