Using Others to See Ourselves When We Write Memoir

When I was in the third grade, I went trick or treating in a Bullwinkle J. Moose costume. You know the kind. It came in a box, and my mother probably bought it at a Zayre department store. It was a thin, rayon suit with a plastic mask, the kind with the elastic band that cut into the sides of my face. It was hard to line the mask’s eyeholes up with my own eyes, and as far as peripheral vision. . .well, there wasn’t much. What I saw, I saw straight ahead.

I went trick or treating with Bob, the eighth grade boy who lived in the unit above ours in our duplex, and a friend of his. Our first stop was the pharmacy that Bob’s father owned in the strip of stores across from the duplex. We went there first to show Bob’s father our costumes. Bob and his friend were dressed as hoboes in torn jeans and baggy flannel shirts and shoe polish beards. We went to the back of the store where Bob’s father was working at the pharmacy counter. He gave us each a candy bar and told us to have fun out there. Bob assured him we would, and then we started back up the aisle toward the front of the store. When we came to the candy section, Bob stopped. He glanced behind him to see if his father was watching. He wasn’t. he was busy with a customer. “Trick or treat,” Bob said, and then he snagged a Hershey bar from the shelf and put it in the grocery sack he was toting. His friend did the same thing. To Bob’s credit, he didn’t try to pressure me to do the same. He said, “You didn’t see that.” But I had.

In the spring, Bob was practicing his high jumping in the field near our duplex. I don’t remember what he was using for standards—whether some makeshift sort of get-up, or whether he truly did have regulation ones. I only remember sitting on the ground on a warm spring evening near dark. It was the twilight where there was barely enough light for me to see Bob as he ran and jumped. Suddenly, he was pulling me up from the ground and whispering to me with great urgency that we should run. “C’mon,” he said.

The field backed up to a lumber yard, and what I didn’t know, as I ran, was that Bob had seen some high school boys crawling under the lumber yard’s fence and then stealing two-by-fours. That’s when he told me to run. We ran from the field to 156th St., our street, and then across Cicero to the police department, where Bob told an officer what he’d seen. That officer got on his radio, and soon other officers were on their way to the lumberyard.

When those officers brought the high school boys out in handcuffs, Bob and I were crouching on the floor of his parents’ Ford. “We can’t let them see us,” he said to me. “They can’t know we were the ones who squealed.”

I was too young at the time to recognize the irony of Bob, the boy who’d shoplifted from his own father, being the one to go to the police when he saw the high school boys stealing from the lumberyard. At the time, hiding with Bob in that Ford, I was caught up in the drama. It would take some time, plus my own propensity for shoplifting in my teenage years, for the irony to register.

When we write memoir, we have to find the scenes from our lives that illustrate how people, even us, are made up of contradictions. A boy who would steal from his own father becomes a boy who would go to the police when he saw someone else committing a similar crime. Years later, I’d feel my own contradictions as I saw myself becoming the first thieving Bob while all along wishing I could be the honorable second one.

So, for you writers of memoir, can you recall two separate incidents involving the same person, that together illustrate opposing aspects of his or her character? You might start by saying, “He, or she, was the sort who. . . .” Then you might hit upon the contradiction within that person by saying, “Then one day, her or she surprised me by. . . .” You can take liberties with these prompts, of course. The objective is to let a reader see someone from your life in different lights.

Once you’ve done that, can you think about how the contradictions within that person came to settle in your own life, either at the time, or at sometime in the future? Here’s a prompt to help you: “I thought of him or her often while I. . . .” The idea is for you to use what you now know about the contradictions within that person to think about your own dilemmas, contradictions, problematic behaviors, etc.

We often end up seeing ourselves through the complicated behaviors of others. By looking into their lives, we can sometimes discover that we’re seeing our own.


  1. Roy Bentley on October 31, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    Who knew that informed compassion would be at the center of our best work! Thanks, Lee

    • Lee Martin on November 1, 2016 at 11:09 am

      And our best living. . . .Thanks, Roy.

  2. Billy on November 3, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    Lee, this is a great post. I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this month and plan to use this exercise to jumpstart my writing today. Thanks so much.

    • Lee Martin on November 3, 2016 at 12:55 pm

      Good luck with NaNoWriMo, Billy!

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