From Journal to Memoir: There’s a First Time for Everything

Editor's Note: In this multipart series, Signature and Rita Jacobs, PhD, will walk you through finding the inspiration and motivation to start – and keep – a journal, and will later offer some approaches to transforming journal entries into memoir. In part eleven of this series, Dr. Jacobs turns her attention to "firsts" and also begins to address the move to memoir writing. See earlier posts in the From Journal to Memoir series here.

For everything in our lives there is a first time, whether it’s a first kiss, first day of school, first job, first meeting with a spouse, or first bout with food poisoning. The list goes on and on for each of us and some of these firsts become first steps after which we take many more on the same or similar path. Of course, if we move on to repeat an experience, it is never the same as the first time and couldn’t be – after all, a repeatable first is an oxymoron.

Then there are those firsts that we would rather avoid repeating in any way (put food poisoning on that list for me). Sometimes we learn from our “firsts” and sometimes we don’t, but inevitably, with any first-time experience, there comes a certain loss of innocence, which is always a fertile area for exploration.

Whatever firsts come to mind for you, they are worth exploring in writing for a vast number of reasons. Clearly, a first stands out not only because it might have been an initiation into a lifelong practice or an adventure, but also because it might stand out as a moment against which you measure other such moments. There is also the thrill of a first, be it a first sexual encounter or a first plane ride (Freud might say those two experiences have a lot in common), a first restaurant meal or a first spiritual experience. Equally important are the firsts that are negative or painful: the first time your heart is broken or the moment you lose your faith in something or someone. All of these are worth exploring in writing for they are turning points.

Along with being fruitful journal entries, firsts can also be anchoring pieces for memoir writing, either for the beginning of a work or as chapter openings. They can also be central to personal essay writing. So there are several reasons why I’d like to explore approaches to writing about firsts.

But before you begin, it’s a good idea to recall the wise words of perhaps the foremost literary rememberer of all time, Marcel Proust, who said, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” So if you find yourself adding your current interpretation to the memory of a first, you are in good company.

Writing Exercise: Center yourself in the scene before beginning to describe or explore the “first” you are writing about. This is an important idea with any writing – setting the scene helps you to remember specific details and to establish ordinary life before the change. In the most extreme of examples, when Steven Spielberg initiated his Shoah project to film interviews with survivors of the Holocaust, it was the first instinct of many of the people interviewed to bring up the moment they were taken from their homes. But Spielberg’s interviewers always started before the horrors of the Holocaust, asking about daily life and family dinners. Setting the scene establishes the mundane against which the change stood in great contrast.

Of course, this is an extreme example and I fervently hope and trust your firsts will be much less painful, but if you need explore a very painful moment as a first, this is the time to write about it. Whatever you choose to write about, begin by asking yourself the following series of questions, “How old was I? Where was I? Who was I at that moment?” Thus the describing begins and sets the scene for one of your “firsts.”