by NAMW January Roundtable Teleconversation Guest, Amber Lea Starfire
Memoir writing requires the ability to reconstruct and successfully communicate memories of events from your past and to reflect on those events from your present day perspective — tasks that can seem daunting when you first set out to write. However, reconstruction and reflection can both be made easier through the journaling technique of writing a letter to yourself. (Perhaps it’s more accurate to think of it as writing email to yourself, because it’s really an interactive, two-way process).
Previously, on my website WritingThroughLife.com, I discussed using letter writing and journaling conversations with yourself for the purpose of accessing inner wisdom and creativity, as well as to move more deeply into any given subject. It makes sense, therefore, that writing letters to yourself would work equally well during the memoir writing process.
Here’s how it works: write down a question, then close your eyes, take a couple of deep breaths, and allow your subconscious (your inner self) to answer by writing down whatever response comes into your mind.
If you’re working to reconstruct a memory, your question might be something as simple as, “Who was with me in the kitchen that day?” or as complicated as, “What really happened between Joey and me that summer?” As each question is answered, write a related question, until the entire event, scene, or circumstance has been accurately recalled.
Reflecting upon a past event or situation requires a deep level of insight. You need to communicate with your readers about how the situation impacted you at the time, what you subsequently learned, and what you think about the event now as you regard it from your present day point of wisdom. The trouble is that many of us haven’t taken the time to understand how a particular circumstance has impacted our lives. The question and answer letter writing process can help.
Again, start with a question. How did you respond to that event or situation when it happened? For example, did you feel hurt, angry, or take it in stride when your sister pretended she didn’t know you that day at the park? Did your feelings and behaviors change as a result of the event? Looking back now, what might you want to tell that younger self? For example, perhaps as an adult you discovered that your sister was being bullied by one of her friends and was actually trying to protect you. How did that discovery impact you, and what did you learn from it? These are questions you can ask yourself in letter form. When you allow the answer to bubble up from your deeper, subconscious self, you often achieve new insights and/or ways of expressing insights you’ve had in the past.
If you’ve never tried this technique before, remember that writing letters to yourself takes practice. At first, you might feel silly or self-conscious (even when you’re alone!) about writing to yourself. Or you might resist the idea of allowing your inner voice to speak through writing. If this happens to you, make a cup of tea, relax, and try again. You’ll be amply rewarded for your efforts.
Editor’s Note: Please join us for our January Memoir Writing Roundtable Teleconversation next Thursday, January 13, 2011, with Amber Lea Starfire, Kay Adams & Linda Joy Myers. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and questions on this interesting approach to help jumpstart your memoir.
I like this idea. Something else I think helps is to actually write a letter to someone else, but not send it. Could help you clarify an unresolved issue or tap into something you hadn’t previously considered. Check out the site http://www.thingsunsaidproject.wordpress.com, which posts letters from people sharing things they’ve never said to another individual before. Interesting stuff and really spurred me to investigate the purpose of letter writing further.
Keep up the good work!
Hi Tina. Thanks for your comment. Yes, writing letters to others — even imaginary persons — is a great tool for getting to the core of things that are difficult to say, admit, or even (sometimes) think about. Journaling allows you to keep them private, as a tool for self-discovery, though I imagine there’s therapeutic value to posting them, as well. Let us know how your letter-writing investigation goes and how it helps you with your memoir/lifewriting.
What a wonderful idea! I frequently converse with relatives who have passed away in my own private conversations, asking for advice, sharing events of the day or my confusion about them… How much better to write down my inner dialogue to them as a letter!
Writing to myself would be a truly novel concept. Don’t know how myself would respond, but it tickles my fancy!
I love the ideas of writing letters to yourself, or others either real or imagined, thank you. Another technique is to free write a few minutes each day, prefreably during a time set aside. I have written several very short pieces about events, people, impressions, etc., jot down a word, words, phrases, or sentences that come to mind, later those beginnings may become paragraphs, pages, poetry or prose or even music for deeper reflections. Anything that lingers, or returns, about family, friends, growing up or discovering self, life is so full of adventures. Also, you might check out the book, “This I believe, on love by Dan Gediman (short essays on love).
Amber, thanks for the great idea. I often think about the time when we wrote “real” letters to each other. Time was spent on putting pen to paper, thinking about the person to whom we were writing and ourselves and what we were writing. A very special space was created and I think we learned through that writing. Giving ourselves that same thoughtful time could be be a gift. i think about my 20 year old self of whom I am often so critical. What if she wrote me a letter? What would I learn?
I can see this exercise being useful in memoir writing workshops, so thank you.