View Full Version : Sorting the memory pile

01-25-2008, 06:24 PM
I've taken many trips in my life, some to exotic places. When I tell people about these trips, if I told them everything, the story would take longer than the trip did, so I prune and leave out various details. The challenge is to include the right details, just enough to give an accurate taste of the experience without overwhelming the listener.

I'm facing the same situation with writing memoir, and feeling less clear. I can't tell everything. Indeed, I don't even remember everything. Does anyone have any tips on selecting the most relevant details? How do you prioritize?

I'm not specifically asking here about the matter of hiding sensitive material, although that issue always lurks in the background. This is more general.

Leah J. Utas
01-25-2008, 08:35 PM
Good question, Ritergal. I'm having a similar problem myself. How about writing down everything you remember about a given situation or event and then letting the flavours gather for a bit while you go on to something else?
Sorting before you write can help to an extent, but I think it's easier to spill everything on the floor and then clean it up.
I think it's easier to deal with matters once they're out on the page because it brings distance and distance brings objectivity.

01-26-2008, 04:14 PM
How about writing down everything you remember about a given situation or event and then letting the flavours gather for a bit while you go on to something else?

I like that idea, Suirattigas!

02-03-2008, 07:54 AM
I've run into this one, as well. One specific case, for me, was when I wrote an essay for the Stories of Strength anthology, about a trip I took to the beach with my best friend. The original rough draft was twice as long--it had included a side trip to a Denny's restaurant that ended up being hilarious for us. I wanted so badly to include that in my essay.

Ultimately what made me take it out was that I realized it wasn't relevant to the story I was wanting to tell--which was about how the beach made me feel born anew.

When I write about my life, I do throw everything out there and see where it lands, but I also look for patterns and themes. When I find a thread, I tug on it to see where it goes.

02-04-2008, 05:37 PM
I've faced this question too, esp early on in my memoir writing. I began by writing each little memory that I thought was important on a 3x5 file card, and putting them in a recipe box in chronological order. Then I wrote about sections of time (for example third thru sixth grades,) with a pile of memory cards covering each section. While that system was well organized, it didn't end up working in the long run. What I eventually discovered, after years of writing and hundreds of pages written, was that I had a whole bunch of writing that was interesting to me and not really great for anyone else.

The second time around I did it differently. Instead of just writing about every little thing, I thought long and hard about what I wanted my book to say. Then I wrote a list of general life experiences that supported that statement. Then, under each of those things, I wrote specific events that supported those things. Basically, I created an outline without even realizing that's what I was doing. Then, after outlining, I've presented the info in chronological order.

The further I've gotten into this the more I've appreciated being organized and thinking of this as a business in which I want to succeed. I'm not sure of your writing goals, but if yours are to be published, like mine are, hopefully this idea will help. If not, then just toss it of course!

Best wishes and keep writing.

02-13-2008, 06:04 AM
Nicely asked, ritergal. This question of what to select from a life in order to craft the story turns out to be one of the central challenges. I just read a fascinating compact description of one memoir writer's experience, Gary Presley. If you're interested, you can see it here.



02-13-2008, 07:23 AM
What detalils advance the story, the passing along of the experience and which ones don't?

If "I walked into the kitchen and made a ham sandwich" advances the story of your experience, then by all means, include it. Sometimes recounting of details is just that, recounting of details.

Tell a good story. Ain't you ever sat around a campfire?