Five Doors Into Memoir by Ralph Fletcher
Memoir continues to be an intensely popular genre. We love to peer into other people’s lives. We are fascinated by the heartbreaks and triumphs experiences by others. But writing memoir is challenging. It involves a great deal of craft: dealing with time, finding an authentic voice, conveying a sense of significance, and so forth. These are certainly important issues to grapple with. However, generating material is the first challenge faced by a writer. You can’t do much crafting if you don’t have anything to work with.
This past summer I had the opportunity to do a three-day workshop with my friend Georgia Heard. She suggested four doors into writing poetry. In that spirit I’d like to suggest five doors or invitations students might step through in order to write memoir.
Name. Our names are more than simple labels. Important stories are often buried in our names. In many ways they define who we are. They soak up our traditions and heritage. My parents named me after my father and grandfather, something that often happens in Irish families. Other cultures avoid naming a son after his father.
Many people have strong feelings about their names. Autumn loves hers…but Fiona doesn’t feel that her name represents who she is.
Siobhan gets irritated because her name invariably gets misspelled and mispronounced.
Invite your students to write about their names. Throw out a few suggestions about how they might approach it then stand back and see what happens. You (and they) may be surprised at how much they have to write on this subject.
Place. Marshfield Memories and Marshfield Dreams both begin with maps of my neighborhood in Marshfield, Massachusetts. I want readers to start with by imagining that place because that’s exactly what I did in oeswe to write those books. First I sketched out a very crude map of the neighborhood: houses, woods, roads, etc. Doing so helped me remember many events I had forgotten about. Creating those sketches helped me to recollect the paths I followed, the iconic trees and rock walls, the familiar flow between my house and the houses of my friends.
For a writer, stories are like potatoes. First you have to find them—then you have to dig them up. Making a neighborhood map will help your students do that. This should be done quickly and informally—it’s not an art project! Fifteen or twenty minutes should suffice. After they create the map you might suggest they mark:
*Where something happened
Each item on the map can provide material for a memoir.
Obsessions. An obsession is a fixation that defies logic or reason. Don Graves urged teachers to create classrooms where students could bring in their obsessions to write about. In Marshfield Dreams I wrote about my obsession with baseball (one that continues to this day). Students might describe an obsession with a toy, photograph, holiday, particular candy, relative, friend, or love interest. What does this obsession say about how I am?
The forbidden. Stories describe our encounter with the “other.” By other, I mean something outside ourselves. These encounters help us to understand the boundaries of our world…where the “I” ends and the real world begins. Such encounters can be strange or exciting, scary or exciting (often both). They shape who we are. Sometimes they involve something forbidden:
*stealing a candy bar from the drugstore
*cheating on a test
*the physical pleasure of holding someone during a slow-dance
In Marshfield Memories I describe an almost-kiss in the forest with a pretty girl. At the very last moment I discovered that she was my first cousin—YIKES!—so the kiss was aborted in the nick of time. (I had so many cousins it was next-to-impossible to keep track of them). An encounter like that—with something forbidden or taboo—provides a writer with rich material because it can evoke complex feelings.
Changes. Dad suddenly uproots the family and moves you to Alaska. You get evicted from your apartment. Your beloved dog dies. You’re shocked to discover that you’re the very best player on the football team. After your parents get divorced your mother marries a new man. He adopts you, and your last name changes.
In life change is unavoidable. The changes we go through sculpt our identity. Invite your students to write about changes they have experienced. Challenge them to write honestly. That’s easy to say but hard to do.
One final tip: when describing a big change it often works best to write small. Novelist and screenwriter Richard Price says: The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Let’s say you’re writing about your father who moved to the other side of the country. Instead of taking the big picture you might describe the psychedelic tie he lent you that’s still hanging in your closet.
Ralph Fletcher is a friend of young writers and readers as well as writing teachers. He has written or co-authored many books for writing teachers including Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide, Teaching the Qualities of Writing, Lessons for the Writer’s Notebook, Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices, and Pyrotechnics on the Page: Playful Craft That Sparks Writing. Ralph has worked with teachers around the U.S. and abroad, helping them find wiser ways of teaching writing.
Ralph’s many books for students include picture books (Twilight Comes Twice, Hello Harvest Moon, and The Sandman), novels (Fig Pudding, Flying Solo, and Spider Boy), poetry (A Writing Kind of Day and Moving Day), and a memoir, Marshfield Dreams: When I Was a Kid. His novel Uncle Daddy was awarded the Christopher medal in 2002. He has also written a popular series of books for young writers including Poetry Matters, Live Writing, and A Writer’s Notebook. Ralph lives with his family in New Hampshire. He is a strong environmentalist who believes we all must work together to live in a more sustainable way. His other passions include travel, good food, dark chocolate, growing orchids, and sports.