February 2010


As I work on my story, it is already becoming crystal clear that I must create scenes with a broad brush. Trying to use specific events, as they happened, as I felt in that moment, can’t possibly convey the sense of things. What I can do is remember something I did, i.e. ride my bike out to the picnic ground, together with my sister. I can take that real memory and embellish it as I wish, with details from two dozen other memories, dialogue, sensory detail, and other related verbal and sensory memories, and jam them all into that single package. Everything is real and true, it just didn’t all happen in conjunction that way. By picking and choosing when and how to say what, and artfully arranging my puzzle pieces, the picture becomes more true, IMO.

It reminds me of the way our minds jump around when we start remembering things. Neurons sizzle and snap with connections going off in dozens of directions. How do we decide which path to be aware of? We may not even be conscious of our choices, but it’s much like the “Oh, that reminds me of the time … ” conversations we all have while reminiscing with friends and family.

As I’ve written, there have been a few times when I’ve continually come up empty after trying all sorts of things to retrieve memories and emotions around some event. I’ve finally stumbled upon a technique that works. I briefly describe the event in a freewriting session (or while journaling) and end the description with the line, “If I were writing about a fictional character in this situation, how would she feel?” As I write my answer, building that fictitious character, my own authentic feelings usually come streaming back. If they aren’t “authentic,” they are real enough to fool me!

Another chapter has emerged, A Summer Bike Ride. How much simpler the writing is since I determined to write composite memories rather than trying to capture specific ones. Considering that about fifty years have passed since the days of which I write, most specific memories have dimmed anyway. Breaking loose from chronology and my timeline simplies matters immensely too.

This chapter was rewarding to write. I think I managed to capture the essence of the Los Alamos picnic ground in that era along with some insight into my thoughts as a young teen. It was also a good place to plant some description of my bedroom.

“What else can I put in here about my fascination with pine trees?” was a typical question as I wrote. I feel rather like a painter pondering where to put a spot of red to juice up a forest scene. I was able to tie in several mini-memories that wouldn’t rate a chapter of their own and more dialogue than I expected flowed in naturally.

Does it matter that this specific day is basically fiction? Not at all, at least to me. It is totally true to my memory of how things were, if not exactly what happened. I know that this day happened in a similar fashion several times, but don’t remember exact details of any individual one.

If anyone wants to bone up on how memory works, I highly recommend John Kotre’s classic volume, White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory. It’s old enough that if you can’t get it at the library, it’s readily available used through Amazon.

The second stop on my memoir revisitation tour that primarily emphasize time and place is Haven Kimmel’s wildly popular volume, A Girl Called Zippy: Growing up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. I didn’t know this memoir, published in 2002, had already become a classic when I added it to my pile at a Friends of the Library used book sale  four or five years ago, and it sat on my shelf for a couple of years. In fact, I thought the cover looked and sounded a little dopey, and I almost donated it back unread. Fortunately word leaked out that it was a Significant Book.

Three years ago my husband and I took a road trip from Pittsburgh down to Austin and home via New Mexico. We grew tired of listening to audio books, and I began reading Zippy aloud when I wasn’t driving. Somewhat to my surprise, my husband enjoyed it, so I continued reading, finishing the book in three days (nearly losing my voice in the process. Not only did he enjoy it, he provided an insightful critique that I included in a post on The Heart and Craft of Life Writing.

Over time, I lost track of most of the elements of his critique, remembering only that the book was often funny, even hilarious, and that it consisted more of snippets than a developed story line. So I pulled it off the shelf and began rereading. The first thing I’m noticing is that reading a book aloud is quite a lot different from reading it silently. I love reading aloud, dramatizing the book as I read, as I imagine the author would have me do. I occasionally daydream of a career as a professional reader for audio book companies. But reading aloud precludes stopping to savor especially delicious lines, backtracking to double-check things, or skimming over dull or tedious spots. It’s also easy to miss subtleties.

On this read I’m more aware of the structure of her component story-chapters and how skillfully she braids two or three memories into a single strand, surely drawing on composite memory for additional color and vibrancy. I haven’t yet read far enough to rediscover the jumping around and repetition that annoyed us earlier.

The combination of Annie’s and Haven’s books inspired me to begin the morning by jotting key memories on tiny Post-It® notes I’m arranging on a large sheet of newsprint as an elaboration of the mindmap I referred to earlier.

I agree with all the experts who encourage you to “just write a draft — get your story on paper first,” but only to a certain extent. I stand firmly by my position in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing that the writing process is as personal as your fingerprint, and you must find your own way.

I see it as being similar to cooking. I’m an intuitive cook. I read cookbooks and magazines for inspiration, then work with what I have, occupationally making a special trip to the store for special ingredients. I almost never follow a recipe precisely. I’ve read piles of books on writing, some of them about writing memoir, and now you are reading my twist on the process. You’ll find your own.

