©2010 by Jack Remick and Robert J Ray
When Jack and I taught a Memoir course a few years ago, we came up with a big wheel called The Natural Journey – a series of writings designed to help memoir writers focus on the core of a memoir – because most people come into a memoir class wanting to tell their life stories.
The typical story starts with a baby being born. The story ends with the baby, now a full-grown adult, looking back, remembering the way it was. Writers write memoirs to get something back (sympathy, pity, forgiveness, absolution, love),to make a bunch of money, hawk your life on the Today Show, become a local celebrity, run for office, and get on the public dole.
To explore the magnitude of the book that’s too big to write, we designed a writing exercise called Birth to Now. The Diagram of Birth to Now (open this link now) shows the outer circle as Birth to Now, a representation of the biggest gathering of the largest number of memories. The writing exercise, which takes about an hour, starts with a line like: I was born in a town called X in the year Y, and I remember….
Lurking inside the Birth to Now writing is The Natural Journey, a bridge from the impossible over-large monster autobiography to the personal memoir. Writers in our workshops, exhausted by the massive effort of Birth to Now, are relieved to find the simplicity of the Natural Journey, which helps to build a structure based on time or place or psychology.
The Natural Journey Diagram (open this link to the Angela’s Ashes NJD) sketches the process of compression, squeezing a life packed with memories from autobiography (Birth to Now) down to memoir-length.
The outer circle of the diagram shows the writer’s Whole Life Journey from Birth to Now. This exercise takes the memoir writer on a journey from childhood through pain and trauma and happiness to the Present Moment, for a long look backward. Birth to Now is a chance to assess your whole life. Study it, ponder over your actions, brood over choices, the roads not taken. Birth to Now fires the creative engines. Enough energy to fill some pages as you move around the curve. Enough memories to discover there is too much to cover in one book of 250-300 pages.
The solution to the weight and heft of memory comes in the Natural Journey, represented by the inner circle of the diagram. There are three large patterns for the Natural Journey:
1. Psychological: Cage, Escape, Quest, Dragon, Home
2. Temporal: Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring.
3. Spatial: Berkeley, Miami, Cali, Bogotá, Quito.
Structure for Writing the Natural Journey
Each Natural Journey breaks down into a number of Parts.
Each Part is built on a series of Memory Chunks.
Each Chunk is built on a series of Memoir Moments.
Each Memoir Moment is built on the model of a musical structure:
Working through startlines: I remember that day. I remember the time my mother told me. I remember how my daddy looked sitting in the chair. Sitting at the kitchen table. Sitting drunk behind the wheel of the family car. I remember teachers. I remember siblings, I remember the girl I loved in high school. The boy I loved in high school. Timed writing lets the writings spill out. I remember my divorce. Write a hundred pages under the timer.
If you write 100 pages, you’ll generate insights about your memoir.
You have lots of memories, maybe too many.
Writing gets more writing, memory gets more memory until you have a string of memories laid out.
Your life is fuller than you thought. A bulge of memories about childhood. So full you can’t cram it all into 200 pages.
200 pages is the length of most memoirs. 250 is long. 300 is the road to autobiography
To write an autobiography, you need to be very old, very rich, or very famous – because you may have to self-publish.
There are good memories and bad memories. That’s why you do timed writing. To do timed writing, we suggest you buy a kitchen timer, the kind you find in a supermarket or a drugstore. You do timed writing to let go.
Your life contains 3-4 memoirs. Where do you go first? Which memoir first?
The driving force in memoir is the Terrible Parent/Terrible One/Terrible Other. Memoir writers waste time in the first 10 weekends making detours around the Terrible Parent while they construct a placid DisneyWorld of memories, very PC, very dull. Read Silverman, Frank McCourt, Slater.