Since my last post here, a month ago, I spent two weeks in New England, one each in Vermont and New Hampshire, where my husband and I attended Road Scholar programs. Each program included multiple discussions of local history. I was fascinated to learn that the Indians taught early settlers to kill trees in order to create open spaces for growing food. The settlers eagerly seized upon this tool and amplified it to new levels. Eventually they not only killed the trees, but cut them down for lumber and fuel. They defoliated most of the area.

In the overall scheme of things, the flaming fall foliage we see is new, regrown within the last seventy or eighty years. If I look closely, I can see the lack of majestic old trees such as we gaze at beyond the meadow we call a lawn in our backyard. But overall, the slopes look verdant and lush. They look healthy. Had I not heard about the devastation, I would not sense it today.

I’m reminded of the concluding line of Archibald McLeish’s play J.B., a modern adaption of the book of Job: “Blow on the coal of the heart and we’ll know … we’ll know … These tales of devastation and regrowth were dry tinder on the coal of my heart.

They brought focus to a growing sense that  the story of my grieving the Los Alamos devastation is only tenuously connected with daily events of girlhood. Roots were certainly there, but the details of this adult perspective are a distraction from the account of my girlhood and vice-versa.  While the two are related, the connections are so deep and complex that Tolstoy himself would be challenged to cover it all.

The die is cast. My decision is made. These two stories will be separated. Henceforth My Los Alamos Girlhood will revert to a simpler story of growing up in Los Alamos. I’ll develop the story of the mountains as a separate piece, perhaps part of a spiritual memoir that has not yet taken clear form. I may also expand the original essay that sparked the attempt to marry the two stories.

Keep it simple!

Fortunately, nearly all of what I’ve written can be rearranged, allowing me to proceed apace rather than starting over.

 

 

 

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I’m doing some work with Christina Baldwin’s family myths concept that I mentioned in the last post. Results are mixed. I’m seeing lots of family myths that affected my life in powerful ways back then … and even now. I’ve discarded some on my own, and others have been outgrown by the whole family. Relatively few are left intact, but I do see how some linger even now, and in a couple of cases current events provide to cues to recognize departed ones.

My biggest challenge right now is sticking to my determination to frame off that particular period of time rather than jumping ship and following another thread instead. I run the risk of having a dozen unfinished manuscripts piled around like unfinished garments next to the sewing machine. When I realized too many garments had piled up, I tossed several out and realized I didn’t want to sew anymore. I’m not ready to let that happen with writing! Finished projects are sooo satisfying. For better or worse, I must get this draft written and get on with things.

The obvious solution to capturing the moment of insight into those that don’t fit into the Los Alamos frame is to record them in my journal, carefully flagging them for easy retrieval later. By the end of this month I should be ready to focus on this project more intently once again.

A couple of days ago I was talking with a friend about my memoir. I must have sounded frustrated, and she’s the sort of friend who calls things as she sees them. I cherish friends like that — they are rare gems.

“Why are you writing this?” she asked. “What are you trying to prove?” That sort of stopped me. In fact, the last part of the question stunned me.

“Trying to prove? You think I’m trying to prove something?” I had that buzzy feeling like I was rubbing my old shorted out mixer, or standing on a rug about to be yanked.

“Well, aren’t you? You have yourself tied up in knots about this story that you already told me isn’t likely to appeal to a huge readership, but you sound like you think a Pulitzer is hanging in the balance — or Oprah’s standing there waiting to pounce on it if you don’t mess up.”

“You’re kidding … I sound like that?”

“Yep. You do.”

“Yikes.” I made a face.

“So, what are you trying to prove?” I had to think for a good long minute and a couple of sips of tea as I scanned the ceiling for an answer. She held the space for me to continue.

“I guess I’m trying to prove that I can do it … that I can finish this project that has become tedious, but I made a commitment to riding it out.”

We went on to discuss several other angles, like credibility (for what?), losing face (so what?), competition (against whom?) and creating a written legacy for future generations (they are more likely to appreciate and understand a simple autobiography than a complex memoir).

With those superficial reasons out of the way, we finally got to the fact that I’m writing as much about time and place as person. She understood that I want to honor that spot on earth that was so sacred to the Indians and so desecrated (de-sacreded?) by modern scientists. I’ve already experienced heart-healing and liberated power by revisiting my experiences there. Further writing is unlikely to add much to that equation, though I remain open to surprise. If I want to continue rapid self-discovery and transformation, it may be time to move on to more recent material. But how can I be sure this mound of mental relics is thoroughly excavated?

