I don’t know where you are in your memoir, but if you are feeling stuck, memoir journaling will help you overcome writer's block in a very gentle and unpressurised way.
Last year I unpublished all of my memoirs. I realised that I had written them to help me heal, and it was cathartic getting that stuff out of my system. However, I knew I had a different story because of some other ‘stuff’. I have been coming to terms with my (now passed) alcoholic dad and our life together.
I’d decided to write a novel, and in researching that, I had a bit of an epiphany and awakening, which I naturally explored in my journal. The novel is an amusing take on the protagonist's dead alcoholic father moving in with her.
As I played with ideas, the story of my life and core message became clearer. The magic of reflection and writing never ceases to amaze me.
And because I like multiple projects and I wanted to plan my memoir using the knowledge and skills amassed over the years, I also outlined and wrote a new memoir course. Naturally, I am road-testing it alongside the new memoir planner.
Nothing like challenging yourself, eh?
So, I get it. Writing a memoir can seem daunting, especially when you don't know where to start. However, a simple, effective and powerful tool at your fingertips is journaling. With its potential to enhance emotional well-being, cognition, and self-identity, journaling is more than just a record of your thoughts and experiences—it can serve as the scaffold for your memoir (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005). So, how can you leverage the power of journaling to begin your memoir journey?
In writing, scaffolding refers to a process that helps writers progressively improve their skills or complete complex tasks. The term scaffolding originates from the field of education, referring to instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process.
In a memoir, you can think of it as laying the foundation and then adding other techniques to help you plan and write your story. And the one we want to focus on is journaling.
Begin With Today
Where to start your memoir is always a biggie, and then you might find yourself lost in the whole of your life. OMG, which bit do you need to write about? As they sing in Do-Re-Mi - Let's start at the very beginning. A very good place to start. By that, I mean today.
Memoirs are often successful when they focus on pivotal moments rather than a comprehensive chronology.
So, let’s start with today.
Begin journaling your current thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Journaling can help you identify patterns and themes you wish to explore further. What will happen is that the theme of your memoir will leap out at you as you write.
Start exploring today, what happened, how did you feel, what challenges were there, what was good, and what are you grateful for. Put your pen to paper and let it wander.
Get Your Environment Right
How and where do you like to write? In a crowded café, with hot chocolate and biscuits to dunk, or in a peaceful place with no noise or interruptions?
What about making your space comfortable? What do you need to make yourself a writing den? What about your desk and chair? What about the energy of the space?
If you have read my blogs, you will know I am the quiet writing type. And when it comes to journaling, it is usually in bed.
Decide where you want to write. Is this in bed, on the sofa or somewhere else? Do you like smells, sounds, silence or something else? TV or radio on in the background? What about people? I find it a pain to be interrupted when writing, do you? And don’t even get me started on the dogs barking. As much as I adore them – please, no barking…
Being Grounded And Centred
When we are grounded, centred, in alignment, working from our heart and listening to the whispers of our soul, the Universe flows to us and through us. That’s when your writing will flow, and you can create what you need.
Imagine that you have roots growing from your feet into Mother Earth. Breathe that energy into your heart and out through your head. Send it down into Mother Earth, and breathe the energy up again. Do this a few times. When you feel calm, you can write.
Ha! I can hear you say, that's easy for you. Really? I have days when I look at my journal and can't be arsed. These are the days that I need it most. I ground and then start writing rubbish, and as that flows and I am engaged, what I need to write comes flowing out.
So, yes, just write. Trust me, I'm a coach and cake lover.
Consistency in journaling can bring emotional and cognitive benefits, as per a study by Smyth (1998). By dedicating even a few minutes each day to journaling, you create a habit that can help you understand your life more fully and identify the stories that need to be told. I journal most evenings; after all these years, it’s part of who I am.
Find a time and place that suits you and do it.
Embrace the Mess
Oh yes, scribble and get it all out. Journaling doesn't require perfection. Don't be afraid to ramble, repeat, contradict, and make mistakes. Be vulnerable and be real. As Natalie Goldberg puts it, "Through practice, you actually do get better...You learn to trust your deep self more and not give in to your voice that wants to avoid writing" (Goldberg, 2005).
