From Journal to Memoir: Creating Character Through Unsent Letters

By Rita D. Jacobs, PhD

Editor's Note: In this multipart series, Biographile and Dr. Rita Jacobs, PhD, will walk you through finding the inspiration and motivation to start – and keep – a journal, and will later offer some approaches to transforming journal entries into memoir. In part five of this series, Dr. Jacobs moves on to the topic of getting unstuck in your writing in an unconventional way. See earlier posts in the From Journal to Memoir series here. Last week’s column dealt with dialogue so it makes sense to me to move to monologue this week. Of course, many of us see monologue as a standup routine, maybe a rant or a lecture or even a tirade. But given that you’ve warmed up with dialogue, I like to look at monologue in a journal as the classic letter not sent. Of course this could be a rant – like the letter you would write to the boss who has dressed you down or criticized you unfairly – or it could be a list of the hurt feelings you have after a friend has, you feel, mistreated you. And these are perfectly acceptable letters to write and

probably not send, despite the Chinese proverb that says “Never write a letter while you are angry.” But a letter, a real letter like the ones people wrote before e-mail and texting became our ubiquitous modes of communication, takes into consideration the idea that the reader is truly receptive and reactive, maybe not as a participant in the writing but surely in understanding the emotional effect and perhaps intent of the letter. As the writer Elizabeth Drew has said, “It takes two to write a letter as much as it takes two to make a quarrel. “ This means that every letter is thoughtful and complex in its own way. Moreover, the letter truly captures the writer’s voice as well as the writer’s vision and characterization of the correspondent. A letter has a sense of audience and a sense of purpose even if it will not be dropped in a mailbox and sent. “Writer’s voice” is something that writing teachers talk about a lot and something that all writers find elusive at varying moments and sometimes for a long time. What is my voice? andIs it something natural or created? are two of the most often asked questions. There is no easy answer to this, but voice is most easily accessed when we are “speaking” to one who brings out the best in us or who we feel really understands what we mean. For a letter writer, the recipient of the letter, whether alive or dead, real or imagined (fiction writers use this technique to get to know their characters) must be clearly delineated in our minds before we can begin to write an effective and affecting letter. I had the extraordinary experience of writing a letter in my journal to a colleague who died too young. I felt that I had never told him what his friendship meant to me, so I wrote a long letter detailing his qualities, reminding him of funny or telling moments and letting him know how much he meant to so many people. I was relieved and exhilarated at having spent this time with him very present in my mind. And since I couldn’t send the letter to him, I sent it to his wife, who was thrilled to see him through another’s eyes.

Writing Exercise: Choose someone you care about to whom you want to write a thoughtful letter. Start by visualizing the person, alive or dead. Think of your interactions, pleasant or unpleasant, and investigate some of your emotions about this person. Then, once you have your correspondent clear in your mind, choose a purpose. Is this a letter to inform? To reminisce? To chastise? To express emotion that you could not express face to face? And then begin to write without censoring yourself. Another idea utilizing this process would be to start a specific journal book in which you would write to a son or daughter or grandchild perhaps once a year on his or her birthday, detailing what that year had been like. On the child’s eighteenth birthday, this journal will be an extraordinary one-of- akind sendoff gift to college.

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