Thursday, February 25, 2021

From Memory to Memoir

By Andrea Wang

With the number of incredible inventors, amazing activists and artists, and unsung heroes that remain to write picture book biographies about, it’s easy to forget that our own lives are rich sources of nonfiction, too. More and more memoiristic picture books are being published these days, such as Drawn Together by Minh Le and Dan Santat, A Different Pond by Bao Phi and Thi Bui, The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang and Khoa Le, and I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith. All these books are written in a memoir-like style and based on the memories of the authors. Instead of “writing what you know,” try writing what you remember.

 



How do you choose a memory to write about?

Memories can be elusive and temperamental. Some refuse to be found no matter how hard you try to recall them. Others pop unbidden to the surface at the most random of times, only to disappear again for years. And then there are the memories that stick with you, that you can’t seem to keep locked away in your mind’s file drawer, and you don’t know why. It’s this last type that inspired my upcoming memoiristic picture book, Watercress, which is based on my childhood memory of picking wild watercress by the side of the road. I couldn’t fathom why I couldn’t let this event go, why it kept occupying my thoughts. It was just this thing my parents made me do, or so I thought. Your own sticky, significant memory could be the foundation of your next story, too.


 

How do you turn a memory into a memoir?

Let’s start with a brief description of what a memoir is – a collection of the author’s memories that share a theme. The author/narrator reflects on these selected events of their life and tries to understand the emotional truth behind them. I love author Nikesh Shukla’s definition: “A memoir is a story we have to tell that we wrap events from our lives around to illustrate.” And, like fictional stories, a memoir contains elements such as character, point of view, setting, plot, and theme. The main character is the author, narrating the story from a first-person point of view.

In much the same way a picture book biography often features a single event in a subject’s life, a memoiristic picture book usually focuses on one significant memory. The memory you choose then determines the setting and the plot. You are taking a slice of your own life and asking the questions, “Why was this event particularly significant? What did it mean? Why is it important?” These questions will help you find that universal, emotional truth at the heart of your memory, that will, in turn, become the theme and heart of your story. For example, in Drawn Together, it’s the truth that love can transcend words. The Most Beautiful Thing is about finding beauty in unexpected places. Both A Different Pond and Watercress have themes about not fitting in and not being aware of what the main characters’ parents have lived through.

 



 

I think it’s important to point out that a memoiristic picture book doesn’t have to be about a painful memory (even if those are the ones that often stick with us the most). They can be about joyful events like celebrations, or small, intimate moments of connection between characters. What matters is that it is a memory that carries emotional heft.

 

Why write a memoiristic picture book?

Digging deep into a significant memory and writing a memoiristic picture book can provide us with a new understanding of an event that shaped our lives. And that book can, in turn, inspire readers to be more empathetic, show them how to make sense of their own experiences, or, simply, make them feel less alone.  

 

ACTIVITY

In a quiet moment, jot down a few of the childhood memories that won’t let you go. Choose one and make note of your feelings about it, both from the perspective of the child you were and the adult that you are now. Ask yourself why this memory is important.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrea Wang is the APALA Honor award-winning author of The Nian Monster. Her picture book biography, Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando, is a JLG Selection and received a Freeman Book Award Honor as well as the Sakura Medal. She has two books releasing in 2021: Watercress (JLG Gold Standard Selection, four starred reviews); and The Many Meanings of Meilan, her debut middle grade novel. Her work explores culture, creative thinking, and identity. She is also the author of seven nonfiction titles for the library and school market. Visit www.andreaywang.com for more information.

 

 

ABOUT THE PRIZE

Andrea will be giving away an autographed copy of Watercress.

 

 

 

 

 

 



117 comments:

  1. What a lovely post, featuring one of my favorite picture books, Drawn Together by Minh Le and Dan Santat.

    I have a memory from Libya of balancing our morning breads all the way to the corner baker, only to watch them be swallowed by his massive fire, corner, stone stove. It wiggled out when I was in Morocco, buying fresh bread at the souk, triggered by the stove smell. It has since wormed out again after recently watching the documentary from Michael Pollan called ‘Cooked’ (episode “Air”).