Now, back to the draft of the current story, incorporating a couple I wrote a few years ago…

I live to write about life. This is my six-word memoir. If I were to have a tombstone, I’d ask that this be inscribed thereupon, transformed to past tense. As it happens, I’ve requested cremation, with my ashes to be scattered, so there will be no tombstone.

Considering that I live to write about life, much of the time I’m not actively writing is spent thinking about what to write. Right now I’m thinking more than writing as I combine recovery from cataract surgery with endless digging in snow. The good news is that the recovery is progressing well, ahead of schedule, and I anticipate being back in full reading mode before long.

The constant snow storm we’ve been living in has played havoc with my writing. I’m in great shape — my muscles are stronger, my endurance greatly enhanced. I’m amazed that I’m enjoying suiting up and slinging snow around. I look forward to it. Who would have thought? I’m discovering muscle memory of earlier times in my life when I took hard labor for granted. Interesting!

It’s not that I’m not thinking about The Book. It’s much on my mind as I chop massive snow banks into blocks with my trusty cookie sheet and toss them aside. But my energy is going to snow, not to writing.

Last night I reread the initial chapter I wrote last month. It’s full of flashback memories I had as my husband and I drove through town in late August, 2000, shortly after the near-fatal Cerro Grande fire that devastated the area in May of that year. As I read my account, I realized that the order of our drive effectively surveyed my life there in reverse order.

I went to bed contemplating the idea of writing a reverse timeline, of digging through the layers to discover a small girl. I didn’t contemplate long — all the fresh air and physical exertion of late sent me into dreamland within minutes. When I woke, I picked up where I left off, and soon determined that this is not a good order. My story does not end with finding a diamond in piles of poop. The only manure in my tale was at the stables I almost never visited, and the diamond appears much later as insight.

That is not to say that using the drive to as a device for linking loosely related flashbacks won’t work. I want to place a major emphasis on place in this story, and what better way than to revisit it? Using the visit as a platform for rest and contemplation between dives into the past could give me a way of connecting insight with early events and experience. My story pales to insignificance if it’s a simple chronological account.

In the process of searching, I also found the now forgotten mind map I made several weeks ago. I posted it on The Heart and Craft of Life Writing. It’s good. It’s really good. I printed it out. I will use it as a checklist to ensure that I embed these key elements within appropriate flashbacks. This gives me a sort of grid, with columns of environmental features and columns of experiences. The challenge is to have at least one check in each column.

I am literally weaving a story!

I have a desktop full of tools now.

I’ll assemble these pieces and continue to cogitate. I’ll also cross my fingers that tomorrow’s second round of cataract surgery will not slow my writing. But that’s a story for a different time and place.

My snow chapter is done — or I should say the draft is done. I wish I could say as much for the snow in our yard. I think we’ll be able to chill beer in piles beside the driveway on July 4 this year.

I like the way this draft went together. It has flashback scenes threaded along a continuing story line and a decent amount of dialogue. I may work in a few more descriptive details later, and I may want to include another element or two later, but for now, it hangs together. I’ll set it aside and work on something else. The question is what that something else will be. Perhaps I can best answer that question by hauling out the notes I made on airplanes a couple of weeks ago.

Earlier today in a post on The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing I mentioned a  scar on my knee that’s disappeared. I went on to mention that much of the writing I’ve been doing has caused many internal scars to disappear. I think I won’t concern myself with what that means in terms of this memoir. I write the truth as I know it today, whether it is the same thing I would have written twenty years ago. I don’t think the difference will be large, and I can’t write what I would have written then, anyway because I don’t know what I would have written then. Time has passed and I didn’t do it then.

Truth, as much as it’s discussed and dissected and placed on a pedestal, is an ephemeral and relative thing. I’m certain I’ll have a lot more to say on this topic as time goes by.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. And so it is doing in Pittsburgh. Snowing and snowing. This is great weather for writing, especially about memories of snow back in the days when I was thrilled to see it fall, always hoping it would be deep enough to reach the top of the four-foot chain-link fence in the back yard.

Inspired by our recent and newly arrived onslaughts, I’ve dug in and begun writing about memories of snow. A chapter is quickly taking shape. Is it a specific, distinct memory? No. Not exactly. It’s what is called a Composite Memory, a topic covered in a couple of posts on The Heart and Craft of Life Writing. This tale incorporates several generic memories of what life was like on days it snowed, both school days and others.

It will also include flashbacks to specific memories, like the night we all wondered if Mother would make it safely back up The Hill from Albuquerque in a blizzard, or stay somewhere down there? These were tense moments in that pre-cellular era. Sledding, snowball fights, snowmen, snowsuits. It will all be there, along with some other elements of daily life.

The chapter is a tapestry. Daily life is the background color, and snow events are the motif in this chapter.

Now, back to the page.

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