Inventing Memoir

Last month I read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. I’m still trying to find the way to write about it, about all the ways it has affected me.  I’m not there yet.  I think I need to read it again, need to have a few more conversations about it.  I most want to have those conversations with my mother, with my sister.  I hope it happens.

In the mean time, I am still writing 420-character stories, and Wilkerson’s book has inspired several.  They are stories about — but not about — my mother, my father.  They are fiction, only the smallest of details drawn from a reality I know.  So I’m calling them “invented memoir.”  I’m not sure, but I think they may give me the safe distance to talk about this book, this history, all the ways my point of view has shifted as I’ve thought about this history in my own family.

Here are two pieces:


My mother walks down 42nd toward Times Square, every bit the part – “glamorous starlet” – she has played since moving here. Lips a perfect red, black liner shaping a seductive cat’s eye. In this neighborhood she needn’t worry about women calling at her to clean their toilets, but must look out for men who think she’ll take their money, their filth. She exhales as she reaches the theater door, lifts her head higher.


When my mother and father meet, they don’t think about how the south connects them.  They’re from such different places, after all.  His North Carolina no mirror of her Texas.  And they’re New Yorkers by then, lives turning on new axes.  But it’s there, their old lives, the old hurts and shames.  It’s what joins them even before they first speak of the past, before they tie their histories together.

I’m still interested in just how much room this tiny space gives me to express something.  In some ways, it’s actually perfect for these created memoirs.  I don’t, after all, know these stories — not really, not well.  Having only a few brief lines to paint a picture gets me out of the story’s way, forces only a handful of critical bits onto the page.


You can find all of today’s slices at Two Writing Teachers.


11 thoughts on “Inventing Memoir

  1. 420-character stories. Invented memoir. Such vivid glimpses in the lives of your characters. Clean, crisp, and powerful. I am curious about the book you are reading. I hope you get an opportunity to talk with your mother and sister.


    1. Thanks, Pamela. I keep trying to write the post about the book and my response to it. Hoping to get it posted before the end of the month. We’ll see. I’m determined to nudge the family conversation forward. We can certainly have it without anyone reading the book, but I think they should have the option of doing the same “homework” that I’ve done!


  2. I always have done these “tiny” stories (but never with the 420 character idea) and find them challenging. It’s as much what you leave out, and hint about, as what you put in. That becomes a delicate balance for the writer.

    Each line has its own importance. I loved this one of yours:

    “It’s what joins them even before they first speak of the past, before they tie their histories together.”

    Just beautiful.


    1. Thanks, Kevin. I agree about the writing choices the limited space pushes you to make. I’m enjoying that challenge, that search for the finely-distilled idea that will express so much in so few words (or characters).


  3. Paul

    These are superb; drawn with skill and clarity. That is really the goal: how much can you evoke? Much of the story will remain mysterious, but it does not follow that you write mysteriously. Just the opposite: what details will say the most while still leaving much to say?

    Excellent. An activity that will see the light of day in my classroom before the end of this semester. Thank-you.


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