    Thank you for reminding me I need to sit with it. Maybe with a loaf of fresh baked bread.

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    1. What a wonderful memory! I really hope you do write about it. So many people have strong food memories, myself included!

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    2. This is a great memory. I hope you draft it.

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  2. This is such an inspiring post. Memories can open up a whole new world of ideas. I’m anxious to read Watercress.

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, Marty! Yes, there's so much to write about when you mine your own memories. :)

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  3. Thank-you for validating our deepest heart stories at a time when I'm consistently being told my stories don't matter

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    1. Joanne, I'm so sorry you're being told that. They're wrong -- your stories matter! Please keep writing!

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  4. "...a collection of the author’s memories that share a theme. The author/narrator reflects on these selected events of their life and tries to understand the emotional truth behind them." This is a wonderful way to think of this type of writing, and to help writers be sure the emotional connection is part of the story too.

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    1. Yes, I think the emotional connection is a vital part of a memoiristic story.

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  5. Thanks, Andrea. I've never considered memoir before but am thinking about it now.

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    1. You're welcome, Jessica. I hope you give memoir a try!

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  6. Digging for memories today -- there's nothing like a universal emotional connection. I got a few tingles of that watching the new "All Creatures Great and Small" on PBS recently.

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    1. That show is definitely on my Watch List! I loved the James Herriot books when I was a tween.

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  7. I like this exercise. I hope I can remember things as a child. My memory isn’t the best. I would love to write something that was special to me.

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    1. Family photos or talking to family members could be really helpful as you try to remember things. Good luck!

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  8. Thank you. My brain immediately jumped to a unique family tradition, and I had never considered it as a picture book — but I will now!

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    1. Ooh, I want to hear more, Susan! I was at an author visit once and asked the students (who were in first grade) if they had any family traditions, and one of them said their family watches The Twilight Zone together every week! The teachers and I were a little surprised, lol.

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  9. Thanks for sharing and you've got me thinking. Looking forward to reading Watercress.

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    1. Thank you, Cheryl! I hope you come up with some great story ideas!

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  10. My biggest two memories that stick are adventures in the woods of my grandparents property with My big sister; and picking fabric scraps with my great grandmother for a quilt. While they are cherished memories I need to figure out their significance in my life.

    Thank you for such a wonderful post!

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    1. Those are beautiful memories, Catherine! When you mentioned the woods, it reminded me of Owl Moon, which I think could be considered a memoiristic picture book, too.

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  11. It's hard to know where to start but I love this suggestion. Thank you, Andrea! I'm eager to read Watercress.

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    1. Thank you, Robin! I'm glad my suggestion resonated with you.

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  12. I very much enjoyed this post. I believe in the power of writing about memories and seeking the real importance behind them, almost as meditation. I try to capture these types of important moments and incorporate them into other things I am writing but I feel like today you have given me permission for these to become the heart of their own story. Thank you.

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    1. How wonderful that you are already incorporating these moments in your work! I agree that writing about memories can be like meditation. Writing Watercress was both meditation and catharsis for me.

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  13. Andrea,
    I do have several strong memories and I'll write the down as you suggest can't wait to read watercress.

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    1. So glad to hear this! Good luck with your stories!

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  14. Andrea, thank you for an inspiring and instructive article. I loved Magic Ramen and I am looking forward to reading Watercress.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words, Melissa! Wishing you the best on your writing journey!

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  15. I have a favorite childhood memory about collecting a specific rock. I wrote it down and shared it with my mom. She said, "hmmm, that's not the way I remember it." It started a conversation, and helped me realize that we definitely filter our experiences, and our stories are told through that filter.

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    1. So true! Memoir walks a fine line between fiction and nonfiction depending on our point of view, doesn't it? I love how your story sparked a conversation with your mom -- hopefully you both reached an understanding!

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  16. This article opens up an entirely new set of ideas! I never thought of using a childhood memory as a non fiction book. The activity made my idea notebook spill over!

