April 2010


I admit it. I fell under Tawni O’Dell’s spell and took advantage of her permission to be a real writer without writing every day. Actually I don’t need Tawni’s permission to not write every day. I already knew that. Besides, life sometimes intervenes and other business must be attended to. Now my fingers are flying again.

During my break I found a jumping off spot. What better place than a cemetery, finding the grave of the baby brother I never knew and cracking the veil of the past? That occurred at the beginning of the drive from Santa Fe to Los Alamos, the drive that really did trigger a gush of cogent, potent memory. In so many ways, it was a day lived in parallel universes, oscillating between times and realities.

I’ve done two things to move the project forward. I set up a Live Sync folder so I can work on this project on either of my computers and have my files automatically and instantly update on the other. This has the splendid advantage of providing perfect backup. Having done that, I set about dissecting the preliminary file I wrote a few months ago so I can recast the relevant parts and add to them. I have a strong start now.

I’ve been reading too, and came to a stunning conclusion after reading Sam Patron’s “Search for Soul” blog, and Susan Wittig Albert’s latest volume, Holly Blues. Sam has a couple of posts about an adventurous part of her life. She covered a lot of ground in relatively few words. The story is lean and mean, written close to the bone. It’s pure narrative, with little in the way of description and no dialogue that I recall, but my eyes were glued to the page as I scrolled through the account, reading as fast as I could. Thinking back, I decided that I might have found additional description and scene elements distracting. I was making my own movie on the fly.

That hunch was validated when I read Holly Blues. Susan Albert is a master of scene building and her descriptions are especially succulent. I could take a week to savor the book, but instead, I read it in about four hours after dinner. I chided myself when I realized I was skimming through whole pages of exquisite description to get on with the action. Guilt? Not me. I savored enough of those scenes to know that Susan has not lost her edge and would have missed them if they weren’t there. Making the choice to skim read to fast forward through the action is far preferable to skimming out of boredom while deciding whether to set the book aside.

What’s a writer to do? I love this sort of soul-gripping story that totally sucks me in, and I’m also easily seduced by silken word ribbons. Can we have it both ways? Guess I’ll have to stick with the silken ribbons, because I do not have the gripping adventure.

Yesterday, though she had no idea this was happening, best-selling fiction author Tawni O’Dell affirmed my resolution to “write it my way.” She insisted more than once that you cannot learn to write a novel in a classroom. “There is no process! I don’t have a process, so I can’t tell you what to do.”

I knew that. I make the point in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing that we each have a unique writing style, and that we must find our way, work with it, and not let anyone intimidate us into believing otherwise. Nobody was telling me how to organize my material. Nobody was even suggesting. But I have been in danger of drifting into a formula approach, of writing what I think readers want rather than what feels right to me, and Tawni’s words seemed confirmation of my inner sense of things.

She explained also that she can’t write on a schedule, or “every day for four hours.” Her style is more along the lines of writing feverishly without stopping until her fingers are bloody stumps. At some point her characters go silent. She has to take a break and do other things, like walk, clean house, go on a reading binge. Her characters tell her when it’s time to get back to the keyboard. She cannot/will not even try to produce a novel a year. Her agent, editor and publisher know that is not her rhythm, and don’t push her. “Your work is worth waiting for. Do it your way.”

In memoir we don’t have characters quite the way fiction writers do. We have memories. Sometimes the memories grab me by the throat and drag me to my chair. Other times they tell me to go out and make more.

As she was delivering that message about the futility of classes for learning to write a novel (and by extension any larger project), she did say that classes are worth taking because you never know where you’ll find inspiration and it’s good to hang out with other writers. Writing is a lonely pursuit. I think she also said you can refine your wordcraft skills, like description, etc. Phew! That was welcome news since I teach stuff like that!

The best class, she claims, is the one you teach yourself, by reading voraciously with attention to structure and craft. It sinks in, almost by osmosis, and makes you a better writer.

Thank you Tawni!

