Writing Moments that Matter

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.

Digging In

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?

Write well,[1]


[1] well, adjective

1. in good health; sound in body and mind: Are you well? He is a well man.  2. satisfactory, pleasing, or good: All is well with us.



18 thoughts on “Writing Moments that Matter

    • Millie: You make MY morning right! Good to hear from you. Can’t wait to have coffee in Appalachia with you… metaphorically, or perhaps metaphysically–or even in person at your retreat one day!


  1. I find my most vivid childhood memories come when I’m doing something mundane, like folding laundry or moping my floors. Recently, I began (stopping) what I’m doing and writing those memories down. Regardless of what I do with those memories, I know now I have them written in a place where I can recall them at will. Those memories are gifts from my complicated brain that allow me to connect my past with my present. They help me identify with my authentic self.
    Your dad gave you some very rich experiences in love and exploration, Renee. I see you passing that on to your daughters! Cheers to that kind of wisdom!!


    • What a great idea. Yes, keeping that daybook or journal close to capture those fleeting moments brought on my the everyday is such a WONDERFUL idea. I like how you show this with folding laundry or mopping floors. Smell is also a great conjuror of the past! Love the idea of the “authentic self” Kristi. You are so sweet to think of me as passing that on to my daughters, since I look up to your parenting style that means a lot to me.


  2. What a great memory! Your dad’s story is so sweet to tell his little girl. Those memories will be beautiful to your children later reading your memoir, and really getting to know their mother.


    • Lisa,

      Thank you so much for your thoughts on this. Your gravatar image is so cool! Great to see you guys last weekend. I hope to just be able to grab a salad and have “girl time” with you soon!


  3. Great tips, Renee. I’ll remember them as I ask Mtuseni to contribute bits of his story for my eventual Long-Distance Dad book. And I love the opening quote. My childhood “door” was in second grade when I asked Santa for a typewriter. Juice from an orange squirted into it before New Years’ and after that, the O key sometimes would stick. Strange. But I haven’t stopped writing since!


    • I love how you are able to synthesize your experiences and project out for Mtuseni where he should be headed! I so enjoy following your story! Thanks for stepping into mine! – Renee


  4. I have always used the spaghetti trick to make sure my pasta is al dente (it’s actually a trick my father taught me and my mother hated…). But I have never used it for sorting out memories. What a great idea. The same with digging in and the other ideas for sorting out memories. Now I am not about to write my memoirs, but of course I use my various memories of episodes and situations from the past in my daily work. So thanks for the great ideas.


    • To the creative muse: I’m flattered for your time here on my blog! I thought of you today as I posted my first photo essay. I must take great care to put out only my best work, since I know pros like you will be over my shoulder, with only the best support! So glad the spaghetti trick resonated. I will keep looking to your stories and photos for technical and spiritual inspiration as well!


  5. I’ve never thought about relating my favorite childhood book to my life. I can see so many connections already. I don’t know how I’ll form them into anything coherent, but it’s a great writing exercise, even if nothing else comes of it.


  6. Bubbles. Simple and memorable! Funny how its usually the snallest of things that stick. I think about that sometimes w myboys . Imagining what they will remember? The trip to oaxaca or the hours spent at the kitchen table after school eating , talking and listening to music! I think i know….thanks!


Comments are closed.