It’s been another month between entries here.  The fact is, I’ve been totally absorbed in transforming my Writing for the Health of It workshop to include narrated slideshows I can use when I teach it via teleseminar (it will be listed as a Story Circle Network winter offering). This memoir project has sat untouched in the shadows. Work on my memoir has ground to a halt, at least in terms of applying fingers to keyboard. But it’s never far from mind.

This morning as I scanned Jerry Waxler’s latest post on his Memory Writers Network blog, I was suddenly transported back to the summer of 1951 into my seven-year-old body. I stood on the rise in front of our house looking down across the street to the cluster of kids gathered between Carol and Tom’s houses. More than anything I wanted to be part of that cluster. I wanted to belong there, not just hang around on the edges as I’d done a couple of times previously. And I had no more idea how to go about achieving that status than how to sprout wings and fly to the moon.

Suddenly I felt a visceral shift and stunning realization: this desire to belong, to fit in, to be connected and accepted, is the theme of my youthful years. This is the thread that carries through everything. This desire is what I thought about as I sat at the sewing machine. It filled my fantasies as I pumped toward the sky on the playground swings, or rode my bike around town, or … did anything at all. By the time I left for college I had made significant progress toward that goal.

Realistically I know I won’t be getting back to serious writing on this project before the end of January at the soonest, but I probably will do some doodling and journaling on this theme.

When I do get back to it, I’ll be writing primarily for the fabled “Audience of one.”  I may eventually share the story, but primarily this has become a self-exploration tool, and I know I can write deeper and more truly for two eyes than the eyes of a multitude. At least in the beginning. This is a valuable discovery. Private writing removes the need for artifice and strips things to the bones.

 

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After talking with a few people about their experiences in high school specifically and childhood in general, I’m realizing more clearly than ever how few people led the sort of charmed lives my husband’s Uncle Walter did. He wrote a short account of his early life because, as he put it, “I had the boyhood everyone wishes he’d had!” I certainly didn’t have that sort of youth.

My daughter claims to know people who ran in the cheerleader crowd who stay firmly in touch with their school pals, proclaiming, “Those were the best years of my life!” After she told me this she laughed. “Doesn’t say much for the rest of their lives, does it!”

In recent years I’ve looked back on my girlhood years and realized that a very few painful episodes had colored an entire era. Memories of happy times and the satisfaction of solitary accomplishments have come to the fore. I’m realizing now that those years prepared me ideally for the life I find so rich and satisfying today. The clouds have lifted and I rejoice in discovering blessings that were hidden at the time.

I say this with a profound sense of relief and hope that I don’t sound arrogant. I think of this revelation as a gift. Suddenly I’m uncertain just what to do with this gift. I’ve been wavering about the tone to take in recording girlhood memories. I never wallowed in self-pity, but I had my share of blows to the psychic solar plexus. When I look back through the lens of current understanding, it’s tempting to gloss those times over and write them from my current point of view. After all, what is truth? Movement of bodies through space and sound waves hitting an eardrum? Or the meaning one assigns to those events?

How easy it would be to gloss it all over, to write girlhood as one long picnic. But hey! It wasn’t! I waited half a century  for liberation from those chains of angst and self-doubt. I’m realizing now that I would be doing nobody a service to pretend otherwise. Perhaps it’s time to come clean and admit, “Yes, that hurt.” Perhaps spreading the news that it doesn’t hurt anymore (due in no small part to the fact that I’ve written about it so long the last thread of the cocoon broke, enabling my inner butterfly to soar free) will help others make their own peace with the past.

Realizing this is a big step, probably as big as recognizing my Organizing Strategy.

The last puzzle piece I’m aware of is deciding how to handle the identities of tormentors. I don’t think anyone was ever deliberately mean. Most of my discomfort originated in my own understanding. So do I use real names or fictitious ones? I’m thinking that for the most part first names will suffice with a few alterations as to protect the privacy of others. That’s easy to change later, should my perspective evolve further.

Yesterday I met with a couple of writing friends and took along the first four pages of this current draft. They’ve read  drafts of pieces I wrote earlier, but this was new material. I was heartened by their responses.

“This sounds lots more like you. The other pieces sounded more formal and contrived. Your personality is coming through in this.”

What sweeter words could anyone hope to hear?

