Whether or not you believe in divine providence, it does often seem that “things happen for a reason.” 

By unlikely twists of happenstance (or is it fate?), we “happen” to be at the right time, right place, to meet a certain someone who will become very important in our lives. Or we “happen” to meet an old friend who tells us about a job opportunity in another city, or another country even, and “just like that” we are set on a new path. 

When reviewing your life story in the process of writing a memoir, it can be a fun and useful exercise to make a list of all the fateful moments that pivoted your life in new, interesting directions. 

Start in your childhood, and move forward towards the present, being lighthearted about it if you can. 

For example: Because my mother spent summers with her family at Lake Taghkanic in upstate New York, she ended up going to the camp where she met my father, and thus I came to be! Because my parents enjoyed their time at that camp, they ended up bringing my dad’s parents to the area, and they bought the land that would come to be our family home for several generations. Because my parents built a strange-looking octagonal house on that land in 1967, our neighbors were intrigued enough to stop by and introduce themselves, which led to my becoming best friends with their daughter, which led, by a long and winding road, to my becoming a faculty member at the college where I have now worked for nearly 25 years. 

And so on! Once you get going, a long list will come together fairly quickly, and it can be a great starting point for writing some of the pivotal scenes of your life. 

In my understanding of purposeful memoir, we explore our past in order to understand our present, and to begin to think about charting an intentional path into the future we want to live into. While we can’t control fate, we can set our internal compass more clearly in the direction we want to go, and then stay alert for those divine coincidences we call synchronicity.

The astrologist Rob Brezny believes that if you prime the pump of synchronicity by focusing on the positive, seeing the glass of your life as always half-full rather than half-empty, the universe will respond by “showering you with blessings.” 

It seems worth a try! And in this spirit, you can do another little list exercise as a memoir warm-up. Go back to your list of pivotal moments in your life and make a star next to all the synchronicities that led to good outcomes. What would it be like to write a version of your life story that focused on “counting your blessings”?

Writing exercises like these can help us to remember that there are many ways of looking at our lives, many ways of writing our life stories. You don’t have to have it all figured out before you start to write. Lists can help jog your memory, and you can write scenes out of order, working on whatever feels juiciest at the moment you sit down to write. 

As your lists and scenes begin to accumulate, you will start to notice patterns. The pivotal moments will begin to take on a definite trajectory, and you will be able to see the whole story arc of the particular slice of your life that you want to tell this time. 

Remember, a memoir is not an autobiography. In autobiography, you start at the beginning (“I was born…”) and move forward chronologically with your whole life story.

With purposeful memoir, you trace a particular path through your life story, sharing a part of your life that seems significant to you, and that you think will be of benefit to others—perhaps because your intended audience shares a similar experience, or perhaps because they could never in their wildest dreams imagine what you have been through…until you lead them into your life story and let them stand in your shoes for a while. 

With that said, it’s also worth remembering that writing purposeful memoir can simply be a contemplative practice, like journaling, but with a more focused, sustained process of self-discovery. There’s value in the writing, even if you don’t plan on sharing it with others. 

In this New Year, I invite you to step lightly on to the path of purposeful memoir. See if you can find the joy in the stories you want to remember and write down. 

And if the trail leads you through sad memories, know that:

  • You are not alone in your experience. 
  • Releasing your sorrows on to the page can be incredibly cathartic, whether or not you ultimately decide to make your tale public. 
  • Laying down the burden of sad memories can free you to step more gladly into your future.

After making your list of positive synchronicities from your past, turn your face joyfully to the future. What blessings await you today? What stories will you have to tell tomorrow? I will be waiting to hear!

Coming up:

While my Berkshire memoir circle is full, there are four places available in my new monthly online writer’s circle for women memoirists. We’ll be meeting by video-conference from 3 – 6 pm on a series of Sunday afternoons: Feb. 3, March 3, April 7 and May 5. If you’re looking for positive, productive feedback on your memoir project, this circle is for you! Find out more and register here.

“The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir”: A talk and workshop as part of the Lenox Library Distinguished Lecture Series, January 27, 4 – 5:30 pm. 

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  1. Barbara

    Wonderful, Jenny! You gave us some concrete ways to explore our stories. Great process.

    • Jennifer Browdy

      Thanks, Barbara! Yes, I always aim to be useful and practical….as well as inspiring!

  2. Audrey Kalmana

    I’ve always had trouble with the idea of the universe responding to my intentions–I am so much the daughter of a physicist!–but quantum physics now is getting into the realm of weird connections and influences beyond our current understanding. Regardless of whether I’m influencing anything beyond my own thoughts, I do find that shifts in perception are often the key to unlocking entire new worlds. Thanks for this reminder!

    • Jennifer Browdy

      Oh yes, I do think it was more than just chance that you and I met all those years ago, Audrey! I wonder if physicists will ever figure out the science behind what spiritual folks have always intuited: that things happen for a reason! And that everything we do has consequences, often far beyond what we will ever know. Cool food for thought!