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Further Thoughts on Starting (and Developing) Your Memoir

Robert Lunday
As you work on your memoir essays, consider these points about the art and craft of writing
prose.
First, think about invention. Invention is the rhetorical element of discovering ones ideas:
mainly, what to write about (content or theme), but also what purposes to define, what
audience, what overall form to establish. If you have trouble writing, it is helpful to start with
raw material something that might not be interesting at first, but will help you establish details
and possible directions for your writing. Superfluity, by the way, is a virtue in thinking
creatively you can always start over, change directions, omit, move around, and save for later
that material that ends up not suiting the present project. If you write on the computer, save
several states or drafts of your work, and try using the Comment function in Word; at least save
omitted passages rather than backspacing through them. (It is a good idea to start out writing by
hand on paper; you are less likely to delete ideas forever, and those cross-outs are often useful
later).
The ancient Greeks, specifically Aristotle, also proposed the idea of the topoi: categories of ideas
that a writer or speaker could draw upon when inventing his argument. The idea, basically, is
that something is already there waiting for you in the air, so to speak. (Topoi is plural for
topos: a place.) Thinking in terms of the topoi is like asking a series of already-established
questions about a problem or situation; it helps the writer to gather and arrange raw material, and
never feel stymied by the blank page because really, it is never blank, but is already filled with
a wide variety of possibilities.
If we list possible topoi for an autobiographical essay simply as static topics (rather than
statements or questions), some are obvious: birth, education, parents, friends, jobs, hobbies, etc.
Everyone can fill these categories easily enough. But one useful way to apply the topoi to your
memoir project is to discover the various sub-categories of a particular topos, and to see what
patterns or tendencies arise, and to see how the static categories connect in more dynamic
relationships.
Also, it is helpful, as a general rule of creative thinking, to seek after unusual associations; to
criss-cross things that dont immediately seem to relate, in particular. Creating a space, a gap,
or a matrix between one thing allows for sparks once you get the hang of it, and can balance
between seeing a challenge (like writing an essay) as both a game and an earnest endeavor.
Example: one student in a previous semester, for Exercise 1, wrote about a first memory that was
specifically about an injury. Injury is a topos we have all had an injury, so it can furthermore
be called archetypal (a universal experience), in the sense that we all remember some early
experience of pain: being cut, bruise, breaking a bone, etc.
The sub-categories, if I go inside the topos, might be: what implement caused my injury; what
foolish thing I or someone else was doing; who else was involved; if it was indoors or outdoors;
if it was doing work or doing something fun; how severe the injury was; what treatment I
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received what medical treatment, what comfort, what punishment, etc.; the convalescence or
healing; and then, the scar the badge of honor, the tall tales we tell repeatedly afterward (or the
embarrassment in avoiding tales), and the one-upmanship that people tell when comparing
battle wounds.
Your list of injury topoi would no doubt extend mine, or vary it; thats fine. The point is: every
concept, every experience, every memory, every name, is like a doorway. Knock on the door,
and find out what objects are in the room; see that every singular concept opens up to several
more, and each of those opens up to several more some interconnecting, some branching off to
near-infinity a fantail effect, which is part of the problem! The problem, for a creative thinker,
is not that there arent enough possibilities for continuing, but that there are too many. So,
writing, and invention in particular, is a problem of choosing more than finding.
There are various questions or scales of relation to apply to the topos as we attempt our
invention. Think, perhaps, of the standard rhetorical modes of organization: cause/effect,
comparison/contrast, definition, classification, narrative, description, and process. Most
topics or experiences could fit into all or most of these modes, and it is useful to try our several
as you seek out your best idea. These can be a series of lenses or facets through which to look
through, seeing the same singular experience in very different ways.
Also, think in terms of relational scales, as I was above: large/small, young/old, specific
general, broad/narrow, start/end, etc. Polar, or binary, or oppositional continua (singular:
continuum) are a good way to shape a starting space for your thoughts. It is very useful to
spatialize your thinking: to pretend there is a specific space, a set of boundaries, or a particular
shape to your problem, and therefore some specific relations, distances, heights and depths,
scales, and textures to the items in memory and imagination. Draw these spaces when you are
drafting (remember pen and paper; dont always start on the computer when youre writing!).
Think in terms of associations: a particular experience or thing is indexical of some larger
experience: an injury, for example, is indexical of risk, an accident, a job, a moment in your life,
a relationship, a journey, etc. Think of synonyms or metonyms: an injury might leave a wound;
a wound heals and leaves a scar; injuries can be bruises, cuts, breaks, and so forth. The injury
points toward danger, error, anger, difficulty, failure, regret, etc.
A metonym is one of many types of figures of speech; we will study others as this course
proceeds, but the basic figures are: metaphor, simile, metonym, synecdoche, personification,
and irony. Thinking in terms of the figurative values of things can help you see, understand, and
express the meanings in your life story more effectively. The essence of figuration is that what
we see (the literal) is only part of what is real and meaningful, and is often the less important, or
less lasting, aspect. Learn to explore the figurative possibilities of your experience, and you will
see how your own experience is not unique, but universal, and yet you will also find the unique
presentation of your experience. People seek both sides in the stories they read: a connection and
a distinction, a universal representation as well as a unique instance of it.