These gals and I have been meeting for seven or eight years — I’d have to look at my timeline to be sure. However long it’s been, we’ve been through a lot together, on the page and off, and have coaxed, witnessed and cheered as we each continue to develop our writing skills. A victory by one is a victory by all, and we are able to be, well, not brutally honest, because we are always kind and loving. But we hold each other to high standards, and if something seems awkward, we work through it together.We have diverse styles and hear things differently, which makes the group input especially valuable.

Meanwhile, I continue to write. It’s so much easier now, with an organizing structure firmly in mind. Using the drive-through structure has a couple of additional advantages I hadn’t thought of until I began writing. I was nervous about the fact that the story would be obese with narration if I stuck to the viewpoint of me as a young girl. Incorporating that material as flashback insets allows me to interact in the narrative present (I concocted that term on the fly) to counterbalance the sparsity of remembered dialogue.

Even so, I do have some in the flashbacks. I have us “up the hill” now, entering town. The first memory trigger after the front gate is the Christian Church I used to attend. The paint was hardly dry in that new building when I moved away, but it triggers a hologram of church memories. When all is said and done, that may be significant timing.

At this point, the writing process, the organizing and developing and weaving together, is far more intriguing than the memories. On their own, they are beginning to feel a bit stale. If I weren’t writing, I would have put them back in their box long ago.

Wouldn’t it be an amazement if we could always just sit right down and write, freely, flowingly, and daily? But life keeps intervening. Right now writing is more challenging than usual. Life is intervening more than usual, primarily because at least temporarily, I’m not able to see my computer as well as usual as I peer through the ruby red orb located in my right eye socket like some artifact from a science fiction movie.

On Wednesday I had my third eye surgery in three months. The first two were to remove cataracts, replacing cloudy lenses with dazzlingly bright ones. I chose Crystalens replacements, a premium lens that’s hinged to move back and forth like a healthy young lens, restoring nearly a full range of vision. Those surgeries were a snap, with vision clear and complete as soon as the dilation was gone. The only inconvenience was the need to use eye drops three times a day for a couple of weeks, and I’m thrilled that for the first time in my life I can see my computer screen clearly without glasses — a writer’s dream!

This third one was a vitrectomy. The doctor swapped out the gel inside my right eye with saline solution. This is a common procedure, used when the natural vitreous becomes polluted with clumps of dried out cells of various types, obscuring vision. In my case I’d had a tiny amount of bleeding when the vitreous detached from my retina a few years ago, and the resulting “amoeba” in the center of my vision has been driving me nuts for years. The good news is that the amoeba is gone. But … this surgery required more anesthetic, requiring a longer recovery time to feel fully alert and peppy, and the drops form a film over my eye. This is surely a temporary situation, but it’s distracting when I sit at the computer, and quite frankly, my mind has seldom  been on writing!

It’s coming back though. I opened my file and reread what I’ve done so far on the new first chapter. I see where to fit in a couple more flashback vignettes that will add to the backstory and fit here better than anywhere else. The “road map” I made of the trip through town is helpful, but only in generalities. Nothing can substitute from moving fingers on keyboard. But most likely the next few days will mostly be spent on projects requiring less close-range concentration.

As a side note, when I first saw this retinologist, he observed that my description of symptoms was “amazingly detailed and complete,” and made his job easier. I smiled and told him that I’m a writer, and accurate, detailed description is a primary tool of my trade. What better example that honing writing skills can benefit wide areas of life?

Last night I couldn’t get to sleep. Experts say not to lie in bed if you aren’t sleepy. Since I was thinking about The Book, I got up and wrote a story from my list about the first time my sister and I went down in the canyon alone. Against the rules. Since I prided myself on being the obedient daughter, this is a stunning admission, to the public, and to myself. It’s not that I had so many illusions. I generally was quite obedient, but there was generally no reason not to be. Does that count?

Don’t know what I’ll do with this simple story, where I”ll put it. But it reads well as a stand-alone. It will nestle in well somewhere as things further unfold. As it stands now, it includes one short flashback.

Over the last couple of days I’ve read several references to memoir as a “way” or “path.” Indeed. A path to self-discovery, a re-stor(i)ed past, re-vision of personal history … and probably much more. For some, it is a path to healing and wholeness. For others, transformation. Or is that trance-formation? One thing is certain — it is definitely not dull!

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.