One of the great challenges and joys of memoir is trying to recreate in words the sensuous experience of the places that have had great impact on our lives.

Sometimes it’s for a positive reason—the place you fell in love!—and sometimes it may be the backdrop for some dark memories: a hospital or an unhappy home. Whatever scene you’re writing, it’s crucial to include some description of place. You must root the event you’re describing in a landscape, and peg that landscape to a particular time.

I suggest you first do some warm-up writing about the time and place of the period of your life that you’re describing in your memoir. Let go of narrative for a moment, and just allow yourself to free write all the details you remember about that place, in that time.

For example, I grew up in Manhattan in the 1960s and 70s. I remember when I was in nursery school, there was a garbage workers’ strike and very quickly huge mountains of trash appeared outside every apartment building. A small, sensitive girl child, I held tightly to my mother’s hand as we negotiated around the disgusting mounds of reeking, rotting trash, the stench blending in with the piles of dog shit and warm dog urine that pooled along the narrow sidewalks. On Lexington Avenue we walked on top of the subway grating, and I watched with horrified fascination as grimy rats scurried in the trash that blew around in the hot wind of the subway cars passing loudly but invisibly beneath us.

It was no wonder that I felt such relief when we would head out of the city on Friday nights, into the cool, dark, clean landscape of our family country home upstate. I would keep my nose pressed to the car window for the whole trip, watching eagerly for the first stars to appear once we escaped the fluorescent glare of the city. As soon as we arrived, I’d hop out of the car to take deep breaths of the rich night air, redolent with sweet grass and damp leaves. I didn’t need to hold anyone’s hand here, not even in the dark. I was home.

I spent many writing sessions just writing about these two important places in my childhood, without any clear story or narrative arc in mind. It wasn’t wasted time or effort; as it turned out, the contrast between these two landscapes lent an important structure to the early chapters of my memoir, What I Forgot, and helped me understand what I wanted to write about, and why.

It’s important not to rush through this first step of writing your way back to the time and place of your memoir.

Sometimes you have to write around a topic in order to re-familiarize yourself with the time and place in which it happened. When it comes time to write the scene that is important to your storyline, you’ll be able to draw on these warm-up sketches, finding the description you need lying close at hand and ready to incorporate into your narrative.

Give yourself permission to take however much time you need to translate into words the inchoate visual, auditory and olfactory images that linger in your memory.

They’re there for a reason. It’s up to you to figure out why, and to set these unique memories into the broader context of your life and your purpose in writing memoir. Just take your time.

Looking for more guidance on writing memoir?

Check out my affordable online course, The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir, a self-paced month-long class with plenty of prompts and suggestions, including a free download of my award-winning book, The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir: A Writer’s Guide.

Use code GREENFIRE for a special discount!

Now Accepting Registrations for my Fall 2018 Memoir Intensive Series in the Berkshires

Limited to six participants, this series of four consecutive sessions is designed for women who are actively working on a memoir project.

Bring your drafts to receive feedback from me and the group, using my special approach to positive productive draft review.

One session in each series will include discussion of an important aspect of memoir writing, using published excerpts that I’ll provide in advance.

These groups fill quickly, so reserve your spot today!

Session I information and registration

Session II information and registration

Sign up for both sessions and get a special discount–one class free! 

Looking for author coaching or manuscript review and editing?

I have limited but on-going time available for new projects, and I’d love to hear what you’re working on!

To schedule a free introductory 30-minute chat, email me at

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