“To me, reading through old letters and journals is like treasure hunting. Somewhere in those faded, handwritten lines there is a story that has been packed away in a dusty old box for years.”~ Sara Sheridan, Picture Quotes
I am very pleased to feature Amber Lea Starfire in this guest post about using journals and letters in your memoir writing as a way of retrieving memory and deepening the narrative. Amber is a writing coach, an editor and the author of several books, including two memoirs. I met Amber online when I first started writing my memoir in 2009 and count her among my most valued resources for journaling and writing.
When and How to Use Journals and Letters in Your Memoir
Writing a memoir is hard work. Having to rely solely on memory makes it even harder, which is why it’s important to research and verify the events of your life as much as possible. There are many ways to accomplish this, such as interviewing family members and researching political and cultural events to give context to your life events.
If you’re lucky enough to have source materials, such as journals and letters — either your own or belonging to key characters in your memoir — you possess treasure. Yet having these materials can also cause confusion. For example, should you include excerpts of these materials in your memoir or just to use them to verify details and solidify your recollections? And then, if you do decide to include excerpts, which ones do you choose?
How do you keep the right balance of excerpt and narrative?
Your decisions will rest upon what voices — points of view — you are portraying in your story and how well the voices within your source materials can work to move your story forward.
My first memoir, Not the Mother I Remember, began when I found boxes of my mother’s journals and letters. My purpose in writing that memoir was to explore our complicated relationship through the ways we each perceived and responded to the shared events of our lives, how our experiences did and didn’t mesh. My mother’s voice was essential to the story, so it was a natural choice to weave together and contrast our points of view using excerpts from her writing.
In my newest memoir, Accidental Jesus Freak, I also chose to use excerpts from my own journals and letters (my mother’s letters also make a brief appearance here) to illustrate some of the conflict I was experiencing. But for this memoir, I used these materials in a much more limited way.
What about your memoir? Let’s return to my original questions: how do you choose whether to use excerpts from existing material? And once that decision is made, how do you choose which portions to use? And when to use them?
Here are some questions to consider when making the decision to include excerpts from letters or journals:
- In what ways will inserting this excerpt add to my story?
- Does the excerpt convey a viewpoint or memory more succinctly and effectively than I could write it myself in scene or reflection?
- Does the writing uniquely illustrate a mindset or point of view or add to a characterization?
- Can it be added to the narrative as part of and without disrupting the narrative flow?
- Do I have the copyrights to the materials?
Things to keep in mind:
- You’re the editor — you can and should correct spelling and punctuation errors in the original material, UNLESS those errors are an important part of your character’s personality. For example, you may want to keep errors in excerpts taken from your childhood diary, because they illustrate the development of your character at that age. Otherwise, those kinds of errors are distracting and may jolt your readers out of the narrative.
For example, in Not the Mother I Remember, as Alzheimer’s began to take over my mother’s mind, her sentence syntax and choice of words became confused. However, in telling my story, I wanted to convey my mother’s intended message (which was clear) rather than have readers focus on her disease, so I corrected the errors in her writing. If I wanted readers to focus on the progression of her disease, I would have let those errors remain.
- It’s okay to remove portions and quote just the bits you need — as long as the meaning remains the same. You don’t want to distort the message of the original material. Whether you choose to use ellipses or not to indicate missing portions is up to you. It’s not required (no one will know otherwise), and too many ellipses may distract your readers.
- Choose your excerpts carefully and with purpose. You should be able to answer positively all of the five bulleted questions listed above.
- Avoid redundancy. Make your point with one or, at most, two excerpts that have the same core message. Readers will get bored quickly with reading the same types of entries over and over.
If you’re questioning whether to use an excerpt or not, try writing your passage both ways. In the first, include the excerpt. In the second, include a scene that portrays the same message or event. Which one is stronger and works better for your purpose? Not sure? Get some feedback from your critique group or a friend who can be trusted to tell you the unvarnished truth.
Don’t be afraid to experiment.
When used well and with purpose, including excerpts of journals, letters, and other original source materials can provide rich context and meaning in your memoir.
Synopsis of Amber’s latest memoir, Accidental Jesus Freak:
From the author of the award-winning memoir Not the Mother I Remember, comes an extraordinary story of love and faith and a unique window into the Jesus Movement in the 1970s.
In 1973, Linda was a flute player and music major at a California community college, until she met and fell madly in love with a charismatic piano player, plunging into his world of music-making and drug-fueled parties. When, just three weeks after their wedding, he reveals that he’s been “born again,” Linda makes the spontaneous decision to follow him into his new religion and, unwittingly, into a life of communal living, male domination, and magical thinking.
With unflinching candor, Amber Starfire chronicles her journey as Linda Carr into the evangelical church culture, where she gives up everything for her husband and their music ministry. But in the process, she loses her most valuable assets: her identity and sense of self-worth. It is only when Linda returns to live with her birth family and faces her complicated relationship with her mother that she finds new purpose and the courage to begin to extricating herself from the limiting beliefs of her past.
Accidental Jesus Freak is the story of one woman, one marriage, and one kind of fundamentalism, but it is also the story of the healing that is possible when we are true to ourselves. Both a cautionary tale and celebration of personal empowerment, Accidental Jesus Freak is a powerful reminder for anyone who seeks to live a life authentic to who they truly are.
Amber Lea Starfire is an award-winning author, editor, and writing coach in Napa, California.
Amber’s newest memoir, Accidental Jesus Freak: One Woman’s Journey from Fundamentalism to Freedom will be released in February, 2018. Her first memoir, Not the Mother I Remember was a finalist for the Indie Book Awards for 2015 and the Sarton Memoir Awards in 2016. She also co-edited the groundbreaking anthology, Times They Were A-Changing: Women Remember the ’60s & ’70s.
In addition to memoir, she has authored books on journaling and self-publishing — Week by Week: A Year’s Worth of Journaling Prompts & Meditations, Journaling the Chakras, and Publish Your Chaptbook.
Amber Lea Starfire’s passion is helping others tell their stories, make meaning of their lives, and access their inner wisdom and creativity through the act of writing. She offers courses and workshops in journaling and creative writing.
Visit her website at http://www.writingthroughlife.com.
Thank you Amber for sharing your words of wisdom about memoir writing and for showing us how you used letters and journals in your two memoirs. I have excerpted letters and journal entries in both my first memoir and now in my work-in-progress second memoir and feel they add a deeper dimension to the narrative.
How about you? Do you feel letters and journal excerpts add to the story?
We’d love to hear from you. Please join in the conversation below~
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