How to Write about Happy Moments in Memoirs

I just came back from a weekend in my native southeastern Illinois where it’s harvest season. Combines are cutting soybeans and picking corn. Sixty years ago, my father made the mistake of trying to clear a clogged shucking box without first shutting down the power take-off. The spinning rollers in the shucking box pulled in first one hand, and then when he tried to free it, they pulled in the other hand as well. I’ve written often about the accident and its aftermath, particularly the anger by father brought into our home and the difficult relationship we had until we reconciled late in my teenage years. But there was sweetness, and humor, and, yes, even love, within all that difficulty.

As I drove across the Midwest, I thought about all the times my father and I worked in fields, how many times we struggled with equipment that broke down, how many times I must have disappointed him with my ineptness and disinterest, how many times we erupted in anger.

But one memory doesn’t fit that pattern. I’ve written about it before, so I’ll only state the fact. One summer evening, close to wheat harvest, my father and I stood at the edge of a field and he asked me to snap off a head of wheat and roll it in my hand to free the grain. He then asked me to put a grain in his mouth. It was one of the sweetest times between us—a time of communion, a time of tenderness, a time of intimacy. I delicately laid the grain of wheat on his tongue and he bit into it to see if the crop was ready to cut.

When it comes to writing memoir, it’s only natural to focus on the episodes that were painful, uncomfortable, shameful, regrettable. But our lives are made up of more than the negative. We all have moments like the one I shared with my father that day in the wheat field.

Here’s a writing activity to help us think about how to write about the sweet, the humorous, the joyous.

1. Focus on a family member with whom you had some degree of difficulty. Recall a moment with him or her that surprised you because it was a moment outside the pattern of your difficulties. Maybe you could start with this prompt: “Then one day, he/she surprised me by. . . .” Depict that moment of surprise in a scene.

2. Then find a more somber background for that moment of delight or joy. Perhaps this prompt will help: “I would long for that moment often in the years to come, years when. . . .” The key is to provide additional significance for the bright moment by shading in the darker tones of your relationship with this particular family member.

My memory of that moment with my father in the wheat field is all the sweeter when I set it against the more painful moments of our relationship. We shouldn’t ignore the blessings of our lives, but to give them the impact they deserve in our memoirs, we need to learn how to blend them with the harsher moments.


  1. Roberta W, Coffey on September 26, 2016 at 11:30 am

    Dear Lee,

    Thank you for your beautiful sermon on love. I’ll go back into my work looking for opportunities to use this good advice.


    • Lee Martin on September 27, 2016 at 11:10 am

      You bet, Roberta. I hope it proves to be useful.

  2. Amy on September 26, 2016 at 12:32 pm

    Thank you! This is healing and inspires me to continue writing from a happier perspective.

    • Lee Martin on September 27, 2016 at 11:11 am

      You’re welcome, Amy. I hope it helps.

  3. Joan Brian on September 26, 2016 at 4:21 pm

    Well, that was really lovely, Lee. I think it comes down to appreciating the moment and not taking things for granted. We went through a time this summer with a serious illness of our granddaughter, and I wished for just one more time to hold her, even on a day that was not perfect. “Pick an ordinary day, and that will be good enough” – Thornton Wilder

    p.s. She did recover, and we are trying not to take anything for granted.

    • Lee Martin on September 27, 2016 at 11:11 am

      Joan, I love the quote from Thornton Wilder. I’m very glad that your granddaughter is doing well. Thanks so much for your comment.

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