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Memoir: Mindful Use and Misuse of Words in a Memoir

Words as memoir-writing tools

As writers, how can we not be mindful always that words are our tools! Words communicate meaning—our meaning—to readers. So often however, we use words (and the phrases they are embedded in) without understanding the full weight they carry—their connotations for ourselves and for others. Many words are loaded with multiple connotation.

Now most writers have a somewhat clear enough sense of denotative [dictionary definition] and connotative [emotional : house vs. home] meaning of most words, but…

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There is always a personal group of words that we use connotatively without knowing that we are doing so and without knowing that the connotations we hold as evident may not be so for our reader. They are our own emotional overlays. These hidden connotations usually have to do with our unarticulated values.

I was reminded of this the other day at the post office eavesdropping on a customer’s unconscious use of personal connotative language. It highlighted for me the challenge we writers face, as I say over and over again in memoir coaching, of writing our contemporary writing selves [the author in the present] out of the memoir so that only the historical character of our memoirs [usually ourselves in another era] comes to the fore, the “I” of the main character.

Back to the post office

A woman in line ahead of me at the post office asked for a “patriotic” stamp. Now, the denotation of the word patriotic, of course, signifies only “love of one’s country.” There’s perhaps no one reading this who would argue that. The word itself is ultimately neutral. However, the denotation of patriotism can easily (and frequently) get lost and the speaker assumes personal and political connotations to be denotations. Her use of “patriotic” stamps can easily lead to readers thinking her use has crossed over into “chauvinism” and “jingoism”—neither of which did she express (e.g., “Give me a jingoistic stamp!”). Nor, did she clearly place the word “patriotic” in denotation by articulating, “I want a stamp that is ’emblematic’ or ‘iconic’ of the United States. A stamp that does not make a personal or political statement, but simply states my identity in and affiliation with this nation-state.” [Whew! I can see why she didn’t say it that way.]

Her personal meaning of “patriotic” was connotative. She was perhaps stating, “Using this stamp makes me feel patriotic.” The stamp itself was not patriotic. The stamp is simply emblematic. Patriotic was simply not the mot juste.

One, of course, knows what she meant—something perhaps more attuned to “jingoistic” than to “emblematic of my affiliation with the US”—and the postal clerk did, too. Such is the state of language these days. But, this is an article on words having connotation, so the example is appropriate.

The application for us as writers of memoirs?

We need to search our vocabulary for the right word to express what our memoir character is feeling, thinking, and experiencing in such a way that the readers will feel, think, and experience as we wish them to. It is fine to use words in their connotative sense, but we have to understand we are doing so and we have to cue the reader that we are using words in our own particular way, in our personal connotative way.

In conclusion

After individual words, we need to apply the same thinking to phrases, images, etc. All carry denotation and connotation. The writer who is familiar with how to use connotation so that it does not become purely personal will be able to communicate clearly with the reader.

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