Memoir Workshop Notes

Based on the book "Shimmering Images" by Lisa Dale Norton

Why we should commit portions of our lives to paper

Every person has a story, or ten or a hundred. Sharing our stories is one of the most important things we can do.

  • To pass them on to your family
  • To work through trauma
  • To be remembered
  • To record a certain time in history for future generations (my kids already ask me what it was like to be born in the 20th century)
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY, We can, by telling our individual truths in the most authentic way, touch the universal truths that can change us all.

What kind of story are we telling?

We’re talking about the broad category of Non-fiction. Everything must be true. Beneath that overarching category we have sub-categories:

  • Biography. The life/event of someone famous told by another person. Eisenhower, Nixon, Julius Caesar
  • Autobiography. This is an examination of an entire life, from birth to present day. Mostly written by celebrities.
  • Memoir. This tells a slice of a person’s life–a certain stage, an event, an illness. The book I’m writing currently is about a nine month period that I spent as assistant director of an art gallery in New York City. That’s it, just those nine months out of my 52 years. 

How do we choose which story to tell?

We’ve lived a lot of life. Where do we start?

  • Go Looking For Trouble Every slice of life memoir has to show the reader the possibility of a “problem” that will be “solved” during the course of the story. A reader wants to follow along with the narrator of a story as they unravel the impact of the event and come to terms with its complexity. 
  • Find a Shimmering Image (Lisa Dale Norton)–a memory that rises in your consciousness like a photograph. A moment in time when your senses were alive, heightened. You can smell the smoke, feel the beat of the sun, hear the sound of the sprinkler, see the gray hairs on her head. Any moment recalled vividly is a story waiting to happen.

Example: Back in the early 80s, my father’s union went on strike. I understood in a general way that meant he couldn’t go to work until the company renegotiated their contract.  But one day a neighbor showed up with a bag of groceries. My mom was reluctant to take them, but did. And when the neighbor left, she took a bag of rice from the groceries and pressed it to her eyes and started to cry. It was the first time that I really understood that we were poor.

The Story is pretty simple. A woman brings over groceries. Not super exciting by itself. But add the problem, solution, its meaning, and the details crystallized in my mind and it starts to take shape.

Problem/Trouble –We didn’t have enough to eat. 

Solution–A neighbor brought us food. 

Change/Meaning–the realization that we’re poor. Innocence –-> Understanding

Shimmering Image–I can recall everything about the scene–the angle of the sun through the kitchen curtains, the sound of the bag crinkling, the shape of my mother’s humped shoulders. It crystallized in my memory because it was weighted with meaning. That is a shimmering image. That is a story waiting to happen.

WRITING EXERCISE: Five minutes. Locate moments of challenge or trouble in your life. Think about the events after which everything was different. 

It doesn’t have to be as big as a birth or death. It could be when you met or lost a best friend. The first time you had sex, or giving up riding your bike to drive a car. It could be winning an award, a divorce, learning to paint, becoming sober, visiting a new place. Make a list of these events–aim for about twelve.

Each of these is a possible jumping off point for a story. I encourage you to keep a chronological list and expand it whenever you think of a new moment-after-which-everything-changed.

Where to begin and end your story

Look at your list. Choose one that jumps out at you. Likely it’s either shouting PICK ME!  or doing its best to hide–don’t look at me. The hardest and bravest memoirs dive into the ones that hide. That’s where the most conflict and the most emotion live.

Now tell me the story. What happened? Where were you? Describe the setting (weather, temperature, birds singing, smells etc). Describe the characters–their physical attributes and what is unique about them like a walk or laugh or turn of phrase. Keep writing until you’ve told everything you can remember.

Now it’s time to help the shimmering images around that story to awaken. Draw a map of the location where the story takes place. As memories float up–the toothpaste was in this cabinet, the tire treads were worn along the edges–write them down in one or two word phrases alongside. Memories will surface, note them and move on.

Choose another shimmering image and repeat the process.

How to make your story interesting and satisfying for a reader

  • No cliches. Piece of cake, Enough is enough, business as usual, wrong side of the bed, keep me posted, like a duck to water etc
  • Be generous. View events through the eyes of other characters in the story. Mix those versions in with your own. Rather than blaming, allow the possibility of a more complicated truth. It strikes a balance that makes you more believable. Real stories are complicated.
  • Include new insights in the story that you couldn’t see when the events transpired. 
  • Include elements of the larger world during the time period your story takes place: What major events were going on in the world at the time? What were the economic realities of the time? What traditions were common? What did people eat/read/listen to/wear?
  • Most importantly, be sure to explore the emotions of your story–even though this particular event happened to you, it touches something universal that we can all understand–love and hate, loss and fulfillment, fear and courage, joy and sorrow, trust and betrayal.

What to do with your story once you’ve written it

Put it in a drawer for a week and don’t look at it.

Revise, revise, revise.

Get someone else’s eyes on it. Take it to a writer’s group for critique. Take a workshop.

Write another one. Practice makes perfect.



Publish? I recommend for listings of  literary magazines seeking memoir. Look for local publications seeking local stories. If you can write your memoir in 100 words or less- called micromemoir- there’s an online journal called Brevity which has a high acceptance rate (20- 30% of submissions).