Memoir Writing Prompt: The Process of Discovery

One of my blogger BFFs is Sherri Matthews who writes A View From My Summerhouse. She recently tagged me in a writing process extravaganza. I eventually will take up the baton she’s handed me and write that post! In the meantime, check out her beautiful blog. If you aren’t already a reader, you will be!

I did a poll a while back asking about the best days for me to post from the standpoint of readers. The vote was overwhelmingly to keep the days the same: Mondays and Thursdays. I plan to do that. I am going to be hunkering down and getting more work done on my memoir now because my tutorial at Stanford is scheduled for winter quarter. (How will I EVER get a draft finished in time?!) I’m not sure if I’ll be able to continue memoir reviews throughout this period, but hey, I could write reviews of individual poems or flash prose ;). Know that I want to keep writing the book-length reviews, but it won’t always happen. I need to keep my own book front and center throughout the winter.

Are you thinking that you might want to write a memoir some day? Or write down something that happened to you years ago? Are you already working on a memoir?

If your story involves either your nuclear family (now or then) or your childhood, I have an idea for some helpful pre-writing.

We have our stories in our minds. We know what people looked like, what our homes were/are like, inside and out, our neighborhoods, our schools, our workplaces. But when we go to write our stories, we forget that the reader isn’t privy to all this information. And we overlook what might be some of the most revealing parts of our stories. The prompt I thought up is a way of remembering those little forgotten pockets of information. Everything you write from this prompt won’t wind up in your completed manuscript, but I think of it as a process of discovery.

Envision the home where much of your interactions with family members took place. For each room of the house, write a very descriptive piece showing an event that occurred in that room. Don’t forget your brother’s bedroom, the basement, the bathroom. Every room.  Include specific details about the room.

What discoveries do you make?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing prompt

38 responses to “Memoir Writing Prompt: The Process of Discovery

  1. I love this idea, Luanne! In a short story I wrote a long time ago, my family home was a critical part of the story: describing the one bathroom, an upstairs bedroom, the one floor furnace, the little heater in the bathroom. The story took place one frigid winter morning, and, in my humble opinion, the small details about the house was pivotal to evoking the feeling of being cold to the bones.

    • Ooh, that’s so cool! (Oops, pun alert) It’s those details that convey so much more than just saying “it’s freezing cold”! The thought of that heater in the bathroom is making me cold thinking of all the areas of the house away from that heater!

  2. I have in mind to draw sketches of my parents’ home (where I grew up) in all its iterations, Like many lake people, they improved their home over the years (52) so that, for instance, there were three distinct kitchens in three different parts of the house. The living room and dining room swapped places twice. Big things occurred in the back yard and on the front porch. A bathroom appeared and a water closet disappeared. Et cetera. This is not necessarily entertaining for others, but it will satisfy me, the last person alive to be interested in preserving such images.

    I am excited for you as BIG things happen in your writing career — your book of poems set for publication and your memoir nearing completion. Take the time you need for those important projects.

    • WJ, my mind is boggled and intrigued at this description. I can’t imagine “three distinct kitchens in three different parts of the house.” That the house changed form so many times is itself a telling “detail” about the family that lived there. Sketches without story probably have a more limited public readership, but your writing is so sparkling that I await those eagerly! I remember quite vividly one piece you wrote with many details of that house!
      I’m curious if you ever do prewriting exercises like I’m suggesting. Not for their own sake, but in preparation for a narrative.
      Thank you for so much for your kind words and your support all these years. xoxo

      • I give floor-plan and map exercises to my students, and I have used them myself to make sense of what I am writing, especially in fiction, where the mind with create impossible places — as if right out of a dream. I was quite far into “Big Black Hole” before I realized that my house plan was literally impossible, which led me to create floor plans and do some rewriting.

        I will probably write something to go along with my floor plans of the old home place, and these will be mainly for my own amusement. Still, one never knows what will arise from such excavations. Incidentally, the biggest change occurred from 1986-1988, when the house was raised several feet. The puppy acquired in 1986 did not become housebroken until the work was done. I think “the little gentleman” was confused by his constantly changing environment.

        You’re welcome.

        • And that would have been a problem in BBH. That poor puppy. Hard enough on the humans, I would think. I can think of many ways this project could become a lovely lyrical essay in your hands.

  3. I moved so much I wouldn’t know where to start :/ Maybe where I am now 🙂

    • For a story that involves a particular house this will work. For memoir or, as Marie says, for story. If the house is going to be in it, good to get it on paper. But that you moved so much is so important–and how WOULD you convey setting if you were to write your memoir? I wonder if your memoir would need to be one like The Liar’s Club where you just choose 2-3 key settings (homes) and tell your story through those years of your life. Of course, in Three Little Words, which is the story of a foster child, the reader is taken into several homes. Because her life is conscribed, the reader gets a good feel for relevent portions of each of those “homes” (hard to call some of them that, they were so awful).

