Huzzah, huzzah! I found the drama, the tension. I’ve been assuring people for months that though it was far from dull, my girlhood was lacking in the elements of suspense and tension that make for a compelling read. This morning as I got back to my challenge of arranging memories on the map of my last visit to Los Alamos, I found the tension. It isn’t in the events of girlhood. It’s in the re-view.

Backing up just a bit, I’ve found it exceedingly difficult to sit down for even fifteen or twenty minutes to work on this project. I’d been thinking this was due to having deadlines on book reviews, needing to write something for a writing group, catching up on promised critiques, wire brushing a report my hubby is writing, working on a project building shelves in the guest room, eye surgery, etc. Yes, those things and more have definitely played a part and kept me busy, but … there is always at least a little time for things that truly matter.

This morning I found the real block. Mostly to assuage guilt, I forged ahead and began writing about the drive up from Santa Fe. I’d bogged down at Camel Rock, just a few miles north of Santa Fe. A memory of my grandfather is forever anchored to that site. I didn’t want to leave Camel Rock! (And maybe the safety of my granddaddy?) Today we moved on up the road. That was easy enough to write, because I’d already written it in an earlier draft. All I needed to do now was to paste it in, gently tweak and add as I went along, and convert it to present tense — a couple of weeks ago I decided the best way to delineate the re-view from historic events is to use present tense for the 2000 trip and thoughts and past tense for girlhood memories.

Moving up that road, I felt the tension building. I know what lies ahead. I know what I’ll see. But the reader doesn’t. I dread it because I know. I began sharing my dread, elaborating on it, without naming the source. By the time I got to the crest of the hill after the road winds up the side of the cliff to town, I was in tears, on the page in memory and on my face in real time. And I have a double thread of tension — from my first ride up, which I clearly remember (creatively perhaps, but clearly in any evet) and this later one.

Now I “get it” more than ever that it’s hard to write about painful memories. They do become intensely real again. I’m more fortunate than some, because I’ve already worked this one through and know what lies beyond. For sure, my heart goes out to those who are writing more freshly.  I see more clearly than ever the value of personal experience for those of us who help others write this sort of material.

If adventure at the time was pale, look for adventure n meaning. Now I’m excited about writing again. Hooray! To celebrate, I’ve begun looking through Flickr.com for historic photos of Los Alamos. There are many more than a few years ago, and I’m assembling them in an album. It’s going to take time to fill it up.

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.

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.