Moving ahead with the idea of using my last visit to Los Alamos as the organizing principle, I laid out a map of the drive to and through town, noting memory clusters related to each place. I can do this. It will work. It’s even authentic, because at least fragments of these memories, emotions and sensory experiences did flood back at that time in much the way I’ll describe. I even have an idea for a catchy entry point into the story.

I don’t recall exactly where I came upon this idea, but I believe Linda Joy Myers mentions it in her new book, The Power of Memoir. It’s sort of a variation on the timeline theme.

My next challenge will be to set up chapters for each location and make a more detailed list of “story beads” for that particular string. Up to this point, much of what I’ve been writing is more narrative than scene. Having this structure will provide organizing context and make it easier to write scene. It will also make it easier to work with composite memories.

As I think of scene, I’m realizing that most of the memoirs I’ve been reading lately (new, commercially published ones) have been mostly rumination type narrative verging on essay with very little dialogue. Description is gorgeous, but in general dialogue is limited to single sentences from other people most of the time, with only a line or two per page at most. These books have also lacked a strong story line. I’m struggling to make sense of this observation compared to all the challenge of creating a “Hero’s Journey” type of account.

Perhaps the bottom line is one of my mantras: “Your story is as personal and unique as your fingerprint.” Also, “To thine own story be true.”

My story is emerging.

Just what did I really want? This is the sort of question guaranteed to drive a memoirist to distraction, but until you can answer it, you’re unlikely to have a compelling story. For weeks I’ve been picking at the lock guarding the answer to this question. I’ve filled countless journal pages and thought about it incessantly. I tried free writing. I tried everything besides sitting quietly and waiting for an answer.

Tonight I finally resorted to that last step. I sat back in my recliner in a dark room, turned off the sound of my thoughts, and focused in on metaphorical images of a couple of memories. I used a sort of split screen, comparing possibilities, and changed conditions in the active screen, comparing to the base image. Finally a scene clicked. I knew I’d finally hit the paydirt of fundamental Truth.

This Truth is not something I’ll disclose directly, because I was not aware of this truth as anything but the vaguest dissatisfaction back then. but it will provide form and shape for lots of scenes. It will serve as a sort of hidden skeleton. It will be a major source of tension in the story, helping to move it forward.

My discovery came with a huge bonus. Now that my desire is clear, now that I see that image, I can clearly see how it has manifested in my life. I can watch the dream unfold, beginning a little over thirty years ago, gradually unfurling. That’s the magic of memoir —it can solve some of the basic mysteries of life, our own and perhaps others too. Not only can it heal broken hearts, enable  forgiveness, and bestow inner peace, but it can disclose unexpected joys and blessings, and few things are as satisfying.

After all the grappling I’ve been doing with structure, a spark of inspiration lit the wee hours this morning. I suspect it resulted from input from a member of the LifeWritersCritique group. I posted a piece of “raw” writing there for feedback on concept, missing content and so forth. One veteran writer replied:

… I also found myself wanting to know how that day or event shaped or changed you. Why was it significant? Why is it worthy of being included in your book? And lastly, I found myself wanting a more enlightened perspective.

These questions are obvious, and I would pose them myself if someone else had submitted that material, yet it’s truly helpful to have a fellow writer ask them of me. They take on additional power. I feel more accountable and energized. (I hope you take this as a testimonial to the power of writing groups! ) The question about significance also reminded me that I had failed to include a sinister aspect of that experience that lurked in the background, but should be highlighted.

After surveying my instant responses: I’m still grappling with structure; this is an early draft, not a fully developed scene; my intention is to focus on place and times as much as myself, and balance is a challenge … I paused. That all sounds defensive. Was I being defensive? I hope not! This project is an adventure. I’d love to achieve everything you read in that feedback. But how?

Including insight or later perspective is a key challenge. If I stay “in the moment” back then, without interjecting any insight, the story is in danger of being a bore. I didn’t have moments of terror or stunning victories. Though far from “average” or “ordinary,” I did not live a headliner life. Those early years were the sowing season for seeds that would blossom and bear fruit decades later. If I interject analytical perspective from the future, it lends an entirely different tone. I wouldn’t reject that out of hand, but it goes against my intuitive sense of the story.