  4. I loved seeing this blueprint on your post this morning. I printed out the blueprint of my childhood home a few years ago to remember some details that I’d forgotten. It is an exceptional tool to nail down some nuances in your memoir. I will miss your reviews, but understand your need to cultivate a single minded focus. xo

    • Isn’t it, though?! I think it’s one of the necessities of research, when the memoir includes events that occur within the family home. Yes, I might do a few, but not going to hold myself to one a week. I’ve got to get going on this project. Right now I’m wigging over just turning in the first five pages! Thanks, Rudri. Can’t wait to see you! xo

  5. Place is very important to me Luanne and though I don’t write memoir very often, this would work for fiction too – really thinking about each location in the story and what would have happened there.

    • Andrea, I remember reading once about the painstaking detail William Faulkner prepared for his fictional settings and characters. The large portion of what he put together was never put into the books, but it was behind all he wrote, giving it that incredible sense of authenticity in all his work. So, yes, I agree wholeheartedly about this being important in fiction, too!

  6. Great ideas, Luanne.

  7. I’m afraid my life isn’t exciting enough to write a memoir, Luanne. 🙂 I try to incorporate a sense of place in my fiction writing. I love to read a book and actually feel as though I’m there. You know I love, Sherri! xo

    • Jill, the more you hint that your life isn’t exciting enough for a memoir, the more I suspect there is a hidden story yet to be uncovered :)! I love reading your memoirish writing. I particularly love the white go go boots. Going to go check it out again!!

  8. What a wonderful idea this is Luanne, I would never have thought of it. I can see this would be very helpful in the first part of my memoir when a lot of the story takes place when I lived in the family home, but I can see how it would also help later on when I’m living in different places. Like you, I need to keep my memoir front and center too. I thought I was going to take a lot of time in November from blogging but I don’t think that will be good for me on reflection. I’ll become too isolated and depressed I think. So I’m having yet another re-think but I will make sure to write every morning before I blog. I’m so glad you are going to keep to your schedule. I do so look forward to your posts. And thanks so much for the lovely intro – I’m so glad to have met you through our lovely Jill 🙂

    • You and I need to keep each other on track on our memoirs! You nudge me and I’ll nudge you :). What a great idea to write before you blog. I’ll have my post up Monday! Thank you so much for tagging me, Sherri! I’m so glad I met you. And about Jill, she’s the cat’s meow!

  9. Boom! Ideas for every room! I LOVE this. Very practical and concrete and doable. Making this one a favourite, Luanne.

  10. You are so right, every room has a distinct memory which could be turned into part of a story and thus, begin a memoir! This was a great writing prompt, Luanne!

  11. mmm… I’m not sure certain family members would appreciate a memoir should I ever decide to write one 😉 But I love this tool and will definitely use it in my fiction! Thanks for this Luanne.

    • Oh my gosh, now I KNOW I want to read your memoir! You could only say that if it would be an amazing story! Haha! You’re welcome, Yolanda. xo

  12. I started writing my memoir about ten years ago and I still ‘go back’ to the beginning as i remember things that happened. It’s amazing what we forget until we’re reminded! I’m going to do the house map now – it’s a great idea 😀

    • You see, that’s part of my problem, too. I remember stuff and it becomes more important to the main story than stuff I already wrote, so I keep writing more and taking other stuff out!!! Ooh, let me know how the map turns out!

  13. This is a wonderful tool, Luanne, that I’ve also heard in a writing workshop once. Another suggestion was to think of your house as another character in the story. That might be a fun idea for jeannieunbottled’s house with the three kitchens! Also, I applaud your efforts to reserve time for your own writing. I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo this month and am trying to crank out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days – the online “support” is wonderful – check it out if you haven’t already – wonderful prompts, tools, advice, etc. I tend to run out of time for my own writing when I’m reading blogs, etc., So now I will close and get cranking out words! 🙂 xoxo

    • It’s such a great idea for getting a lot of words out on the page. Once you (generic you) have the words out you can monkey around with them, revising and so on. For so many of us, it’s the actually getting words on the paper that is the most difficult part. Motivation, procrastination, all the big words come into play.
      I love the idea of thinking of your house as a character in the story! Thanks for that, Ginny. xo

  14. When my fiction stalls, it’s often because I don’t have a clear idea of where the scene is taking place. One trick I learned in a long-ago workshop was to write about a character either entering a place or leaving it. It works in first person or in third. (Would probably work in second, but I’ve never tried it!) Present tense or past. And the place can be new to the character or familiar. Entering or leaving seems to add resonance. Both the character and the author become more observant and perceptive. I suspect it would work in memoir and other nonfiction too.

    • That really gives me something to think about, Susanna. As I think about it, I wonder something. Is this an exercise that is then deleted from the finished work or is it left in? In other words, does it serve as a scaffolding that is removed or is it part of the book itself? I had no idea that entering or leaving could add so much, but I do know that I tend to favor that sometimes by instinct. I’ve wondered for some time if that wasn’t something that should be removed, in the same way as if it were unnecessary dialogue or too much description. I think I thought it might be a tic of my writing.

      • It can go either way, I think. When I start revising, it’s cut cut cut cut — sentences and whole paragraphs turn out to be scaffolding, or the road map I don’t need any more when I get to where I’m going. But sometimes the entering or the leaving turns out to be part of the story. One of my characters does a lot of thinking when she’s driving somewhere. What she’s leaving and where she’s headed sometimes mix up in interesting ways and the results can be worth keeping.

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