As we proceed, I will talk about many more essential elements to writing prose. It is hard to learn
them all at once. I prefer to start with a discussion of creative thinking in general, and of the
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deeper sources of writing. More nuts-and-bolts craft elements will come but to prepare, think
as you write about: setting (where and when of your story in the broad as well as the local
sense); character (you, the speaker, have a persona how you want your reader to see you; and
your family, friends, etc. all must be created as characters in the essay, since we wont know
them); exposition (what background information your readers need); scene (the actual
mechanics of setting, as if you were staging the narrative blocking, environmental detail,
dynamics of action, and dialogue how your characters speak when you recreate specific
situations).
One last word on beginning. Where to start? One rule, sometimes, is to start in the middle of
things in medias res, as they say in Latin. This is a convention of story-telling generally, but
you will see it often in movies: start at an intense moment of action, play out the scene briefly,
then provide a background (exposition) frame that catches the reader up to speed. In terms of
inventional strategies, its simply a way to get yourself going: if the in medias res opening
doesnt work, you can always revise later but at least it got you siphoning your ideas out onto
the page.
To prepare you for your first installment, which I assume everyone is already at work on, I will
take a look at some of the strategies employed by writers.
When were young we lack the depth and breadth of experience that we will have when we are
older. But we all have authority in some sense. What are your areas of experience where
sacrifice, trial and error, repeated training, the opportunity to learn from a master, or some other
benefit has made you knowledgeable in a way that would allow you to enlighten someone else?
Authority is partly a matter of perception: seeing things that others do not see. Anyone can hone
his or her senses; can learn to look carefully at something, and to discover patterns, variations,
and connections. Some writers look at objects in memory, anyway and in their rhetorical
transformations, make of those objects narrative focal points that also carry symbolic values.
They can be props that help locate, organize, invent, and energize the essays.
Put your ideas into a matrix or continuum: an inventive, associative space that is essential to the
process of developing your thoughts in an organized, exploratory manner. Also, the deployment
of props within that space can further the process of development and organization. Things are
not isolated; they are always connected to us, and to other things, and to space and action, in
complex ways, though most of those connections are invisible to us. The writers task, to some
extent, is to render the invisible visible, or to draw out of hiding things that seem insignificant.
All things, all connections, have potential value. A good way to discover your own deeper
purposes and possibilities is to deliberately focus your attentions in writing on small things, or
things the meanings of which you are as yet uncertain of. The object is a node or a nexus within
a greater field of meanings. That is, essentially, what a metonym is: a partial representation of
greater significance.
So, consider the life within objects that rhetorically-focused writing can draw out and enhance.

Also, consider how to structure and develop your writing when you are focusing on objects, or
when you are describing a process. Notice that all of these essayists alternate their rhetorical
modes: description, narration, process analysis, dialogic scene, etc. Partly, that is because the
reader values modulations or changes in perspective as well as modality it keeps us alert and
curious about the text. Also, it is definition: the process analysis is defined (or meaningfully
framed) by what comes before or after it, and also by the pattern of modulations: how often we
return, and through what connections or juxtapositions of meaning we return to a device or
modality in the essay.
Weaving is one way to define this process (a metaphor, but related to the fundamental
metaphor of text textile, texture an essay is made of the raw materials of language,
memory, and sensation).
With regard to this framing or defining, consider that one way the writer closes off a passage is
by returning or reiterating something from before. This reiteration happens through the actual
repetition of words, or through use of synonymous words; and through the similarities of
sentence styles that is, a series of similar grammatical patterns, or of sentence lengths, or of the
manner of emphasis.
This modulating, alternating, or framing also helps with pacing: how fast or slow, or how light
or heavy, your prose seems to the reader. One use of small dialogic passages, for example, is to
release the reader from discursive, and generally denser, passages, or from expository passages.
think of such dialogic scenes as punctuations of the writing. The dialogue itself can be dense, or
quick, or slow, or a place where tone or attitude can shift; you can put into the words of your
characters (yes, the real people in your life story, including you, have to become characters)
ideas or perspectives that contrast with those of your narrative persona.
Keep in mind, first, that all the essays we are reading are models; they demonstrate possibilities
of rhetorical strategy, structure, voice, theme, content, scene, character, etc. that you can all
borrow from. Thats how writers learn to write: they read other writers, study their texts, and
steal what they can convert to their own purposes. You, too, can write about your life by
focusing on a process, and weaving into that process a presentation of scene, character,
argument, self, and history. You, too, can subtly manipulate audience. You can develop
metaphorical patterns; carefully select diction and alter standard syntax to create specific
emphasis and transform voice and perspective; create small scenes of dialogue. You can quote
anyone, compare your life and its parts to anything, develop negative definitions, do research,
talk to people and include their information of perspectives, look carefully at things and
intensively describe them, define the argument of your life (or some aspect of it), and everything
else any writer is already doing.
You can also define the kairos or occasion of your writing; I am asking (requiring) an essay
project so you can earn credit for this course, but the deeper purposes of what you write are
owned by you. Are you offering an admonitory or exemplary tale? A comedic scene? Heroic
persona? A just like you everyman persona? Consider your purposes, your best chances, and
again, your kairos: what is the occasion of your writing, besides my requiring it? Do you need to
tell someone something, confess, reveal, represent, encourage, exhort, warn, expose, petition,
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argue, chronicle, explain, define, connect, etc.? What verbs best define the effects you hope your
writing will have and on whom? Who, besides me and the other students, might want to read
what you will write?