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    1. I'm so happy to hear this, Tonya! Yay for lots of new story ideas! (I think Melissa Stewart categorizes memoir as literary nonfiction, although the books referenced in my post as well as my own book, Watercress, are generally shelved in the fiction section, depending on the library. Not sure why -- perhaps because they are not completely autobiographical...)

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  17. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Andrea. Looking forward to reading Watercress.

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    1. Thank you, Rose! Good luck on your writing journey!

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  18. Time to look into my memory box. Thank you.

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    1. I hope you find some good story ideas in there, Sue!

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  19. Thank you for this beautiful and inspiring post!

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  20. This was a beautiful and thought-provoking post. Thank you! I've been toying with memoir, jotting down notes and transcribing letters my grandmother saved that my father had written her throughout his WWII experience, from his basic training in the US to serving overseas. Since his death about two years ago, the collection of his letters has haunted me. Ironic that I dug out the file folders just before NFFest started! I'm not sure where this "project" will lead, but perhaps after I finish transcribing his letters I will find my connecting thread.

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    1. I hope you do find your connecting thread, PJ! I think we have a lot to learn and gain from veterans' experiences. Children of service members would doubtless be interested in your experience as the child of a veteran, too.

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    2. Thank you for your reply and encouragement, Andrea! I have a feeling my father's letters will help me focus my topic and audience; there are many of us proud military daughters and sons out there!

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  21. What a beautiful post! I've been working on two manuscripts based on memories, but I've been struggling a bit with how to tell them. I'm anxious to take a look at them again after reading your words. Thank you!

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    1. Yay for more memoiristic picture books! I hope you find your way into your memory-stories!

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  22. I love Watercress! Jason Chin did a wonderful job adding to your beautiful text. I understand about those memories that won't let you go. Still trying to figure out what to do with some of mine. One of these days a lightbulb will flicker. In the meantime, maybe bits and pieces leak through in my other stories. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

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    1. Thank you! Yes, Jason's art adds so much depth and richness to the book. I agree with you -- our experiences definitely shape and influence the stories we write. Good luck and I hope you have a lightbulb moment soon!

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  23. As i was reading this I realized that I always thought my life as very ordinary until just last night and the night before, two of my kids, not even hearing the other, reminded me of something "we" used to do. I was a young mother so we grew up together...I've got to think about how to write those memories for other kids! Thanks for your post.

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    1. It's serendipity! If both your kids brought up the same memory independently, I think that means you *have* to write about it now. :) Good luck!

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  24. Thank for your awesome post. What a beautiful reminder of the power of memories.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words! I actually have another blog post coming up on 3/30/21 on the WNDB blog about that very topic -- the power of memories and family history. :)

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  25. I was just about to create a blog this morning about a number of books I have taken out from the library because of NFF. On top of the pile was "Magic Ramen" which I totally love. I got distracted and finally got to today's reading and it was from you, about your other works. What a pleasant surprise. Now onto my blog, happily!

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    1. What a lovely coincidence! Ando's story is also about the power of memories -- in his case, it inspired him to invent instant ramen and not a book! :)

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  26. Thanks for opening my eyes to memories as a subject of picture books. I never considered tapping into my past and turning it into a story, perhaps because a memory is like a quick flash and I didn't think there was enough there to turn into a book. The thought is intriguing. Watercress looks like a beautiful book. I plan to read it soon.

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    1. Thank you, Linda! I'm glad that my post got you to think about your past in a new way!

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  27. Andrea,

    Thank you for this post that triggers so many childhood memories. The sweet recollections continue to stick with me,

    Time to unlock them from the file drawer and release them onto paper.

    I look forward to reading WATERCRESS.

    Suzy Leopold

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    1. Suzy, I'm so happy to hear that you have lots of lovely memories to write about!

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  28. Fascinating information! I learned a lot. Thank you!

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    1. Thank you so much for reading my post, Lisa!

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  29. I know this comment will be buried among so many others - but reading your post and suddenly being made aware of a memoiristic picture book - I feel like I should have understood this before now, but it was like turning on a light inside my dark brain about one particular story of mine. Wow. Thank you Andrea.

