Amber Starfire is a valued colleague who shares my passion for life writing and photography. Her recently published book, Week by Week is a treasure trove of tips and prompts to supercharge your journaling. (Read my review here.) In this guest post Amber gives tips on how to get even more value from past entries as you work on lifestories and memoir.
Journal writing is good for so many things: sorting out problems, recording life events, healing, self-reflection, and personal growth. Often, we process events and emotions in writing and then stack them on a shelf or in a box and forget about them. We rarely make use of our previous entries.
So, what would you say if I were to tell you that your journals are full of precious memoir-writing gems just waiting to be discovered? Journals are wonderful places where images, metaphor, sensory details, as well as stories about events, people, and places are mixed in with the emotional ups and downs of daily life.
Try this: Browse journal entries from a previous year or month with an eye to noticing images you've included. Do any specific, seemingly inconsequential details strike you now? Something that stays in memory? Perhaps you wrote about seeing the cat cross the hallway during the time of the event, or the way the sunlight slanted across the living room floor, or the teapot on the table. Perhaps a particular detail carries emotional resonance: the lift of your mother's eyebrow, the pain in your son's eyes, the sparkle in a little girl's eyes. All of these images have significance—or you wouldn't have recorded them. The trick may be to understand why they were important enough to write down.
Once you find one of these gems, here are a few journaling prompts and ideas to help you dig more deeply into its meaning.
- What sensory details (smell, sound, sight) are included in what you wrote? What emotions and/or associations with other memories arise as you read that passage?
- If the image or scene involves action, write more now about that action, adding as much detail as you can remember. What part of the action carries the greatest emotional charge—is most fulfilling, dangerous, scary or exciting?
- What does the image/memory represent? For example, you might associate the image of a red skirt with defiance. The metaphor then is, defiance is a red skirt. You can then play in your journal with ways to extend that metaphor. For example, When worn short and daring, it may reveal more than you intend, or it shouts to be noticed.
- Is there a person in your memory to whom you assign that image—someone who wore a red skirt? Make a list of that person's physical and psychological characteristics. How many of these characteristics relate to that image, and why?
- Do a word association exercise with a word that stands for the image. For example, if you wrote about the force of the wind on a particular day, you might use either the word "force" or the word "wind." Write the word at the top of your journal page. Then quickly write down the first word that pops into your head. Write the next word, and the next. Keep writing words, without censoring (it's okay to repeat), until no more words come into your mind and you feel quiet. Then look over the list of words. What do you notice about the list as a whole? Does it have a mood? A color? A shape? Does it make you think about something else that happened in your life?
Ways to mine your journal entries for memoir writing, and ways to use your journaling to reflect upon significance of those entries are infinite—limited only by your willingness to engage your mind and imagination. Try a few of the ideas listed above, or create your own. And please leave a comment about what you discovered.
Visit Amber’s website to subscribe to weekly blog updates and sign up for her free 4-week email Journaling 101 class. She will be the featured guest on the May 18 NAMW Member Roundtable: Journaling for Memoir Writers—A Short Course in Writing Deeply. Read more on the NAMW website.