What’s the first memory that comes to mind when I say,
“wet shoes” ?
For me, it’s the time I lived in a South American country during the drenching winter rain season.Two hours before my flight left for Spanish-speaking lands I’d packed new black leather pumps for the required “office attire” of my upcoming job. Little did the shoes or I know they’d end up doing a job better suited for high-water waders! Every day I walked about twenty blocks to the bus station with an umbrella pretending to keep the above-the-knees me dry in the wind-whipped, slanting downpour. With no money for rubber boots, my shoes just had to slog through. Soggy shoes take forever to dry in humid weather so these were always baking in the sun that drenched us with heat between rain attacks. I chased that celestial body’s moisture-sucking rays across my apartment, getting ready for the next time shoes and I would repeat the whole mess.
That’s going to be in my memoir someday.
Memoirs stir our deepest memories—all those little ones that made the warp and weave of our life’s fabric.
Most memoir classes or courses suggest frequently-used starting points like, “What’s the most important moment of your life?” or “Who’s the most important person?” Those are great launching pads if you have something or someone like that and are comfortable writing about it.
Same with the funniest, most dangerous, educational, or saddest moments. They’re all important, but when the event is THE MOST of something, its importance can be intimidating to write, and its story very long.
And then the story doesn’t get written.
I recently taught a memoir workshop with seniors where we worked with small, easy writing prompts. Participants wrote for only 10 minutes and then read if they wanted to. The exercise was inspiring because that one tiny but precise thing was easy to focus on.
Back in their apartments, some people continued writing on their story, which of course led to it expanding into who was there, what was happening, or where it all happened. And that led to the next story and the next.
Because it was easy! And satisfying.
Here are some of our prompts to get your memoir started:
— “What food did you hate as a child?”
One participant wrote about secreting her cauliflower in the dining room table’s slot where the table leaf slid in, only to find out later that her cousin did the same thing, on the other side of the table.
Another participant said, “We had so little food you didn’t get to choose—we ate everything.”
—”Who slept in your bedroom with you during your elementary school years?”
One participant wrote about the straw-stuffed mattresses that were so high and comfy in October but which, under the weight of her and her two siblings, slowly collapsed to one inch thick around January.
—”What was your favorite toy?”
Instead of choosing one toy, a participant talked about his highly-competitive nature that made him constantly customize his toys to make them better, faster, tougher.
—”What did you do as a child that your parents told you not to do ?”
As older adults, these stories can be hilarious or revealing — true confessions ranged from putting a foot in the local patch of quicksand and almost falling in, to taking a ride on a teenager’s bicycle that ended up changing her sense of safety but made her braver.
If you’re a younger person trying to get your elder to tell their stories, this is a great way to start.
Reliving our life brings up emotions that we may not want to re-experience. Things that we talked easily about in our 40s can make us cry in our 70s or 80s. For many [older] women, the first internal reaction could be, “I didn’t do anything – who cares about my life?”
If your elder is hesitant to tell their tale, starting with easy topics makes it more comfortable to be self-revealing.
As you pop that olive in your mouth at dinner, why not say, “Man, I hated olives as a kid but now I can’t get enough of them. What about you, Grandpa? What did you hate to eat?”
Many of us like a writing prompt to get us started, especially with memories. Or just because it’s a fun challenge. Take the threat out of writing by playing with a weekly prompt via our newsletter: PROMPTLY.