Bringing the Periphery into Focus in Memoir

Last week, I posted an old photo on Facebook, a picture of me when I was 14 or 15. It was a Polaroid shot that my friend Doug took. In the photo, I’m sitting beneath a tree in my backyard holding my cat, Clyde. At first glance, this is a picture that makes me chuckle because I’m so desperately trying to be cool in my Annie Green Springs tee-shirt, my flared-leg Levis, my Buddy Holly hipster glasses which weren’t retro yet, or hip, just the normal eye-wear at that time, and the traces of a goatee. In fact, I believe the goatee may have been the occasion for the photograph. I wanted to document the fact that I was actually able to grow hair on my chin. You’d have to look really closely to see it, but trust me, it’s there.

The longer I look at that photo, though, the more I start to see what and who isn’t there, or should I say, what and who hovers on the periphery. I first notice that Annie Green Springs tee-shirt, those Levis, those Buddy Holly glasses, my cat, but those details take me to the memory of how I got Clyde. He was a stray who followed my mom home from uptown one evening. She let me keep him. He liked to hide under the edge of the couch in the mornings and then claw his way up my leg when I came out of my bedroom. A sneaky sort, but he couldn’t escape what was coming. He died that winter. My mom held him in her arms as he slipped away. I didn’t want to see him die. It was the middle of the night, and my mom came to my room to tell me he was gone. She covered him with an old towel on our porch and then buried him near the garden the next day. She shielded me from the sadness as best she could. Such was the quiet ministration of her love.

When we write memoir, we usually start with things like tee-shirts, and blue jeans, and glasses, and cats. We immerse ourselves in the past by cataloging the details. We can use old photos to help us. Those photos, if we let them, can transport us back to specific time periods from our lives, and once we’re there we can revisit not only the details but also the people and the stories that they suggest.

The writing exercise this week, then, is designed to help you get a piece of memoir started. It’s also designed to invite you to see how details can take you more deeply into character and action.

1. Start out by finding an old photo that captures your attention. Maybe it’s one of you, or maybe not. There just has to be something about the photo that interests you.

2. Catalog the details.

3. Catalog other details connected to the time period of the photo.

4. Catalog people from that time period.

5. Begin to remember particular stories from that time period.

6. Choose one story that a detail in the photo is connected to.

7. Open a piece of memoir by telling us a story that involves the detail. Maybe it’s a story of how you acquired the detail.

8. Let the beginning open out to whatever other stories you associate with the central narrative.

9. Think about who’s not in the photo who had a significant place in your life.

10. Let the main story you’re telling reveal something about the character of this person.

My mother was soft-spoken and timid, someone I’m sure people thought they could manipulate. The truth was she was a woman who’d faced challenges all her life—from the death of her father, to my unexpected birth, and then a little over a year later, the farming accident that cost my father both of his hands. She was a woman of duty, a woman who knew how to do the hard thing, a woman who knew how to endure. She was also a woman who knew how to love. Motherhood had found her accidentally when she was forty-five. I can only speculate on the adjustments and accommodations she had to make because suddenly she had a son. The story of Clyde that this photo brings to the surface also brings with it all the complexities of my mother’s life, specifically her life as a mother.

Memoir depends on the particulars. Before we write, an immersion into the past via productive daydreaming can make our stories more vivid for us. We should always be interrogating our memories, asking ourselves what or who isn’t quite in the frame. It’s our job in our memoirs to draw those people and stories from the periphery into focus. We need to ask the following questions: Why am I supposed to pay attention to this? Why does this matter? As you begin to explore these questions, keep your eye out for the main story that you can tell (and remember that a photo or a memory can suggest more than one storyline and, consequently, more than one piece of memoir) and the people’s lives that matter to that story.


  1. myhanh on July 5, 2017 at 8:45 pm

    I stumbled upon your blog and work, which I find so simple and beautiful. I have a story I have been meaning to share, and am now committing to writing it! But I find myself stuck trying to make my words sound “pretty” and not being able to identify the key moments from where to start, continue, and end. Your suggestions are helpful. Thank you for sharing.

    • Lee Martin on July 6, 2017 at 3:09 pm

      Thank you so much for reading my blog and for taking time to leave a comment. I post a new entry each Monday. Don’t worry about trying to make your words pretty (that’s what revision is for). Just speak as if you were talking to someone who’s dying to hear what you have to say. Structure can be tough. Usually, start with a scene in which something was starting to change. Open with things in the middle of unrest of some sort and follow that to the end.

  2. Billy on July 6, 2017 at 10:58 am

    Lee, thanks for sharing this exercise. Once again, I got a lot out of it. I appreciate your willingness to offer these dynamic prompts on your blog. Have a good week!

    • Lee Martin on July 6, 2017 at 3:06 pm

      You, too, Billy!

  3. Bob Dzik on July 9, 2017 at 2:48 pm

    Lee, check out the above short story I published called Picture This. Your post today pertains to it and reminded me of the challenges I faced while writing my memoir.

    • Lee Martin on July 11, 2017 at 3:13 pm

      Love it, Bob, especially that wistful end. Thanks so much for sharing!

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