Making a Scene in Bowling Green: Writing Memoir

When I was a boy, my mother often said to me, “Don’t make a scene.” So I grew up to be a writer in part, perhaps, so I could make all the scenes I wanted. When we write narratives, whether fictional or the personal narratives of memoirs and essays, we need to give ourselves permission to make a scene.

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of teaching a memoir writing workshop at the Warren County Public Library in Bowling Green, Kentucky. (A big shout-out here to the wonderful folks of Bowling Green and thereabouts who pushed the membership of my Facebook Fan Group to over 500; I Heart Bowling Green!) Here’s a link to the fan group on Facebook in case anyone else is interested in joining:

During the workshop, we used objects from childhood (shoes, toys, scents, etc.)  to recall pivotal moments from our pasts. The we crafted scenes that invited the reader into the writer’s memory and focused upon a moment of emotional resonance and complexity.

When people shared what they’d written, I heard stories of envy, desire, joy, disastrous circumstances–human moments, all of them shaped and delivered in a way that made me feel and feel deeply what the writers had felt when they lived through those moments.

Here are some reminders for writers of personal narratives:

1.  Make sure that you’ve chosen an episode that was somehow outside the regular come and go of an ordinary day, an episode that includes a climatic moment beyond which life was never quite the same.

2.  Set the scene right away in space and time and give us a sense of what the main characters carried with them into the scene. That emotional baggage plays a huge part in the characters’ actions and reactions.

3.  Include enough sensory detail to draw your reader into the scene. Remember that memoir isn’t only a record of what happened. It’s a chance to put your readers into your shoes. A scene is built from small details. Don’t neglect them.

4.  Use the reflective voice of the writer at the desk to flesh out the complicated layers of the scene and how they played a role in shaping that writers’ life. Remember that you’re always a participant in the scene (the you of a younger age), but you’re also the narrator looking back and making meaning from what  happened.

5.  Use dialogue and action to move the scene to its climax. This is all part of making the readers feel that they’re with you in that moment.

Virginia Woolf said it wasn’t the thing that happened that mattered the most, but what the writer is able to make of the thing that happened. So, make a scene, and see where it takes you in your thinking about how you came to be who you are in the here-and-now. Make a scene so your readers can participate in it. Step back from the scene, providing a voice-over as such, as you speak from the adult perspective, the person who is capable of knowing now what you didn’t know then. Finally, some advice, taken from a sign on the wall of the room we used at the Warrn County Public Library. Some good sense advice for all of us:

Thanks for a wonderful time, Bowling Green!


  1. Richard Gilbert on August 30, 2012 at 12:21 am

    And thanks for a wonderful post, Lee. I love the photo of everyone hard at work, messy materials at hand. Your reminders for making scenes are so apt. I will share this with my students.

    • Lee Martin on August 30, 2012 at 9:43 am

      Thanks, as always, Richard, for reading and taking the time to leave a comment. I love, as I’m sure you do, being able to invite people into their memories and to give them some pointers on how to shape those memories into narrative.

  2. Alison Ernst on September 8, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    Well how about that. I stopped in Bowling Green for lunch on my way down to TN on 8/30, so just missed you there.

    • Lee Martin on September 9, 2012 at 9:14 pm

      A near miss, Alison!

  3. Anagha on June 14, 2017 at 5:11 am

    Wow this helped me so much and is so inspiring. I’m just 15 and an aspiring writer and so I needed to understand this in detail and your writing helped me truly very much. So, thank you. I chanced upon this link and I’m glad I did.

    • Lee Martin on June 15, 2017 at 12:15 pm

      Hi, Anagha! So glad you found my blog. Please feel free to drop by anytime. It’s my habit to make a new post each Monday.

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