There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.
- Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
The Spaghetti Trick
Have you ever done the spaghetti trick to see if your pasta is cooked? You throw it against the wall and see what sticks, right?
Writing memoir is like that.
When things happen in life, at first it all seems to stick. Like last week’s thunderous monsoon downpours or how sweet and grownup my daughter looked as she left on a date.
But, as time passes, the keeper moments—the moments that matter—are the ones most likely found still stuck on the wall of memory. My early keeper moments include blowing bubbles with my father on our porch as a child. Or, hot-wiring my car in my teen years, so I could “steal” it from the repair shop, which was always closed.
These moments stuck, because they are part of a larger narrative about character. As you begin jotting down your memories, soon you will find ideas and themes that connect them. At first blush, the anecdote about my father and bubbles is an everyday image. But let’s dig deeper.
My father made blowing bubbles memorable because he made humongous homemade glycerin and dish-soap bubbles, blowing them through coat hanger hoops. As a child I could almost climb inside of them.
But, more importantly, I remember the story he always told with the bubbles.
One day Renee was swept up by a giant bubble. She travelled around the world: saw the Great Wall of China, the African deserts, polar bears in Alaska…until one day she found herself floating near home and a red-tail hawk flew next to her guiding her home.
This story stuck with me. As I grew, my father took me to many amazing places and introduced me to different cultures. Hence the bubble story becomes a pivotal childhood story that helped shape and inform my experiences and my character. Likewise, hotwiring my car shows my determination and get-it-done-ness.
Start with an Episode
Your story or memoir may not begin with a childhood memory, but these memories are great to mine for episodes that inform your larger story. My memoir involves my struggle for independence from my father. But, I did this by testing my mettle and coming of age in the harsh wilderness of Alaska.
My memoir doesn’t open with my father making bubbles. But the first drafts of my memoir did, if only because I limited myself to writing in chronology.
I later sliced and diced my chronological writings into chapters based largely on the structure of a year, organized by themes such as “The Honey Bucket,” about the physical and sometimes humorous demands of wilderness living, or a “Another North Country Malady,” a spring chapter about cabin fever and personal conflict.
According to editor Mary Holden and Literary Agent Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli, since my memoir was about me in Alaska that’s where it needed to start. After rearranging my chapters by episodes or themes, I found a place in the middle of the book where my father visits me to include the bubble story as a flashback.
Getting a Taste
Discover what life episodes shape you with the following exercises:
1.) Consider your favorite children’s books. What insights do they offer about life?
2.) Think of a handful of important events that stand out in your life. Why do you remember these events? Why are they important to who you are now?