Poetry as Memoir Form 22

Memoir comes in many forms, including poetry. Sometimes I forget this fact. To demonstrate how poetry can be memoir, I want to share with you a simple little poem I made in response to a writing prompt, along with the journaling process I used to write it.

My journal is always my go-to place for freewriting, coming from the heart as it does. I’m more open to writing in those pages than anywhere else, because I know the writing doesn’t have to “be” anything — there is nothing at stake. I can be whimsical, serious, dramatic, or silly, and no one ever needs to know anything about it. My inner writing critic (she knows who she is) doesn’t even bother coming into the room, because she has no stake in my journal, either. It’s not until later, when I might be revising or shaping a piece that I allow her in. And then, she proves to be an invaluable companion.

The prompt, in this case, was “winging it.”

When I sat down to write, my pen (yes, I was writing with pen instead of computer this time around) lingered over the page, making empty circles in the air. I waited for something to come — a first line, a few words — but nothing, even though my mind was wandering in the direction of memories: my ex-husband, the years we played music onstage, the way he would throw me into the limelight (and under the bus).

Whenever the memories are flooding in like this, but I find myself unable to put prose to paper, I resort to one or more reliable journaling techniques to get my creative juices flowing. This time, it was Word Association.

Here is the list I wrote, beginning with the writing prompt:

Winging it
On the fly
Making it up
Out of my element
On the spot
Up to speed
Making it

After writing the list, I sat and stared at it for a while, allowing my eyes to roam over the words, allowing my subconscious to form connections, to create images. Sometimes this process results in prose, sometimes in poetry. That day, it was a poem.

Winging It

Always onstage
His elegant fingers fly
I, careful and rehearsed
He, in-the-moment

He will point to me,
He always does, for an
Instant solo
Unpracticed and on the spot
I play

And there I am
Rising to his call,
Fingers winging over silver keys
Seeming sanguine when

The heart beats its own rhythm
Tat-tat skitter tat;
Can a heart shake
Or only limbs?

Fingers find the melody
Know no fear in spite of
Tat-tat skitter tat
I am a bird singing
On the wing

This wasn’t the first draft. I revised lines more than once, and I may make additional changes in the future. For now, I’m happy with the results of my freewriting exercise, happy with this image-based snippet of memoir.

I’d love to hear from you. What are your favorite journaling techniques to overcome the staring-down-at-that-blank-page syndrome and to write a bit of your life?



Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

22 thoughts on “Poetry as Memoir Form

  • patsy ann taylor

    Love your poem AND the list you used to get it started. I’ve used poetry as memoir form for years and find it a wonderful way to put pieces of my life on the page. For prompts in general I have a “word box” started when I belonged to a group called the Cottage Poets. We still write online since many of us have moved from the area where we once sat in a tiny cottage and composed our poems. We started each gathering by writing random words on cards, which were then placed in a large box to be used as part of our poems for the evening. I still reach into my collection of words and phrases when I’m “stuck” for a starting place. Thank you for sharing your poem. Patsy

  • Barbara Toboni

    Great post, Amber. I love your poem, especially the line, “can a heart shake”‘. Most often my poetry is based in memoir. I start by scribbling a paragraph or two in my journal, and since poetry is my favorite genre, I take words and phrases from the paragraphs. From there I use the word associations you mention and pull in more thoughts. Then I edit, take out extra words, correct spelling, and hopefully I have a good poem.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Thank you, Barbara, for your compliment and for sharing your process of bringing (or is that birthing?) the poem from journaled prose. Our variety of creative processes is a never-ending source of fascination for me.

  • Maya Lazarus

    I love your word associations idea and had forgotten about it until your post reminded me. I’m going to try it for my next journal entry and see what happens.
    Thanks, Amber.

  • Yvette

    Hi Amber,

    I liked the simplicity of your work. 🙂 I’m researching the how to in writng my memoirr. I’m a bipolar type 1 with a creative flair, and when depressed I’ve written many poems to capture what I experience. Can I include these in my memoir?

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Yvette, you can absolutely include poetry in your memoir. There are no hard and fast rules about memoir except that, while writing the truth of actual events as you see (or saw) them, you want to engage your readers and communicate your story. A memoir can be a series of short vignettes, poems, a long narrative, or even poems strung together thematically. Or you can mix all of the above. As long as it makes sense and adds to what you’re trying to get across, feel free to experiment.

  • Bronwyn Gallo

    I have really enjoyed reading the information on this website. It has been most informative, helpful and easy to read and understand.
    I am just starting my journey of creative expression and think for me, that either Poetry, or Poetic Memoir is the way to go.
    Thank you
    Bronwyn Gallo (Sydney, Australia)

  • Victoria Hunter

    Great technique and poem. I noticed that some words are emotions, some are short phrase and some concrete image and abtract like the word “fear” Can i do my list in order like that I want to try this method for writing on a theme for my poetry collection. Will this work? Do i just think of an idiom related to my theme and write all my poems on that same idiom? Do u think that will work. Do u have any other tips for writing poems on a theme. Do you have any more methods for writing poetry, you would like to share? Do u have a book with methods or approaches in them? Thank you very much.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Victoria, absolutely. In a word association, you just write down the words as they come to you. It’s okay to repeat, even. Just keep writing until you’re out of words. Look for patterns. Write some more. I have a book on journaling, but not on approaches to poetry. Your question makes me realize I could be offering more posts on poetry writing. Thank you.

  • Jay Artale

    I’ve written a couple of poetic memoirs in verse .. one is about my mother’s decent into Alzheimer’s and the other is about relocating to Turkey and the cultural challenges we faced. I love memoir in poetry form because it’s an excellent way condense the emotion and action into a bite sized scene.

  • Shenae

    Hi!, I always find an instrumental that gives me a the right feeling or mood that I’m trying to write my poetry in and I allow words to flow and then i fit the pieces together, then i edit to satisfaction.

  • Jay Artale

    I’ve written a couple of Poetic Memoirs. One was about our relocation to Turkey and the cultural challenges associated with this move, and the other is about my mothers journey with Alzheimer’s. I’d planned to write a traditional memoir for each of these subjects, but ended up writing poetry instead. I think poetry make an excellent memoir form.

  • Kevin H.

    I need immediate help on writing a memoir, I specifically wanna tackle an issue in todays world but I don’t know how to exactly write it.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Kevin, writing is a process not an act. What I mean by that is that you won’t know how to write it until you begin writing it. You may have to try writing about your topic in several different ways. Study how others have written about similar topics or situations and see if those ways will work for you. I highly recommend joining a writing critique group — one that provides solid critique and suggestions for improving one’s work while also giving much-needed emotional support for the writing process. Also, there are many posts here on this site that address the issues with how to start writing your memoir. To get started, check out the From Memories to Memoirs series on the Menu.

    • Shirley Anne Cook

      Yes I agree with Amber, read lots of memoir poems and one of those may give you an idea for a way in to a poem of your own.
      Good luck.

  • Dr. Fran Reynolds

    Thank you so much for this poem and the process you used to write it. I found this just at the right (write!) time as my writing group is going to write memoir poems in April. I use journaling in my writing for English-as-a-Second Language university students. I call them Reflection/Response or Experience Journals – depending on the purpose.