The Benefits & Rewards of Memoir Writing and How to Begin
In Vietnam, summer months dragged on in quiet, hot hours. I found refuge on the mustard colored floor tiles, cool to the touch, and lay my ten-year-old body there until it got too warm, then rolling over to the adjacent tiles, letting ceiling fan do its job of dissipating the heat where I sprawled out. I leisurely read stacks of books during those lazy hours in my childhood then furiously pen a short story or two after I finished a book, an attempt to channel my last book author’s voice. That was before I came to America when my dream of becoming an author fled an involuntary exile.
I was painfully shy when I first arrived in the States. I avoided talking to people because their reception was dismal at best, head shaking, puzzle looking faces, I beg your pardon, they would say, especially in Pinedale, Wyoming where folks would say such things.
I deferred the dream of becoming a writer. I didn’t think I had what it took to become one because of my English language deficiency although I never stopped me trying. I continued to read and write, again, each time channeling all of my favorite authors’ voices. I now cringe with embarrassment reading my earlier writing in chubby, round cursive letters, faded and crawling spastically on lined papers. I had to relearn to write in a different language with different sets of rules, syntax, and grammar. I wrote in a foreign tongue like grade school children, in simple sentences, choppy, and generously sprinkled with run-on sentences and fragments, like the way my mind daydreamed sometimes.
While I practiced writing in a new language, I could still feel the lyrical rhythm of my mother tongue, ebbed and flowed, humming poetically in the nooks and crannies of my memories. And so it continued, hopelessly inadequate at first, but I still wrote as often as I could, during breaks at work, and later on, during my children nap time or while they were at schools.
It took seventeen years after my diaspora before I could sum up the courage to jot down the details of my earlier life in Vietnam and the eventual exodus to America. Last year, in 2017, I decided to publish my profoundly personal memoir TigerFish, a book only meant for my family, but the political circumstances have changed, and I decided to share it with the world at large to advocate for refugees like my family and me. My story was no longer mine to keep privately. It belongs to everyone so they can learn what it’s like to overcome challenges and identity crisis as a refugee, and to live a fruitful life, contributing to a community and country where we are continued to be perceived as “Other” no matter how many generations we’ve been here. But from writing, I have found peace and feel secure in my identity of being an “Other” in America.
Now as an author, TigerFish rewards me with a community of like-minded and thoughtful readers. I'm happily and comfortably speaking with people who grew up during the 60’s, at the height of the Vietnam War. Some in the audience have read my memoir, accounts, and memories of growing up in Vietnam and my coming of age in America as a refugee. They’d say, “I relived that period in my life, remembering what I was doing at that time and watching the nightly news.” And some said they didn't pay attention to the war because they were raising a family, busy tending to their young children, doing laundry, and cooking meals. But most said my stories helped them understand another perspective and one more facet in a complicated war.
I’ve group hugged teenagers who came up to say that they “get me,” that’s my story is theirs right now, ashamed of being a refugee or immigrant because kids picked on them. I’ve also hugged fellow Vietnamese who suffered a lot more losses than I did, endured much more atrocity while escaping on the South China Sea and some have never talked about it with their spouses and children. I’ve answered emails from US Vietnam Vets who thanked me for writing, in their words because we wanted to know who we served, what were their lives like, what did they think of us, and how they are doing or where are they now. Most of them apologized for their actions, to which I said, we were both dealt a bad hand, and we played them as best as we knew how. We both suffered personal casualties and History isn’t looking kindly at the US Foreign Policies and those in the administration.
One of the best compliments to my writing was a hand-drawn Vietnam map, matted and framed from a former US cargo pilot I will call John. He explained that he took the book from his wife before she could finish it for her book club. He was so moved by my stories that he decided to draw the Vietnam Map for me as a token of his gratitude and friendship. He also gave me other map documents that might help me in my future writings. These are rewards from writing that I've never expected or dreamed of one year ago before I published my book.
The Benefits of Writing a Memoir
I initially wrote for myself and my family only but since then discovered that my human frailty and foible resonated with others. I found too that we don’t have to suffer alone with our challenges and demons. My experiences are a universal human experience, and we can help others with our words, so we don’t feel like we are alone or somehow not normal. To feel is to be human, to hurt and grieve, and showing our vulnerability is to be human. And to forgive, that is the most valuable rewards when we allow ourselves to go through all of these complicated emotions. Forgive ourselves and others. Free ourselves for a fruitful and liberated life.
How to Start Writing a Memoir
I invite and challenge you to write about your journey because not only it is cathartic, it is a journey of your own self-discovery and personal growth, but it will resonate with others and help them with theirs.
In writing your memoir, think of it as a movie. Write one vignette of a moment in your life at a time, why it stood out in your mind, and what are some vivid details that you would want to memorialize.
Repeat this step to document as many significant moments in your life as possible, and don’t worry about editing just yet. Before you know it, you’ll have a collection of moments and memories that will shape up to be the beginning of your memoir.
Most people don’t know where or how to start a biography, I’d recommend starting with a significant event then trace it back to the beginning of your life, for the simplest version, the one I used in my book TigerFish.
Write on, and Peace be with you!