Expert Tips for Bringing Memories to Life in Your Writing

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In the following Q&A, Write the World’s Mary Cronin gains insight into how to write compelling memoirs from award-winning writer Julie Wittes Schlack.
Q: What are some techniques you use to bring a memory to life on the page in our own writing?

Start by focusing on sensory details. There’s no need to describe absolutely everything about the memory or scene, but selective detail is what typically transforms a scene from generic to specific and helps both the writer and the reader bring it to life. So if you are remembering an encounter that happened in the kitchen, how did the room smell? The aroma of freshly baked bread is going to create (or reflect) a very different emotional environment than acrid bleach fumes. If it’s outdoors, could you hear birds chirping, or were they drowned out by the sound of a jackhammer ripping up the sidewalk? Was there a car driving by with a popular song blasting out the car window – a song that might tell us what month and year or season it was without you having to explicitly tell us?  

Q: In the memoir-writing courses you teach, what are the most frequent challenges that your students face in organizing their ideas and getting started?

Great question. One big challenge that people face is overcoming their own conviction that nothing important enough happened in their lives to be worth writing about. But memoir isn’t autobiography; you don’t need to be a famous person to have a story worth telling. An autobiography is the story of your life to date. It is usually chronologically based, and it starts with when you are young and all the things that happened to you along the way in your life. But a memoir is a slice of your life. It could be just one time period, and it could be just one aspect of your life.  For instance, have you learned to live with a chronic health condition? Does your life revolve around music? Did taking up swimming as an adult help you become a better parent? A memoir really is an opportunity to reflect — to look inside yourself and to say, “It’s not just all these external things that have happened to me. It’s really, how has something changed me? Why am I the person I am today?” So in getting started, it’s often helpful to start with this question of “What changed me, and why?”

The other challenge is that writers will often generate a bunch of scenes and memories, then struggle with how to structure the material. My primary advice here is to experiment. There’s nothing wrong with telling the story chronologically, but play around with telling it thematically (such as joys and heartbreaks, victories and defeats), or tied to specific recurring elements in your story (such as foods or spices or songs or items of apparel) – even as an alphabetical index.

Q:  Could you recommend one or two prompts for inspiring evocative micro-memoirs?

Here are two of my favorite prompts. 

1) Finish the following sentence, then keep going from there: “My mother never …”

2) Write about what’s elicited by the smell of one or more of the following …

  • Pine needles
  • Vinegar
  • Orange peel
  • Radiators heating up
  • Stale beer
  • Chicken broth
  • Gasoline
  • Hay
  • Freshly mown grass
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Do You Have a Story To Tell?

Celebrate the summer by creating personal narratives and micro memoirs, writing family stories, and reaching out to the future with creative nonfiction. Join our family story virtual writing workshops for all ages and all writing levels. Upcoming workshops include Bringing Family Stories to Life: Narrated Media, Interviews, and Character Close Ups and Telling Your Story: Micro-Memoirs and Memory Maps.

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Julie Wittes Schlack

Julie Wittes Schlack is a writer, teacher, editor, researcher, and author of the cultural memoir in essays, This All-at-Onceness (Pact Press, 2019), named one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Independent Nonfiction Books of 2019. Her novel, “Burning and Dodging,” will be released in December of 2021 (Black Rose Writing). Julie is a regular contributor to Cognoscenti and writes book reviews for the Boston Globe and The ARTery. She has won a Hopwood Award for Fiction, and has been a Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction prize, the Annie Dillard Creative Nonfiction prize, and the Clarissa Dalloway Book Prize. Her short stories, poetry, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Shenandoah, The Writer’s Chronicle, The Alembic, The Dos Passos Review, Eleven Eleven, Ellipsis, The Literary Review, The Ledge, The Louisville Review, Ninth Letter, Phoebe, St. Ann’s Review, Sanskrit, The South Carolina Review, Talking River, Tampa Review, The Chaffin Review, The Hiram Poetry Review, The Monarch Review, and The Rambler. Her essay, “Mindfulness and Memoir,” appears in The Science of Story (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.) Julie earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University’s Low-Residency program, a Masters in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a BA in Creative Writing and Psychology from the University of Michigan.

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