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Memoir Writing: The Power of Narrative Nonfiction

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Updated on Mar 21, 2013

Everybody likes a good story. People have been sitting around the campfire for eons, listening to stories, learning from them and learning how to tell a good one. From the youngest child to the oldest adult, memory provides the raw material of stories. People have a long history of recording memories in letters, calendars, diaries, journals and on the occasional cave wall. According to education theorist James Moffett, even a child too young to write down a memory has plenty to record.

As children mature, their focus moves outward and their memories include stories about other people. The term “memoir” describes any story based on firsthand experience, but strictly defined, memoir is more biography than autobiography. The story is told from the author’s point of view, but the central character is someone else. As Moffett puts it, “Memoir is the bridge between author focus and other focus.” This is the bridge that each child must cross to develop as a mature individual. The ability to observe, remember and write meaningfully about others shows that the child is crossing the bridge from the “me zone” to the “we zone.”

Equally important is literature’s ability to foster compassion in children, says Jane Gangi, an associate professor of education who teaches literacy and literature at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York. “A study of 40 biographies and autobiographies of writers shows that the most powerful works for these writers when they were children were 90 percent literary and 10 percent informational,” she says. Because memoir is both informational and literary, engaging with memoir as writers and readers can help children become informed, compassionate adults.

Cultivate the habits of observing and keeping records. Want to encourage your child to make a new habit? The best way is to get in the habit yourself. Take a few minutes out of each busy day to make a diary or journal entry and occasionally share an entry with your child. This lets the budding memoirist feel important, and you model good habits. The records a child keeps reinforce the habit of observation and aid memory when it comes time to write.

Exercise the mental muscles that notice similarities and differences. In Classroom Instruction That Works, author Robert Marzano discusses skills that really make a difference in student achievement. One of these is the ability to notice similarities and differences between similar items. Ask your child if pancakes or waffles are better. For something more sophisticated, ask which day is best: Saturday or Sunday. Children who notice and explain similarities and differences are practicing crucial skills and getting the message that their opinions matter.

Decide what to leave out. Another key skill discussed by Robert Marzano is summarizing. A good summary is not an A-to-Z account. To summarize well, children need to be able to decide what to include and what to leave out. Ask your child, “What did you do in school today?” and then ask, “What was the most important thing that happened today?” This skill can also be practiced on the stories children read or that are read to them. Summary requires the child to decide what is important, which is a key to good storytelling.

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