I recently took my first writing seminar in several years, called “Becoming a Master Writer.” Novelist and editor John DeDakis taught the course (virtually) for The Muse Writing Center in Norfolk. The course covered a variety of topics about craft and the writing life, but one of my major personal takeaways was a new appreciation for the value of journaling and memoir.
I’ve never managed to do much of either — journaling often seems like a waste of time when I could be “actually writing” with that precious discretionary time, and the thought of myself writing a memoir seems more than a little self-indulgent. I would love, for example, to read the memoirs of my great uncle, who began a medical career decades ago in Sri Lanka and for a time was the only doctor for 50,000 people. Or people who lived through trying circumstances (such as wars or periods of great change), or perhaps those who have attained a high level of spiritual insight and want to share the journey. What do I have to say about my life next to any of that?
Mr. DeDakis gave me a new perspective on memoir. He said, “The better you know yourself, the stronger your writing will be.”
He framed the whole act of writing anything, not just the memoir genre as an end-goal, as the translation of our experiences, subconscious, and active imagination onto the page. If our lived experience is the emotional wellspring from which we draw our inspiration (and the lens through which we process the inner life of others), then exploring those depths of the soul might actually be quite useful even if memoir is not our end goal. This all might seem obvious to anyone who journals regularly, but for whatever reason, it had not clicked in this way for me until this course.
I’m working on one of his many suggested exercises: Make a timeline of your life, year by year. Record anything you remember about that year (or know about it secondhand), whatever comes to mind. Include how you felt, who was involved and how you felt about them, and what was going on in the world for context. Then, start drawing connections — are there repeated motifs, trends, themes that emerge? Perhaps these threads of experience are really What You Should Be Writing About, in either fiction or nonfiction.
I have no doubt that journaling and memoir also have intrinsic value as self-reflection, as a goal in and of itself. I look forward to those side benefits as well! However, DeDakis’s framing these activities in the context of how they could actually help my prose fiction serves as a nice motivator.