Memoir Writing on Steroids

 It’s the memoir writing process on steroids! I thought. These scholars are creating a memoir of civilization in the Andes. …

For over a dozen years I've dreamed of visiting Machu Picchu, and I would have been quite content to go directly there and come straight home. That dream has come true on a much larger scale, and the ton of bonus insights I derived in the process have caused my understanding of Story to explode like a super nova.

Some people spend weeks or months boning up on a location before going there. Not me. I hit a place cold, get an overview from guides and local resources, then fill in the blanks later. In this case, I was ahead of the game. I'd watched a few documentaries and done a little reading about the Incas, but I was totally unprepared for the fire hose gush of compelling pre-Inca history that our guides saturated us with for over two weeks.

Over the last decade or so, teams of archeologists, anthropologists, ethnologists, linguists and others have made remarkable progress in piecing together fragments of information from multiple sources to give an expanded picture of life in various times and regions. For example, they have now discovered that although the Incas and others did not use writing as we know it, they did have a system of recording detailed historical information. They embedded stories in weaving and painted them on pottery. They recorded words and stories in knotted strings along with complex accounting records.

Before this trip, I had no idea that the Incas were merely the capstone on a vast pyramid of previous Andes civilizations and empires. Through a combination of enticement and coercion, the Incas united the Quechua, Aymara, Moche and assorted other people in the Andean region into a single, loosely knit empire. They were astute enough to take the best each culture had to offer, assimilating and building upon the accumulated skills and wisdom of those people.

As I listened to accounts of how old assumptions are being reinterpreted to incorporate new knowledge, I got goosebumps. I realized that in a very real sense, historians are now creating what amounts to a mega-memoir of Andean civilization. What they are doing is remarkably similar to what we as individuals go through in compiling memoirs. We also sort and compile memory fragments into cohesive stories of times, events and experiences. 

One thing that especially struck me as I pondered this epiphany was the fact that these experts didn’t just keep digging for more artifacts. They have continually pondered the significance of what they already had and developed new tools for analyzing it. They have not shied away from the occasional need to challenge assumptions and edit the big picture as the need arose. 

A major key to recent progress has been the growing levels of collaboration among researchers in a wide variety of disciplines. Each brings a unique perspective has resulted in much deeper, multidimensional understanding.

There’s a major lesson for memoir writers in the Andean discoveries: we can also benefit from reassessing what we already know, perhaps with the help of a team of others to provide new perspectives. We can also use tools like old photos (not just family ones – check the web for photos of places and things from various decades in your past), old phone books and other historical documents, music, and conversations with relatives and past acquaintances. 

Perhaps the most important cue these researchers give us as we explore explore new perspectives is to question assumptions and perceptions. Look for the roots of current attitudes and beliefs and follow them to new conclusions. Follow the researchers’ example and put your memoir writing on steroids. 

Write now: spend time on research to deepen your memories of the past and write about them. You don’t have to write an entire memoir. Vignettes and essays are enough to answer questions in years to come. Leave a comment about resources you find especially helpful.


Linda said...

You have no idea how much I needed to read your words this morning. I've been blogging about discovering additional stories in an old photo and realizing I need to add those stories to the compilation I already have. Like you said, the snapshot caused me to reassess what I already knew. But the task seems daunting--I groan when I think of the work it will take. Given that, your words were so refreshing: "You don’t have to write an entire memoir. Vignettes and essays are enough to answer questions in years to come." I've been thinking that I might add my new, important info in an introduction and an epilogue, and your words helped reassure me that that might be the best way to go. Thank you for your inspiration this morning. :)


peony said...

I really enjoyed this post. I love traveling, immersing myself in a new place, learning everything I can about it, and then writing about it.

Sharon Lippincott said...


I've quit being surprised when I toss words into cyberspace and later learn they were "just what (someone) needed to hear." I derive much inspiration the same way. I'm glad these words lit your lantern.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Happy trails Peony. Nice to hear from a fellow writing traveler.

Sherrey said...

Sharon, like Linda, you've affirmed my new efforts at digging out the past in photos and other sources of memories, other than just my own memory bank. Recently, I launched a new blog, Letters to Mama, in which I'm writing letters to my verbally and emotionally abusive mother about what I, as a child, would have liked to have said or have felt. As children, we don't have much comeback in the face of any form of abuse. Your post about Machu Picchu reminds me that we writers of memoir, like the archaeologists and historians of the Andeans, must mine or dig out the relics of our lives in order to make our stories as complete as possible. Thanks for the affirmation on my new inspiration!