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    1. So happy to hear my post helped you, Elizabeth!

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  30. Andrea, thank you for sharing your insights into memoirs. I wasn't aware of their use to tell picture book stories. This is a terrific post!

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  31. Andrea, I am not sure I have anything memoir worthy - at least as far as picture book material, but I will give it some consideration. Thanks for your post.

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    1. Thanks for reading and giving your memories a chance to become a PB!

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  32. I suspect we all have memories worth digging into. Thanks!

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  33. I don't usually judge books by their covers, but I can tell from the cover of WATERCRESS that it's going to be my kind of book!

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    1. Aww, thank you, Katy! Jason Chin is an amazing illustrator!

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  34. What a great idea! And I know the perfect memory to focus on! Your book looks SO GORGEOUS!!

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    1. Thank you, Sarah Lynne! I'm so glad you found a memory to write about!

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  35. I've never thought of writing a picture book like this, and love this concept. Looking forward to reading WATERCRESS. Thanks for the post, Andrea!

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    1. Thank you for reading, Sarah! Good luck on your writing journey!

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  36. My stroll down memory lane is turning into a marathon!

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    1. Hahaha, right?! Glad to hear you have a lot of memories to "run with!"

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  37. What a beautiful post. You have inspired us to think of everyday events that change our lives. All the books you mention are very special. I gave "I Talk Like a River" to my daughter, a speech therapist, to share with patients struggling with speech and self esteem. Thank you!

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    1. Isn't "I Talk Like a River" amazing in every way?! I love that you gifted it to your daughter. Thank you for reading my post!

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  38. LOVE this exercise! Partly because the idea never crossed my mind before, but I'm sure, given some thought, there will be a memory or two that would make a beautiful PB. Thanks for the inspiration, Andrea!

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    1. So happy to hear this! Wishing you the best on your writing journey!

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  39. thank you for this post. I always figured there was nothing from my own childhood that would be of interest. But maybe there is. I have a few ideas now.

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    1. Yes, I think that too often we sell ourselves short. I'm glad you got some ideas - your stories matter!

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  40. Beautiful post Andrea. I have had several memories come to mind with your post. Now, I can see some potential with them as being non fiction.

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    1. I'm so glad to hear this, Diane! Thank you for reading my post.

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  41. Memories are tricky. You always need to take perspective into account. My brothers and I have very different memories of our childhood.

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    1. I agree, Manju. My own brother has no recollection of picking watercress at all, although I know he was there. In a memoiristic picture book, though, you are the narrator so your own perspective is foremost.

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  42. I've never thought about my own memories being a story but now that you've shared your journey I'm going to take it into consideration. Thanks for your post.

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  43. Thanks for this. I never thought I could mine my life for story as I had a pretty normal childhood - family, school, friends etc. But now that you mention it there are a few memories that won't let go. Not sure there is anything there to make a story, but it gives me something to think about.

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  44. Beautiful post, Andrea!! Can't wait for Watercress to be in the world!! And I love all of the examples you've mentioned--they are so heartfelt and moving. <3 <3 <3

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  45. Thank you for your post, your books are lovely and will provide important heartfelt moments with children.

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  46. I have done a great deal of ancestry research so this topic is right up my alley!

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  47. I can't wait to get my hands on Watercress. Hearing so many wonderful things about it.

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  48. Thanks for the suggestions to look for memories and create memoirs. I'm not sure though...can I give my memories to a fictional character to help create one that's more dimensional, or does it all need to be true and represent me?

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  49. Wonderful post, Andrea! I've been trying to sell this one memoiristic story for a while but I guess my writing isn't very good because even though it touches upon important historical aspects, it's not had any takers. But I'm going to continue to write other memoir/memoiristic stories. :)

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  50. Andrea, I loved Momofuku Ando's story and look forward to Watercress. Some of my memories end up as fodder for fiction stories. But I always look for an event that can be a memoir. Thanks for the post.

