The Land of If-Only’s: A Writing Activity for Memoirists

I’ve often reported a saying of my father’s: “If if’s and but’s were candies and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.” For a man who didn’t read any book but the Bible, he had a way with language. His saying takes me into the land of if-only’s, and I start to think about how we might use a trip there to help us think about the different aspects of our persona when we write a memoir. Too often, memoirists concentrate on the person they’ve decided they were—the cad, the victim, the scamp, the whatever—at the risk of making their characterization of themselves one dimensional. In addition, memoirists often write from a position of self-pity that ends up suffocating the reader.

Here’s a writing activity designed to help us think about the different, and often conflicting worlds, we occupied at various points in our lives. We can use this to deepen our own characters in our memoirs. We can also use it to write about difficult times in our lives without self-pity.

Let’s start with a party game I like to play with guests. I ask them to identify their celebrity childhood crush from whatever age they’d like to choose. Mine was Patty Duke, the bubbly Patty who played identical cousins on her own television show. There was something wholesome about her character that appealed to me at a time in my life when my father’s anger left me feeling as if I always had to be on guard. Patty was open and honest and kind. I needed all of that.

So let’s see if you can write a bit about your own celebrity childhood crush and why you think you were attracted to him or her. You might find yourself getting specific memories on the page. I, for example, could recall buying teen magazines like Teen Pin-Ups and then using tracing paper to copy a photograph of Patty Duke, to learn the lines and shapes of her face, each stroke of my pencil made with the sort of reverent tenderness perhaps only the young can have. It’s fine to be ironic in your depiction of your younger self. Or I might recall seeing Patty and Jimmy Dean sing “A Bushel and a Peck” on The Jimmy Dean Show: “I love you a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck, and a hug around the neck.” I went to sleep that night, and I dreamed that Patty was singing that song to me. Now, I can watch that video on YouTube, and I can see her wearing a checked dress with a white pinafore—oh those ruffled straps!—and I can hear her voice again, and I can see her smile, and I can recall what she meant to me when I was a young boy living in my father’s house of rage.

After you’ve written about your childhood crush, make sure to layer in the context of what was going on in your life at that time. Go to the uncomfortable place. Recall a time of loneliness, or suffering, or anger. Let us know what you were carrying around with you that made your crush a necessary presence in your life.

Allow yourself to imagine a scene between you and your crush. What would he or she say to you? What would you say in return? What are you and your crush doing in this scene? Bring it to a moment where your crush tells you that he or she has to leave. Write a passage that begins with, “But I didn’t want him/her to go. I wanted. . . .” Fill in the blank however you choose. Then say, “I wanted to see myself through his/her eyes. I wanted to know that I was. . . .” Again, fill in the blank however you choose.

Finally, identify a single person from that period of your life who was causing you pain. Say, “I wanted him or her to know. . . .” Then, “I wish that. . . .” Your objective here is to express your desire for healing, and to be able to say the things to the person who was causing you pain that you perhaps weren’t able to in real life. Imagine what that person would say back to you. Let your worlds collide—the real world you were living in and the fantasy world you wished could always be yours.

I hope this writing activity will not only deepen your character but that it will also blend reality and fantasy in a way that will create a poignant experience for your readers—that awareness of what might have been set inside what was. I also hope that this exercise will invite you to write about a difficult time in your life without pitying yourself. As Patty Duke once said, “I tell people to monitor their self-pity. Self-pity is very unattractive.” I hope my prompts will invite you to write about painful experiences without pity but with genuine sentiment and earned emotion.


  1. Mark Beaver on October 10, 2016 at 2:27 pm

    I too had a celebrity crush on a Duke. In my case, it was Daisy Duke, aka Catherine Bach. I wrote a chapter about her in my memoir using much the same method you describe here. Thanks, Lee, for your always helpful advice.

    • Lee Martin on October 11, 2016 at 11:35 am

      Ah, those Duke girls. Thanks for your comment, Mark!

  2. Jayne Martin on October 10, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    What a great exercise! Thanks, Lee!

    • Lee Martin on October 11, 2016 at 11:35 am

      Thanks, Jayne. I hope it proves useful.

  3. Joy on October 10, 2016 at 8:08 pm

    I’m going to use this excercise for my poetry students.

    • Lee Martin on October 11, 2016 at 11:36 am

      Let me know how that goes, Joy.

  4. Billy on October 11, 2016 at 11:39 am

    Thanks Lee. This is a wonderful exercise. I enjoyed writing about my teen crush, Winnie Cooper, and my relationship with family.

    • Lee Martin on October 11, 2016 at 2:52 pm

      Ah, Winnie! I hope she took you somewhere good in your writing about your family. Thanks so much for continuing to read my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.

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