Write Start: Amy Jo Burns on How to Capture Your Toughest Memories

Editor's Note: Amy Jo Burns hails from the land of abandoned steel mills and four-wheeler accidents. She graduated from Cornell University, writes for Ploughshares, and teaches at the Arts Council of Princeton. Cinderland is her first book. For Signature's Write Start seriesin which authors share advice on how to start writing, Amy outlines five simple steps to muster the writing spirits. 

While writing my memoir Cinderland, I found that the hardest scenes to write were also the ones that had been the hardest moments to live, and certainly the hardest to relive and remember. How do we begin to dissect the moments that changed the trajectories of our lives? These difficult scenes are often the most integral to our narratives, and they take time to develop and understand. For me, the process of capturing these memories usually began long before I started to write, but when it came time to put these memories into concrete words, here are five simple actions that helped me pick up the pen.

1. Create a Playlist

There’s no writing tool more evocative than music. I have several types of playlists on my computer -- one for when I’m thinking about an idea or a scene, one for when I’m writing it, and one for when I’m trying to remember what living that scene was like. Collecting songs from a particular time period can help reintroduce you to your old self, and the right playlist can also help you feel safe as you write difficult material. Notice what conditions make you produce your best work. What style of music helps you best reflect on the past? What sort of tempo helps you crank out the pages quickly? What will keep you company when the writing gets tough?

2. Draw a Map

I first completed this exercise in graduate school, and I was shocked at how helpful it was. Often the best way to start writing is by not writing at all. Words can trip us up where tough memories are concerned. Drawing a diagram of the space in which that memory occurred can open up how you decide to tell it. For example, I initially had a lot of trouble writing a key memory with my piano teacher. When I drew the space where I had my lessons, I saw clearly that the piano was placed tightly against the back wall, separating me from the door. There was no getting out. There was very little light. These sorts of palpable details help validate my felt experience of claustrophobia, and it helps the reader feel it, too.

3. Begin with a Concrete Object

Our early attempts at writing our toughest memories can get so laden with abstraction and emotion that it’s hard to move past them. This is where concrete details can swoop in to save the day. The one constant of every piano lesson I took was the electric metronome on top of the piano, how it blinked throughout the entire lesson, how every young lady throughout town also had one to help them keep the beat. This item not only anchored me in the moment, it also helped me establish a tone for the scene. What tangible objects accompany your memories, and what significance do they have?

4. Make a Timeline

The importance of memoir lies in the connections we draw between our memories. Timelines help you notice patterns in your own life, so try this: draw a line down the length of a sheet of paper, then create a notch for every key moment in your life, taking note of your age and the year. Then do the same for the other key players in the narrative, and even for your town, the country, and the world.

What key events happened at what age? What was happening in the world at the time? Any clusters or gaps? What conclusions might you draw? What was your mother doing at your age? Your father? Do you notice a pattern or a direct defiance of one? These kinds of connections help us reach a deeper understanding of our own experience and how best to communicate their meaning to the reader. If this exercise leads you nowhere—fear not. You can always slice up each event in your life, rearrange the order on your kitchen table, and ask yourself if you’d like to tell a chronological narrative or one that plays with time itself. How might your story change if your final chronological event appears first? This might open up an interesting connection between cause and effect, which is the bread-and-butter of memoir.

5. Plan Something Fun Before You Start

Writing down a traumatic memory is a very physical and emotional act, and your body and heart need time to recuperate before you return to work. Having a fun, restorative activity built into your schedule ensures that you’ll have the strength to revisit and rework that tough material until it’s complete. When I finished my writing for the day, sometimes I took a bath, gave myself a manicure, or called a friend. On the regular, I watched episodes of “30 Rock.” This simple act, done every day over my lunch hour, helped me write and finish my memoir. The gift of laughter is an important thing to give yourself.

For more author advice like this, visit the Write Start series now. 

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