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  51. This post is an inspiration. I am thinking of something that might work. Your book looks beautiful!

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  52. Great post. I'm putting those books on hold at the library so I can enjoy the firsthand.

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  53. Thank you for a wonderful and inspiring post! One of my favorite childhood memories is of catching butterflies on the grassy hills near my home. My sister and I would put them in glass jars with holes in the lid, bring them home to draw sketches, then quickly return to the hill to release them. I once wrote a short story about it for a class, but hadn't thought to dig deeper - now you've inspired me to give it a try!

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  54. Watercress have been on my radar and I'm definitely looking forward to reading it! And thanks for such an intriguing post about memoiristic picture books. It's time to take a dive into some childhood photo albums and search for a few gems!

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  55. Thanks for these exercises for memoir-based picture books! I have a few ideas to try!

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  56. What a lovely and helpful post! Thanks so much! Great to see The Most Beautiful Thing and A Different Pond highlighted—fellow Minnesota authors and fabulous books.

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  57. I've always loved teaching memoir as an elementary teacher. I look forward to reading these titles and mining my own life for memories. Thanks, Andrea!

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  58. What a lovely post! I especially loved the activity and the idea that even the simplest memory can breath life into a gem of a story. Thank you!

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  59. Thank you for this beautiful post, Andrea. The examples you provide are so full of heart; I love them! I can't wait to see Watercress. It looks stunning. What a perfect, sensory and child-friendly way to access your parents'--and their whole generation's--story.

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  60. Wow, this was a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing. It has opened my eyes to possibilities that I hadn't even considered.

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  61. I've written various picture books about childhood memories. Many times they get mixed with non-fiction topucs that I love like endemic animals from my island (parrots or river animals, for example) or particular settings like the mountains. I mix memory with facts. Wondering if others have this experience. Thanks for a glimpse into your process. Enlighting!

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  62. Thanks for a great post - I will be mining my memories for story ideas.

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  63. Simply inspiring and beautiful post. Thank you!

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  64. I've never heard of the genre labeled as memoiristic, yet I have read a couple of these. Thank you for sharing, Andrea!

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  65. Thank you for a great tutorial in memory exploration and great examples to show how to too.

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  66. Beautiful post! Thank you so much!

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  67. Andrea thank you for a great post. I love Drawn Together and I Talk Like A River. It is interesting what we remember and how it is affected by our childhood/adult lenses. Especially when siblings have such different recollections. I look forward to trying one of these memoiristic PBs one day.

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  68. This is so inspiring! I TALK LIKE A RIVER was one of my favorite PBs this year, and I have not heard the term "memoiristic picture book" before, but I am embracing it! Thank you.

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  69. Thank you for this inspirational post, Andrea! Few childhood memories came tapping on my mental window as I was reading and I am so glad I will not need to wait for a quiet moment to make a few notes. Sparks flying everywhere. I previously used my own childhood experience to write someone else’s story. Never did I think my own slice of life could be the focus. Time to go exploring!

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  70. I have a strong memory of a pen pal of my sister's who came to visit all the way from Japan one summer when I was about 11 years old. We connected much deeper that the two of them and we spent the next few years writing to each other. I can close my eyes and still see her and all the fun we had during her visit. Maybe I need to think about this memory some more...

    Great post!

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  71. Andrea, I have such an affinity to memoiristic picture books. The individual experience of a person’s life and its influence is so interesting to me. Thank you for your post!

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  72. Michelle, learning to use a dummy in the revision phase is such a useful tool! From staying true to theme, to creating memorable scenes, to ensuring page turns, the benefits are numerous. Thank you for your post!

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  73. Thank you for this excellent post. While reading, I realized that this is my favorite kind of picture book -- I'm going to make a deliberate effort to look at my own life through this lens for a while, thanks.

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  74. This was a post that I truly needed to help provoke memories that keep "occupying your [my] thoughts" or where so locked away that it had to take this challenge to help pull them out of me. Needless to say, I was able to jot down some 23 memories that I can possible work with to write about. Thanks for the post!

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