Take this invitation and get messy and, yes, cry. Writing is cathartic, so expect to feel emotions being released.
Journaling has therapeutic effects as it facilitates emotional processing and promotes well-being (Pennebaker, 1997). When journaling for your memoir, don't shy away from the pleasant and unpleasant emotions. They form an essential part of your personal narrative.
When my spine fractured, I would wake up in the night, immediately reminded of the pain I was in physically and emotionally and take it out on my journal. After which, I could get back to sleep.
Memoirs are emotional. You will be taking your reader on an emotional journal. Practising in your journal and getting the rawness out will help you when you come to share your story. Your readers want an emotional connection with you.
Dive Into the Past
Once you've established a journaling habit, it's time to gently delve into your past. Identify significant moments and events, and try to capture your thoughts, emotions, and the impact these had on you. The rich details can bring your memoir to life.
Use Memoir Journaling Prompts
Of course, things are so much easier if someone asks us questions. If you struggle with the prompts in each of the sections, scribble them out and try one of these:
Think back to a pivotal moment in your life when everything seemed to change. What happened? How did you feel? What did you learn from it?
What's your earliest memory? Describe the people, places, sounds, and feelings associated with it.
If you could write a letter to a younger version of yourself, what would you say? What advice, warnings, or words of encouragement would you offer?
Write about a relationship that has significantly impacted your life. It could be a family member, friend, or even an adversary. How did this relationship shape you?
Describe a challenge or hardship you faced and how you overcame it. What were the key moments of struggle, resilience, and triumph?
What was a moment when you felt truly proud of yourself? Dive into the details - why was it significant, and how did it define you?
If you could go back to any event in your life, which one would it be and why? What would you see, feel, and do differently?
Write about a hobby, passion, or interest that has significantly influenced your life. How did you discover it, and how has it changed or shaped you over time?
Share an experience when you had to make a tough decision. Describe the options you had, the path you chose, and the outcome of that decision.
Reflect on the legacy you want to leave behind. How do you want to be remembered? How have your actions and decisions so far aligned with this legacy?
When I am stuck on putting structure around something, I simply create a mind map. A mind map is a collection of thoughts around a central idea. It is quick and simple and serves to ignite my imagination. I also use it for creating plans and developing ideas.
This is very simple and is similar to the mind mapping idea, except the word is a word for today.
Write a word in the middle of the page and then allow five other words to come, and on each branch, five and five more until you run out.
Try this: Put SMILE into a mind map and see what words come up for you.
Then you can write about what comes up for you.
Paint Pictures With Words
The saying goes, "Show, don't tell," which holds true for memoir writing. Use descriptive language in your journal to create vivid pictures of your experiences. This will make your memoir more engaging and relatable to your readers.
Turn I was unhappy into something like this...
A sombre cloud of discontent hung heavily over me, draining the colour from my days.
Look for Patterns and Themes
After journaling for a while, you will notice patterns and themes. I promise they will leap out at you. These could form the backbone of your memoir. The regularity of journaling helps uncover these underlying threads, themes and ideas.
Pick one or two themes and explore them. In fact, pick one now and just write.
Authenticity is crucial in memoir writing. It's your story, in your words. Your journal is a safe space for raw honesty—you can lay bare your fears, triumphs, failures, and lessons learned.
Enjoy the Memoir Journaling Journey
Journaling can be both a reflective and enjoyable process. Writing has been associated with increased happiness, reduced stress levels, and enhanced mental clarity (Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999).
So, as you journey towards writing your memoir, make sure to enjoy the process - otherwise, what is the point?
It might not feel like it, but if you spent the past week following the above tips and prompts, you are officially keeping a journal.
Come back after a week of trying these things - you will, won't you?
How did it make you feel? Do you see any benefits yet? No matter the answers to the above, commit to another week and ask yourself the same questions again. It’s too early in the journey to quit yet. Just take things one week at a time. Eventually, you will know exactly how powerful a tool journaling can be.