In one of those four o’clock moments of lucidity kicked in by a full bladder that activated Monkey Mind, the flash occurred. As I wrote in a February post, early in this project I drafted an account of a quick visit my husband and I made to Los Alamos in August, 2000, only three months after the devastating. Cerro Grande fire My thought at the time was to use that visit as an organizing thread for stringing together flashback vingnettes attached to the various places. They could be positioned as memories that sprang to life as we drove by each location. I never quite abandoned that idea, but it in my mental deep freeze. It looks good again. It can return the proper balance of focus to place.This concept is definitely worth further explorations.

Will this be the final form? The tension mounts. Stay tuned for further developments. Meanwhile, I may not have stumbled on this idea so soon if it weren’t for the serendipity of the newly forming Life Writers Critique Group, a spin-off from the Life Writers Forum that Jerry Waxler and I cohost. If you are looking for a critique group, check us out. We welcome any memoir writer, across the range of experience, age, gender and cultural background to lend a rich diversity to the group, and there is no charge to belong.

For the past couple of days I’ve felt out of sorts about this project. I’m writing. The words and pages are piling up, though not as fast as I’d like. But I’ve felt bogged down, like I was dragging something heavy on my feet, or maybe they were tangled in algae on the bottom of a pond. I’ve been indulging in the sort of behavior described in today’s Heart and Craft post. This afternoon A Voice snarled, “This has no interest to anyone but you, and maybe a couple of your grandkids. I know you won’t quit, but get done with it. You have real writing to do!”

Wow! That Voice is not one I’m familiar with. I haven’t heard that one before. It was definitely masculine. Unusual. Nobody specific that I know. I thought about it. There is some truth to it. Outwardly my early life was less than thrilling to hear about. The excitement was on the inside. Girl against emerging woman. Girl against perceived expectations of others. Girl against her own expectations.

There was another aspect to that message that totally puzzled me. The Voice knows me well enough to realize I will not drop this project. But I do not know what this real writing is. Woo woo!

Suddenly I felt overwhelmingly sleepy. Rather than fight it, or go for a cup of coffee (I’m decaffeinating for a few days, which is less oppressive than I anticipated — I still allow myself a couple of cups of tea) I headed upstairs and lay down for a nap. I fell instantly asleep, for about ten minutes, and had a firestorm of dreams. I don’t recall a single one, but they were intense. When I woke up, the storm was over and the sun shining — at least inside — Mother Nature is still weeping her eyes out beyond the window.

I’ve been writing topically, more or less chronologically within the topics. My dis-ease has centered on lack of vision about how to chop up the topics and reintegrate them. The answer is clear now. I won’t even try. I’ll stick with the topics, and probably devote a chapter to each. This is not a new idea, but I feel more settled about it.

This could all change. But the decision calms me for now, and restores my sense of flow.

Looking at the mishmosh of stories and scenes that I’ve piled up, I’m reminded of jigsaw puzzle pieces. This memoir is a jigsaw puzzle, and there is no picture on the lid. Someone else, perhaps Karen Walker, recently compared her writing project to a jigsaw puzzle. It’s not a new idea for either of us. I don’t know about her, but for me it isn’t time to get serious about assembling the puzzle yet. Too many pieces are still in the box, or lying face down. It’s tempting to start tagging stories together now, and as I write, I do some of that. But no! Keep writing! Just let the stories flow as they will.

One way I’m avoiding this sidetrack is by not printing anything out yet. I won’t print until I have more or less a full draft.

On the other hand, today I launched into a disgusting pile of “stuff” that’s been sitting on a counter in my all-purpose room. Part of the pile was a portfolio of old stories that I’d gone through recently. I found a seventeen page draft of Los Alamos memories that I wrote two or three years ago (I’ve started this project more than once). I need to find the file for that printout and maybe patch it onto the end of my current one.

If it sounds as if I’m going in circles or spinning my wheels, that’s because I am! Back to the story now…

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