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Envisioning: What pops into your mind?

We’ve explored the motivations and basic extent of memoir writing in general; now we should get specific. Lyn Jones has advised would-be memoir writers to involve emotional content in creating scenes, and to achieve that, to focus on specific scenes from the past and describe each one fully.  How can we determine which scenes of our lives hold emotional content that we can recapture for readers?

Here’s a simple exercise.  Sit yourself down in a comfortable place, a chair with a piece of paper and pen or pencil handy. Relax, perhaps close your eyes. Let the words “I REMEMBER” enter your consciousness. What is the first thing from your past that comes to mind? Not the very first memory that you recall, two-years-old or so, but  a moment that rings always at the back of your mind, unsummoned until now. Is it a scene at your grade school? Boys gathered around bullying and teasing? Embarrassment when a piece of clothing was commented on by others or ripped or fell down? Something good—a birthday party with a grandparents unexpected visit from far away? I hope it’s something more exciting and emotionally interesting than the examples I’ve just given.

What pops into your mind absolutely first when you say the words to yourself “I remember. . “

There it is—the memory. Now start writing it down, in the present tense as if you are standing in the middle of it. Set the scene. What time of year, interior or exterior, weather, scenery. But more importantly, emotional context. Can you feel the heat in the room or beach setting, the expressions on the faces of people around you, your own reactions, pain, exultation, joy, sadness?

Here’s mine. Pops first and of course once that happens you can’t change it. It’s the default for life, darn it. I’m five years old and standing in our family home in Indianapolis. My parents have gone for a walk down the street and my sister must be in bed for a nap; she isn’t in the memory. I’m standing in front of one of those old-fashioned radiators that gave hot water heat to homes in the 1930s. That radiator is pretty hot but not enough to burn my hands. On the radiator is a pot I have gotten out of the cabinet along with a box of cocoa and a quart of milk. Some sugar is in a five pound bag nearby leaking  out from where I took a spoon and added sugar to the pot with the milk and cocoa.

I am going to make hot cocoa for my family, little housekeeper that I am, and I am proudly stirring the concoction, sticking my finger in it occasionally to taste it, and wondering why, since I have it on this hot radiator to cook, it isn’t getting much warmer. What’s the matter? I want it ready when they come in from the walk. They will be so proud of me.

But what’s this, they are here? I can hear the door closing; Mama and Daddy are beginning to take off their winter coats and hats and are checking me out. I start to say “I’m making cocoa”—but what is it—Mama is coming over here.

“What a mess. Look at this sugar? What are you doing, you’re going to spill that all over your Sunday School dress!”

I start to cry, to sob. They look at each other. “She was making cocoa for us,” They say. That’s the end of the memory.

Yes, I can feel the pain, and yes, as I have looked back when that memory pops up I can see in my little self crying away there over the radiator the me now who likes to please people. But in real life I have learned, I hope, not to expect a reaction that will please back. Do it because it’s good to do and gives you satisfaction.

Anyway, this exercise will be good for any would-be author of a memoir. Write it out, experience again in detail! Just don’t take your trips into the past too seriously! And remember, judge their importance to your full memoir ultimately not in terms of how the memory makes YOU feel, how much purging or cheering it gives you, but how it capsulizes your experience in life at that moment. It should throw light on the times you were experiencing, give insights into the background of your neighborhood or decade, let us live it and make us “be there,” through the evocation of the five senses you give us.

That’s part of a memoir that will live.

Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor at Hawthorne Publishing