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Have the time of your life recalling your life

Published on July 16, 2012, by in Commentary.

When the great sportswriter “Red” Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein,” he was referring to the agony of turning out a daily column. For memoirists, it’s so much easier—you just sit down, sans deadlines and bosses, choose a vein of memories, and begin mining for gold.

To assure your writing is enjoyable, start with a vein that leads somewhere pleasant. I often encourage memoir writers to begin planning their books by creating a simple life timeline, noting all major transitions. These are the branching points where something happened and afterward, things were never the same. Some branching points are pleasanter than others—winning a trip to Paris beats a divorce any day. If you begin writing about branching points that you recall with satisfaction, you’ll have the pleasure of dropping back into an enjoyable moment in your life when you write.

As many writers have discovered, putting your thoughts down on paper can put you into the “flow”– the blissful state of effortless concentration in which time and distractions disappear. It’s like the feeling of complete immersion you get while reading a good book. But when you’re writing, it’s your book that you can’t put down.

It typically takes about 15 minutes of uninterrupted focus to get into a state of “flow,” which is why many writing guides recommend free-writing for about five pages just to get started, without concern for what topic you write on or how well you phrase your thoughts.

After your free-writing warm-up, switch to a specific anecdote—some experience from the branching points on your timeline—to begin your memoir-writing session. The flow state tends to occur when a person has a clear goal, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Finding Flow. For your writing session, set a goal of completing one story, from opening facts through memory to a satisfactory conclusion. An hour or two should be sufficient to compose an anecdote—but in the flow state, you might need to set a timer to bring you back, you’ll be having such a good time.

There is an enjoyable aspect of writing memoir that takes place far from the computer keyboard (or typewriter, tape recorder, or pencil and paper). This is the research we do to stimulate memory recall, link our lives with social history, and confirm factual details. We visit places we’ve lived—even knocking on doors at old addresses, hoping for a peek into a childhood bedroom or back yard. We catch the genealogy bug and troll through historical records, following the stories of ancestors. We pull out boxes of memorabilia and mine the cache of memory-triggers therein.

With every research thread you follow, whether it’s five minutes on the Internet or a trip back to your old hometown, you add an enjoyable aspect to the memoir hobby and aquifer you’ll tap into the next time you  “sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

When you use a timeline of life’s branching points to find meaningful stories, take time to find the flow state when you write, and give yourself research assignments between writing sessions, you’ll find yourself having the time of your life, recalling your life.


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