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Deepen your memoir by imagining character thoughts and feelings

One of the challenges of writing a memoir is describing feelings, reactions, and events that we didn’t witness. By the time I began writing my memoir, several family members who were central to my story had died. Some events happened before I was born. And in some cases, I was too young then to understand the significance or meaning of some dramatic moments that fueled my story.

I interviewed family and friends for insight, but in some cases, the passage of time dimmed some memories, or the family just didn’t have answers. Based on what I knew about my family, I used a technique I learned from writer Maxine Hong Kingston to fully imagine scenes and my characters’ feelings.

In The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Kingston mines the world of what it’s like to be female and Chinese by telling stories of family and folk heroes. Kingston speculated about what her characters might have thought and felt to build on what she could not have known. In the chapter, “No Name Woman,” she created a name for a disowned family member, finds her own voice, and ultimately speaks for the Chinese and Chinese American women who have been culturally silenced because of their sex.

In “No Name Woman,” Kingston writes of her aunt in China who had an affair, became pregnant, and was disowned by her family. Disowning a family member is even harsher than if they just died because the family is forbidden to speak the disowned member’s name.

Kingston literally brings her aunt to life and demands her own identity by giving her aunt a voice. She further enlarges this character through the techniques she uses. Because she never met her aunt, Kingston does this by imagining the nature of her aunt’s relationship and her feelings about her baby.

Kingston used qualifiers, including “perhaps,” “It could very well have been,” “she may have been,” to indicate her aunt’s state of mind and circumstances she faced.

Kingston’s aunt became a fully developed character who had fears, desires, and passions. Through story and speculation, Kingston describes the cultural issues that would have influenced her aunt. Kingston further humanizes her aunt by speculating on her feelings:

“At its birth the two of them had felt the same raw pain of separation, a wound that only the family pressing tight could close. A child with no descent line would not soften her life but only trail after her, ghostlike, begging her to give it purpose.”

Later, Kingston further speculates and refers to the cultural reality. “It was probably a girl; there is some hope of forgiveness for boys.”

In my own writing, I adopted Kingston’s techniques to fill in details and meaning with what I already knew from interviews with other family members and from imagining or placing myself “in the shoes” of my characters.

Using these techniques, you can reveal greater depth in your memoir as well as enlarge characters and imbue them with life. In the big picture, you’ll also find that through your words, you’re speaking universally for a group of people in similar circumstances.

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