As we continued to delve, I remembered that my passion for writing this memoir  was lit by the matches of people who spoke evil of my heart home. I got in touch with my hope that by writing about my love of the land, the place, I will somehow contribute to the healing of the scar upon the face of the place I know and love the most. I pray that as my Mother Earth nourished and comforted me in my youth, I may be of some comfort to her as she heals from the inferno she endured.

Yes, that’s why I write. To help restore a sense of sacredness to that place of current scarredness. My story is a bit of worship, a love song, a tribute of gratitude. Knowing that … should make all the difference and help me focus and weed what I include.

Thank you my friend. Thank you.

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.

Sometimes life teaches us lessons in concentrated form. This weekend has been one of those concentrated lessons. We failed to heed a quiet intuition about moving a car to the bottom of our very long, steep driveway before the Monster Storm got underway. We believed the forecast of about 7″. In actuality, we got 25″.

The power went out, the phone went dead, and we had less than 48 hours to liberate a car before my scheduled cataract surgery tomorrow morning. Plenty of tension and suspense there. The good news is that the power was out for only 12 hours, the phone came back on in a couple of hours, and this afternoon as we were preparing to go back out to finish digging, an angel in the form of a neighbor appeared with his snow blower and made short work of the rest, leaving the drive looking like it had been professionally plowed.

I found a lesson in all this pertaining to The Book: I’ve been floundering, looking for an entry point. I did find one, but it sort of sealed back over. My wheels have been spinning like the car on loose snow.

Rereading Annie Dillard has provided focus and a plan. I don’t have a full-blown map, but I do have rough outlines of one. Things are coming together, and I have full faith that just as the continuing crises of the weekend resolved in a timely fashion, so will this manuscript.

One of the very few motivational speaker quotes I recall from the early 80s is from Zig Ziglar who said, “Go as far down the path as you can see. When you get there, you’ll be able to see farther.”

Write as much as you can think of. When you’re
done, you’ll think of more to write.

I’m going to make a tiny poster of those words to put in my line of vision.

Perhaps I’m finally learning to read. No, I don’t mean discerning words, I mean reading deeply with attention to structure as well as story. Last night I began rereading Annie Dillard’s classic memoir, An American Childhood. I recall loving it when I first read it a few years ago, and I love it even more on second glance. I love it both for the quirkiness of her observations and mind, and for the rich observations of Pittsburgh, a city I have become deeply bonded to.

On this read I’m noticing things that I may not have recognized the first time through. For example, she uses no chapter headings at all. The book is written with chapter structure, with dropped paragraphs on the first page of each, and section breaks indicated by double-spacing. But there are no titles at all, not even numbers. Just visual breaks. She does have have units called Prologue, Parts 1-3, and Epilogue.

“Chapters” are focused on a theme and under ten pages, making for easy reading.

She uses virtually no dialogue. I’m one-third of the way through, completely entranced, even though I’ve read it before, and I recall only two instances where she has actual dialogue. She does sprinkle in a few lines of speech, putting a few words into her mother’s mouth, for example. But unless a quoted reply follows, I don’t consider that true dialogue.

This observation needs further analysis, but it does not seem that she writes in scenes.

How reassuring that a book ignoring most of the “rules” has fared so well in developing a devoted following. I’m not Annie Dillard, and I can’t replace her words with mine in her structure and have something equally compelling, but the fact that she took liberties with convention (perhaps before it was set) and created a compelling story encourages me. As I view things now, my material does not lend itself ideally to scene and dialogue-heavy treatment.

As I previously noted, I’ve been out west visiting my father as well as our older son and his family. I used many of the notes I made on the plane ride west to ask my father all sorts of clarifying questions like, “Where was the building for Junior Rifle Club meetings? How many rounds did we fire at each target? Did I have my own gun or share one with Robin? What year was the second car we had there?”

Along with the spiral notebook I took to hold my thoughts along the way, my bank of memories is filling up, and thankfully, a sense of focus is emerging. I am exploring the idea of examining my formative years from the context of now to show the roots of certain preferences and attitudes. I probably won’t take this tack, but exploring the possibilities is enlightening. It’s also fascinating to realize that many things I used to consider liabilities now appear as assets.

The amount of work needed to simply process all these insights and develop a sense of direction before returning to writing draft copy seems staggering. How will I organize my material? By theme? By chronology?

I intend to reread Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood. Also A Girl Called Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and Miss New York Has Everything by Lori Jakiela. If I remember correctly, these memoirs include clusters of calendar jumping memories while loosely following chronology overall.

I’m also still cogitating on finding the balance between growing up in Los Alamos and simply growing up. What is unique to place? What experiences did I share in common with people growing up other places in that era? And what was unique to my family and me? How should I handle these differences?

The end seems so far away, but the journey is exciting. One day at a time…