From Journal to Memoir

journal4“I have piles of old journals. Can I use those as my memoir?”

This question comes up in almost every class I teach. The short answer is “No. But you can use those journal entries as a resource.” Here’s why and how.

Take a look at the Tree of Life Writing image in the right sidebar. Notice that Journal Entries fall at the foot, below the ground, out of sight and light. Those journal entries feed into Story, that appears first as Essays and Stories. Those component stories and essays feed into the composite Memoir.

If you are using your journal to best advantage, you write with no boundaries. Your entries may ramble. They may not be coherent. You may omit detail or obsessively dwell on detail. You may write things that will send certain relationships up in flames if you don’t consign those pages to flames before anyone reads them. You may reveal things to those pages that would embarrass you or others, or betray their confidence.

But aside from all that, reading journal entries is usually boring or confusing  for anyone other than the author. In our journals we repeat things, perhaps to the point of obsession and stuckness. We report conclusions and assumptions. We nearly always confine journaling to “telling.”

So how do you convert that material?

Start with lists of key memories and arrange them on a timeline. Then pick one of those memories and find journal entries about that event or the general time period. Read those entries to refresh your memory about details. Use them to get back into the scene. You’ll probably need to sink back into the moment, because you probably didn’t record many sensory details, but recalling the emotions and actions you did record should help you recall the rest.

Write a story about that memory, adding details evoked by your journal entries. In the story you show the action. You describe the setting and other characters(remember, characters may include animals, inanimate objects, nature, place, or other aspects of yourself as well as other people). You use sensory details to get readers as fully involved with the situation as you were.

Your story includes action that ideally involves some uncertainty and tension or conflict. Dialogue is not an absolute requirement, but even if you are the only person around, you can include at least a bit. Have conversations with yourself.

Each sensory detail, each bit of dialogue and aspect of action activates an additional sensory area in readers’ brains and adds a layer of realism to your story, bringing it alive in readers’ minds.

One more layer of realism may come directly from your journal. That’s the element of reflection. Readers want to know more than what happened. They want to know what that meant to you, how it affected you. That’s where those journal entries come in.

On rare occasions you may want to directly quote journal entries. At times, quoting from your journal may add a touch more credibility to your reports of how you reacted at the time, and some snippets may be lyrical and compelling. Use these suggested guidelines to effectively incorporate journal material:

  • Use them sparingly. Don’t let them be a crutch for “telling” rather than “showing.”
  • Prune them to laser sharp  focus. Use ellipses (….) to show that you’ve omitted material before or after the quoted material, or even within.
  • Create composite entries. Some people may have a problem with using journal entries that are not verbatim quotations. This is a matter of personal judgment. Many of us consider journal entries to be similar to dialogue. The intent of the message is more important than literal accuracy. So if you need to distill three or more entries into a single one to give the drift of your thoughts at that period of time, do so and avoid overwhelming readers with what may seem like tedious navel gazing.

So, yes, you can use your journals, but use them primarily as resource material rather than verbatim story elements.

Write now: scan through an old journal and find a juicy memory topic with several related entries. Immerse yourself in those entries to recall your sense of the times and your state of mind. Bring the setting into memory as clearly as you can and notice elements of the setting. What was going on? What were people thinking or doing. What did you notice about the situation? Then use this awareness to write a short story or scene based on that memory, incorporating the details you recall and personal insight you recorded.


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Linda Austin said...

I'm working on someone else's memoir using his detailed journal entries. He's probably wondering why it takes so long for me to create this memoir when he's already written so much! I am creating dialog to give the stories more life. As you say, some people are uneasy about that, but I agree that verbatim doesn't matter so much. You're just trying to capture the gist of what was most likely was said and to be realistic. And yes, I have to ask him a lot of those "but how did you feel about that" questions.

Sharon said...

My goodness Linda, that sounds like three times the challenge of working with your own journals. Good luck with it all!

Dawn Herring said...


I love this process you share here with using our journal entries as fodder for our essays and stories, transforming them into memoir. Digging into those details and bringing them to life can be quite the challenge, but having the entries to bring them more definitively to mind is like having a gold mine to discover treasure.

I have chosen your post, From Journal to Memoir, for the #JournalChat Pick of the Day on 8/28/13 for all things journaling on Twitter;
a link will be posted on the social networks, on my blog and website Refresh with Dawn Herring, and in my weekly Refresh Journal: .

#JournalChat Live is every Thursday, 5 EST/2 PST, for all things journaling on Twitter; our topic this week is Your Journaling: List love.

Thanks for giving us a great journal-to-memoir lesson. :)

Be refreshed,

Dawn Herring
Your Refreshment Specialist
Host of #JournalChat Live and Links Edition on Twitter
Author of The Birthday Wall: Create a Collage to Celebrate Your Child