Posted in Craft of writing, Memoir writing, Writing

A writing exercise for insight into your memoir’s main characters, you

BACKGROUND for the EXERCISE 

“The stranger at the heart of my journey is me—transformed.” — Joseph Dispenza in his book, The Way of the Traveler (p. 97)

Dispenza suggests in his book that the people we meet in our travels can serve as mirrors of ourselves in what we portray to the world. Or these folks, whether strangers or not during our adventures, may contain qualities that we lack and wish we had. For our memoir, this is one way to gain insight that we need to write a more textured and full-bodied story of our life. So try this. 

How to conduct the EXERCISE 

Recall memorable folks from your travels. List three or four with names or descriptions, if you don’t know names. Then write characteristics of each. Examples might include; interesting, odd, cavalier, smart, engaging, irritating, or rude–whatever comes to mind.

This recall gives us a picture of ourselves objectified in the outside world, or it provides the “something” we wish was ours in our inner world. When you identify what these characteristics are from viewing the characters you encountered, now can you use these clarifications of yourself when you write your next scene or story.

In my memoir, At Home in the World, I encountered a pastor in Hawaii. As a seventeen-year-old girl, I saw him as intelligent, culturally insightful, and eager to share what he knew with me and other summer missionaries that were more than half his age. His tutelage grew out of his caring for others. He cultural take on the world was crafted from his Christian background.

A passage from my book, At Home In the World 

I write about him, “Dr. Shiroma, as a Japanese Christian is an enigma. As a pastor, he is over-educated. He carries his history, culture, and language with him, yet he lives in another country with a history, culture, and language that have been antithetical to his own. Christ’s love has found a way around all that and claims it all.

“… He explains what happened to the Japanese post-WWII, tracks the trials of Hawaiian statehood, and illuminates interracial marriages that created an amalgamated Hawaiian culture. I learn words I may never get to use, like miscegenation and mulatto. …

“At times in my life there is a person that produces little chinks in my thinking, so a glimmer of something new can break through. Dr. Shiroma shares his well-knitted theology with us, as if we were his spiritual and intellectual equals. He uses analogies nimbly. More synapses in my gray matter, more connections in my white matter. The world is deeper and wider with his explanations, my senses more open to what is in the world, and my heart more open to mystery.”

REWRITE

Because I did not have this exercise available to me when writing my memoir, I did not make the most of this encounter with Dr. Shiroma. Here is what I could have done with the passage and created a more nuanced memoir. (Maybe I’ll rewrite it.)

“At times in my life there is a person that produces little chinks in my thinking, so a glimmer of something new can break through. Dr. Shiroma shares his well-knitted theology, as if we were his spiritual and intellectual equals. He uses analogies nimbly. The world is deeper and wider with his explanations, my senses more open to what is in the world, and my heart more open to mystery.

“Time spent with Dr. Shiroma opened my eyes to the diversity of the world outside of my small Arkansas town. I felt my heart open to the history of the Japanese in America. I felt the reality of different races intermarrying not as a problem, but a way to minimize our differences. This cultural idea, contrary to traditional views, shaped my future self and view of the world. I left Hawaii with an understanding of myself as a global citizen. Not as a Christian set apart (as some would have wanted it), but a Christian committed to making the world more open and compassionate.”

See how studying a significant person on one of my travels, helped me see myself more deeply? Something I might not have been able to do without insight from the exercise.

Have you tried something similar with the same or different outcomes? Are you willing to try this and then share your results? Let us know.

 

Author:

Fiction and nonfiction writer, traveler, blogger, workshop facilitator. Author of coming-of-age travel memoir, At Home in the World: Travel Stories of Growing Up and Growing Away.