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How to fully imagine your memoir

As I recently edited my memoir for the umpteenth time, I struggled over how to best fill in certain blanks in my family history. I didn’t want to present information I didn’t know as true. And I wasn’t out to embellish anything —not a good thing to do in memoir—but I lacked important information.

I remembered reading Debra Marquart’s memoir, The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild In the Middle of Nowhere,and how she handled information missing in her family tree. I went back to her book to see what she’d done. Here’s an excerpt:

I try to imagine my great-grandfather riding away from the night sounds of a soldiers’ camp somewhere in the middle of Russia in 1885. He moves silently as if floating on an invisible river, and as he rides the sound of the army diminishes, becomes softer and softer until all he can hear is the sound of his horse, the clopping of hooves on the dark path.

So nice for him—a farmer by inclination and trade—to be back in the presence of pure nature. Perhaps he carries a sack with a few small potatoes in it, a pinch of salt. Does he stop by the side of the road to eat and draw some water from a stream? Maybe he has a companion to help him across the border; maybe he is alone.

Marquart imagines the story of her great-grandfather’s escape from Russia to the United States. A German colonist drafted into the Russian military, he had to flee under cover of darkness—in der Dunkelheit—after he flew into a rage and struck a commanding officer. These are the only facts Marquart knows for sure about the incident. She writes, “Around the slim remnants of this story, there were, no doubt, many heart-pounding moments of terror and exhilaration, but these have all dropped away over the last 120 years.”

She asks questions:  “How do dramatic stories get lost in families?” And: “Does he stop by the side of the road to eat and draw some water from a stream?”

For two pages, she dives deeper into the story of what may have realistically happened to her great-grandfather. She writes, “He sits down by the creek and listens to the wind moving through the trees, feels the cool grass beneath him. He is tired and a bit stunned by the events that have transpired in the last twenty-four hours. He thinks of his wife…”

She creates a vivid, sensually detailed story about her great-grandfather’s escape. As in any good story, she uses active verbs, strong specific nouns, and the five senses. Because of this, we experience her great-grandfather as a real human being, even though we know the story may not be one hundred percent accurate.

As I studied Marquart’s story, I began to see how I could include information on my great-grandmother in my own story. As long as I let my readers know what I was doing, I could use my imagination to fill in the blanks.

Do you have a character in your memoir who needs to be fleshed out but you don’t have enough information to do so? Try the above technique. See what you can dream up.

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