What Might Have Been: Using Fantasy in Memoir

I saw my father juggle oranges once. No, that’s a lie, a flat-out impossibility because, as you know, my dad lost his hands in a farming accident when I was barely a year old. So, of course, I never saw him juggle oranges.

Oh, but how I wish I had. I wish I had a memory of my father juggling oranges, maybe even bouncing one off his bicep. So much of my life with him was lived in anger. How I wish he’d been the jaunty sort who could’ve juggled those oranges and maybe even whistled “Pop Goes the Weasel,” or made his ears wiggle. A happy-go-lucky, har-de-har-har sort of wiseacre who would have kept me laughing. Maybe he would have even played practical jokes and been the sort folks would have wanted to be angry with but wouldn’t quite be able to manage the necessary ire because he would have been so charming and funny.

For writers of memoirs, the way they wish their ancestors might have been is often as revealing about the self as their accounts of how those fathers, daughters, mothers, sons, etc. really were. When we imagine our fantasy versions of our family members, we expose so much about who we are—what we wish for, what we regret, what matters to us, how we’d like to be able to see ourselves. Desmond Tutu once said, You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.” Far be it from me to disagree, but face it, no matter how precious family is to us, sometimes those relatives challenge us in ways that make them seem more a curse than a gift. When we write about the difficult times with our families, we sometimes forget to imagine our ancestors the way we wish they might have been. Doing so can not only provide a richer characterization of those ancestors, it can also provide an illuminative perspective into our own characters.

So here’s a brief writing activity designed to do just that:

1. Choose someone with whom you’ve had some difficult times and begin with the line, “I wish I would have seen them. . . .” Fill in the blank with whatever comes to your mind. Obviously it will be something that casts the person in an opposing light to the way you usually think of them. Use this line to start an extended piece of writing in which you create your fantasy version of this person.

2. Pay attention to what you’re feeling and thinking as you write this piece. Then start a new passage with the line, “But the truth is, he/she was a man/woman of. . . .” Fill in the blank with the facts of this person’s life and your assessment of them.

3. “His/Her life was his/hers, but it made my own. . . .” Again fill in the blank and extend the writing toward an investigation into how you think your ancestor influenced the person you are now.

3. Then fill in the blanks in this line: “Perhaps if he/she would have. . . ., we would have had. . . . That’s why I wish for. . . . That’s the secret I carry with me.”

The purpose of this exercise is to imagine a fantasy life for someone with whom you had a complicated relationship. I hope it will allow you to think further about what that relationship meant to you by casting the person into an ideal light and then seeing how you respond to that. In the process, you’ll probably be thinking about this person in a way you may not have previously, and you’ll be thinking more deeply about yourself.


  1. Mary J. Breen on June 26, 2017 at 7:35 pm

    Hi Lee:
    I think this will be a very good technique to try. It’s also given me the thought to try your idea in a somewhat different way. In 1938, when she was 35, my mother gave up a lively life as a music supervisor and leader of a little dance band in Toronto to marry my father. She lived in small towns ever after, never again achieving the minor acclaim she once had. She also changed her public persona, and became determined to appear very proper and dignified. Only from her stories of “Before I Was Married” did I hear about her other life. I would love to have met her then, so I’m going to imagine an encounter with the woman she was before I knew her! What do you think?
    Thanks for this and all your ideas,

    • Lee Martin on June 27, 2017 at 10:09 am

      Absolutely, Mary! Go for it. Those sorts of imagined scenes can be very revealing and productive. Let me know how it goes.

  2. Billy on June 26, 2017 at 9:08 pm


    This is a wonderful exercise. Thanks for sharing. I love the way you push the boundaries of memoir with your writing prompts. When I write I tend to focus solely on the past and stay within the bounds of what is familiar so I’m grateful teachers like you push us to imagine and speculate and fantasize. It really enriches the writing and my soul.

    • Lee Martin on June 27, 2017 at 10:11 am

      Good deal, Billy. The imagination often shines light on reality.

  3. Roberta Chapman on June 29, 2017 at 1:57 am

    Thank you Lee,

    Not only did this exercise prove insightful, but this series on ancestors has.

    Coming from an Italian family in the suburbs of Chicago, I often times thought about a book about them! Can you see Uncle Geno’s face now?

    My own daughters have always wanted me to open an Italian restaurant, but maybe that’s my backdrop?

    All in all the juices are flowing!

    Thank you again!

    • Lee Martin on July 3, 2017 at 2:54 pm

      I’m glad my post proved helpful, Roberta. That restaurant might very well end up being your backdrop. Time will tell as you start exploring.

  4. Virginia on June 30, 2017 at 2:31 pm

    This so so much more difficult that I would have imagined. I am reminded once again how the perceptions we carry about others, particularly the people who raised us, informs the perceptions we carry about ourselves. I had a mental image as I was writing, of loosening a post, wondering if the beam would hold if I removed it.

    • Lee Martin on July 3, 2017 at 2:53 pm

      You’re so right, Virginia, about how our perceptions of others affects the way we see ourselves. That image of the post is a wonderful place to begin exploring. Thanks so much for your comment!

  5. Sam on May 6, 2018 at 7:47 pm

    Just stumbling on this now and I’m much more intrigued by the idea behind it then the exercise itself (though it’s a fantastically fun one). I feel like I very rarely ever see fantasy encouraged in the field of memoir writing. As primarily a fantasy writer I’m often bemused by this. A couple years back I stumbled onto your blog while I was looking for creative-writing grad schools and it transformed the way I viewed one of my own writings. One that for two years I had labelled in the genre of ‘fantasy-adventure’ I now proudly call a ‘fantasy-memoir.’ It led me down a rabbit hole of self-reflection regarding memory and the spiritual nature of attempting to record memory through writing. It also led to some amazing ideas for essays. And though I’m still traveling the long road towards first-publication, I felt now was as good a time as any to say “Thank you.” Glad to see you’re still at this blog game long after the distractions and trappings of a desk job have diverted my focus away from consistently adding to my own blog writing. So whether I reach the end of this long road or not, thank you for continuing to be a way-station along the way.

    • Lee Martin on May 7, 2018 at 10:50 am

      Dear Sam. Thanks so much for your kind comment. I’m intrigued by what you’re calling “fantasy-memoir.” Please tell me more about it when you have the time.

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